EPIC OF GILGAMESH - Tablets I-III, V-VII, IX-XI
You may wish to skim a summary of entire story at http://www.wsu.edu/~dee/MESO/GILG.HTM to get an overview of the plot.
Human (more or less) Characters
Gilgamesh, the protagonist, ruler of the city of Uruk, he is 1/3 human and 2/3 god
Enkidu - a wild man who lives among and as if he is an animal, becomes tamed and Gilgamesh’s best friend
Shamhat - a voluptuous woman [a "harlot" in the Kovacs trans.] who tames/humanizes Enkidu with sex
Lugalbanda - Gilgamesh’s father, a king
Urshanabi - the ferryman who helps Gilgamesh find Utnapishtim
Utnapishtim - a great king who survives the great flood, has secret of immortality, is made immortal along with his wife
Utnapishtim’s wife - takes pity on Gilgamesh
Siduri - a female tavern keeper, bar-keep
Gods and Goddesses
Rimat-Ninsun - Gilgamesh’s mother, interprets dreams, is a goddess, her epithet is "wild cow"
Anu - the sky god, father of the gods, especially in the Gilgamesh Epic, the father of Ishtar
Enlil, the Great Counselor - another wind/storm god, head god on earth
Adad - the storm god
Ishtar - Queen of Heaven, goddess of love and war
Sin - the moon, the moon god, son of Enlil
Ea (also known as Enki)
Igigi - a group of the gods who rebelled against Enlil
Anunnaki - a higher group of the gods
Beasts and Monsters
Humbaba/Khumbaba - guardian of the cedar forest; a monster who is supposed to guard for the gods
Bull of Heaven - a monster bull who Anu sends to kill Gilgamesh because Ishtar is angry at being spurned
Scorpion people - guards at Mt. Masha
Uruk - city where Gilgamesh is king
Eanna - Temple of Ishtar at Uruk
Tigris and Euphrates - two key rivers of Mesopotamia
Nippur - another important Mesopotamian city
Questions for Study and Reflection
A. First, as with all our reading, listening, and observing consider the following questions. How does the Gilgamesh Epic speak to these questions?
1. What does it mean to be "human"? Is there such a thing as human nature? If so, how do we define and understand it? What are the relationships between humans, nature, the "sacred", and culture?
2. How do people and cultures find or create an identity? (Who am I? Who are We?) What is the relationship between the individual and the group?
3. How does a person or society mature? What is maturity? What is wisdom?
4. How do societies and individuals move through transitions such as birth, coming of age, marriage, and death? Do rites of passage–either literally or metaphorically–mark such transitions?
5. How and why do artifacts and texts of the past speak to and effect the present? Who cares and why?
6. How does a medium of expression such as written narrative, illuminations, or sculpture give shape to that expression? What roles do "authors", works, media, audience, and contexts play in creating meaning?
B. Reading Guide and Specific Questions
In all cases be able to support your answer with examples from the text.
The How of the Story
1. Images. As you read, make a list of the most striking images (word pictures such as the worm coming out of Enkidu’s nose) and metaphors used. How do these images affect you as a reader?
2. Characterization. Stories use many methods to portray characters. One way of thinking about these methods is in terms of telling and showing. Telling involves a narrator’s description of a character, direct comments by the narrator, physical characteristics, clothing, names and labels such as the Great Counselor for Enlil, etc. Showing involves actions of the characters and their direct speeches. The story may also involve one character’s descriptions of and reactions to another character. Another helpful distinction is between round and flat characters. Round characters are fully developed and often change over the course of a narrative. Flat characters are one dimensional. Give examples of some of the methods used to portray characters in this story.
3. Point of view is also important in a narrative. From whose perspective is the story told? From whose perspective are events seen? Sometimes perspective shifts. For example, there can be shifts back and forth between the perspective of a third-person omniscient narrator and those of a character. As you read, be aware of from whose points of view the story is being told and shown. Who speaks? Who sees? Sometimes the term focalization is used to describe the shifting points of view related to vision, speech and other aspects of perspective. Who is looking at whom? Who is listening to whom? Sometimes voice, vision, and hearing are not all from the same perspective. It is helpful to think of how a movie camera captures a narrative in motion. As you read the Epic of Gilgamesh, ask yourself from whose point of view is the story being told, seen, etc. at any given point.
4. Plot is a key element of a narrative. This includes the actions--what happens. It also includes the motivations for what happens. Narratives are also shaped by foreshadowing and retrospection. What are the key events in the plot of the Gilgamesh Epic? Do you find any foreshadowing or retrospection?5.
For more information on the elements of narratives and literature in general see Glossary of Literary Terms at http://www.bedfordstmartins.com/literature/bedlit/glossary_a.htm
The What of the Story
5. What strikes you as ironic and/or funny in the story? Why so?
6. Why does the story begin and end by calling attention to the walls of Uruk?
7. What is Gilgamesh like at the beginning of the epic? How does Enkidu change Gilgamesh? How does the journey to meet Utnapishtim change Gilgamesh? At the end of the story is Gilgamesh sadder but wiser? Has he matured?
8. How does Enkidu appear at the beginning of the story? How is he changed? How does he, in turn, affect Gilgamesh?
9. Why do you suppose that Gilgamesh is presented as 1/3 human and 2/3 god while Enkidu is presented as a sort of half human and half animal before he is tamed? What does it mean to be a human in this story?
10. Why do Enkidu and Gilgamesh go to the Cedar Forest and fight Humbaba? How does this episode help both to develop the characters and to move the plot along?
11. How does Gilgamesh get in trouble with Ishtar? Why does she seek revenge? How do Gilgamesh and Enkidu cooperate in order to kill the Bull of Heaven? Why do the gods condemn Enkidu and not Gilgamesh to death?
12. As Enkidu lays dying he curses the trapper and Shamhat (the harlot). Why? Why does he end up blessing them?
13. After Enkidu’s death, Gilgamesh is extremely distraught. Is he distraught more from grief or from realizing that like all humans he, too, will die?
14. What role does the journey into the underworld play in the story? What does Gilgamesh learn about death and immortality from Utnapishtim? What is the point of Utnapishtim’s wife baking the seven loaves of bread? Would you like to have the kind of immortality that Utnapishtim possesses? Does death give meaning to life?
15. Would you call Gilgamesh a hero? Why or why not? How do you define a hero?
16. Even though the relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu is central to the text, there are a number of female characters. These include Shamhat (the "harlot"), Rimat-Ninsun (the wild cow goddess, Gilgamesh’s mother), Ishtar, the Scorpion-man’s sife, Siduri (the tavern keeper), Utnapishtim’s wife. How are these women portrayed? What notions about the "nature" of women are embodied in the text?
17. How does the text set up binary(two-part) oppositions between pairs including "nature" and "culture," "human" and "in-human,"city and wilderness, friend and enemy? Does one pole of each binary seem to be of more value than the other? Does the text seem to embody either/or or both/and thinking in relationship to these categories?
18. Washing, purifying, and changes of clothes often play important roles in rites of passage. Where do these activities occur in the Epic of Gilgamesh? What significance do you think they have?
19. Theme - Theme is a slippery concept. It has to do with the central ideas or concepts embodied by all the elements of a narrative combined. One way to uncover themes is to ask what a narrative is about. So, what do you think the Gilgamesh Epic is about?
20. Whatever the Epic of Gilgamesh had to say to people in its own time and place, what sorts of things do you think it has to say to audiences that read the story today? Or, if it is irrelevant, why?