The Epic of Gilgamesh is a story about what it means to be human. Touching upon such universal themes as power, love, death, and quest, the ancient epic examines the man’s condition, rather than explains the origin of the world. Gilgamesh goes through a powerful transformation under the influence of a new person in his life, Enkidu. The love Gilgamesh feels for his lifelong companion uplifts him and makes better, while the loss of his beloved friend greatly deranges him but eventually makes him wiser and more caring.
Love is a powerful force. It is a variety of things, experienced in states and attitudes and it means various things to different people. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, love is seen in all manifestations: between mother and son, between friends, and between lovers. One cannot shake off this strong emotion of attraction and attachment. People can attempt to find love, but in reality, it finds people itself, and when it does, it grabs hold and does not let go. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, both Gilgamesh and Enkidu experience transformational powers of love.
Delving into history, Ancient Greeks believed in four types of love, including kinship (storge), friendship (philia), sexual desire (eros), and divine love (agape). Three kinds of love can be applied to ancient Mesopotamian beliefs expressed in The Epic of Gilgamesh.
The mother-son relations represent the first type of love. Ninsun is “the august Wild Cow,” a goddess, who begot Gilgamesh, making him semi-divine (I 36). Despite the fact that the goddess Aruru made Enkidu, Ninsun claimed that he is her creation: “and I, Ninsun, I made it your equal” to show her love for her son (I 265).
The sexual desire was depicted through Enkidu’s physical love with Shamhat, a temple priestess. He was created covered in hair and behaving like an animal. “For six days and seven nights / Enkidu was erect, as he coupled with Shamhat” (I 193-194). The power of eros invigorated Enkidu and taught him the ways of men, therefore, Enkidu was initiated into human life. The Mesopotamian idea of sexual love was different from the Western understanding of it influenced by Christianity. Therefore, Enkidu’s newly acquired self-awareness because of his copulation with a temple prostitute reflects a Mesopotamian vision that people live only once and no reward awaits them in the afterlife. Therefore, they need to cherish what comes their way here, in this life.
In regards to sexual relations, Gilgamesh appeared to have notions quite askew as to how it should be. At the beginning of the epic, Gilgamesh was so overbearing and full of himself that citizens of Uruk begged the gods to do something about it. One of the explanations of the nature of the Mesopotamian king’s tyranny was the sexual abuse of power. “Daughters have no time to help their mothers nor sons their fathers, and wives are unable to tend the needs of their husbands” (George xlvi). Additionally, Gilgamesh had ‘the right of first night’: “Gilgamesh will couple with the wife-to-be, / he, first of all, the bridegroom after” (P 160). Therefore, it comes as quite a surprise when Gilgamesh rejected Ishtar’s advances. Known for her inexhaustible appetite for sexual love, Ishtar expressed her carnal desire for Gilgamesh. He explained his reluctance to be seduced by the principal goddess Ishtar due to her slaughterous nature. Rejecting the goddess, Gilgamesh enlisted all her victims whom she had destroyed, broken, or turned into animals (The Epic of Gilgamesh 49).
The third type of love, friendship, happened after Gilgamesh had met Enkidu causing surprising changes in his self. Gilgamesh’s mother, the goddess Ninsun, predicted his feelings to his new friend: “Like a wife you loved it, caressed and embraced it: / a mighty comrade will come to you and be his friend’s savior” (I 266-269). The line is emphasized by repetition. Gilgamesh had finally met his match. He hoped that this a friend would serve as his lifelong companion. At that point of the poem, the process of transformation is not very visible. While subdued a little, Gilgamesh continued his life of caprice. He killed the ogre Humbaba when Enkidu begged to give it life; Gilgamesh rejected Ishtar while it might be dangerous; moreover, he did not follow the advice of the Seven Sage.
Regardless of Gilgamesh’s experience of these identified forms of love, in fact, only Enkidu’s death really transformed and led him to the love agape. Bearing the loss of his brotherly companion, Gilgamesh could not tolerate the loss of a love so powerful. When people find a person to meet their needs, expectations, and compatibility, they hold on tight. It is like finding the missing puzzle piece to one’s weird little person-puzzle. For Gilgamesh, despite his “power” and “leadership” in everyday life, something was missing in his life. What I love about this, is that all of us, no matter how old we are, where we come from, whether we are educated or not, rich or poor, we all experience that pivotal moment when love knocks on the door to our heart. Love shows up whether we like it or not or whether we are ready or not. We all answer that door and love changes us on some level.
Gilgamesh suffered profoundly: “the doom of mortals overtook him. / Six days I wept for him and seven nights. / I did not surrender his body for burial, / until a maggot dropped from his nostrils” (X56-60). Thinking his friend would come back because of his weeping is truly sympathetic and compassionate, and it is a side of Gilgamesh the reader had not seen yet. The grief in his heart had far surpassed the magnificent pride that he had previously displayed so boldly.
The death of his dear friend left Gilgamesh frightened and confused. His despair was so great, that Gilgamesh began to think of his death: “I am afraid of death, so I wander the wild” (IX 5). Having changed from arrogant to frightened, Gilgamesh decided to go to the end of the world and become immortal. In the process, Gilgamesh was transformed from a person, who pillaged towns and used women to satisfy the desires of his body, to a person, who wanted to become a respectful king, who takes care of his people.
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Gilgamesh set out on a quest for Utnapishtim because of his fear of death. Reaching the wise man, Gilgamesh found out where to get a secret plant, which restored one’s lost youth. Here, the reader sees the change in the egotistic Gilgamesh. He wanted to share the plant with his people: “This plant, Ur-Hanabi, is the “Plant of Heartbeat”, /with it, a man can regain his vigor./ To Uruk-the-Sheepfold 1 will take it” (XI 295-297). He did not succeed to finish this deed, but the desire to share reveals that Gilgamesh’s nature was transformed. Once overbearing and arrogant, now Gilgamesh wanted to take care of his people.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is an epic poem of love and death. Feared and honored, Gilgamesh’s journey is larger than life. The death of Enkidu and its transforming effect on Gilgamesh is profound. Love’s virtue, representing human kindness, compassion, and affection toward others, became stronger and more powerful than Gilgamesh’s ego and finally changed him. Experiencing a great love and then feeling a deep misery at the loss of a beloved friend, Gilgamesh acquired a true knowledge of himself and the world.