The Epic of Gilgamesh – Analytical Summary

The Epic of Gilgamesh is a story about the futility of seeking immortality. It’s a journey of self-discovery in which Gilgamesh learns the ultimate truth – every human dies. It follows Gilgamesh, king of the ancient city of Uruk in southern Mesopotamia. As a youth, Gilgamesh was a capricious and domineering king. He deflowered the maidens, bullied the children and elderly, and forced labor on the men. His people prayed to the gods that they would send respite. So the gods formed the magnificent wild-man Enkidu out of clay. Enkidu fought in mighty hand-to-hand combat with Gilgamesh. When they found themselves nearly equal in strength, they embraced and became dear friends. 

Gilgamesh found entertainment and love in his new friend, and left the people of Uruk alone. But the two unearthly men soon became bored. They decided that they wanted to earn immortality by achieving great feats – or at least die trying. Rash youths, they glorified death, thinking it would immortalize them. 

First, they set out to defeat the beast Humbaba, whom the god Enlil had appointed protector of the forest. Once conquered, Humbaba begged for mercy. But the two youths, mistaking death for victory, chopped off his head and then downed many of the huge trees Humbaba had protected. 

Gilgamesh and Enkidu certainly made an impression, because upon returning to Uruk, Ishtar, the fertility goddess, fell in love with Gilgamesh. In his blood-glory, Gilgamesh scorned the love of Ishtar, who ran to daddy and pouted and screamed until her father loaned her the Bull of Heaven to punish Gilgamesh. 

The Bull brought famine and drought. He drank the Euphrates in a few gulps. He snorted, and the earth cracked before him. But Gilgamesh and Enkidu were in a blood-lust fury. They tore the Bull apart, and Enkidu threw the shank of the Bull at Ishtar claiming he’d tear her limb from limb if only she’d come down from the wall. Then Gilgamesh and Enkidu rode through the streets exclaiming: “Who is the most magnificent hero? Gilgamesh is! Enkidu is!”
With these two “victories” over death, Gilgamesh and Enkidu fancied themselves equal to the gods. But they soon found themselves sorely wrong. The gods punished the two by giving Enkidu a wasting illness. Before, they had glorified death as a path to immortality. But now they were standing face-to-face with death, and they were appalled by what they saw. To slowly die breath by breath? Humiliating! The loss of life, of friendship, of love? Tragic!
Gilgamesh could not face the reality of his friend’s death; refusing burial until maggots fell out of Enkidu’s nose. Then Gilgamesh melted down. He realized that he is human – and humans die. And death is not glorious. It leads to rot and decay. This was the second stage of Gilgamesh’s folly: he no longer saw death as a path to immortality, nor did he see it as a natural part of life. To Gilgamesh, death was an enemy who must be defeated.

Gilgamesh wrapped himself in the bloody skins of a lion and roamed the earth trying to hide from death. He became increasingly more violent and insane. In one passage, he found a boat that would take him to a man-god who Gilgamesh thought could advise him on becoming immortal. But instead of asking the boatman to ferry him across the lake to Utnapishtim, Gilgamesh furiously destroyed everything in sight. Having shown his power, he then demanded the boatman ferry him. But the boatman told him “How can I? You have destroyed the tools I need to do that.”

Everyone Gilgamesh talked to on his journey told him the same thing – death is inevitable. You are wasting your life in futility. But he would not listen. 

He finally reached Utnapishtim and asked the man-god how he had become immortal. Utnapishtim related the story of an annihilating flood which killed all but him, his family, and the animals he brought on his ship with him. Realizing the horror that they had empowered, the gods rewarded Utnapishtim with god-hood – promising never again to destroy the inhabitants of earth. But, Utnapishtim assured, the gods would never again grant immortality. Death was now the inevitable finale of life.

Gilgamesh was relentless, so Utnapishtim challenged him to fight death’s younger brother sleep for only seven days. Gilgamesh reclined and immediately fell asleep from exhaustion. He slept for 7 days before Utnapishtim woke him. 

Defeated in the realization that death could not be overcome, Gilgamesh prepared for his journey home. He bathed, anointed his body with oils, and donned civilized clothes. He was now willing to face death as a man. But there was one more lesson Gilgamesh had to learn before returning to his kingdom. 

As a parting consolation prize, Utnapishtim told Gilgamesh that at the bottom of the lake lay a plant that would return youth to whomever ate it. Gilgamesh dove into the lake and retrieved the plant. Instead of eating it right away, Gilgamesh decided to take it back to Uruk. In his hand, he finally clutched a tiny morsel of immortality, something that would allow him to return to Uruk wise and youthful. Yet he hesitated.

While on his return journey, Gilgamesh stopped by a lake and bathed. He carelessly placed the plant on the shore. Of course, the plant was stolen by a passing snake, which sloughed its skin and slithered youthfully into the ground. 

Thus Gilgamesh realized that his entire quest for immortality – from the glory-seeking of his youth, to the insane grasping for godhood, to his desperate clutching at the comfort of youth – was in vain. He returned to Uruk an introspective, wise king. This elderly Gilgamesh finally attained a form of immortality: he built temples, halls, and the great wall of Uruk (parts of which have been found by archaeologists today). He brought prosperity to the city. 

My one lingering question after writing this analytical summary is why did Gilgamesh hesitate to eat the plant? Was it his final folly to hesitate? Or was this hesitation encouraged by his new-found wisdom? I can’t decide.

There are so many things to say about The Epic of Gilgamesh, and I had big plans for this post. But I see now that there’s no way to give even a small portion of Gilgamesh’s due in one post. So I will break this into a series of posts. More is yet to come. If you have anything specific you’d like me to discuss, let me know.

This is a series of posts about The Epic of Gilgamesh. Here is a list of all posts thus far: 

The Sandman – Preludes and Nocturnes, by Neil Gaiman

Preludes and Nocturnes, by Neil Gaiman

Reason for Reading: Group read on LibraryThing

Review
In this classic graphic novel, Dream (The Sandman) is captured by a sinister magician and remains trapped for decades. While he is gone, his kingdom falls apart and dreams on Earth are disrupted. I’m not very experienced with graphic novels, having only read Satrapi’s Persepolis before this, so reading Preludes and Nocturnes took some getting used to. But I’m glad I decided to climb out of my comfort-zone for a while – I was REALLY enjoying the book by the time it ended. Neil Gaiman’s mind never ceases to amaze me. He’s so darkly creative. There are a few issues I had with this book, though. I thought the tie-in to DC superheroes was a bit cheesy – though I recognize that this cheese was do to the development of the graphic novel as a genre. I hear these elements disappear later in the series to leave only the good stuff. 🙂 Also, I found one incident at the end of the book darkly depressing. It made me very sad to see the dark insides of humanity (as Gaiman and his illustrators see them)…but I guess my emotional reaction is exactly what Gaiman was going for. So, points to him. 😉 Overall, this was a promising beginning, and now that I am more used to the graphic novel style, I’m looking forward to enjoying the rest of the series much more – after all, it’s only supposed to get better from here!

The Little Green God of Agony, by Stephen King



“The Little Green God of Agony,” by Stephen King 
(Found in A Book of Horrors, ed. Stephen Jones)


In the introduction to his new anthology, Stephen Jones expresses dismay at the overpowering onslaught of horror-lite which has obliterated the good old-fashioned horror story from the market. The purpose of this anthology is to take back the market with some bad-@$$ creepy stories. He opens his anthology with “The Little Green God of Agony,” a story by the well-known master of horror, Stephen King.

Newsome, the sixth richest man in the world, is a man in agony. A plane crash has left him scarred all over his body, and unable to get out of bed due to neuropathic pain. After exploring all the traditional medical procedures for freeing himself of this burden, he cashes in for the non-traditional treatment–a reverend who claims that Newsome is possessed by a god of agony, and that he (the reverend) has the power to expel the demon. Is the reverend a charlatan? Or is Newsome really possessed by a demonic agony?

This is the first Stephen King story I’ve read in quite a long time. I’ve always felt that he has an incredibly creative mind, and an amazing power to delve the reader into the darkness of his stories. On the other hand, the almost-book-snob in me cringes at his metaphors sometimes. (eg. “she…laced her hands together on the hanging hot-water bottles of muscle beneath his right thigh.” I’m sorry. That just really falls flat for me.) Once I’d managed to rid myself of the sharpened pencil stabs of distaste for SK’s continued use of unsatisfactory metaphors, however, I enjoyed the story quite a bit. His dark imagination was the perfect taster for the savory horrors to come in this anthology. 😉

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N. K. Jemisin

written by N. K. Jemisin, narrated by Casaundra Freeman


Reason for Reading:

First of all, let me thank Morphi who recommended this book a few weeks ago when I said I was reading authors-of-color…-of-speculative-fiction for the Diverse Universe Tour. This is EXACTLY what I needed after reading all those heavy literary works. This book was fun brain candy, but it also had some interesting messages as well. 🙂 





My Review:

When Yeine Darr’s mother dies, she is called for an unexpected interview with her estranged maternal grandfather, the ruler of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Under the guise of adopting her into the family, her grandfather’s twisted family holds Yeine against her will in the city of Sky. Presumably, she is a third contender to take her grandfather’s place as ruler–but what are his motivations for accepting her (as outcast) into the family? On top of that, Yeine is also being seduced by the charms of the “gods” of Sky…and one of them is the ultimate bad-boy. These gods have been treated as slaves by Yeine’s family for two thousand years, and they want their own piece of Yeine’s new life. Yeine must weave her way through a maze of deceit to decide who her allies are. I loved this book because I was in great need of some brain candy right about now. It’s light, fun, fluffy…as long as you approach it like brain candy, you’ll really love it. 🙂 Despite it’s fun fluffy nature, Jemisin manged to weave in messages about unbendingly dogmatic religions, slavery, women’s rights, and abuse of power. These messages do not overpower the story, but they’re there if you want to think about them. In my mind, this was a perfect mixture and just what I needed right now. 🙂

About the Author:
N. K. Jemisin was born in Iowa city in a year un-noted by Wikipedia. 😉 She grew up in New York City and Mobile, Alabama. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is her debut book…it was considered for the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards the year it came out. I look forward to watching as Jemisin’s writing develops. 🙂 If her first book is so good, then perhaps her writing will get even better as time progresses!