An Epic Friendship

1. Can you identify any of the stages of the Hero’s Journey in the story of Gilgamesh? You may begin by asking yourself: What is Gilgamesh’s Call to Adventure; or what is Enkidu’s?

I’m not sure Gilgamesh exists in a social or economic “wasteland” before Enkidu arrives. He may be in a psychological wasteland because he has no close friends or equals to interact with – this is supported by the gods creating Enkidu to help solve the city’s problems. His wrestling with Enkidu outside of his wedding seems to be a call to adventure for Gilgamesh. He then, in turn, literally calls Enkidu to adventure by inviting him to come on a trek to the Cedar forests with him. Enkidu has been called earlier, though. His trek to Uruk to confront Gilgamesh is prompted by a passerby telling Enkidu of the King’s treatment of his new bride. That journey, though, is a bit of a prologue or false start. I interpret Gilgamesh’s literal call to action as the beginning of the more complex journey for both of them.

In tablet 3 the elders give Gilgamesh advice and he also goes to his mother, Ninsun. This is supernatural aid in two forms, especially for Enkidu when Ninsun blesses him. Ishtar is clearly the Temptress in Gilgamesh’s journey. It’s during this tablet that I start to doubt that Enkidu fulfills enough of the hero’s journey to count as going on one of his own. He definitely goes through some of the stages, especially the call to action, the supernatural aid, guardians, challenges, and temptations. His journey is cut short when he dies. I’m not sure there is a clear enough atonement and transformation.

Gilgamesh, on the other hand, fulfills almost every step, particularly returning to the known after he fails at keeping the Plant of Everlasting Life and returns to Uruk.

2. Do you believe any of the Four Functions of Mythology, as outlined in ‘Mythological Themes in Creative Literature and Art’, are alive and active in the story of Gilgamesh? Why or why not?

The need for mystery is especially clear in all of the semi-prescient dreams that Enkidu and Gilgamesh have. They do not know what their adventure will bring them and that is part of the appeal, but they also are afraid of the unknown. That fear makes their journey all the more impressive.

The need for an idea of the world in which people belong is less clear. This is a world where humans belong as helpers and devices. They are the shepherds and the prostitutes that aid the god-like beings on their adventure. So much of the story is spent on gods and supernatural beings that this picture is one of humans being vulnerable to the gods’ whims, including Enkidu and Gilgamesh’s whims.

The need for an understanding of our society in which each person belongs is also not clear, but it’s definitely there and alive. The characters in this epic know their places and yet can transform themselves. Enkidu, particularly, morphs from inanimate material to animal, to god-like human, then back to inanimate. He moves through social strata fluidly, while the people who helped him move out of his animal stage, the shepherd and the prostitute, seem content to help him and stay where they are.

The need for a picture of our own psychology that helps with the transitions of a human life is the clearest and most fascinatingly explored in this work. While Gilgamesh begins his story a fully grown adult (though not one that acts like one), we get to watch Enkidu go through a representation of gestation (creation by the gods), then birth. Enkidu is an animal-like adult, uncivilized and unable to use reason. He’s basically a child. He grows into a true adult by learning to eat properly and by sleeping with a harlot. His eventual transition into death is a hard thing to read. He seems to represent a kind of death that most humans fear – an inexorable and transparent figurative march towards a death that we do not want. Gilgamesh is then reborn as an animal, just as Enkidu began. He then matures, for the first time in the entire work, into a full adult with all the maturity of a person that can accept defeat.

3. What judgement would you make concerning the success or failure of Gilgamesh’s journey? For instance, he failed to return with the Plant of Everlasting Life, but what did he gain instead? Is it a worthy replacement for eternal youth?

I ended up beginning to address this question in the previous answer, so I’ll continue here. Gilgamesh begins the story as a physical adult but emotional child. His relationship with Enkidu and failure to rectify his friend’s death is his transition into adulthood. He gained maturity and fame, which is a worthy replacement for eternal youth.