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Literature / The Epic of Gilgamesh

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A legend from Ancient Mesopotamia, the Epic of Gilgamesh is the earliest surviving heroic epic and is very much Older Than Dirt. While not the first example of literature ever written (with Sumerian and Egyptian texts like the Instructions of Shuruppak, the Kesh temple hymn, the Hymns of Enheduanna and the Pyramid Texts dating back even further) it is often considered to be the earliest surviving work of great literature, predating even The Iliad and the majority of The Bible by well over a thousand years.


The Epic of Gilgamesh contains examples of:

  • Absurdly Cool City: Uruk itself. A similar phrasing provides Book-Ends 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.
  • An Aesop: Having a Mortality Phobia is immature, and the only way to actually "live" forever is to leave a legacy of great deeds.
  • Arc Number: Seven, ten, twelve, and 120 (ten times twelve) come up a lot.
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: Gilgamesh's abuses of the people as King of Uruk include rape, forced conscription, and ringing the city bell because he thinks it's funny.
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  • 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.
  • Arrogant God vs. Raging Monster: Unbuilt Trope, Shamhat was specifically sicced on Enkidu to prevent this from happening but when the man-monster is civilized he fights the tyrant Gilgamesh anyway because it is the right thing to do.
  • 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 Boast: After Gilgamesh and Enkidu destroy the Bull of Heaven - the divine beast sent to destroy them for mocking the goddess Ishtar - Enkidu shakes the bull's torn off haunches at Ishtar, threatening to do the same to her if he catches her.
  • Beast and Beauty: Enkidu is a wild man raised by animals who enters the world of man sleeping with the beautiful priestess, Shamhat.
  • BFS:
    "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.
  • Book-Ends: 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:
    • 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.
    • Ishtar's lovers all meet ironic ends.
  • 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 told Gilgamesh that he must trick Humbaba in removing his seven 'auras' which make him impossible for even them to defeat and gifted him with three weapons (a mighty axe, a great sword and a bow). Even then that wasn't enough, and Shamash had to resort to binding Humbaba in thirteen winds to so Enkidu and Gilgamesh 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...Whoops. Lucky for them, Utnapishtim managed to make it through and fed them, for which they granted him immortality. (One-time exception; sorry, Gilgamesh.)
  • 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.
  • Eastward Endeavor: Gilgamesh travels to the earthly paradise of the gods at the easternmost edge of the Earth, and then goes even farther east, across the sea, to the island where the mariner Utnapishtim lives and where he can find a plant that grants back youth. He fails in getting this plant, but in the uttermost east he learns to accept his mortality and overcomes the fear of death that has hounded him since Enkidu died, returning home a wiser man (at least by the standards of the ancient Middle Eastern societies) and at peace with himself.
  • 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 Book-Ends 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 its 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 BSoD:
    • 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: There's a King Gilgamesh in the Sumerian King List — though it's probably safe to assume that the Mythological Gilgamesh was merely inspired by the Historical one.
  • 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: Ishtar towards Gilgamesh.
  • 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 demon 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.
  • Lost in Translation: Gilgamesh's dreams about Enkidu are a Double Entendre. The Assyrian word for meteor "kisru" sounds like the word for male prostitute "kezru," while axe sounds like the word for eunuchs who take on the sexual role of women.
  • 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.
  • Manly Tears: Gilgamesh sheds these at the death of Enkidu. This in a time when crying was manly.
  • Mood-Swinger: Ishtar. At least Gilgamesh was smart enough to know not to sleep with someone who is a goddess of love by night, but goddess of war by day.
  • More Expendable Than You: Ushitar towards Gilgamesh.
  • 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 destroys a bunch of stone men hanging out by the ferry and asks Urnashabi for a ride, only to be informed that the stone men are how Urshanabi was 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.
  • Nominal Hero: Gilgamesh starts off as an outright Villain Protagonist, but even after his Heel–Face Turn, his heroic deeds are motivated less by any real benevolence and more by a desire for personal glory.
  • 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.
  • Overly Long Gag: The part where the darkness was thick and there was no light, he could see nothing ahead and nothing behind him. It's repeated 6 times, all in a row.
  • 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.
  • Pun: When Utnapishtim warns the ruler of his city about the flood, he does so by saying that the sky will rain "kibtu (corn)" and "kukku (sound of kernels hitting the ground)" as a pun on "kibitu (misery)" and "kukkû (suffering)" in the original language. This means that Utnapishtim delivered the first recorded corny pun.
  • 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 what we today would call a Zombie Apocalypse if Gugalana is not given to her. Nanna gives in, and Enkidu and Gilgamesh destroy Gugalana.
  • Raised by Wolves: Enkidu was created by the gods, but then released in the wilds where he was raised by a herd of gazelles.
  • Rated M for Manly: Manly tears, testosterone poisoning, and Call to Adventure all in one.
  • Redundant Department of Redundancy: Every major plot point is written out at least twice. For instance the people complain about Gilgamesh's bad behavior as king by saying: "Gilgamesh sounds the bell for his amusement, his arrogance has no bounds by day or night. No son is left with his father, for Gilgamesh takes them all, even the children; yet the king should be a shepherd to his people. His lust leaves no virgin to her lover, neither the warrior's daughter nor the wife of the noble; yet this is the shepherd of the city, wise, comely, and resolute." Which is redundant enough on its own but it is then immediately repeated word for word by the gods.
  • 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.
  • Scorpion People: A pair of gigantic scorpion-men guards the gates to the tunnel the sun passes through each night, and try to convince Gilgamesh to give up on his quest for immortality and go back home.
  • 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 to have it to achieve some of his feats. In real time his extreme feats were written thousands of years before Superman was even thought up.
  • 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.
  • Unbuilt Trope: A lot of the wish-fulfillment elements embodied in Gilgamesh are portrayed as immature character flaws that needs to be overcome (consider how later Classical Mythology might have treated the same subjects), his heroic adventures only sets of a chain of events leading to the death of his best friend and when going on the most important quest of his life what does he do? He fails.
  • 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.
  • Values Resonance:
    • The folk of the ancient city of Urruk apparently thought nothing of same-sex romantic relationships.
    • They didn't exactly have Manly Tears as a trope, as crying itself was an inherently masculine thing to them.
  • 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. It's the foundation of their friendship.
    • A copy of the Epic discovered in Iraq in 2011 contained additional lines that hadn't been seen before, depicting Gilgamesh and Enkidu referring to Humbaba as a worthy opponent after his death, and expressing some remorse at having destroyed the beautiful Cedar Forest in their battle.
  • 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: Ur-Example. Ishtar threatens to knock down the doors of the underworld to bring the dead up, who will eat the living.

Alternative Title(s): Gilgamesh


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