The Epic of Gilgamesh

Number of lessons: 4; compatible text for study guide: The Epic of Gilgamesh: A Poetic Version by Robert W. Watson (order below). Guide prepared by Robert W. Watson.
Order text here

Note: This study guide is included in the course, "A Survey of World Literature."

THE EPIC OF GILGAMESH is the earliest example of literature in the world. The character of Gilgamesh is timeless in that he portrays very human emotions and most people in all ages who have suffered a special loss can identify with Gilgamesh. Yet, King Gilgamesh is a man without the knowledge of the true and living God; thus, his frustrations and fears reflect the dilemma faced by all mankind from the beginning of creation: how can one reconcile himself with death, and is there life after death?

The epic is divided into two parts. The first part centers on the friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu. These men complement each other. Gilgamesh becomes more aware of emotional feelings, while Enkidu becomes somewhat refined. You will notice that before his fall, Enkidu is very happy in his “natural” condition. However, as he becomes corrupted by the ways of civilization, Enkidu becomes unhappy because he now sees the death in things. The epic implies that if man is left in his natural condition and is allowed to live as simply as possible, then all will be in harmony with nature. So, the teachings of the modern environmental movement, or neo-Romanticism, are not so new after all.

The second part details Gilgamesh’s quest to find eternal life. Gilgamesh abandons reason and becomes an emotional wreck. While everyone tells him that the quest for eternal life is hopeless, Gilgamesh feels there is something more to life than just living to die. Yet, Gilgamesh thinks in such a way which all pagans think: eternal life is in a thing or an object that can be touched. Faith in the commandments of God do not play a role in the lives of pagans.

Thus, the tale of Gilgamesh shows the major conflict between worldviews early in recorded history. There are two—and only two—worldviews that one can adopt. These worldviews are either the Biblical worldview or the pagan one, and they are contrary to each other. Regarding origins, it is either divine creation or evolution. Regarding final authority, it is either the Bible or the state. Regarding religion, it is either freedom of conscience or state-imposed religion. Regarding devotion, it is either faith supported by obedience or works supported by mysticism. Indeed, the two positions are as different as day and night, having no commonality of agreement.

There are some very interesting characters in the epic, from the grotesque Humbaba to the wise Utnapishtim, who is clearly Noah found in Genesis. You will notice that several of the characters will try to discourage Gilgamesh’s searching for eternal life. Consider the arguments of the characters carefully. One point will become evident. The pagan gods of Gilgamesh are clearly created in the image of man and therefore represent the worst of mankind’s faults. You should contrast the gods in the epic with the true and living God of the Bible. By reading this tale, you will be entering into strange worlds as Gilgamesh takes you on a journey not soon forgotten.