Paper Example - Civilized versus Non-Civilized in Gilgamesh

Published: 2023-08-28
Paper Example - Civilized versus Non-Civilized in Gilgamesh
Essay type:  Book review
Categories:  Poem Bible Character analysis Ancient history
Pages: 5
Wordcount: 1174 words
10 min read

The ancient Mesopotamian poem The Epic of Gilgamesh portrays the themes of civilization and non-civilization in an ambiguous manner. Civilization provides knowledge and protection on the one hand, but it yields corruption on the other, justifying the Socratic pig paradox whereby people tend to hold on to non-civilization. Gilgamesh first emerges as a seminal character who is eventually civilized and humanized, but between the lines, there are strings of non-civilization as well. Civilization is a cycle which plays out openly in the epic, beginning with the exuberance and strength of the youth, followed by a gradual build-up of culture and infrastructure, before proceeding to young naivety when whims of mortality hit the airwaves. In a bid to escape non-civilization, individuals make frenetic attempts to perpetuate themselves through achievement and hard work, but the eventual decline remains inevitable. While civilization is believed to be liberating in the Epic of Gilgamesh, therefore, it follows a human trajectory and emerges as man's fall from innocence or non-civilization.

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Gilgamesh makes several Biblical allusions, especially in the portrayal of Enkindu as similar to the Biblical Adam who was created with innocence, only to be tempted by sexuality and knowledge. The encounter with sexuality, therefore, emerges as one of the differences between civilization and non-civilization because when Enkindu seduces Shamhat, it is symbolized in the epic as a transition from an unspoiled or non-civilized status into civilization, and perhaps this is why nature rejects him. He no longer enjoys nature's harmony because wild animals run away from him (Bing 33). However, it is also an attempt to contrast the earliest civilizations with the kind of life that people lead currently. While in Uruk, Enkindu and Shamhat enjoy a luxurious life, which denotes the kind of restraint that people exercised while living as hunters and gatherers. It is evident when Shamhat asserts that at Uruk, every day is meant for celebrations. 'Come I will take thee to strong walled Uruk, to the glorious house, the dwelling of Anu and Ishtar' (Reilly, 39). The quote indicates the kind of pleasure that the two enjoy after the first intercourse, and the introduction of a glorious dwelling proves that civilization is sometimes construed in terms of structures and material wealth.

While the epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest of its kind, there are similarities and differences between life then and life in the modern era, which delineates civilization from non-civilization. Some of the content which appears foreign in the epic includes goddesses, men in the fields cavorting with gazelles, kings descending from gods, and sacred harlots (Abusch 619). Gilgamesh begins abusing his power from the outset, an aspect that angers the gods, and they begin looking for someone more powerful than him. 'I gaze upon thee, O Enkindu, like a god art thou' (Sanders 14). These are the words of a harlot wishing to take Enkindu to Uruk where Gilgamesh is, and it proves that some leaders and heroes were regarded and treated like gods. For a moment, the encounter between Enkindu and Gilgamesh balances out nature, but they eventually become friends. It is not a surface feature, but rather a wild metaphor which symbolizes civilization versus wild nature or non-civilization. As they plot to kill Humbaba, the forest guardian, this plays out as mere masculine bravado associated with self-proving youths, but it is also reflective of the destructive modern civilization which went through an age of development and expansion through the exploitation of natural resources (Abusch 618). 'Why dost thou desire to go down to the forest?' (Abusch 620). The question that Enkindu asks suggests that he is resisting civilization. Still, the promise of nobility overpowers him, and this explains why it becomes increasingly difficult to overcome the powers of civilization.

Although the theme of civilization and non-civilization mostly yields differences, there are similarities between the two as well, and this is the inability to escape death. After the death of Enkindu, Gilgamesh takes time to recover from the epic grieving and decides to seek immortality, which he believes to be a plant found on the Blessed Isle (Bing 24). Civilization has consistently failed to offer immortality, and instead, it is used as a decoy to explain human irrationality. Gilgamesh states that in his quest for immortality, all he needs is to pay homage to his fallen friend Enkindu. In the Blessed Isle, however, all he sees are resources for exploitation, and this explains that despite human civilization, their rationalization capacities have failed to transform for over four millennia.

The epic concludes with a proclamation that Gilgamesh manages to return from the distant land with his story inscribed in tablets, but this is only possible in civilization and not nature. While ancient Samarians are associated with backwardness and wildness, it is apparent that they understood writing similar to the modern civilizations, and perhaps this is why Gilgamesh comes back with the tablets. Interestingly, the epic does not state, which is better between nature and civilization (Bing, 26). Prior to his death, Enkindu begins cursing Shamhat and claiming that she is the source of his trouble. 'You are the house that falls down. You are the shoe that pinches the foot of the wearer; the ill-made wall' (Abusch 618). However, she reminds Enkindu that it is his friendship with Gilgamesh that brought such trouble and that importantly, it is the civilization that caused his downfall. Similar to the ancient Samarians, modern civilizations continue to explore natural resources for expansion and development, indicating that civilization mankind states that one cannot escape. However, it is worth noting that comparing Samarian civilization with the modern era; technology separates humanity over the four millennia within which the epic was written.

In summary, the Epic of Gilgamesh may be an ancient poem, but it has themes which cut across from Samarian times to the modern-day civilizations. By following the life trajectories of Gilgamesh and Enkindu, the poem proves that civilization robs humanity of innocence and rationality. After Enkindu sleeps with Shamhat, he transitions to a world of civilization where he meets his death. Despite the massive differences between civilization and non-civilization, it is apparent that none can defeat mortality. There are peculiarities in the poem such as sacred harlots and men cavorting in the wild with animals, but this only proves that civilization is an integral part of humankind because, in the long run, Gilgamesh returns from the Blessed Isle with a tablet inscribed with his life story. It is also an indication that individuals must not bear the latest technologies in a bid to enjoy life because while at Uruk, Enkindu and Shamhat had glorious times every day of the week.

Work Cited

Abusch, Tzvi. "The development and meaning of the Epic of Gilgamesh: an interpretive essay." Journal of the American Oriental Society (2001): 614-622

Bing, John Daniel. "On the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh." Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society 7.1 (1975): 21-91

Reilly, Kevin. The human journey: a concise introduction to world history. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2012.

Sanders, Nancy K. "The epic of Gilgamesh." Assyrian International News Agency Books Online (1960).

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