Last Updated 13 Jan 2021

Ancient Mesopotamia and the Epic of Gilgamesh

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The epic of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest epics known to man, reflects the challenges of life in ancient Sumer by dealing with them metaphorically. The most important challenges in ancient Sumerian life were deforestation and flooding. After Enkidu and Gilgamesh meet and become friends, Gilgamesh proposes that they go to the cedar forest and cut down all the trees. Though Gilgamesh’s reasoning for cutting down all the trees isn’t very reasonable, he still persuades Enkidu to come along with him. “At dawn Gilgamesh raised his ax and struck at the great cedar.

When Humbaba heard the sound of falling trees, he hurried down the path that they had seen but only he had traveled. ” 1 Gilgamesh and Enkidu cutting down trees was a metaphor for the ongoing problem of deforestation in ancient Mesopotamia. Because Gilgamesh and Enkidu cut down the trees that were sacred to the gods, the gods cursed mankind with fire and drought. “Civilization has never recognized limits to its needs. ” 2 In ancient Mesopotamia, the land was savagely deforested. In this way, deserts formed, and civilization declined. Gilgamesh yearns for immortality, and chases after the dream of being immortal.

When he fails to achieve immortality, he returns to his town and realizes that because he built the wall of Uruk and other constructions and because they would last long after he was gone, he would thereby gain immortality. “He looked at the walls, awed at the heights his people had achieved and for a moment- just a moment- all that lay behind him passed from view. ” 3 In the epic of Gilgamesh immortality is a theme that frequently recurs, and is a metaphor for how Sumerians, as like all humans, desire immortality but cannot achieve it.

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Also, a possible explanation for the reason humans do not have immortality is because Gilgamesh did not obtain immortality. Humans living in ancient Mesopotamia had difficult relations with gods; they were responsible for natural disasters, which is how the people of ancient Sumer rationalized floods, drought, famine, and locusts. Supposedly, the gods had human emotions and could become stubborn, angry for no reason, jealous, and have other petty emotions. With the gods’ ability to create those natural disasters and at the same time harbor negative emotions, humans were fearful of the god’s wrath, since the gods could be easily provoked.

Before the epic of Gilgamesh, a tremendous flood is released when the gods realize how imperfect humanity is. Utnapishtim had built a large boat and every living thing was stowed away inside of it while the flood raged. When the flood recedes, Utnapishtim is the only human left alive along with other animals. He lets the animals free, and Enlil blesses him with immortality. The power of the gods in the epic of Gilgamesh is a metaphor for the flooding of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Because the gods were violent and unpredictable, they could create disasters among the Sumerians and they could grant immortality.

’Acts of God,’ such as flooding, drought, famine, or plagues of locusts, affected entire communities. Floods were generally local but extremely destructive, causing a high death rate. ” 4 Floods were one of the largest problems in Ancient Mesopotamia. The rivers could also be harsh and unpredictable because their flooding devastated ancient Mesopotamia. Ancient Sumerians could also suffer from droughts, famine, locust, and other natural disasters. On the other hand, they could gain abundant harvest when nature was compliant.

Many challenges of life in ancient Sumerian history are reflected in the epic of Gilgamesh. Deforestation and flooding were the main issues faced in ancient Mesopotamia. These challenges were woven into the epic tale of Gilgamesh as metaphors; “The epic of Gilgamesh shows an understanding of ecological processes and the consequences of human action on the earth…”5 The epic of Gilgamesh was proof that Ancient Sumerians caused their own demise by deforestation, which also led to more flooding and other natural disasters.

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