Getting Gilgamesh

The Earliest Action Hero for Young Men Today

"Friends hold a mirror up to each other; through that mirror they can see each other in ways that would not otherwise be accessible to them, and it is this mirroring that helps them improve themselves as persons." —Aristotle

In an era when action heroes and comic book superheroes captivate the imaginations of young audiences, the best classic book to offer young men might be The Epic of Gilgamesh. The oldest known story in ­written form, this epic's oral tradition may well reach back five thousand years, predating Homer by more than a ­millennium. Yet the story of a semi-divine—but mortal—hero and his friend has the same appeal as Marvel's Thor or DC's Wonder Woman, both of whom derive from mythic roots.

The epic opens by declaring of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk:

This was the man to whom all things were known; this was the king who knew the countries of the world. He was wise, he saw mysteries and knew secret things, he brought us a tale of the days before the flood. He went on a long journey, was weary, worn-out with labor; returning he rested, he engraved on a stone the whole story.

Gilgamesh possesses the broad knowledge that characterizes Iron Man and the understanding of mysteries like those delved into by Indiana Jones. He even records his own story, just as audiences see Bilbo Baggins doing in the Peter Jackson films based on J. R. R. Tolkien's sub-created mythologies.

In more than one way, Gilgamesh is the archetypal embodiment of boys' aspirations. First, he is handsome and courageous, these gifts having been given him by Shamash, the sun god, and Adad, a weather god somewhat equivalent to Zeus the Thunderer. As king of Uruk, he is also a builder, and is credited with erecting "walls, a great rampart, and the temple of the blessed Eanna for the god of the firmament Anu, and for Ishtar the goddess of love." So in addition to reflecting a boy's dreams, Gilgamesh also speaks to manly concern for civic defense and for religion, hardly ever found in contemporary fare written especially for boys.

Legendary Friendship

The king's boisterous companion, Enkidu, is also archetypically appealing. He, too, is a warrior. But while Gilgamesh is a man of the city, Enkidu is a man of the wilderness. The epic describes him as having "joy of the water with the herds of wild game." In this, he is like many boys, loving sport and the outdoors. Ninsun, the mother of Gilgamesh, describes Enkidu as "a strong comrade, the one who brings help to his friend in his need."

Indeed, friendship is a central theme of the epic. Because Ninsun says that Gilgamesh was drawn to Enkidu—by her design—"as though to a woman," some critics today declare Gilgamesh and Enkidu to be the first homosexual characters in literature, even as they have attempted to characterize David and Jonathan in the Bible and Achilles and Patroclus in the Iliad in the same manner. Elsewhere, official voices declare martial prowess, nation-building, and even sport to be evidence of "toxic masculinity."

In contrast to these specious conjectures, both Gilgamesh and Enkidu are sketched as fully masculine characters. In part, Enkidu is sent to "tame" Gilgamesh, who has at first expressed his masculinity as an oppressor of his people. Following a physically contentious first encounter, they bond and begin a questing adventure.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu are both mortal. Like all mortals, they are prone to excess and bad judgment. Before he meets Enkidu, Gilgamesh makes war for the sake of making war, and he takes the women of the city as his own. When the people of Uruk pray for deliverance, the gods create Enkidu to be Gilgamesh's equal and to provide for him a companion with whom he can properly channel his warrior spirit.

The details of their first encounter parallel those of the first meeting of Arthur and Launcelot or of Robin Hood and Little John. Like those other legendary heroes, Gilgamesh and Enkidu engage in a full-on brawl, shaking the very walls of Uruk. From this initial combative encounter, the two bond, as Enkidu comes to speak as Gilgamesh's conscience but never abandons his friend in a time of need. When Gilgamesh faces the fact of his own mortality, he must learn the heaviest fact of life, which all men face.

Two Great Quests

Like Bilbo Baggins, Gilgamesh is a man on a quest, though perhaps not the quest he thinks he is pursuing. Like Bilbo, who thinks he is on a quest to recover the lost treasure of the dwarves, Gilgamesh sets for himself two great quests: one to battle a giant, in order to gain fame; the other to discover the secret of immortality, in order to avoid the common fate of death.

In fact, like Mr. Baggins, Gilgamesh quests for self-knowledge. In his first adventure, he gains a full understanding of friendship and the fulfillment it brings to life. In the second, he seeks to discover the secret of the only immortal human, the Akkadian counterpart of Noah, but instead he discovers the limitations of his humanity and comes to accept them. In a time when young men and women are told that they can become "whatever they dream," Gilgamesh offers a dose of the reality of limitations without quashing aspiration or adventure.

Archaeological Adventure

Though The Epic of Gilgamesh is a work of the Sumerian civilization—it was recovered from the library of the ancient king Assurbanipal by archaeologist Austen Henry Layard in the nineteenth century—it has come to be included in the Western canon both because of its inherent interest and because of the influence on scholarship it has exercised. Indeed, the history of the discovery and translation of the epic is something of an adventure in itself. An abbreviated account of that history appears in the worthwhile introduction to the N. K. Sandars translation, the prose version my students read for most of the years I taught the work.

Following the initial discovery of a number of broken tablets that contain the tale in cuneiform, the hard work of deciphering the ancient script began. After Henry Rawlinson accomplished that feat, the quest to recover the full text of the epic began, driven largely by the desire to find a complete account of the Flood story told near the end of the epic.

Student Enthusiasm

When I taught The Epic of Gilgamesh to high-school juniors and seniors, they found it fascinating. The students were not put off by the repetition common to most works that arose from an oral tradition, which include not only this epic, but also the foundations of Homer's two great poems.

Though the Babylonian pantheon was unfamiliar to my students, they grew curious about the correspondences between the Greco-Roman gods and those appearing in Gilgamesh, and they enjoyed exploring the similarities and differences between the two pantheons. When I later had them read the story of Noah in Genesis, they drew contrasts between the starkly different motives for the sending of the Flood in each story, as well as between the passengers in the two arks, and the ultimate outcome for the protagonists, Noah and Utnapishtim.

While The Epic of Gilgamesh is rather short compared to the Iliad or the Odyssey, it not only held my students' interest but sparked their curiosity about archaeology as well. This they explored by engaging in a project of "recovering" and translating a "lost story" my colleague and I put together. For this project, the students had to write proposals for a grant to finance their "expedition" and then had to negotiate with "local authorities" (teachers who volunteered as such) to gain access to fragments of the story. Finally, they had to translate the fragments and assemble a recension. They had fun, learned a bit about archaeology, and got creative with their presentations.

A quick online search will yield at least a dozen currently available translations of The Epic of Gilgamesh, in both prose and verse, usually in paperback. Adaptations have been published as well, but they are not a substitute for the original. If you know a young person—especially a boy—who likes adventure or mythology, a copy could make a great gift. 

is a retired secondary teacher of English and philosophy. For forty years he challenged students to dive deep into the classics of the Western canon, to think and write analytically, and to find the cultural constants reflected throughout that literature, art, and thought.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #58, Fall 2021 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


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