Closing Thoughts for Gilgamesh
Closing Thoughts for Gilgamesh
Let me start by reinforcing the idea that the words "universal" and "tragic" mean something specific when combined with the word "hero" in literature. In order for a hero to be "universal" he/she must complete at least some of the steps recognized universally in multiple cultures--that is where Joseph Campbell (a great mythology scholar) can help us. On the other hand, a "tragic" hero must have some flaw that brings about an unfortunate outcome--like the character of Hamlet. Gilgamesh is a universal hero because his story actually sets up these steps for the first time in written literature. Gilgamesh cannot be a tragic hero because he overcomes his flaws and does not cause a tragic outcome.
Quest for immortality is the main theme of this epic—actually a kind of double theme because we have both the idea of the inevitability of death and the universal quest or journey of the hero to overcome a major obstacle. That is not to say that there are not many other evident themes—friendship/relationship, loyalty, bonds, reliance on the divine, the divine side of human nature, choice, denial, pride, the creation of communities and civilization, trials, adventure, failure, conquest, oppression, abuse of power, transformation, punishment, rewards, admiration of society, destiny, fate and fame.
Although I did not specifically ask you to comment on symbolism in this discussion, I do think it is important to mention. By its very nature, symbolism is open to interpretation. Dreams are certainly symbolic because they involve interpretation. Nevertheless, we look for objects, places, names and actions that might be symbolic.
Bulls are universal symbols of male power and fertility, wild determination, blind rage.
Serpents are universal symbols of temptation—also rebirth and transformation or change (because they shed their old skins.) In many ancient cultures, serpents are linked to women—possibly because the mother tempts us into life?
Plants/trees are universal symbols of life and growth. Forests can be symbols of wild nature. In this story, Enkidu is a symbol for nature that can be tamed—while Humbaba might symbolize the wilderness sacrificed for civilization?
Water is symbolic of life (we cannot live without it) and cleansing or purifying; too much water (floods) takes purification to the extreme and purge or punish. Water in the form of a river can mean either boundary (something to cross) or an adventure (something to travel.) Lakes and oceans can mean the subconscious or at least the unknown (depth.)
Gates/walls sometime they are obstacles—other times they provide openings/choices. Walls also can symbolize solid foundations.
Symbolism is related to the steps of the hero’s journey which we will look at again in the next discussion.
The protagonist is usually the main character. The The antagonist starts a conflict. Even though Gilgamesh is often antagonistic, we find him affected by other antagonists. The gods often provoke a difficulty—Ishtar perhaps more than others here. However, the antagonist need not be a character at all. In this story, it seems that death itself is the key antagonist. A foil provides greater insight into the protagonist by way of contrast, so we might say that Enkidu is a foil for Gilgamesh.
Cultures are built on belief systems (religions), and mankind looks to something beyond itself for answers to confusing questions. Nature is often wild—something to survive/tame. Gods must sometimes be appeased or at least pleased because they can bless or curse. Humans have devised rituals in order to communicate with the divine: libations, sacrifice, festivals, interpretation of dreams.
Cultures tend to have moral lessons, and many of you found morals in this story: living for today, cherishing life, living for tomorrow (the afterlife) and creating our own immortality by the reputation (and stories) we leave behind.
Gilgamesh. Norton Anthology of World Literature. Shorter second edition, vol.1 New York: W.W. Norton and Co. 2013. 38-88.
Campbell, Joseph and Bill Moyer, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces.” Video. 1999
---. “The Hero’s Journey.” DVD. 2003.