I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that I read The Epic of Gilgamesh for the first time only about a month ago. It’s not long; about half of the 125-page book I borrowed is scholarly background and analysis. The actual myth is around 60 pages—and it casts a massive shadow for such a small text. It’s the earliest surviving epic, believed to date from around 2,100 BC. For context, The Odyssey was written in the 8th century BC, and theologians believe the earliest Bible books were written between 1,500 and 1,000 BC.
Whether you realize it or not, a lot of the Western cultural myths that endure today owe their origin to Gilgamesh, either directly through plot points (e.g. the Bible’s story of the Flood) or indirectly thanks to the idea of the heroic epic. If you’re a genre writer, especially, Gilgamesh should be required reading at some point in your life. I’ve broken down what I found to be some of the most unique aspects of the world and tale below.
Gilgamesh and the Raglan scale
The Raglan scale (also called the Rank-Raglan scale, after the name of its two developers) is a list of traits common to the stories of most heroes and epic figures, including ancient ones like Buddha and Odysseus, as well as modern heroes like Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker. It covers strange convergences in the origin stories of a variety of heroic and legendary figures (here’s a link if you want to see the specifics of the 22 points).
It’s a bit tricky to determine Gilgamesh’s score on the Raglan scale, only because nothing of his life before becoming king is included in the epic (which is, itself, one point on the scale). But he scores at least an 11, possibly up to an 18, depending on who you ask. For comparison, this puts him in the same range as such epic heroes as Perseus (18) and Hercules (17), and religious figures like Jesus (18) and Buddha (15).
Why does this matter? The simple answer is that this pattern is a part of our sub-conscious understanding of heroes. They have a mysterious origin, often with a godly (or otherwise supernatural) parent; their rise to power is almost always balanced by a fall and mysterious death. That it applies to Gilgamesh—widely acknowledged as the oldest known hero—demonstrates that this pattern of the hero’s journey has indeed been a part of the human consciousness since the earliest instances of literature.
The oral tradition
Many of the ancient epics were composed originally as poetry as opposed to prose, in keeping with the fact that they largely originated from an oral rather than a written tradition. These epics were then put to paper (or stone tablet, as the case may be) many years after the story’s initial creation. The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of these stories.
There is a unique cadence to epic poetry, the emulation of which gives stories the mythological feel familiar from religious texts. Repetition was the device that most stuck out to me in creating this feel. I noticed this most in the fourth section, “The Search for Everlasting Life,” in which the description of Gilgamesh’s face as looking like one who has made a long journey, “burned from heat and cold,” is repeated twice with each new figure he meets. His great deeds are also listed in full with each new person he encounters—again, a repetition that makes more sense in an out-loud recitation than a from the page reading.
Emulating this style is one way to give modern works—especially fantasy or science fiction epics—that same mythological feel. A notable example of this is the recitation of titles after characters are introduced on Game of Thrones (Danaerys Stormborn, Queen of the Andals, Mother of Dragons, the Unburnt, etc. etc.). It’s a device that can get tedious rather quickly, so one to use sparingly, but it’s a more subtle way to infuse that feel into the works than the Ye Olde English used by some fantasy writers trying to accomplish the same thing.
While Gilgamesh is a similar king/hero to others found in countless epics (as the Raglan scale exploration above demonstrates), the character of Enkidu is a far more unique figure and—to me, at least—infinitely more interesting.
Enkidu is created by the gods as a companion to Gilgamesh to stop him from raping and pillaging his way across his own country (no really, here’s a direct quote from section 1, “The Coming of Enkidu”: “No son is left with his father, for Gilgamesh takes them all…His lust leaves no virgin to her lover, neither the warrior’s daughter nor the wife of the noble”). The goddess of creation, Aruru, made an image in her mind and created Enkidu out of clay. His description marks him as a beastly creature, with a hair-covered body and long hair on his head; he also knew nothing of cultivation or culture, “ate grass in the hills with the gazelle and lurked with wild beasts at the water-holes.” Enkidu is sent to a harlot who teaches him “the woman’s art” and civilizes him enough to take him to Gilgamesh. The two men wrestle and subsequently become besties until Enkidu’s untimely death.
That origin story is interesting enough in and of itself, but it’s Enkidu’s role in the narrative that really caught my eye. Enkidu helps Gilgamesh to kill the Humbaba that guards the Cedar forest, then later also assists him in killing the Bull of Heaven; these two acts earn him the ire of the gods, who give Enkidu the sickness that kills him in retribution. Which is fucked up, if you think about it, since it was because of Gilgamesh Enkidu did these things in the first place. Gilgamesh recognizes the fucked-uppedness of the situation and is overcome first with grief and then with the realization of his own mortality, traveling to the underworld to search for everlasting life.
It is interesting that to tame Gilgamesh’s wild side the gods give him an even more wild companion. In Enkidu, Gilgamesh finds a warrior who is his equal. Enkidu becomes his closest friend because he is able to provide a challenge that was missing in all the other warriors of the land. In this, I see a message of recognizing and confronting one’s duality to achieve the level of self-awareness and competence that makes one worthy of ruling. Also interesting is the fact that it is sleeping with a woman that instructs Enkidu in the ways of civilization enough that he can be presented to Gilgamesh at all. Though mortal female figures are as notably lacking in The Epic of Gilgamesh (as they are in many ancient epics) this recognition of the role of the feminine in shaping masculine identity is a window into the Sumerian beliefs on gender roles, otherwise absent from the male-dominated narrative.
Enkidu and Gilgamesh had the original bromance. Like many of the Greek heroes, their bond of mutual respect and admiration is depicted as stronger and more pure than most romantic relationships—in fact, no attention is given in the epic to either man’s love life beyond their early sexual conquests, while on Enkidu’s death Gilgamesh grieves for him as he would for a lover. This emphasis on the friendship-love bond as opposed to the romantic-love bond is refreshing for a modern reader, since there is almost always some kind of love interest for the hero in more recent epics. It’s proof that such storylines are in fact not necessary to create an emotionally charged story.
Gods and monsters
The mythological figures in The Epic of Gilgamesh were not nearly as familiar to me before reading as those of other cultures, like the Greeks and Romans—or I should say, I didn’t realize where the figures had been drawn from, because they are equally prevalent as references in sci-fi/fantasy worlds. There are many of these figures (obviously) but I’ll point out the two I found most recognizable on my reading.
If you watch Ancient Aliens, you’ve heard of the Anunnaki, who are the offspring of the god Anu (the Sumerian/Babylonian god of the sky, and rough Zeus equivalent as father of the gods). They have only a brief appearance in Gilgamesh during the Flood narrative, portrayed as the seven judges of hell who light the land on fire as a preface to the arrival of the storm.
The Humbaba is a familiar name to players of RPGs, notably Final Fantasy; a monster by this name appears in III, VI, VIII, XII, and XIII. In Final Fantasy it is almost always a Behemonth-type enemy, strong and difficult to kill. In the epic, the Humbaba has the face of a lion, the claws of a vulture, and the horns of a bull. He also breathes fire and has a snake’s head at the end of his penis, because when the Sumerians set about to create terrifying beasties, they didn’t fuck around. (Enkidu and Gilgamesh also make prominent appearances in many of the Final Fantasy games, where Gilgamesh is a great swordsman, and Enkidu his faithful dog).
The relationship between gods and mortals in the Sumerian/Babylonian mythology is similar to the relationship in Greek mythology. The gods are mostly removed from mortal concerns, but can be appealed to in times of need; whether or not they intervene is, of course, up to the gods, and they are equally as likely to punish those who annoy or insult them as they are to help the loyal believer. The Sumerian gods are capricious and fallible. In “The Story of the Flood,” Enlil (the god of the earth) orders all humanity to be killed because—and I quote—“The uproar of mankind is intolerable and sleep is no longer possible by reason of the babel.” Basically the equivalent of having noisy neighbors and deciding to burn their house down instead of just asking them to shut up. After the flood passes, though, many of the gods are pretty salty with Enlil for his over-reaction, and Enlil himself feels some remorse for his actions, giving Utnapishtim (essentially Sumerian Noah) eternal life as a reward for having survived the catastrophe.
The Sumerian pantheon is not explored in depth in The Epic of Gilgamesh. The way it’s sprinkled in assumes some pre-knowledge of these figures, which of course makes sense, given that the target audience was probably other Babylonians that knew damn well who Anu was, meaning he needed no introduction. This in and of itself is a lesson to world-builders. It never bothered me that I didn’t know the gods’ backstories. I looked them up later (because I’m that kind of gal) but the lack of explanation doesn’t impede understanding—whereas a break for explanation would have destroyed the flow. You need to know all the details of your world, but your reader doesn’t (necessarily). Sparing details, name-drops, and hints can do as much to shape a vast history and culture as pages of description—and are way easier to read.