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
Heroism in Nature vs. Comfort in the City 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.
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!
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.
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!’
Here in the city man dies oppressed at heart.
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.
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.
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.’
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?
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.
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.