“Gilgamesh is a king…”

This weekend my students will be reading The Epic of Gilgamesh, if they’re conscientious. The most ancient epic poem of which we have record, Gilgamesh tells of the great king of Uruk (a city in what is now the large nation of Iraq), his education into wisdom, and his quest for immortality. A wonderful surprise for first-time readers is the nested story of Utanapishtim, a narrative that shares numerous features with the story of Noah and the ark in the book of Genesis (in the Hebrew Bible, called by Christians the Old Testament).

Anyway. When we first meet Gilgamesh (2/3 god, 1/3 human), he has the power and pride of a king but not the wisdom or self-control. A formidable fighter, he challenges all likely comers to brawl with him (and always wins); a ruler with a strong notion of droit du seigneur, he ruined the wedding night of every couple in town. The gods decided he needed to be taught a few things and brought into being a wild man named Enkidu who would, after the inevitable titanic combat, become his best friend.

I’ve included, above, a link to the epic in case you haven’t read it before and would like to…. You don’t need to read the whole thing, though, to appreciate my student’s vivid description of Our Hero:

“Gilgamesh is a king, but not as good as he could be. He is young and is just a ball of testosterone.”

What could I possibly say that would add to the glory of this image? No, it’s not mature phrasing; yes, it’s a mixed metaphor; no, it’s not specific. But, by Ea, Shamash, and Ishtar, it is unforgettable! Quite appropriate for an epic, no?

Cylinder seal impression of Enkidu (l) and Gilgamesh (r) battling the Bull of Heaven. You can find this beautiful artifact on many Internet sites, but I will give you this one http://www.emersonkent.com/history_notes/gilgamesh.htm because of the fine discussion that accompanies it.

Cylinder seal impression of Enkidu (l) and Gilgamesh (r) battling the Bull of Heaven. You can find this beautiful artifact on many Internet sites, but I will give you this one http://www.emersonkent.com/history_notes/gilgamesh.htm because of the fine discussion that accompanies it. By this point in the story Gilgamesh has become more than a ball of testosterone.

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

9 responses to ““Gilgamesh is a king…”

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