Literature / The Epic of Gilgamesh
A legend from Ancient Mesopotamia
, the Epic of Gilgamesh
is the earliest surviving heroic epic
and is very much Older Than Dirt
Gilgamesh is the super strong
, ruggedly handsome
, two-thirds god and one-third mortal
king of Uruk, and he is bored. He spends his free time sleeping with every new bride on their wedding night
, which their husbands are not too happy about (In some versions he sleeps with the grooms too). But he's the king, and he has no equal, so he can do what he wants. The people of Uruk beg the gods to provide Gilgamesh with something better to do. The gods decide that what the restless, powerful, adventure-hungry
hero needs is a best friend and Worthy Opponent
. So they have the goddess Aruru create a wild man named Enkidu, who lives among the animals, frightening local farmers and hunters. One of them convinces a temple harlot, Shamhat, to make a civilized man
out of Enkidu by seducing him. After a week-long sex session, Shamhat convinces Enkidu to come back with her to Uruk and learn how to live like a proper human, promising she will find him a companion so that he'll never be lonely again. He accepts.
So Gilgamesh and Enkidu become inseparable friends
(after beating each other to a pulp in the streets
). To celebrate, Gilgamesh decides they should go on an adventure to a sacred cedar forest, defeat the guardian monster Humbaba, and cut down the giant cedars. Why? Why not? You only live once
. Against the advice of everybody
, they go through with it, and win.
Almost as soon as they get home, the pair are faced with their next adventure when Gilgamesh turns down the goddess Ishtar's offer of marriage, noting the unsavoury fates that befell her previous lovers, and she retaliates by unleashing the terrible Bull of Heaven on Uruk. The two heroes manage to slay it, something the gods aren't too happy about, and they decide Enkidu must die in return.
His friend's death only serves to awaken Gilgamesh's own fear of dying — curse those one-third mortal genes! There's only one thing to do — go to the ends of the Earth and find the secret of eternal life. His advisors tell him that's crazy and that he should get over it. The Scorpion Men who guard the underground tunnel that the sun uses to reach the other side of the Earth every night tell him to turn back and get over it. Siduri, keeper of the inn at the end of the tunnel, tells him to stop causing himself so much stress and enjoy life while he has the chance
and get over his obsession. Utanapishtim, the survivor of the great flood who was made immortal, tells Gilgamesh immortality isn't for humans and he should get over his crazy wish of living forever. Sensing the pattern yet?
Utanapishtim offers Gilgamesh a test: if Gilgamesh can stay awake for seven nights, he will give Gilgamesh the immortality he wants. Gilgamesh falls asleep almost immediately — because of Utanapishtim's magic, it is implied — then lies and claims to have stayed awake, thus failing the true purpose of Utanapishtim's test
. But Utanapishtim's wife convinces him to be nice and give the seeker something
for his trouble. So he tells Gilgamesh where to find a plant that will make whoever eats it young again. The good news is he finds it. The bad news is he takes a break on the way home to bathe, and the plant is eaten by a snake instead. Tough luck. Looks like Gilgamesh the Not So Invincible After All
has to come to terms with death and content himself instead with the beauty and majesty of his mighty kingdom — which will
be remembered forever.
The Epic of Gilgamesh contains examples of:
- Absurdly Cool City: Uruk itself. A similar phrasing provides Bookends for the story.
- The Ace: Gilgamesh.
- Actually, I Am Him: When Gilgamesh lands at the mouth of the rivers, he asks the first man he sees where to find Utnapishtim. Naturally it is Utnapishtim, but he interrogates Gilgamesh on his purpose before revealing his identity.
- Arc Number: Seven, ten, twelve, and 120 (ten times twelve) come up a lot.
- Ain't Too Proud to Beg: Humbaba offers Gilgamesh all the riches of the forest should Gilgamesh show mercy. Gilgamesh hacks his head off anyway.
- Artificial Human: Gilgamesh, Depending on the Writer, although the stone tablets state that he wasn't as much born as he was "created". Enkidu as well.
- Authority Equals Asskicking: King Gilgamesh.
- Badass: Gilgamesh and Enkidu. They are some of the first fictional badasses we know about.
"They cast great daggers
Their blades were 120 pounds each
The cross guards of their handles thirty pounds each
They carried daggers worked with thirty pounds of gold
Gilgamesh and Enkidu bore ten times sixty pounds each."
- Bittersweet Ending: Gilgamesh is spared the gods' wrath and gains wisdom, but he has to cope with the death of Enkidu, and immortality is denied him.
- Bold Explorer: Gilgamesh explored many new lands, defeating monsters and bringing home their treasures. Any actual Trope Maker is probably lost to history, so this is likely as close as we'll ever get.
- Bookends: The epic starts with an evocative description of the splendor of Uruk. It ends with Gilgamesh and Urshanabi arriving at Uruk, and Gilgamesh using the exact same words to describe it.
- Character Development: The introduction implies that after his adventure, Gilgamesh became a decent king.
- Coming-of-Age Story: Although Gilgamesh is already an adult, the arc of the story is about him learning to act like one, particularly in the areas of impulse control and accepting death as an inevitable part of life.
- Dead Sidekick: Gilgamesh completely falls apart after Enkidu's death.
- Death by Sex:
- Subverted. Enkidu blames Shamhat for leading him to an early death by seducing him, but then he's reminded that Shamhat led him to civilization and his friendship with Gilgamesh, so he repents and wishes blessings on her instead.
- Played straight with Ishtar's lovers.
- Defeat Means Friendship: How Enkidu and Gilgamesh meet and become best buddies: by beating the crap out of each other.
- Determinator: Gilgamesh.
- Deus ex Machina: At Ninsun's request, Shamash binds Humbaba with the thirteen winds so Gilgamesh and Enkidu can kill him.
- Diabolus ex Machina: Apparently, Happily Ever After is Newer Than They Think. That damn snake.
- Did You Just Flip Off Cthulhu?: After killing the Bull of Heaven, Enkidu throws its 'hindquarters' in Ishtar's face.
- Didn't Think This Through: In Utnapishtim's tale, the gods created the humanity so that they will work and feed the gods, allowing them to live in leisure. Then, the gods couldn't stand the noise people made, so they tried to exterminate them a few times, culminating with The Great Flood. It was apparently successful, but then they realized there is no one left to feed them, nor anything to eat...
- Dream Sequence: Several, deliberately invoked as divination. Every dream Gilgamesh has before coming to the Cedar Forest involves a mountain falling on top of him. Enkidu deduces that this is Reverse Psychology and predicts success.
- Droit du Seigneur: This got him into big trouble since it was not cool with anyone in his kingdom, and eventually led to Enkidu arriving after the Gods answered his people's prayers.
- Dual Wielding: Gilgamesh uses a sword and an axe, sometimes both at once.
- Exact Words: Ea warns Utnapistim of the coming flood even though the gods vow not to tell any human—but Ea didn't tell anyone. He just happened to be talking about it next to a fence that Utnapishtim happened to be standing behind.
- Excessive Mourning: When Enkidu dies from a sickness sent by the gods, Gilgamesh refuses to let him be buried for seven days, hoping he can call him back to life by his mourning. Only when maggots appear in Enkidu's face, Gilgamesh allows the corpse to be buried, and then goes off into the steppe alone to cry for Enkidu, leaving his kingdom behind.
- Femme Fatale: The goddess Ishtar. All of her lovers were known to come to bad ends, as Gilgamesh not-so-delicately points out to her.
- The Ferry Man: Urshanabi, as he transports Gilgamesh to where Utnapishtim is staying.
- Flowery Insults: When Enkidu curses Shamhat for indirectly leading to his death, he lets off a whole string of these, which (in at least one translation) ends with the... memorable "May the drunkard soil with his vomit any place you enjoy."
- Gainax Ending: The Epic is composed of twelve tablets. The first eleven tell the coherent story people are familiar with and the eleventh even Bookends the beginning of the first tablet. the twelfth tablet then features a completely different story where Enkidu is alive, works as Gilgamesh's servant and then gets literally trapped in the Netherworld instead of dying of disease like in the main story. The tablet even ends by saying that it's the twelfth tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh, as if it's trying to ensure the reader that it really is part of the same epic. The tablet is actually an adaptation of a much earlier story, similar to the stories that were used as inspiration for the first eleven tablets. It is believed that it was included with the other tablets due to it's long descriptions of the nature of the Netherworld and the afterlife, thus showcasing the wisdom that Gilgamesh gained in the eleven main tablets.
- God Emperor: Gilgamesh again (well, they did name it after him). It also points out how the Sumerian kings are specifically not this.
- Going to See the Elephant: Why did Gilgamesh drag Enkidu on a mission to defeat Humbaba and cut down the giant cedar? Because it was therenote . According to Bilgames and Ḫuwawa, the Sumerian original, it's for glory and by Utu's suggestion.
- The Great Flood: Mentioned in retrospect. The biblical Noah was an Expy for Utnapishtim (or vice-versa). The prologue reveals that Gilgamesh later in his life used the information he gained from Utnapishtim to preserve the knowledge of the world before the flood.
- Grumpy Old Man: Utnapistim doesn't have much time for Gilgamesh. Not surprising, given what he went through to get immortality.
- Hair-Trigger Temper: Gilgamesh. He has a habit of throwing really destructive hissy fits.
- Half-Human Hybrid: Well, "one third human" hybrid, anyway. Yeah, genetically not possible, but it works if you take into account that the ancient Babylonians didn't know about genetics: divine + divine + human = 2/3 divine and 1/3 human.
- Heroic B.S.O.D.:
- Enkidu's death knocks Gilgamesh flat. He has to watch him die over the course of twelve days, is utterly shellshocked when it happens, and by his own account refused to start the funeral rites until Enkidu's corpse was visibly rotting, because Gilgamesh has really hoped the violence of his grief could bring his friend back.
- He could have gone back for more of the Flower of Youth, but turns out having everyone say something is impossible and reckless, going out and doing it, then having it snatched away at the last second can change your outlook on things a bit.
- Historical Hero Upgrade: Possibly. There was a real King Gilgamesh that ruled Uruk, and this story may have started out as a propaganda piece for him. More of a Historical Badass Upgrade, as Gilgamesh isn't all that heroic.
- Homoerotic Subtext: Enkidu and Gilgamesh (outright text in some versions). Honestly, do things ever change?
- Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Shamhat, although this is a modern misunderstanding of her job. She was the priestess of the Goddess of Sex and having sex with any man who asks is a respected part of her ministry, rather than anything shameful.
- If You Ever Do Anything to Hurt Her...: Ishtar runs crying to her father after Gilgamesh spurns her, so he gives her the Bull of Heaven to terrorize Uruk in revenge. He only does it because Ishtar was being a Bratty Teenage Daughter about it, even after he warned her that making the Bull will cause a seven-year drought.
- I Love You Because I Can't Control You
- IKEA Erotica: Sexual descriptions in this poem are neither flowery nor euphemistic. To introduce Enkidu to the joys of being human, Shamhat is asked to "Use your love arts; strip off your robes and lie there naked with your legs apart." She later "touches his penis and puts him inside her." He stays erect for seven days.
- Immortality Seeker: Gilgamesh spends a good chunk of the story trying to win immortality.
- Jerkass Gods:
- Ishtar. Accept her advances and she will kill you. Reject them and she will kill you along with hundreds of others.
- Enlil, the god who brought the great flood in an attempt to destroy humanity. Even Ishtar was horrified by this.
- Jumped at the Call: Gilgamesh has a craving for adventure.
- Kill Him Already: After Gilgamesh defeats the Humbaba and has him at knife-point, Humbaba begs for mercy. Gilgamesh seems ready to grant it, but his friend Enkidu persuades him to get on with it.
- Know When to Fold 'Em: Gilgamesh doesn't.
- Lost Episode: Thanks to the very old age of the work, the story had to be reconstructed from various fragments on tablets. Not all of them have been found.
- MacGuffin/Applied Phlebotinum: In the third act, the "Stone Things" that power the ferryman's boat. Gilgamesh destroys them in a temper tantrum.
- Making a Splash: Gilgamesh goes to find the survivors of the flood, who were granted immortality.
- A Man Is Not a Virgin: Enkidu isn't really truly human until Shamhat has sex with him.
- Mood-Swinger: Ishtar. At least Gilgamesh was smart enough to know not to sleep with someone who is goddess of love by night, but goddess of war by day.
- More Expendable Than You
- Mortality Phobia: This is possibly the oldest example of this trope. It chronicles the life of Gilgamesh as a seeks a way to avert death following an act that angered the Sumerian gods. The title character goes to great lengths to gain immortality, including trying to stay awake for seven days, and swimming to the bottom of the ocean to get a magical weed. His quest for immortality ultimately ends in him having to accept that death cannot be subverted.
- Morton's Fork:
- My God, What Have I Done?: This was Ishtar's reaction after the Great Flood.
Alas the days of old are turned to dust because I commanded evil; why did I command thus evil in the council of all the gods? I commanded wars to destroy the people, but are they not my people, for I brought them forth? Now like the spawn of fish they float in the ocean.
- Narrative Poem: The Ur-Example.
- Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: It's well-known that Humbaba was put there by Enlil because he didn't want anyone cutting down the cedars. Enkidu insists on killing him anyway. Then Gilgamesh finds a bunch of stone men hanging out by the ferry and then asks Urnashabi for a ride, only to be informed that the stone men are how Urshanabi is able to cross the waters of death. They punt themselves across with poles instead, but Urshanabi can never cross again.
- "Noah's Story" Arc: Utnapishtim is the Ur-Example and Trope Maker, pre-dating Noah's story from The Bible. Similarly to his biblical counterpart, he built a giant ship called The Preserver of Life to save his family, friends and all the animals from a flood. He was granted immortality afterwards.
- The Nothing After Death: There is something, but Irkalla (the underworld) isn't fun.
- Oh Crap!: Enkidu and then Gilgamesh have this reaction to Humbaba and have to encourage the other to keep going.
- Overprotective Dad: Anu lets Ishtar borrow the Bull of Heaven because Gilgamesh was rude to her.
- Our Giants Are Bigger: Humbaba — "His maw is fire, his breath is death... Who, even among gods, could attack him?"
- Outrun the Fireball: Possibly the last trope in the world you'd expect to be Older Than Dirt, but there it is — on his journey to Dilmun, Gilgamesh had to pass through the tunnel through which the sun goes at night. The tunnel was long, and before he could get to the other end, the sun god entered from the other side... if that's not a fireball to outrun, we don't know what is.
- Parrot Exposition: Several times a character will say something only to have it repeated back to them with only a little extra as a response. As the story probably originated from oral sources, it's likely the repetitive elements were deliberate, to help people remember them.
- Radish Cure: Inanna/Ishtar asks Gilgamesh to be her consort, but he refuses, citing what happened to pretty much all of her other boyfriends and husbands. Enraged, she runs to her daddy, Nanna the moon god, and asks for Gugalana, the Bull of Heaven. (Actually, the first husband of her older twin Ereshkigal. This becomes important later.) Nanna warns her that giving her the Bull of Heaven will cause a drought and says no, but Inanna/Ishtar pitches a fit, threatening to cause a Zombie Apocalypse if Gugalana is not given to her. Nanna gives in, and Enkidu and Gilgamesh destroy Gugalana.
- Rated M for Manly: Hell yes.
- Rule of Cool: Two-thirds god...
- Semi-Divine: Gilgamesh is two-thirds god.
- Serpent of Immortality: The magical plant which grants eternal life and youth is stolen by a snake, making it immortal. Gilgamesh didn't get a chance to eat the plant and had to go home mortal.
- Sex as Rite-of-Passage: Shamhat's seven-day sex with Enkidu is the first step in making him a civilized man.
- Soap Opera Disease: The ailment that kills Enkidu.
- Spanner in the Works: That darn snake who stole the herb of immortality.
- Super Strength: Gilgamesh has it.
- Too Dumb to Live: In the seemingly unrelated twelfth tablet Gilgamesh gives Enkidu a long list of things not to do when he's visiting the Netherworld to make sure he doesn't get noticed and caught. It basically boils down to "don't wear clothes that make you stand out, don't make any noise, don't throw things at people, and don't kiss and beat up the people you loved and hated in life". Enkidu doesn't listen to what Gilgamesh says and manages to break every single piece of advice that Gilgamesh gave him. Needless to say, he doesn't make it out.
- Threshold Guardians: The Scorpion Men guard the tunnel that the sun rolls through at night.
- Too Clever by Half: Gilgamesh decides not to act on impulse and plans to test the effects of the youth-restoring plant before he tries it himself, so he's going to bring it all the way back to Uruk. He loses it entirely through a moment's inattention.
- Took a Level in Kindness: Gilgamesh becomes a good deal nicer as a ruler and a person after his fight with Enkidu.
- Tragic Bromance: Gilgamesh and Enkidu.
- Uneven Hybrid: Gilgamesh is two-thirds god, one-third man.
- Unexplained Recovery: The twelfth tablet has Enkidu alive with no explanation. However, the lack of context makes the situation unclear. There might have been an explanation that has yet to be found, or maybe the twelfth tablet was actually part of a different story. Still other scholars believe that it's an "inorganic appendage" to the epic.
- Walking the Earth: Gilgamesh after Enkidu's death.
- We Are as Mayflies: At first Gilgamesh uses this as a flippant reply when Enkidu has reservations about the Humbaba hunt. It later becomes his obsession.
- What the Hell, Hero?: When Gilgamesh shows up on his doorstep asking how to gain immortality, Utnapishtim recounts the Deluge and his role in rescuing terrestrial life from it in full, terrifying detail. Then he follows up with "so what did you do to earn immortality lately?"
- Who Wants to Live Forever?: Gilgamesh does. The story is largely about him learning that it's too hard to achieve, even for a badass of his caliber.
- Wild Hair: Enkidu has it when he's first "born" and gets it cut when he's civilized. Gilgamesh later gains it after he goes wild-man in the aftermath of Enkidu's death.
- Woman Scorned: Ishtar. Then again, Woman Accepted isn't much better with her.
- World's Strongest Man: Gilgamesh. If it had a name and could fight, Gilgamesh defeated it.
- Worthy Opponent: Enkidu and Gilgamesh.
- Yandere: Ishtar throws a tantrum when Gilgamesh rejects her and tries to destroy the whole city of Uruk. This is possibly one of the most extreme variants on the notion that "If I can't have you, then no one can!" ever committed to paper (or clay, rather).
- You Can't Fight Fate: You can't escape your own mortality (unless you're Utnapishtim and his wife).
- Zombie Apocalypse: Ishtar threatens to knock down the doors of the underworld to bring the dead up, who will eat the living.