The Epic of Gilgamesh

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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.
Friendship, Love, and Sexuality Theme Icon

Love of all kinds—between friends, or between lovers—plays a central role in the Epic. For Enkidu, being intimate with a woman signals his joining human civilization. When Gilgamesh rejects Ishtar’s advances, she grows angry, and this leads eventually to Enkidu’s death. But the most important love in the epic is certainly between Gilgamesh and Enkidu. The Epic celebrates this friendship, and how it transforms both men for the better. Only through his friendship with Enkidu does Gilgamesh come to first recognize his own mortality, and finally accept it. Thus, in the Epic, the love of friendship is often stronger than that of romance.

Enkidu was born in the wilderness, and until Gilgamesh intervenes, he is accepted among the wild animals. Repeatedly, it is said that if Enkidu sleeps with a woman, he will be rejected by nature. Indeed, after he sleeps with Shamhat, the animals reject him. The act of sex takes on symbolic meaning for his entrance to human society: its consummation is what makes him human. Thus, the Epic regards sex as in part a corrupting force: through sex Enkidu loses his innocence and his life in the wild.

Gilgamesh’s rejection of the goddess Ishtar’s advances offers another negative perspective on sex and romantic love: Gilgamesh “sins” by turning down the goddess of love and fertility, which provokes her wrath. Importantly, his reason for rejecting Ishtar is that she has been cruel to all of her past lovers. Ishtar, the goddess of love, treats her lovers badly: this shows that the Epic regards romantic love as often harsh and punishing. Ishtar lives up to this view by demanding that Anu release the Bull of Heaven in revenge, which eventually leads to Enkidu’s death.

Ultimately the love that comes with friendship is seen as both more powerful and more positive than romantic love in the Epic. Before he meets Enkidu, Gilgamesh is an arrogant leader, oblivious to his own limitations and mortality, and hated by the people of his city because he sleeps with brides the night before their marriage. But Gilgamesh’s friendship with Enkidu and Enkidu’s death lead Gilgamesh on a quest for everlasting life, and then to accept his own mortality. It is his the happiness and fulfillment he finds in his friendship with Enkidu, then, that ultimately allows Gilgamesh to find meaning even in his finite existence.

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Friendship, Love, and Sexuality ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in The Epic of Gilgamesh related to the theme of Friendship, Love, and Sexuality.
Part 1 Quotes

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.


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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.

When Enkidu was thrown he said to Gilgamesh, ‘There is not another like you in the world. Ninsun, who is as strong as a wild ox in the byre, she was the mother who bore you, and now you are raised above all men, and Enlil has given you the kingship, for your strength surpasses the strength of men’. So Enkidu and Gilgamesh embraced and their friendship was sealed.

Related Characters: Enkidu (speaker), Gilgamesh, Ninsun, Enlil
Page Number: 69
Explanation and Analysis:

After much foreshadowing and prophecy, Enkidu and Gilgamesh’s friendship finally begins in this scene. Enkidu had originally entered Uruk to challenge Gilgamesh’s tyranny, but after being defeated in the fight, he is awed by Gilgamesh’s strength and thus wishes to be his comrade rather than his enemy.

What is particularly poignant about this scene is the unusual way that Enkidu sanctions their friendship. It is marked first by being overpowered or “thrown,” which seems to imply that battle and a test of strength is a prerequisite to their comradeship. Then, Enkidu cites Gilgamesh’s uniqueness and his divine lineage. These lines do not only give a justification for Gilgamesh’s power, but also sanctify his position as ruler, for he is be “raised above all men.”

The scene also reaffirms how Gilgamesh’s strength is such that he can at times overpower even the wishes of a god: Remember that Anunu had originally created Enkidu in order to defeat Gilgamesh, but due to a mixture of cunning and power Gilgamesh foils that plan and instead adopts Enkidu as a friend. This first tale in the epic, then, does not yet teach Gilgamesh humility or wisdom. Instead it reaffirms his personal fortitude. Enkidu, however, will become a source of notable emotional investment for Gilgamesh, and their friendship is critical to his moral development.

Part 2 Quotes

Gilgamesh replied: ‘Where is the man who can clamber to heaven? Only the gods live for ever with glorious Shamash, but as for us men, our days are numbered, our occupations are a breath of wind. How is this, already you are afraid!’

Related Characters: Gilgamesh (speaker), Enkidu, Shamash
Page Number: 71
Explanation and Analysis:

To rally Enkidu to hunt the giant Humbaba with him, Gilgamesh offers this inspiring speech on human mortality. He takes their eventual death as a justification for not fearing death due to any particular cause.

Gilgamesh here responds explicitly to the way that Enkidu differentiated him from an immortal god. He asks rhetorically if any man can “clamber to heaven”—that is, whether a mortal could somehow become equal to the gods. But he quickly answers his own question, vanquishing any potential for men to gain immortality. These observations could easily lead him to a state of hopelessness (as in fact they will later in the Epic), but a striking turn comes with the phrase “our occupations are a breath of wind.”

In that line, human endeavors are trivialized due to their transitory and small-scale nature. And in triviality, Gilgamesh finds solace rather than panic. The giant Humbaba need not be feared, because the fight against him is just a breath of wind, and even if Gilgamesh and Enkidu do die, they will have simply hurried an already eventual fate. The passage also foreshadows the importance of accomplishing deeds that will be repeated for future generations and written down: to have a historical legacy, Gilgamesh implies, would be one way to escape being just a breath of wind.

O my lord, you do not know this monster and that is the reason you are not afraid. I who know him, I am terrified. His teeth are dragon’s fangs, his countenance is like a lion, his charge is the rushing of the flood, with his look he crushes alike the trees of the forest and reeds in the swamp. O my Lord, you may go on if you choose into this land, but I will go back to the city. I will tell the lady your mother all your glorious deeds till she shouts for joy: and then I will tell the death that followed till she weeps for bitterness.

Related Characters: Enkidu (speaker), Gilgamesh, Ninsun, Humbaba
Page Number: 80
Explanation and Analysis:

Having finally arrived close to Humbaba’s lair, Enkidu and Gilgamesh are both beset by fear of the giant. Yet while Gilgamesh rouses himself and ignores these instincts, Enkidu gives in and expresses his wish to return to civilization.

This speech represents an important turn in the relationship of Enkidu and Gilgamesh. Before, Gilgamesh’s bravery was represented in purely positive terms, for it allowed him to overcome the fear of mortality and to journey into the wilderness. Yet here, Enkidu implies that his bravery may be the result of ignorance rather than wisdom: he claims that Gilgamesh is only “not afraid” because he does “not know this monster.” Enkidu, who had intimate access to the wilderness and can recount specific physical details and actions of Humbaba, seems more qualified to speak on the relative danger. Perhaps, the text implies, Gilgamesh's hubris will lead to his downfall.

Enkidu’s lines also give great import to the act of storytelling. He becomes here an emissary for and proponent of Gilgamesh’s deeds by promising to tell of both his triumphs and his death. This pledge reiterates how Gilgamesh’s legacy will be marked not by the acts themselves, but rather by the way they carve out a place for him in history.

Part 3 Quotes

Which of your lovers did you ever love for ever? What shepherd of yours has pleased you for all time?

Related Characters: Gilgamesh (speaker), Ishtar
Page Number: 86
Explanation and Analysis:

After defeating Humbaba, Gilgamesh is approached by the goddess Ishtar, who proposes marriage. The arrogant Gilgamesh, however, rejects her offer and chastises her (albeit rather justly) for how she has previously taken and rejected many lovers before him.

These questions show the increasingly brazen way that Gilgamesh interacts with the gods. Though he had previously shown a considerable ego, he was always certain to ask for divine aid and pray appropriately. The killing of Humbaba marked an indirect affront to the gods, but here the provocation is entirely direct. Gilgamesh’s tone is mocking, and he chides Ishtar for promising what she will not keep. Of course, this is a rather ironic challenge considering Gilgamesh’s own licentious behavior. Perhaps, he is articulating a sexist viewpoint in which men can move quickly between many lovers whereas women should not. Or perhaps he is simply trying to defend his own right to be with many women by avoiding marriage—even with a goddess. (At the same time, he is partially justified in criticizing Ishtar, who was famous for her fickle nature and transient lust for mortals.)

The image of the shepherd also recalls the earlier reference to how the ruler of Uruk should be a shepherd. Gilgamesh juxtaposes the role of human ruler with Ishtar’s divinity and points out, presumably accurately, that she will soon tire of him. Despite all his brashness, Gilgamesh does seem aware that there is a fundamental difference between gods and humans, and that the immortality of the first will make any marriage a transitory affair.

My father, give me the Bull of Heaven to destroy Gilgamesh. Fill Gilgamesh, I say, with arrogance to his destruction; but if you refuse to give me the Bull of Heaven I will break in the doors of hell and smash the bolts; there will be confusion of people, those above with those from the lower depths. I shall bring up the dead to eat food like the living; and the hosts of dead will outnumber the living.

Related Characters: Ishtar (speaker), Gilgamesh, Anu
Page Number: 87
Explanation and Analysis:

After being spurned by Gilgamesh, Ishtar is infuriated and seeks revenge by appealing to her father, Anu. She requests that he unleash a divine bull to destroy Gilgamesh, and that he also weaken Gilgamesh by rendering him even more arrogant.

These lines offer good insight into the inter-workings of the gods in this text. Rather like humans, they quarrel and threaten each other. Ishtar cannot attack Gilgamesh directly, it seems, so instead she must ask her father to do so—and she must leverage the danger of unleashing the underworld to blackmail him into doing so. Her threat also builds on the theme of human mortality, for opening the underworld would upset the natural order of human death and life. That allowing the dead to resurface would be taken as a dire action indicates the importance of this equilibrium.

Ishtar's request that Anu fill Gilgamesh “with arrogance” casts Gilgamesh’s relative confidence as not the result of his personal mental state but rather as the result of specific actions from the gods. Furthermore, it indicates that bravery should be a weakness when he fights the Bull, whereas it was notably useful when he defeated Humbaba. Ishtar thus reiterates the folly of arrogance, for the same quality that caused Gilgamesh to defy her will supposedly lead to his demise.

‘Who is there in strong-walled Uruk who has wisdom like this? Strange things have been spoken, but why does your heart speak strangely? The dream was marvelous but the terror was great; we must treasure the dream whatever the terror; for the dream has shown that misery comes at last to the healthy man, the end of life is sorrow.’ And Gilgamesh lamented, ‘Now I will pray to the great gods, for my friend had an ominous dream.’

Related Characters: Gilgamesh (speaker), Enkidu
Page Number: 93
Explanation and Analysis:

Enkidu has just told Gilgamesh about a recent horrifying dream, which he has interpreted as his own impending death at the hands of the gods. Gilgamesh is deeply moved by the tale, and reflects on the terror of what it professes—but also on the value of that terror.

Gilgamesh’s response shows a striking shift in his character away from arrogance and toward personal reflection. He puts emphasis on the “wisdom” that comes from the dream by implying that it is poignant beyond the comprehension of those others in Uruk. There is an inherent strangeness to the dream that defies his understanding, and thus makes him humble enough to “pray to the great gods” to render the situation more coherent. The tone of Gilgamesh’s speech also focuses on his compassion as opposed to his previous bravado, demonstrating that his deep friendship with Enkidu is what has led him to be more reflective.

The exact content of that reflection also bears some consideration. When Gilgamesh claims that “we must treasure the dream whatever the terror,” he implies that negative, even deathly, consequences are not to be hated or feared. Rather, there is a poetic and philosophical significance that can be extracted from mortality, and thus an indication of that significance should be treasured. Here, the lesson is to reiterate the “misery” that comes even to the most vibrant man or warrior. And Gilgamesh’s response has notably shifted from taking mortality as the impetus to accomplish great deeds to instead reflecting on how it equates all men.

Part 4 Quotes

How can I rest, how can I be at peace? Despair is in my heart. What my brother is now, that shall I be when I am dead.

Related Characters: Gilgamesh (speaker), Enkidu
Page Number: 97
Explanation and Analysis:

After Enkidu’s death and funeral, Gilgamesh enters the wilderness. There, he once more becomes consumed by grief and the fear of his own mortality.

Gilgamesh's return to the wilderness represents a rejection of the artifice of human civilization, and also renders him closer to Enkidu’s original state in nature. Yet having already experienced the human revelation of mortality, Gilgamesh can find no “peace” in the wilderness. The “despair” cannot be removed by changing his physical environment because it is lodged in his “heart.” Again, the text stresses the importance of the friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Whereas Gilgamesh responded bravely, even brashly, to his mortality before, watching Enkidu helplessly die has made him entirely shift his perspective. These lines show that it is the identification between the two men that is the main source of his anxiety: the fact that Gilgamesh will be “what my brother is now.” Thus the text presents Gilgamesh’s ensuing quest to pursue immortality less as an arrogant search for self-empowerment, but rather as a response to a personal tragedy.

She answered, ‘Gilgamesh, where are you hurrying to? You will never find that life for which you are looking. When the gods created man they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping. As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man.’

Related Characters: Siduri (speaker), Gilgamesh
Page Number: 102
Explanation and Analysis:

These lines are spoken by a god of wine, Siduri, whom Gilgamesh meets as he approaches the sea. As others have before, Siduri tells Gilgamesh to abandon his quest, recommending instead that he experience the mortal leisures available and appropriate to humans.

Beneath these relatively straightforward images lies a strong philosophical contention with Gilgamesh’s quest. Siduri explains that “death” is destined for mortals, while “life” remains in the grasp of the gods. She presents immortality, then, as a possession, an object that could potentially be distributed to men but that has not been released. (It is exactly such an object that Gilgamesh is seeking and will temporarily find.) Siduri thus presents a fatalistic, hierarchical view of the world in which certain experiences are appropriate for certain beings, and in which Gilgamesh has overstepped the limits of his identity as a mortal.

Mortals, she explains, should instead immerse themselves in momentary pleasures. The “lot of man” is distilled to: food, dance, and festival—to proper maintenance of clothes, the body, future generations, and one’s beloved. Gilgamesh, up to this point, has scorned such mortal pursuits: he avoids monogamy and rejects the leisurely city for heroic adventures to kill divine beings and pursue immortality. Siduri represents, then, a voice of hedonism: her character grants humans only the pursuits of momentary pleasures that Gilgamesh rejected earlier as a "breath of wind." 

Part 6 Quotes

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.