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The Hero and Civilization in The Epic of Gilgamesh


Being among the oldest epic poems throughout the world, the Epic of Gilgamesh presents the story of Gilgamesh, a Sumerian King. Portrayed as an individual with superhuman strength, he can interact with the gods through his dreams (Sandars 63). The story illustrates how the gods gave Gilgamesh a perfect body. With his perfect beautiful body was mature, he had strength, and he surpassed all other people throughout Uruk (Sandars 61). In a description, the story shows Gilgamesh was one-third man and two-thirds god (Sandars 61). In Enkidu’s report of Gilgamesh, he says, ‘’you are like no other in the world, your mother is as strong as the wild ox making you raised above all other men, and for your kingship, you have been endowed with strength that surpasses that of men’ (Sandars 69). The story gives an account of their superhuman victories and adventure series of Gilgamesh as he embarks on the journey to discover immortality secrets.

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What the epic of Gilgamesh tells about early civilization

The story of Gilgamesh depicts a civilization notion in a manner that is ambiguous. Civilization becomes a way through which both protection and knowledge are provided. In its ambiguity, the epic further shows that corruption becomes entrenched in the people’s lives throughout society. With the understanding of the epic’s setting, ancient Mesopotamia, which served as the cradle of civilization, is the contemporary aspect of society portrayed and its negative and positive elements. As a place of culture, Uruk brings out this harmful component associated with civilization where its king, Gilgamesh, has to first sleep with another man’s bride because as the king, he demands to be with a wife before the husband (Sandars 68). It is also a place where the king lords his position and power over the people. Therefore, Uruk’s king does strange things, all in his favor, mindless of how they impact the people.

Enkidu represents a being who has fallen from his grace because after he falls to the temptations of both sexuality and knowledge, the wild creatures he used to run with, eat with, and drink in harmony run away from him after his sexual encounter with Shamash (Sandars 64). Uruk becomes the representation of this place where the fallen from grace come to live because once nature rejects him, he is drawn to somewhere else he can find refuge and people to interact with, Uruk. The temptation followed by the sexual encounter between Enkidu and Shamash becomes the point of transition, for Enkidu, from unspoiled nature to civilization (Sandars 68). Uruk is modern, where the people enjoyed protection from the strong-walled city and contained great streets.

However, at Uruk lives Gilgamesh, who lords his strength over his men. In Uruk, Shamash’s words to Enkidu are, ‘it is a place of love and heaven’ (Sandars 65). The epic portrays the place of civilization as both bad and good. With the bad already illustrated, the good is that the city can provide a sense of security alongside that of community to the people living within the borders through its walls.

The way Gilgamesh becomes a hero and what he achieves

Toward his dying moments, Enkidu curses Shamash because he believes should she had not tempted him, he would not have been rejected by nature where death did not exist (Sandars 64). After cursing the trapper to his heart’s content, Enkidu proceeds to curse Shamash. However, in this place where people can curse others, they can also reverse the curse and instead bless others. It is not just about living and dying, it is also about appreciating life and the moments that make life with living. After Shamash reminds Enkidu of his life in the company of his friend Gilgamesh, he reverses his curse. He blesses Shamash with these words, ‘you shall be adored by nobles, princes, and kings’ (Sandars 91). As Enkidu lies on his deathbed and finally gives up his spirit, Gilgamesh mourning over Enkidu’s death and appreciation of what he helped him achieve. The friendship helped transition Gilgamesh from an arrogant being to a compassionate and loving man, making him a hero.

With the death of Enkidu, Gilgamesh awakes to the understanding that he, too, is not prone to death. The knowledge that man is mortal helps Gilgamesh to contemplate and decide to seek after his Utnapishtim. The search for his father is informed by the desire to comprehend more about life and death. In a conversation between the Scorpion-man and Gilgamesh, the Scorpion-man tells Gilgamesh that no man has ever achieved to go to the mountain to get the answers sought after by Gilgamesh (Sandars 98). Throughout his incredible journey, crossing over the dangerous waters and at the end of the first six leagues, Gilgamesh encounters immense darkness that he cannot see anything in front and behind him.

Towards the end of the ninth league, Gilgamesh feels the north wind on his face, and after the end of the eleventh league, he comes to contact with the dawn light (Sandars 99). The sun finally streams out at the end of the twelfth league; Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh ‘there is no permanence’ (Sandars 106). After the encounter with Utnapishtim, a secret concerning the herb that would help Gilgamesh achieve immortality is revealed. However, Gilgamesh loses the spice to the beast of the earth (Sandars 117). Gilgamesh’s heroism is acknowledged when his story and quest are carved into a stone on returning to Uruk. Gilgamesh’s heroism comes through helping his people understand that there is no physical immortality for humans. With this, he shapes the understanding of what the functions of a hero within society are.

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Functions of a hero in a society

A hero may function differently within society, and in a modern life setting, a hero’s responsibility might be as simple as ensuring the natural environment is preserved. The natural environment plays a significant role in providing humans enjoys good lives and every other creature that survives within the environment. The inability to maintain the atmosphere causes the risk of degrading it, and with harsh conditions, it poses a significant threat to many creatures who stand to face extinction.


The Epic of Gilgamesh is among the oldest stories ever told in the world. By giving an account of the life and death of Gilgamesh, it means of the transformation encountered by this king, from a cruel to a loving man whose simple quest to achieve the gift of physical immortality was never realized. From the depiction illustrated about the notion of civilization in the story, it becomes clear that life changes negatively and positively through civilization. Enkidu loses his life the moment he interacts with Shamash and eventually dies. The story of the quest Gilgamesh and Enkidu embarked on helps change Gilgamesh into a loving and caring man, and when he tells it to his people, they see it fit to reward him by carving it on a stone.

Work Cited

Sandars, Nancy. The Epic of Gilgamesh: An English Version with an Introd. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1972.

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