Chapter 16

The Epic of Gilgamesh

The Epic of Gilgamesh comes from the same Mesopotamian culture as Enuma Elish (Chapter 6). The Epic is one of earliest myths to come to us in written form—a nonalphabetic writing called cuneiform—and is still being "completed," as contemporary archeologists continue to discover more ancient clay tablets that are inscribed with parts of the story of Gilgamesh.

In this chapter, you see a hero-king who at first behaves badly toward his subjects and his gods but ultimately redeems himself. Although he fails to gain immortality, he achieves a type of eternal fame in the memory of his people for bringing back a story of the gods and building the great walls of his city, Uruk.

As you read, note how Gilgamesh's unsuccessful search for immortality, which is central to the epic, demonstrates the religious beliefs of this ancient culture. According to Mesopotamian religion, only the gods are immortal: Gilgamesh is two-thirds god and one-third human. Also, notice the marginal notes analyzing Gilgamesh's adventures by means of Joseph Campbell's view of the hero's journey. Consider Gilgamesh in relation to other fallible heroes: Hercules, who murders his own wife and children; Oedipus, who kills his father and marries his mother; and Mwindo, who hunts and kills Kirimu the Dragon. What role, if any, do the gods have in each hero's acts, and what can be learned about the values of culture from the hero's eventual triumph?

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