The Development and Meaning of the Epic of Gilgamesh: An Interpretive Essay

By Abusch, Tzvi | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, October-December 2001 | Go to article overview

The Development and Meaning of the Epic of Gilgamesh: An Interpretive Essay


Abusch, Tzvi, The Journal of the American Oriental Society


BRANDEIS UNIVERSITY

This essay traces the history of the several major versions (Old Babylonian, eleven-tablet, and twelve-tablet) of the Akkadian Epic of Gilgamesh and examines the development of meaning from one version to the next. The focus is on the underlying conflict or conflicts that define and impart power to the work, that is, the conflict between the extraordinary and the normal. We will notice that in the Epic there is a constant conflict between the heroic values that the warrior-hero Gilgamesh represents and those other existential values that defined Mesopotamian culture and that appear in the Epic in the form of Gilgamesh's several non-heroic identities: in the Old Babylonian version, the conflict is that of hero versus man; in the eleven-tablet version that of hero versus king; and in the twelve-tablet version that of hero versus god.

INTRODUCTION

THE EPIC OF GILGAMESH (1) combines the power and tragedy of the Iliad with the wanderings and marvels of the Odyssey. It is a work of adventure, but it is no less a meditation on some fundamental issues of human existence. The Epic explores many issues; it surely provides a Mesopotamian formulation of human predicaments and options. Most of all, the work grapples with issues of an existential nature. It talks about the powerful human drive to achieve, the value of friendship, the experience of loss, the inevitability of death.

The story draws together the many strands that make up the identity of Gilgamesh: man, hero, king, god. Gilgamesh must learn to live. He must find ways to express his tremendous personal energy but still act in a manner that accords with the limits and responsibilities imposed upon him by his society and universe. But the work emphasizes the theme of death and explores the realization that in spite of even the greatest achievements and powers, a human is nonetheless powerless against death. Thus in the final analysis, Gilgamesh must also come to terms with his own nature and learn to die, for he is both a man and a god, and as both he will experience loss and will die.

In the present essay, I shall discuss the changing emphases of three major versions of the Akkadian Epic of Gilgamesh. About 1700 B.C.E., a Babylonian author created a unified Epic about the hero Gilgamesh. The new epic "bear[S] witness to a wholesale revision of Gilgamesh material to form a connected story composed around the principal themes of kingship, fame, and the fear of death." (2) This Old Babylonian (OB) account of Gilgamesh is the earliest, perhaps also the most immediately felt and compelling, version of the Akkadian Epic. Subsequent to the Old Babylonian period, the Epic circulated throughout the ancient Near East. Not surprisingly, the work underwent many changes and developments, and a number of new versions took form in Akkadian as well as in other languages. The Babylonian version(s) changed and developed during the course of the second and early first millennium. While a number of new recensions and versions took form, the Standard Babylonian (SB) eleven- and twelve-tablet versions represen t without doubt the two most important post-Old Babylonian Akkadian versions that we possess. Accordingly, in this essay we will examine the Old Babylonian, the eleven-tablet, and the twelve-tablet versions. (3)

THE EPIC: DEVELOPMENT AND MEANING

To understand the Epic, we should now turn to its inner development and meaning. But first we must say a few words about the nature of epic itself, and then we shall assess the evolving meaning of the work by identifying and explicating the particular conflict that is central to it at each major stage of its development.

Epic. Epic deals with a hero, (4) that is, a powerful warrior who shows his mettle in battle. He is aggressive and courageous, even impetuous, and battles strong enemies. He shows little concern for his own safety and focuses all of his energy upon battle, obligation, honor, and victory. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

The Development and Meaning of the Epic of Gilgamesh: An Interpretive Essay
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.