The Syntagm of Gilgamesh

Among the numerous struggles humans undergo within a lifetime, the ultimate struggle of the human experience is to eventually contend with mortality. Kings can obtain as much physical power as they and their subjects have at hand, however even the most powerful of kings are subject to the brutal cycles of the most natural regulators. As solution seekers, humans have a great deal of trouble confronting this inevitable reality. There are of course, numerous historical paradigms that speak to this timeless struggle. One of these, is as ancient as written stories come, The Epic of Gilgamesh, an epic poem about a king who is characterized by almost all of the qualifications of a hero. The hero is an archetype that appears in nearly every myth, and undergoes general steps throughout, that make the journey about their progression through some external or internal conflict towards some resolution. Specifically, according to Joseph Campbell’s characterization of the monomyth of the hero, there are three necessary stages of the journey. These are departure, trials and temptations, and finally the reintegration into the familiar realm of the hero’s origin (Devinney and Thury (Whomsley) 219).

The template laid out by Campbell is followed incredibly closely by many stories and myths whose hero must learn a valuable lesson, thereby teaching the lesson to the reader and fulfilling the functional role of mythology within the society that constructed the myth. The analysis of the differences and similarities of these narratives reveal the commonality to the message conveyed. In Levi Strauss’s analysis of mythology, he makes an analogy to the nature of syntagms and paradigms in linguistics as a method of understanding the structure of mythologies (Devinney and Thury (Kirk) 263). The universal struggle conveyed by the myth is itself a paradigm, while the specific instance of the myth itself serves as a single syntagm of the paradigm. This paper will explore the syntagmatic journey of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, to then integrate this specific narrative to the general paradigm that is being addressed. To achieve this analysis, the characterizations of both figures, their adherence to Campbell’s characterization of the heroic monomyth, and the specific struggle with mortality that Gilgamesh endures after Enkidu perishes, must all be thoroughly examined.

In the first part of the epic, the reader is exposed to Gilgamesh’s characterization through the words and prayers of the people of Uruk, directed towards the God Aruru, requesting a method of dealing with their harsh and tyrannical ruler, Gilgamesh. As it is written, “Though he is their shepherd and protector…Gilgamesh lets no girl go free to her bride [groom]” (George 4). The citizens of Uruk are complaining about their ruler who is supposed to be protecting them. This first characterization of Gilgamesh is a rather negative one, as it is implied that Gilgamesh is engaging in inordinately tyrannical behavior, even forcing young newly wed women to sleep with him. It is through this request that Gilgamesh’s parallel is introduced, Enkidu, who is created by the goddess Aruru to appease the qualms of the citizens of Uruk, so that a challenger of worthy capabilities can put Gilgamesh in his place and hopefully achieve a more protected society. So Aruru creates this wild man: “Coated in hair like the god of the animals” (George 5). It is important to consider Enkidu’s physical characterizations. He is very hairy, and wild in nature. He is one with the animals and “knows not a people, nor even a country” (George 5). This emphasis on Enkidu’s untamed nature becomes significant as the development of the two characters progresses.

As Enkidu’s story progresses, his departure from his own familiar realm is achieved by his succumbing to his temptation of lust, as a hunter who notices that Enkidu is undoing his traps, plans to entrap Enkidu by seducing him with a prostitute. The hunter tells the prostitute, “Uncradle your bosom, bare your sex, let him take in your charms…he will see you, and will approach you” (George 7). The woman does just this and successfully beds Enkidu for six days and seven nights. This experiences transforms Enkidu, as is evident by the rejection of Enkidu afterward by his animal companions. According to Campbell’s monomyth, Enkidu is accomplishing departure from his animalistic world to a civilized one, largely guided by a powerful female role, referred to commonly within the monomyth template, as the anima (Devinney and Thury 219). Enkidu then learns of the existence of Gilgamesh who is ruling over Uruk unnecessarily harshly, and goes to the city to fight Gilgamesh in an epic fight that literally shakes the whole city (George 16). Finally, their battle comes to an end and the two find a mutual respect for each other. In fact the text even goes as far as to say “They kissed each other and formed a friendship” (George 17).

The unification of these two characters prompts the beginning of their epic journey together. They seek adventure and self-magnification through victories in their conquests. First, Enkidu and Gilgamesh agree to travel to the Forest of Cedar trees to fight the notorious godly guardian of the trees, Humbaba. Their long journey leads them to their battle with Humbaba who is overcome by the two mighty figures and Enkidu eventually convinces Gilgamesh to end Humbaba’s life. He says to Gilgamesh, “finish him, slay him, do away with his power” (George 43). Gilgamesh agrees and carries out this task as Enkidu eggs him on. It is in this scene that it becomes very evident of the enabling nature of the relationship between Enkidu and Gilgamesh. In their arrival back in Uruk, Gilgamesh’s physical characteristics tempt the lust of Ishtar, a goddess. Gilgamesh however, rejects her advances explaining that he is aware of “the fates suffered by her many former conquests” (George 47). The knowledge not to give in to lustful temptations can be understood as a trial in its own regard, and this can also be understood through the lens of Campbell’s hero and Carl Jung’s additional focus on the female anima shaping the journey of the hero (Devinney Thury 222).

The role of this temptress goddess is a familiar one to the monomyth and indeed does play a large role in the shaping of the rest of Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s journey. For, in anger of his rejection, Ishtar releases the Bull of Heaven, who comes down to earth and as he snorts, “a pit opened up, one hundred men of Uruk fell down it” (George 51). After the bull does this twice, Enkidu manages to grab hold of it and the two actually manage to defeat this bull. This scene is particularly powerful in that Enkidu and Gilgamesh are both saving the town of Uruk from death, but also achieving their self magnification by defeating such a powerful being. The accomplishments of the two speaks to the seemingly limitless ability of the two men to handle external conflicts. They seem to be able to overcome whatever struggle they encounter. It is not until the next part of the epic, that the power and abilities of Gilgamesh and Enkidu are brought into question, causing Gilgamesh to contend with the truest conflict of the epic, his own mortality.

In the next part of the poem, Enkidu relays to Gilgamesh certain disturbing dreams that he has been having. In this dream, Enkidu reveals “The gods Anu, Enlil, Ea and celestial Shamash held assembly, Anu spoke…because they slew the Bull of Heaven, and slew Humbaba…between these two let one of them die…let Enkidu die, but let not Gilgamesh die!” (George 55). Sure enough, as time progresses, Enkidu gets sicker and more miserable and eventually, he dies. Gilgamesh is really affected by the death of Enkidu. He mourns and makes the whole town of Uruk mourn with him but what really gets to Gilgamesh, is that Enkidu, such a powerful being was subject to death, and this implies the possibility that Gilgamesh cannot escape this end as well. Gilgamesh states “I shall die, and shall I not then be as Enkidu?” (George 70). This confrontation with mortality is the first we see of Gilgamesh’s real worry and weakness. It begins to become clear that the heroic feats of Gilgamesh and Enkidu served the purpose to characterize these figures as triumphant in almost all realms. They are both of the most desirable, admired, and fiercest men, truly representative of the furthest limitations of the power humans (or even part god humans) can obtain. It is this fulfillment of the superficial characteristics of the hero that make the latter parts of the epic so powerful. Once Gilgamesh has defeated his most challenging adversary’s and watched his closest friend die, he is faced with his own mortality, the one thing he encounters that is out of his control. Of course, this is not something Gilgamesh outright accepts, as is evident through the next part of the epic, where Gilgamesh desperately goes on a journey seeking immortality.

The journey of Gilgamesh proceeds, and he finds himself at the sea-shore where he meets a tavern-keeper. He tells his story of triumphs with Enkidu and the tavern keeper inquires, “If you and Enkidu were the ones who slew…Humbaba…and slew the Bull…why are your cheeks so hollow, your face so sunken?” George 77). The notable changes to Gilgamesh’s appearance are important here, as they speak to Gilgamesh’s true transformation after Enkidu dies. The tavern keeper and Gilgamesh talk and eventually, Gilgamesh asks her how to arrive at the “road to Uta-napishti” (George 78). After a long journey, Gilgamesh actually is able to make it to Uta-napishti, despite this being an almost impossible task. When he arrives, Uta-napishti is curious as well why Gilgamesh looks so defeated. “Why are your cheeks so hollow, your face so sunken…” (George 83). Gilgamesh explains that he is crushed because of the death of his friend, in fact he puts it as “the doom of mortals overtook him” (George 84). This is addressing the immediate point. Gilgamesh has actually been forced to confront his own mortality, completely out of his broad control. Despite Uta-napushti’s wise words about the nature and role of death, Gilgamesh presses him further and asks how he has achieved this feat of immortality. Uta-napishti explains his story.

This story resembles the biblical story of Noah’s ark, as Uta-napishti is told by the gods to build a huge boat for himself and his family so that he may survive an otherwise completely decimating flood. The result of this is the God Enlil, granting Uta-napishti and his wife immortality, as it says “In the past Uta-napishti was a mortal man, but now he and his wife shall become like us gods!” (George 95). Uta-napishti then tells Gilgamesh that if he wants to achieve immortality he should endure a test. “For six days and seven nights, come, do without slumber” (George 95). What is particularly interesting about this task is that it does not involve achieving some large feat of physical strength or courage like Gilgamesh’s previous triumphs. Rather, it is, like death, an inevitable and unavoidable aspect of life that humans must passively endure. In fact, “As soon as Gilgamesh squatted down on his haunches, sleep…already breathed over him” (George 96). One might pause at this point in some kind of confusion, as this task does not immediately seem as intense as the other feats Gilgamesh has accomplished throughout his journey. This is precisely why this task is chosen, to juxtapose all that Gilgamesh is capable of, to his utter limitations as a physically bound being.

Upon waking Gilgamesh after seven days, Uta-napishti banishes Gilgamesh, but tells him of a secret plant, that can make him young again. Gilgamesh, escorted by the boatman Ur-shanabi recovers the plant and decides he will take it back to Uruk. During his trip home however, Gilgamesh bathes in a body of water and sets the plant down. It is then that “Of the plant’s fragrance, a snake caught scent, came up, and bore the plant off.” (George 99). The snake then sheds its skin to a younger version of itself, just as the plant is intended to do. The explanation for why snakes shed their skin here is quite interesting but what is more attention grabbing, is the aspect of chance, and the trivialness of this simple action of the snake, that dooms Gilgamesh to a mortal fate. Finally, Gilgamesh returns home, fulfilling the last aspect of Campbell’s hero’s journey, reintegration into his familiar realm and society, despite his seeming failures.

Gilgamesh is defeated, not by something much stronger, and quicker than him, but of natural events outside of his control. Namely, a wild animal stealing his plant, his own need for sleep and his own inevitable mortality. The scene with the snake is so significant because the plant, and consequently Gilgamesh’s chances of rejuvenation, are simply taken from Gilgamesh after he endures such long and daring journeys. As such, this is truly symbolic of Gilgamesh’s whole journey and the lessons he learns. No matter the feats he accomplishes, the strength he acquires, he is bound by his physical limitations. With the epic at a close, Gilgamesh appears as if he ultimately fails. This abrupt ending sits a little uneasy, as the characterization of Gilgamesh has been so heroic and triumphant. However, there is no better way to end this epic than the squashing of Gilgamesh’s final attempts at his unattainable goal, by a simple action of a tricky snake. The reader should understand that if Gilgamesh were triumphant in his goals, he would not be relatable to human beings.

In fact, it is his limitations that make Gilgamesh truly the hero of this epic. Gilgamesh, is afterall two thirds god and only one third human. The reader can only relate to the hero in Gilgamesh that is mortal, limited and human. This syntagm of the hero’s journey expands the paradigm of Campbell’s characterization of the hero. That is, instead of achieving heroic status through feats of strength and will, Gilgamesh’s heroism is accomplished through the ultimate reconciliation of his own limitations. It is in this way that the categorical distinction of the hero class is broadened, and that the function of this myth is fulfilled. This epic sways from the typical narrative of mythological stories, as it teaches the reader that throughout all the characterizations of god-like humans modelling the life to live, and setting the template for the hero’s journey, it is only through acceptance of human limitations that the true human hero emerges.

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The Syntagm of Gilgamesh. (2019, Jul 01). Retrieved July 28, 2021 , from

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