The Epic of Gilgamesh is a Sumerian story that dates back to the ancient time; actually, it is supposedly the most erstwhile story on earth. Gilgamesh, the principal character has both godly and human features that elevate him above other people thus culminating his character as a rapist, cruel, domineering, and oppressive ruler.
However, the intervention of gods leads to the creation of Gilgamesh rivalry Enkidu who lives in the forest but the two become best friends. Unfortunately, due to the wrath or disobedience to gods, Enkidu dies. The death of Enkidu and the premonition of Gilgamesh’s death becomes a turning point in his life, which prompts him to seek for immortality from the gods.
Both Gilgamesh and Enkidu are liminal characters because their lives revolve around two different worlds. On one hand, Gilgamesh has human flesh, which coexists with godly features while on the other hand; Enkidu emerges from the forest where he lives and feeds like wild animals but ends up in the human world. Through the intervention of the gods or other key characters like Shamhat, Urshanabi, and Utnapishtim among others, Gilgamesh and Enkidu not only become civilized or humans, but also their character transform.
Gilgamesh is a ruthless, oppressive but handsome and wise ruler with the ability to communicate or closely relate to the gods in his land. According to the author,” two-thirds of him was divine, while one-third of him was human” (Foster 5).
Therefore, his body description or physical appearance gives him the ability to exist in the spirit or divine world. Furthermore, Gilgamesh lacks humanity because he harasses and torments his subjects by forcing them, especially men, to build his territory. Consequently, the cries and lamentation of his subjects to the gods lead to the creation of Enkidu who is as brilliant as Gilgamesh.
Enkidu’s first interaction with Gilgamesh is through a fight but the match ends in a draw thus culminating into a friendship. In addition, Gilgamesh does not assault sexually the woman (bride) as he had earlier planned. Whence, the lamentation of his subjects and the appearance of Enkidu form the basis of the transformation of Gilgamesh especially his character.
Physically, Enkidu’s body has a combination of both human and animal features, which forces him to live in the forest with wild animals. His body is not only hairy, but he also feeds through breastfeeding from wild animals or through grazing and drinks in a bent position like the animals.
According to Foster, “he knew neither people nor inhabited land” (6) thus describing his non-humane features. Shamhat, a prostitute, seduces Enkidu and the two engage in sexual activity. Consequently, animals reject Enkidu because the sexual intercourse transformed him into human thus ending up in the human world.
Enkidu freely mingles with people feeding like them and becomes a night guard, which causes him to forget quickly about the animal world. Shamhat is the first person to initiate the humanization and civilization of Enkidu because she teaches him about the human world or ways of man. In addition, the mutual relationship between Shamhat and Enkidu turns out to be an epiphany moment in Enkidu’s life.
From defiance or bravery, Gilgamesh and Enkidu fight for their lives in the hands of the gods and demons, but the big question remains, will they survive? A decision by Gilgamesh and Enkidu to loot trees from a forbidden forest climaxes in a curse, which transforms the character of Gilgamesh.
The god of Shamash assists the two to defeat all the demons or monsters in the forest after which they cut down trees. Nevertheless, on return to Uruk, the goddess of love falls for Gilgamesh but he turns her down leading to a punishment from the sky god. Luckily, the two kill the bull meant to punish them ending the wrath of the god on the land.
Therefore, the gods decide to kill Enkidu who dies after a short illness. The death of Enkidu turns out as an epiphany moment to Gilgamesh who is also supposed to die thereafter, while the death and illness of Enkidu shows his existence and conversion into the human world.
The manifestation of Gilgamesh’s death and a revelation of his eventual suffering after death alter his behaviors from an evil ruler to a humane one. He embarks on a journey to avert his death or become immortal.
Therefore, the character change of Gilgamesh shows that he is starting to become civilized while the fear of death connects him to the human world and not the divine world. On his journey to “immortality”, he seeks the intervention of Utnapishtim who gives him two tests but he fails both. The first test is to stay awake for seven days and nights but he is unable to pass it.
The second test is simple where he is to take a unique plant meant to rejuvenate him when he grows old but he fails the test because the serpent steals the plant leaving him helpless. Gilgamesh realization that he has a few days to live compels him to change his character to a fair ruler. He ends the oppression regime and asserts to respect all his subjects regardless of their position in his kingdom.
Through the intervention of gods, Gilgamesh becomes mortal and powerless, which differentiates him from other gods. Gilgamesh mortality hinges on the transformation from the divine world to the human world. Moreover, his character as a fearful being is only human oriented while the lowliness and humane character is due to civilization. Similarly, the gods create Enkidu in the likeness of Gilgamesh while Shamhat plays a great role in his (Enkidu) civilization.
Additionally, Enkidu is the main character involved in the transformation of Gilgamesh because through his death, the character of Gilgamesh changes for the better. Eventually, Gilgamesh succumbs to his fate because he is mortal and has a few days to live in the human world. Finally, Gilgamesh subjects and the gods contribute to his human transformation or civilization.
In summary, the Epic of Gilgamesh underscores the existence of Gilgamesh and Enkidu within two diverse worlds. Gilgamesh exists in both the divine and human world but eventually ends up a human being. On the other hand, Enkidu becomes a human being when he interacts with Shamhat but he has a tragic end in the human world.
Gilgamesh’s divinity disappears when he disobeys his gods and mistreats his subjects. He changes his ruling tactics and accepts humanity while he waits his death, which is drawing near day after the other. The epiphanies in Gilgamesh and Enkidu civilize them, transforming them into the human beings. Finally, a combination of efforts from the gods and subjects as Shamhat gives Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu a new life- a civilized, humane life.
Foster, Benjamin (Ed.). The Epic of Gilgamesh. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001.