The Epic of Gilgamesh

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Civilization and the Fall from Innocence Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Civilization and the Fall from Innocence Theme Icon
Heroism in Nature vs. Comfort in the City Theme Icon
Friendship, Love, and Sexuality Theme Icon
Mortality and Meaning Theme Icon
Pride and the Gods Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Epic of Gilgamesh, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Civilization and the Fall from Innocence Theme Icon

The Epic of Gilgamesh portrays the idea of civilization in an ambiguous way—as something that provides protection and knowledge, but that can also be a corrupting force. It’s important to keep in mind that the Epic was written in ancient Mesopotamia, an area that has been called the “cradle of civilization,” as the first known city-states in human history began there. Thus the Epic’s portrayal of civilization is especially “contemporary” for its time, but also timeless in the ways it presents the positives and negatives of civilization in general.

On one level, the writers of the Epic show civilization as the end product of mankind’s fall from innocence. Enkidu, like the Biblical Adam and Eve, is created as an innocent being in nature, living freely among the wild animals. And, like Adam and Eve, he is tempted by knowledge and sexuality. Just as Adam and Eve eat from the tree of knowledge and suddenly become aware of their own nakedness, so it is Enkidu’s sexual encounter with Shamhat that symbolizes his transition from unspoiled nature into civilization.

After he sleeps with Shamhat, nature rejects Enkidu. The wild animals run from him. Soon after, Enkidu accompanies Gilgamesh on his quest to earn glory—a drastic change from Enkidu’s earlier, less ambitious life. Civilization has transformed Enkidu, and he no longer lives in harmony with nature. Like Gilgamesh, he is eager to cut down the great Cedar Tree.

In Uruk, Gilgamesh and Enkidu live luxurious lives impossible in nature. Shamhat tells Enkidu that in Uruk “every day is a holiday.” The Epic shows how civilization is both good and bad: it provides safety and community for the people of Uruk, but it also tempts them into complacency, as is best shown by Gilgamesh at the beginning of the epic. But the epic does not suggest that mankind should leave the city and return to nature. Just as the Biblical Adam and all his descendants are punished by being expelled from Paradise and having to work for their survival, in the Epic too it is long past mankind’s chance to remain innocent. Civilization must make do as well as it can.

Importantly, the epic ends with the proclamation that Gilgamesh’s greatest achievement is bringing back the tablets with his story written on themOnly in civilization, not out in nature, is such a feat possible: writing serves to communicate knowledge. The acquisition of knowledge may have been mankind’s fall from innocence, but, now that man must fend for himself, knowledge can help him.

Ultimately, the story does not take a stance on nature being “better” than civilization, or vice versa. Civilization is simply the state of mankind. Enkidu, when dying, curses Shamhat for seducing him and ultimately bringing about his death by bringing him from nature into civilization, but Shamash reminds Enkidu of all that civilization brought him—most of all, his friendship with Gilgamesh. Just before dying, Enkidu comes to terms with this, taking back what he said, and grateful for all the experiences he had as a part of human civilization.

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Civilization and the Fall from Innocence ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Civilization and the Fall from Innocence appears in each part of The Epic of Gilgamesh. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Civilization and the Fall from Innocence Quotes in The Epic of Gilgamesh

Below you will find the important quotes in The Epic of Gilgamesh related to the theme of Civilization and the Fall from Innocence.
Part 1 Quotes

Gilgamesh sounds the tocsin for his amusement, his arrogance has no bounds by day or night. No son is left with his father, for Gilgamesh takes them all, even the children; yet the king should be a shepherd to his people. His lust leaves no virgin to her lover, neither the warrior’s daughter nor the wife of the noble; yet this is the shepherd of the city, wise, comely, and resolute.

Related Characters: Gilgamesh
Page Number: 62
Explanation and Analysis:

After the laudatory prologue, the text quickly changes tones to criticize Gilgamesh for his treatment of the people of Uruk. The speaker first recounts Gilgamesh’s misdeeds, and they are then echoed by the gods who condemn him for malpractice.

Whereas before Gilgamesh’s strength was presented in only positive terms, here it is seen as “arrogance.” In particular, the gods focus on his selfish behaviors that deny the autonomy of other humans: the way he takes sons and daughters away from their parents. They contrast this despotism with the type of leader he should be: “a shepherd.” This image repeats throughout the text and shows that Uruk society values a combination of strength and compassion. The gods choose to model their ideal leader not on a bull or warrior, but rather on one who can guide the gentle flock of people.

That Gilgamesh has overstepped these bounds presents his journey less as a series of heroic deeds and more as a tale of moral development. On that journey, we are told early on, Gilgamesh must recognize how to be a better “shepherd” and how to temper his arrogance. This emphasis on humility should be kept in mind when interpreting the relative value of his later accomplishments.


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He was innocent of mankind; he knew nothing of the cultivated land.

Related Characters: Enkidu
Page Number: 63
Explanation and Analysis:

In response to Gilgamesh’s arrogance, the god Aruru creates Enkidu as Gilgamesh's equal. Here, the speaker reflects on Enkidu’s toughness and vigor—and the way his living in nature sets him apart from society.

The lines set up a striking binary between Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Whereas the first is, despite his despotic behavior, presumed to represent civilization, Enkidu is equated with the wilderness. Yet this division is not the result of Enkidu’s rejection of humanity, but rather the fact he has not yet come into contact with mankind and thus remains “innocent.” This line, then, presents civilization as something that can be taught or applied to humans who have previously lived only in nature. The text is thus subtly setting the stage for Enkidu’s assimilation into society, even as it describes him as fully apart from civilization.

The reference to “cultivated land” should not be glossed over. Agriculture, after all, was one of the foundational hallmarks of civilization, for it allowed cultures to remain in single locations and construct stable populations. The epic thus reveals a historical awareness of what specific knowledge granted man civilization, and it sets a high stock on the transmission of that knowledge to others.

When next he comes down to drink at the wells she will be there, stripped naked; and when he sees her beckoning him he will embrace her, and then the wild beasts will reject him.

Related Characters: The Trapper’s Father (speaker), Enkidu, The Trapper, Shamhat
Page Number: 64
Explanation and Analysis:

Enkidu is first spotted by a trapper who strikes up a conversation with his father about how to approach this beast. The trapper's father recommends, here, that the trapper bring an Uruk temple prostitute on behalf of Gilgamesh, for once Enkidu has been with a woman, he will no longer be able to connect with the wilderness and the wild animals.

What is striking about these lines is that the trapper’s father recommends civilizing Enkidu instead of killing him. After all, we might expect in an epic that any beast would be treated with violence, especially considering that Enkidu is a test from Aruru of Gilgamesh’s brute strength. Yet instead, they seek to bring Enkidu into the fold of society through sexual attraction. Again, it is stressed that to be human is not to automatically be a part of civilization; rather, one must come into certain forces and social organizations that cause that assimilation.

That this assimilation will take place specifically through human sexuality sets a high stake on romantic interaction—implying that this was seen as a central facet of civilized human identity. It also can also be seen as a parallel to the Bible's Garden of Eden story, in which Adam and Eve leave the state of blissful nature to enter sinful human society after becoming aware of their sexuality. But whereas the tale is presented as a negative fall from grace in the Old Testament, here it is seen as a more ambiguous entrance into Uruk civilization.

And now the wild creatures had all fled away; Enkidu was grown weak, for wisdom was in him, and the thoughts of man were in his heart.

Related Characters: Enkidu (speaker)
Page Number: 65
Explanation and Analysis:

After Enkidu sleeps with Shamhat, the animals leave just as the trapper’s father and Gilgamesh expected. As a result, Enkidu attains knowledge of civilization, but also becomes physically weaker.

That the speaker equates being “weak” and acquiring “wisdom” is provocative considering the earlier references to Gilgamesh’s impressive strength. Once more, the text asserts that pure power is not entirely desirable in human civilization. Indeed, that it equates “the thought of man” to weakness seems to imply that humanity itself is predicated on a certain type of physical frailty. The connection foreshadows the way Gilgamesh himself will have to learn the value of mortality—instead of relying arrogantly on his strength. In this way, we can see Enkidu as a foil for the more aggressive side to Gilgamesh’s personality, and his early conversion to humanity offers a model for Gilgamesh’s own personal development.

At the same time, there is a tragic element to this scene—Enkidu has lost his state of blissful innocence, and though he has gained all the advantages of human society and civilization, he has also gained their negative aspects, and has lost his companionship with the wild animals and his own wild strength. The gaining of knowledge as a kind of "fall from grace" again parallels the Old Testament's Adam and Eve story. Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden of Eden after eating of the Tree of Knowledge—and it is their new wisdom, as much as their disobedience, that requires they be expelled from paradise.

O Enkidu, there all the people are dressed in their gorgeous robes, every day is a Holiday, the young men and the girls are wonderful to see. How sweet they smell!

Related Characters: Shamhat (speaker)
Page Number: 65
Explanation and Analysis:

After Shamhat sleeps with Enkidu and converts him from wild beast into civilized human, she convinces him to go to Uruk. To do so, she offers this vibrant description of the city.

These praising lines contrast notably with the earlier descriptions of Gilgamesh’s despotism. Though we have been told that no child is safe from the ruler of Uruk, here the youth “are wonderful to see,” as well as to “smell.” Their freedom and vibrance is stressed, as is the leisureliness of the civilization, for every day is a Holiday. Uruk represents both the splendor and attraction of humanity, but also its vices and follies. Shamhat thus reaffirms the sharp division between wilderness and city, in which the second is marked by physical beauty and pleasure. Her language operates as a second form of seduction after the first sexual form, for it attracts Enkidu to leave his state of nature and enter into the social codes of men.

Part 2 Quotes

Here in the city man dies oppressed at heart.

Related Characters: Gilgamesh (speaker), Enkidu
Page Number: 72
Explanation and Analysis:

Gilgamesh responds here to the god Shamash, who questions him on his motivation for leaving Uruk to seek adventure in the wilderness. His justification is that nature will provide a source of strength and adventure otherwise sapped by the leisure of the city.

This line further complicates the binary of city and nature that is at the heart of the epic. Earlier, Enkidu’s assimilation into the city was marked by wisdom and a new humanity in his heart—but also by physical weakness and a loss of innocence. Gilgamesh extrapolates that case and makes a universal claim on the way civilization subdues people. The wilderness, then, is not just a state from which man begins before graduating to superior civilization. Rather it remains an important developmental space particularly for heroes: a domain to reinvigorate the heart with hardship and power beyond the confines of civilization.

That Gilgamesh speaks explicitly on how a man “dies” as opposed to “lives” or “is” links his statement with the earlier discussion on immortality. The implication is that his fixation on death has brought new urgency to his need to leave Uruk. It’s worth mentioning that the line also all but inaugurates a literary tradition: characters who leave home in order to seek fortune in distant lands and who then return as wiser and more capable versions of themselves.

Part 5 Quotes

In those days the world teemed, the people multiplied, the world bellowed like a wild bull, and the great god was aroused by the clamour. Enlil heard the clamour and he said to the gods in council, “The uproar of mankind is intolerable and sleep is no longer possible by reason of the babel.” So the gods agreed to exterminate mankind.

Related Characters: Utnapishtim (speaker), Gilgamesh, Enlil
Page Number: 108
Explanation and Analysis:

Utnapishtim concedes to tell Gilgamesh how he acquired immortality, and he begins to recount a story from the days of old. This tale, we should note, is the one that Gilgamesh will transmit back to Uruk, so it is considered to hold deep significance for future generations. It also bears many similarities to the Biblical story of Noah's Ark, indicating that one may have stemmed from the other, or that they came from a common historical source.

Utnapishtim’s opening description of the old Mesopotamian society stresses the hubris and grandeur of human civilization. Not only are the people numerous in quantity, but they are also distinctly loud—loud enough to frustrate the god Enlil. This “clamour” can be taken as a broader metaphor for human activity and the way it became an affront to the gods. Thus Utnapishtim’s tale intersects closely with Gilgamesh’s own opening adventures, in which his arrogance caused the gods to send first Enkidu and then the Bull of Heaven to quiet him. Yet in this ancient story, the gods’ reaction is far more dire, for they decide not just to kill one man, but rather to end civilization altogether. So the story opens with a warning against not just Gilgamesh’s pride, but a more general pride of mankind. The implication is that Gilgamesh must bring back the story in order to teach the people of Uruk humility so that they do not create a “babel” that would anger the gods again.

Part 6 Quotes

Go now, banished from the shore. But this man before whom you walked, bringing him here, whose body is covered with foulness and the grace of whose limbs has been spoiled by wild skins, take him to the washing-place. There he shall wash his long hair clean as snow in the water, he shall throw off his skins and let the sea carry them away, and the beauty of his body shall be shown, the fillet on his forehead shall be renewed, and he shall be given clothes to cover his nakedness.

Related Characters: Utnapishtim (speaker), Gilgamesh, Urshanabi
Related Symbols: Water
Page Number: 115
Explanation and Analysis:

After Gilgamesh fails the test to stay awake for seven nights, Utnapishtim sends him back with the now-banished ferryman Urshanabi. Utnapishtim instructs Urshanabi to wash Gilgamesh and offers these specifications on the way he should return to human civilization.

This description focuses on the water imagery that plays a key role throughout the epic. Gilgamesh has previously engaged in cleansing rituals, and Utnapishtim’s tale on the flood presented water as a way to cleanse humanity of its hubris (and its life). Here, water is used to extract the “foulness” from Gilgamesh and specifically to the “wild skins” that he has donned throughout the travels. These skins are apparently an indication of his arrogance, for they represent his hunting prowess, and they are a mark of civilization, with all its "sins" of fashion, adornment, and luxury. In contrast to the attire of an extravagant king, Utnapishtim prescribes that Gilgamesh present himself in his natural state: His hair should be “clean” and his body should reveal its inherent “beauty.”

Utnapishtim’s request offers some insight into what Gilgamesh must take away from his epic journey. He should abandon both his decadent life as a ruler and his dreams of immortality and return to the purity and simplicity of humanity. Furthermore, he must serve as a cleansed emissary back to the people of Uruk and carry Utnapishtim’s lessons on water and the flood.

Gilgamesh spoke to him, to Urshanabi the ferryman, ‘Urshanabi, climb up on to the wall of Uruk, inspect its foundation terrace, and examine well the brickwork; see if it is not of burnt bricks; and did not the seven wise men lay these foundations? One third of the whole is city, one is garden, and one third is field, with the precinct of the goddess Ishtar. These parts and the precinct are all Uruk.’

Related Characters: Gilgamesh (speaker), Ishtar, Urshanabi
Page Number: 117
Explanation and Analysis:

Gilgamesh and Urshanabi have arrived empty-handed in Uruk, but the narrative suddenly shifts to a more hopeful tone. Here, the speaker recounts how Gilgamesh explained to Urshanabi the wonder of the city walls he had built.

The text shows, then, a striking character shift in Gilgamesh. Having abandoned his previous quest for immortality, the hero can return to Uruk with fresh eyes and notice his true accomplishment: the way he has built a civilization that will endure long beyond his death. These walls are not an indication of his personal strength or of any triumph against the gods. Rather they reveal a strong work ethic, a wish to empower the people of Uruk, and an ability to cooperate with deities. Indeed, the fact that Gilgamesh cites Ishtar shows just how deeply Utnapishtim’s tale has touched him: he no longer scorns the goddess, but rather recognizes her as an important supporter of Uruk's livelihood.

In a way, then, Gilgamesh has acquired immortality—not through his physical or heroic deeds, but rather through cooperation and social betterment. As Enkidu said far earlier, Gilgamesh's status as two-thirds god could allow him to be either light or darkness for humankind. And the text implies, here, that his journey has not given him everlasting life, but rather the moral wisdom to play the role of the light.

This too was the work of Gilgamesh, the king, who knew the countries of the world. He was wise, he saw mysteries and knew secret things, he brought us a tale of the days before the flood. He went a long journey, was weary, worn with labour, and returning engraved on a stone the whole story.

Related Characters: Gilgamesh
Page Number: 117
Explanation and Analysis:

Having established Gilgamesh’s longevity through the legacy of the walls of Uruk, the speaker now references a second way he will endure beyond death: through the myth of the flood he has brought back, and the stone tablets he has engraved with stories.

The language used to describe Gilgamesh has shifted from references to physical power to instead praise of his knowledge and wisdom. His adventures are valued not for specific acts of heroisms, but rather the “mysteries” and “secret things” that are transmitted back to humanity and that can serve as lessons for people in the future. Most notable, though, is not the tale of Gilgamesh’s journey, but rather the tale he hears on that journey: “of the days before the flood.” This story is given great import, presumably, because of the lessons it teaches on how humans should interact with the gods: It reminds them not to be too arrogant, and suggest that if they are loyal, the gods will treat them with kindness and care.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of passage, though, is the sudden reference to the “stone” on which Utnapishtim’s story has been “engraved.” Gilgamesh’s great triumph is to bring back not only oral history, but a recorded textual history, for this will allow it, like the walls of Uruk, to live on past his death. Immortality is ultimately bestowed on Gilgamesh through literature—and the epic was remarkably prophetic in this statement. After all, though the walls of Uruk have long fallen, the metaphorical stone that Gilgamesh brought back has carried him almost five millennia in the future to readers today.