Archetypes in Gilgamesh

In this article you will learn about the archetypes in Gilgamesh, the epic poem written circa 1800 BCE, which contains early examples of various archetypes commonly seen in literature throughout the ages.

What are the Archetypes in Gilgamesh?

Gilgamesh is both an archetypal hero and antihero, possessing qualities of both.

He has many heroic qualities, such as courage, bravery, determination, endurance and physical strength, but does not always put these to the best use, with questionable judgement and morality.

After the death of Enkiduhe loses his faith in everything positive and good, setting out on an archetypal quest of questionable purpose and is not successful in its completion.

Untapishtim represents the mentor, an older man who has learned great lessons from life and passes these on.

He provides guidance and support to a grieving Gilgamesh, teaching him that there is value in life as he knows it.

Enkidu is an archetypal outsider, living on the outskirts of society even when he comes to live within the city, when he changes from being shunned by the people of the city to being shunned by the animals who were once his companions.

The only place Enkidu ever fits in is with Gilgamesh, but even this leads to his downfall. Enkidu also serves as an archetypal scapegoat, a sacrifice taken by the Gods as punishment for the actions of Gilgamesh.

In Ninsun we see the archetypal nurturing mother figure, protective over and worrying for her sons.

In the prostitute and in the concept of immortality we see two forms of temptress. Enkidu is tempted by the prostitute and as a result of succumbing to her transforms from his original state to a more human one which leads to his eventual fate.

In immortality we see a temptation that leads Gilgamesh to undertake an epic archetypal quest in search of eternal life, endangering his existing life in order to achieve the tempting concept of living forever.

Gilgamesh Book Summary

  • Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, is one third human and two thirds God.
  • The people of Uruk are unhappy as he abuses his power by being harsh on them and sleeping with their womenfolk.
  • Goddess of creation, Aruru, creates wild-man Enkidu to rival Gilgamesh.
  • Enkidu begins to bother the animals so Gilgamesh sends a temple prostitute, Shamhat, to calm him. Enkidu learns the ways of men and comes to live in the city.
  • Gilgamesh comes to a wedding to sleep with the bride but is stopped by Enkidu, who is against Gilgamesh’s treatment of women and his abuse of the sacred state of marriage.
  • They fight and Gilgamesh wins but spares Enkidu.
  • He listens to Enkidu’s words and learns the virtues he estoles – humility, mercy, courage and nobility.
  • They become friends and are made better by the lessons they learn from each other, becoming inseparable and seeing each other as brothers.
  • Years on, Gilgamesh becomes bored and proposes to travel to the sacred Cedar Forest, cut down some trees and kill it’s guardian Humbaba. Enkidu objects but cannot convince Gilgamesh.
  • Nor can his mother, who adopts Enkidu and seeks help from the sun God Shamash.
  • Gilgamesh travels to the forest with Enkidu and kills Humbaba.
  • Later the Goddess Ishtar makes sexual advances to Gilgamesh but he rejects her.
  • Offended, she insists her father, the Bull of Heaven, avenge her and he brings famine and plague to Uruk.
  • Gilgamesh and Enkidu slay him and the city celebrates, but Enkidu dreams they will be punished for killing Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven.
  • Sure enough, Enkidu dies and descends to the Underworld.
  • Gilgamesh is devastated and, determined to avoid the same end, travels to visit the only immortal humans, Utnapishtim and his wife, hoping to discover the secret to immortality.
  • On reaching Utnapishtim he tells him that fighting the fate of humans is futile.
  • However, he offers Gilgamesh the chance of immortality if he can stay awake for six days and seven nights.
  • Gilgamesh falls asleep before Utnapishtim has finished speaking and he is sent back to Uruk.
  • Gilgamesh is given a plant which will make him young again but loses it and his second chance at immortality.
  • Gilgamesh returns to Uruk and eventually dies.

Gilgamesh Archetype Examples

  • Hero
  • Anti-hero
  • Mentor
  • Outcast
  • Scapegoat
  • Mother
  • Temptress
  • Quest

Want more literary archetypes?

Go check out our extensive list of archetypes in literature to find out more about the characters seen in literature throughout the ages.

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