|The Archetypal Significance of Gilgamesh: A Modern Ancient Hero
By Rivkah Scharf Kluger
As a young student of Jung, Kluger was encouraged by her mentor to study the archetypes of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Throughout her career, she gave many lectures on the subject, and was working on this book when she died. This is Kluger’s posthumous opus about the archetypes of Gilgamesh. As you can imagine, this is a very Jungian literary analysis. Her thesis was that the Epic of Gilgamesh was a coming-of-age story in which the character developed became fully aware (or conscious).
In the first part of the story, Gilgamesh has only an id. He is wild – forcing the men to slave night and day on his building projects. Mothers would weep at the untimely deaths of their husbands and sons who had died from overwork. Gilgamesh would rape the maidens. He would ride around on the shoulders of children (how he managed this feat, I don’t know). Enkidu, likewise, was pure id – though in a different sense. He was someone who could run with the animals because he wasn’t yet quite human.
When Enkidu and Gilgamesh met, there was the first inkling of ego – they became conscious that there was something else to their selves besides this wild energy. But even after they fought Humbaba, they were still a little wild. They scorned Ishtar, throwing insults (and bull haunches) at this revered and dangerous goddess. They were aware of their egos – they wanted immortality through glory – but they still had no self-control.
This insult to Ishtar was another step in their development. Ishtar was the mother goddess, as well as the sexual goddess. By insulting her, they separated themselves from their “mother figure,” thus becoming men. Granted, immature men, but men all the same.
After insulting Ishtar and maddening some others of the gods, Enkidu died. Neither Enkidu nor Gilgamesh was ready for this turn. They had not come to grips with the reality of death. In fact, even after Enkidu’s death, Gilgamesh was in denial. He waited for his friend to return until maggots fell out of Enkidu’s nose.
This realization of death was a new step in Gilgamesh’s life. He now needed to discover his superego, which is the part of himself that would moderate the impulses of the id – his child-like, uncontrolled desires – with his ego – the part of him that was aware of the needs of the real world. Basically the superego is his conscience.
He dressed himself as a wild-man, in some ways regressing away from his ego’s consciousness, and went on a quest for immortality. Along the way, he was tested – over and over – by gods and men. They kept telling him to turn back, his quest was pointless. But he passed all of those tests and reached his goal: Utnapishtim, the man who had survived the deluge and achieved immortality. Much to Gilgamesh’s disappointment, Utnaphishtim couldn’t tell Gilgamesh how to become immortal. But he gave Gilgamesh a plant which would restore the youth of whomever ate it.
Instead of eating it right away, Gilgamesh decided to bring it back to his home in Uruk to share with others. Perhaps this was his first glimmer of conscience? But, of course, even this plan failed. A snake found the plant and ate it. Gilgamesh’s journey for immortality had failed. But it was not pointless. Because in that journey, Gilgamesh had gained wisdom. He’d become aware of his conscience. He was fully conscious.
This was a very difficult book for me to read because I’m not very familiar with Jungian literary analysis. In fact, I don’t think I really processed what Kluger was saying until I tried to put it into my own words. Therefore, this book wasn’t very enjoyable to me, and it will not get a very high star rating. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good analysis, only that it wasn’t for me.
This is a series of posts about The Epic of Gilgamesh. Here is a list of all posts thus far:
3 thoughts on “The Archetypal Significance of Gilgamesh, by Rivkah Scharf Kluger”
Bravo for persevering….difficult is an understatement!