The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the oldest and greatest works of literature. There are many different versions of this epic, but most are the same in story and themes. This ancient poem follows the story of the titular character Gilgamesh, King of Uruk. It is a mystery as to whether or not this person existed, but the story portrays him as a demigod of great strength. He is made out to be a very powerful ruler who is also obnoxious and ignorant to human suffering. He is a great ruler in some aspects. For one, he built a wall to protect his city and people. Still, he abuses his people and even rapes maidens on their wedding night. Gilgamesh does seem to care for his people, but his status as a demigod blinds him from his own flaws and he is unable to understand the ramifications of his actions towards his people. He has yet to learn about human suffering. The creation of Enkidu changes this aspect of his character and helps him understand the delicacy of life.
It is Enkidu who drives the story’s development. The people of Uruk dislike Gilgamesh’s rule and pray for the gods to create his equal to counteract him. And so Enkidu the man-beast is created. With the introduction of Enkidu, we get a thematic contrast between nature and civilization. Enkidu is a wild, dirty, man-beast who resides in the wilderness, while Gilgamesh is a godly king that rules over the civilized city of Uruk. The setting of the story also bears significance and plays into this contrast because Uruk is one of the earliest city in recorded history. As king of this civilized city, Gilgamesh serves as a symbol of civilization itself in this story. Just as man domesticated animals, Gilgamesh sets off to domesticate Enkidu when he hears of him. When Enkidu is brought to the kingdom, the two characters face off in a show of brute force. Enkidu proves himself to be Gilgamesh’s equal and earns his respect and friendship.1
Over the course of their adventures and their newly found friendship, Enkidu’s character slowly rubs off on Gilgamesh. He comes to have a better understanding of his subjects and his responsibilities to them as king. In a way, he becomes more human. Still, it is not until Enkidu’s death that he, Gilgamesh, will be able to understand human suffering fully.2
His death brings Gilgamesh great sadness and makes him come to the realization that no matter how strong or godly he thought he was, he too will someday be faced with death. The story symbolically shows that nature has an impact on civilization and makes it clear that the author or authors prefer civilization but still acknowledge the importance of nature. Also tying in with contrasting symbols, Enkidu curses civilization and blames it for his death, though he ends up going back on his word when he remembers all the great things of civilization and the friendship that Gilgamesh has shown him. And so Gilgamesh mourns his best friend and goes off on a quest to search for immortality. Through his long search he finds the plant that can grant renewed youth to the person who eats it. However, after obtaining what he sought, a snake promptly steals it away. And so the quest comes to an abrupt end.3
Gilgamesh later uses the gods to contact the dead Enkidu and ask about the afterlife, but was disappointed with the answer. Enkidu told him that nothing but more suffering awaits those who die.4 Gilgamesh comes to accept that despite his godly strength and title of king, he too is human and is vulnerable to human suffering and death. Not even his best friend was spared from the grip of death. Or perhaps the reason Enkidu met death was because of the way the author(s) favored civilization over nature; Gilgamesh over Enkidu. And so concludes the Epic of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh may not have found the immortal life he sought, but nevertheless he has found immortality in that his story still lives on though the epic and its many versions to today and beyond.