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.
Heroism in Nature vs. Comfort in the City Theme Icon

A common form of the quest narrative involves the hero leaving their comfortable home in civilization to venture out through nature, and then returning with new knowledge. Like Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit and King Arthur in the many legends of the Knights of the Round Table, leaving a comfortable home forces a character into confrontation with the more difficult questions of morality and existence.

Through the Epic of Gilgamesh, civilization is shown to have both positive and negative attributes. It provides the citizens of Uruk with food, water, shelter, and at least some amount of just rule. But we also see that the city corrupts: ruling from his palace, Gilgamesh is arrogant and tyrannical. His life is overfilled with luxury. We see clear indications later in the story, when he is criticized for the many animal hides he wears and his care for his hair, which is said to mask his “natural beauty.” The gods seem generally to have some contempt for cities. When the gods attempted to wipe out mankind with the flood, the reason was that Enlil had complained about the city being too loud. This clearly put civilization in opposition to nature, which is a quiet place where the gods are at home.

But the comforts of the city can be a powerful temptation as well. Gilgamesh enjoys the luxuries he has and grows complacent, more concerned with making a name for himself than with being a kind and just ruler. Enkidu is drawn out from his life in the wild with food, animal hides, and luxuries that he never could have imagined.

But even for those who have embraced civilization, heroic action can only happen out in the “wild.” To make a name for himself, Gilgamesh does not seek to accomplish heroic feats in Uruk; instead he travels out of the city into nature. It is far beyond the city gates that Gilgamesh encounters Humbaba, Utnapanishtim, the plant that restores youth, the scorpion men, and everything else that makes up his journey. At home in the city, he is complacent and inactive, but out in nature, there is the opportunity for physical feats and heroic deeds. Gilgamesh even says, “In the city man dies oppressed at heart.”

There is no opportunity for heroism within the city (in the epic’s world at least). So the epic teaches us that one must go out into the world (and nature) to grow and change. The comforts of the city are neither inherently good nor bad: they are simply the result of increasing human civilization. What matters, at the end of the epic, is that Gilgamesh brings back his tale written onto tablets, sharing with civilization all that he has learned out in nature.

Heroism in Nature vs. Comfort in the City ThemeTracker

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Heroism in Nature vs. Comfort in the City Quotes in The Epic of Gilgamesh

Below you will find the important quotes in The Epic of Gilgamesh related to the theme of Heroism in Nature vs. Comfort in the City.
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.

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.

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.

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 4 Quotes

Now that I have toiled and strayed so far over the wilderness, am I to sleep, and let the earth cover my head for ever? Let my eyes see the sun until they are dazzled with looking. Although I am no better than a dead man, still let me see the light of the sun.

Related Characters: Gilgamesh (speaker), Shamash
Page Number: 100
Explanation and Analysis:

Having traveled through twelve leagues of darkness, Gilgamesh arrives at the sea that borders the garden of the gods. Though he is told by Shamash that his quest for immortality is foolhardy, Gilgamesh refuses to give up. Instead, he expresses this striking desire to continue regardless of whether or not the quest itself is successful.

Gilgamesh juxtaposes the darkness of the “wilderness” he has experienced thus far with the divine light he sees upon approaching the garden. Though the gods caution him to avoid the light, Gilgamesh presents abstention as cowardly and akin to death. To avoid the light would mean being covered by the earth and forgotten by history. Instead, Gilgamesh values the overwhelming power of the sun, even if he is “dazzled with looking.” This image marks a subtle shift in the tone of Gilgamesh’s quest. He no longer claims to be able to conquer the sun, a symbol for Shamash. Instead, he values the mere experience of its splendor even if he is bested by that splendor in the end. His rationale rephrases his earlier fatalistic reflections, for Gilgamesh points out that he may as well “see the light of the sun” even if it will kill him. That is to say, if he fails in the quest for immortality, he will die anyway: Every man, as we know by now, is a “dead man” eventually.

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." 

I look at you now, Utnapishtim, and your appearance is no different from mine; there is nothing strange in your features. I thought I should find you like a hero prepared for battle, but you lie here taking your ease on your back. Tell me truly, how was it that you came to enter the company of the gods and to possess everlasting life?

Related Characters: Gilgamesh (speaker), Utnapishtim
Page Number: 107
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Gilgamesh is perturbed by Utnapishtim’s appearance and demeanor. He reveals that he had expected Utnapishtim’s immortality to be accompanied by physical vigor and a martial nature, and is surprised to find the opposite.

The first observation on their physical similarity expresses Gilgamesh’s frustration that immortality was bestowed on Utnapishtim and not on him. To Gilgamesh’s eyes, there is no significant difference between the two, and thus Utnapishtim has no greater right to live forever. Recall how frequently the text has focused on descriptions of Gilgamesh’s physical stature and beauty as an indication of his divine power: He has likely come to equate external appearance with internal wisdom and longevity. But Utnapishtim’s character teaches that the two should not be associated so quickly.

Gilgamesh’s second contention reveals a similar prejudice. He assumed that Utnapishtim would be a strong warrior ready to battle. Presumably, Gilgamesh thought he could prove his claim to immortality by besting someone in combat. This line reiterates the way Gilgamesh presumes his physical strength will allow him to overcome any obstacle—a belief that, after all, has allowed him to overcome the gods several times in the epic. Yet here that confidence has broken down: Gilgamesh seems confused as to how one could “enter the company of the gods” if not through brute strength. His conversation with Utnapishtim, then, marks his realization that physical prowess is not the sole metric by which to assess a human’s worth.

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.

Part 7 Quotes

In those days the lord Gilgamesh departed, the son of Ninsun, the king, peerless, without an equal among men, who did not neglect Enlil his master. O Gilgamesh, lord of Kullab, great is thy praise.

Related Characters: Gilgamesh, Ninsun, Enlil
Page Number: 119
Explanation and Analysis:

These final lines of the epic come after Gilgamesh has died and been honored by gods and men alike. They return to the laudatory tone of the opening, but shift the emphasis from Gilgamesh’s physical prowess to his comportment toward others.

Many of the features of the opening are repeated here. We are told once more of Gilgamesh's divine heritage through Ninsun, as well as his complete uniqueness within humanity. Yet it is also noted that he “did not neglect Enlil his master,” indicating that Gilgamesh has learned the lesson on how to respect the gods. In particular, Enlil was the god in Utnapishtim’s tale who found the humans too raucous and thus sentenced them to death. The fact that Gilgamesh has learned to pay heed to this master in particular demonstrates that he has both controlled his own hubris and ensured that the events before the flood will not be repeated. For by inscribing them in stone, Gilgamesh has ensured that other humans will have access to his wisdom and not make similar mistakes. Gilgamesh’s “praise” as an epic hero and lord is thus ultimately earned by humility and wisdom—as well as by the way he can transmit these qualities to future generations.