The Vanity of Fame in ‘The Epic of Gilgamesh’

Christian circles largely know The Epic of Gilgamesh in terms of comparison.  The story does act as something of a parallel to the biblical story of Noah, albeit with important differences – the gods regret sending the flood, and they were not unanimous in saving the Noah figure, Utnapishtim.  But the story taken in its whole is saying something more interesting, something close to the heart of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes.

While the part of Gilgamesh’s tale that is most familiar is his quest for eternal life, it’s the beginning of the tale that really sets up the core theme of the story.  Set in ancient Mesopotamia, Gilgamesh is a warrior-king who is described as two parts god and one part man.  He has no equal on the Earth, and so the gods send him Enkidu, a wild man who lives with the wild animals.  He is domesticated by a woman and brought to Gilgamesh’s city Uruk, where he and the king tussle, but ultimately become fast friends.  After growing bored in the city, the two men resolve to make a name for themselves, and set out to slay the guardian of the cedar forest, Humbaba.

They are successful, of course, both in slaying Humbaba and making a name for themselves.  So successful that the goddess Ishtar wants Gilgamesh to become her lover.  He refuses her, so she sends a sacred bull.  They kill that, too.  The result is an edict from the gods – Enkidu must die.  Following his best friend’s death, Gilgamesh is practically driven mad by both his grief and his determination to escape death.  This is what sparks his journey to find Utnapishtim, the survivor from the deluge whom the gods granted eternal life.

The contrast that is often made here between the biblical flood story and the Babylonian flood story is well-tread, and there’s little need for me to repeat it.  The differences are often emphasized, but the similarities are intriguing – both account for a flood to end troublesome humankind, but one family is warned and survives by building a boat, and is blessed by divinity afterward.  What I’m more interested in is the steps that led Gilgamesh there in the first place, and the advice that Utnapishtim gives him.

Much is made of the fact that Gilgamesh is two-thirds god and only one-third man.  The tenacity with which he pursued immortality, as well as the degree to which he mourns for Enkidu (until the judges of the underworld seized him) shows not just grief, but an inability to cope with death.  He sought out to make a great name for himself, but by doing so, only found reminders of his impending death.  As I was reading the tale, all of this sounded very familiar.  Then I realized why.

“So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.” – Ecclesiastes 2:9-11

What is missing from the story that is missing from much of ancient mythology is redemption.  If there is any, it is that Gilgamesh ultimately does go home, and his name does live on.  But a hesitant acceptance of fate is hardly an inspirational ending.  What this reminds me of, more than anything, is the dire consequences of hubris and pride.  This is most poignant when Enkidu knows he is going to die, and curses the woman who brought him into society (he recants this curse after being reminded of his deep friendship with Gilgamesh).  In his case in particular, the seeking of a name for himself only brought about suffering and death.

May we all be more wise.

Logan Judy
Logan Judy is a Christian blogger and science fiction author with a Batman complex. At Cross Culture, Logan writes about film, comics, cultural analysis, and whatever else strikes his fancy. In addition to his work at Cross Culture, Logan also blogs and podcasts at A Clear Lens. You can find him tweeting about Batman, apologetics, and why llamas will one day rule the world, @loganrjudy.
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