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.
Civilization and the Fall from Innocence ThemeTracker
Civilization and the Fall from Innocence Quotes in The Epic of Gilgamesh
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.
He was innocent of mankind; he knew nothing of the cultivated land.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.