Term Paper: Ancient Near Eastern Values in the Story

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Ancient Near Eastern Values in the Story Of the Flood as Told in the Epic of Gilgamesh

One of the earliest extant works of world literature and myth, the Epic of Gilgamesh also preserves one of the earliest known accounts of the Flood. As such, Gilgamesh provides antecedents to the story in the Judeo-Christian Bible. An invaluable source of information on Ancient Near Eastern values and mores, the Epic of Gilgamesh is a window on a vanished world. Its links to later Western religion and culture make it an invaluable tool in uncovering our own origins. Many of the idea in the Epic were carried through into later times, or formed the basis of Biblical concepts. The story can be read either as literature or religion, even as a kind of history, in the sense that it reveals much about life in Ancient Mesopotamia. Much of what is found in Gilgamesh also has correspondents in the thought and culture of other neighboring civilizations, namely that of the Ancient Egyptians. Egypt and Mesopotamia easily exchanged ideas and cultural constructs, many of which have formed the basis of our own Western civilization. The Flood is a common story, found not only in the lore of Mesopotamia, but in that of Ancient Greece, as well, and in the tales of many other peoples around the world. The way in which Gilgamesh tackles the problems and opportunities presented by the Flood also tells us much about what the peoples of Mesopotamians believed were important in interpersonal relationships; their values and beliefs about government, society, religion, and art. The Epic of Gilgamesh is more than a story - it is a primer on Ancient Mesopotamian Civilization, and a direct link to prehistoric modes of thought and behavior. Through the Epic of Gilgamesh we can reconstruct the origins of many aspects of our own civilization and worldview.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is preserved in a number of versions on clay tablets. The tablets themselves tell portions of the story. The tablets translated by Gardner and Maier represent a relatively late version of the story, though they look back to an old Babylonian recension of the tale, one that, -- as the tablets themselves confirm - was checked by the scribes for accuracy. Tablets IX and X concern a portion of the story preliminary to the Flood. Gilgamesh is seeking the sage Utnapishtim in reaction to the death of his beloved friend, Enkidu. In order to reach Utnapishtim, Gilgamesh must first cross over a great mountain that appears to mark the outermost boundary between the realms of the living and the dead. In Tablet IX, this mountain is clearly represented as being associated with the transit of the sun god, Shamash. In a manner that compares well with much later literary and religious conventions, light and dark are contrasted as symbolizing life and death, or good and evil. Though the purpose of Gilgamesh' journey is quintessentially human, Gilgamesh himself is described as being only part-human. The wife of the Scorpion-Man who guards the way to the twin peaks of the mountain specifically refers (IX.ii.16) specifically states of the hero of the Epic, "Two-thirds of him is god, and one-third is human." In IX.ii.17-18, the Scorpion-Man addresses himself only to the "part-god." It is as if ordinary mortals are not permitted even to contemplate the questions posed by Gilgamesh, or entertain his idea of breaching the boundaries between life and death. As in many more modern texts, there are things that pertain to Heaven, and things that pertain to humankind. The "man" Gilgamesh is not permitted to enter into the secrets of the gods. One can see in these few lines, early indications of a belief in sacredotalism; a belief that religious doctrine must be interpreted only by those specially trained to know the will of the gods, or God.

The primal quality of Gilgamesh' challenge is symbolized too, by the detailed description of his journey over the mountain. Crossing "through" the mountain is like crossing through the hours of the night. In a long passage, IX.iv-v., Gilgamesh's travels through the mountain double hour by double hour. The language employed is repetitive, as it is in so many other portions of the tale,

When he had gone six double-hours, thick is the darkness, there is no light; he can see neither behind him nor ahead of him.


From what can be reconstructed on the tablet, the phrasing is identical until the ninth double hour is reached, after which each hour receives some additional descriptive element that serves to indicate that Gilgamesh is getting closer to his goal of traversing the mountain and returning to the "light." The mountain is a physical manifestation of the darkness that surrounds human beings and gods when they are deprived of the light of wisdom and life. Within this choking darkness, we can see neither in front nor behind. Nevertheless, we are groping blindly along a path that we must follow. There is no other way to go than through the mountain, whether we like it or not, whether we are afraid or not. In many ways, one can see in Gilgamesh' perilous journey through the mountain, the eternal quest for knowledge, for enlightenment, that has inspired men and women through the ages.

Gilgamesh next meets one of the major characters in these two tablets, Siduri the Barmaid. According to Gardner and Maier, Siduri is a manifestation of Ishtar, the Mesopotamian goddess of sexual love. Siduri lives on the edge of the sea that contains the river of the dead that definitely separates the realm of the living from the realm of the dead. Siduri's reaction to the sight of Gilgamesh in the distance is revealing of deep human reactions to the unknown:

The Barmaid looked into the distance.

She talked to her heart, said these words

She took counsel with herself

Possibly this one is a killer.

Where is he headed...

Seeing him, the Barmaid barred her door.

Her gate she closed; she shot [the bolt].


Siduri does not know who it is who is traveling toward her, yet her instinctive reaction is one of extreme fear. She does not call out to Gilgamesh prior to barring her door to him. Nor does she seek out anyone else who might know something about Gilgamesh or his quest. Siduri seeks counsel only with "her heart." Again this is another literary conceit that would remain common down through the millennia. The heart represents the seat of emotion; it is also a symbol of inward feelings. In taking counsel with her heart Siduri is both discounting the world of reason, and appealing to her own inner reserves of knowledge and feeling. The passage tells us that when faced with the unknown we often retreat into ourselves, "shoot the bolt" and prefer not to investigate further. It is interesting to note, as well, that Siduri is presumably not a cowardly person by nature. After all, the Barmaid lives on the shores of the sea that separates the world of the living from that of the dead. She is also a barmaid, an individual used to seeing people at their worst and most violent. It is this specific "new unknown" that terrifies her so completely. Gilgamesh has violated the natural order of things by straying into a realm in which he does not belong. Only part-god, he has no place in the land beyond life, a fact that is well-known to the barmaid. Siduri, living at the boundaries of life and death, and a goddess besides, knows that the gods have assigned death to humanity.

Gilgamesh' quest is inherently nonsensical. His friend, Enkidu, cannot be brought back from death into life; therefore, Gilgamesh himself must be a dangerous madman.

Siduri was frightened as much by Gilgamesh' appearance as by his presence in a place he should not be. The same reaction can be attributed to the other characters he meets in Tablet X. Urshunabi the Boatman's reaction to Gilgamesh is identical to that of all the characters he meets from Siduri onward, though for the first time, we get a full description of Gilgamesh' horrific, and "inhuman" appearance. Says Urshunabi to Gilgamesh,

Why are your cheeks wasted, why is your face sunken?

Why has evil fortune entered your heart, done in your looks?

There is sorrow in your belly.

Your face is like that of a man who has gone on a long journey.

Your face is weathered by cold and heat

Because you roam the wilderness in search of a wind-puff.


The description is of a man who is wasted from hunger, thirst, and privation. Gilgamesh is man who has been on a long journey, physically and metaphorically. His trip over the mountain and across the wastes has indeed been taxing, yet it is the heaviness in his heart that has strained him nearly to the breaking point. Gilgamesh is a man who thirsts for knowledge, for truth, and satisfaction. His body has… [END OF PREVIEW]

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