In The Epic of Gilgamesh, men and gods each have their place in a clearly-defined hierarchy. To overstep the bounds of that position is to be proud, something the gods punish harshly, even among themselves. Gilgamesh’s quest is first motivated by pride, and in Enkidu’s death he pays an enormous price. Likewise, among the gods, Enlil is humbled after ordering mankind destroyed by a flood, because it was not his place to make such a prideful decision. By the end of the epic, however, Gilgamesh has learned to be more humble, and this “moral” of accepting one’s place in the hierarchy of the universe is one of the story’s main lessons.
When Gilgamesh rejects Ishtar’s offer of marriage, she is insulted that he, a mortal, turns her down, even though he has good reason to: she has treated her past lovers poorly. Ishtar lashes out at what she sees as his “hubris” (excessive pride) by threatening to release the dead into the world of the living unless Anu sends the Bull of Heaven to avenge her. We can interpret all this conflict arising from Gilgamesh’s failure to accept his place, and from Ishtar’s own sense of superiority to mortals. Though the Bull of Heaven is sent to punish Gilgamesh for hubris, he and Enkidu kill it, showing again that Gilgamesh is too proud to obey the will of the gods. The punishment for this is Enkidu’s death. This lesson is similar to one contained in the Bible: that pride comes before the fall. Gilgamesh’s pride has brought him great glory in battle, but it also leads to the death of his closest friend.
We also see in the epic that characters may grow more humble and abandon their pride. Gilgamesh, after the death of Enkidu and the failure of his own quest for immortality, comes to realize that he cannot defy the gods by acquiring the secret to everlasting life. As soon as he seems to achieve it, it is stolen away. He returns to Uruk more humble, accepting his place in the hierarchy of gods and men. Similarly, the gods disapprove of Enlil for his prideful decision to flood the earth, and so Enlil grants Utnapishtim and his wife eternal life as penance. Even the gods are eventually humbled into accepting their limits.
Pride and the Gods ThemeTracker
Pride and the Gods Quotes in The Epic of Gilgamesh
When the gods created Gilgamesh they gave him a perfect body. Shamash the glorious sun endowed him with beauty, Adad the god of the storm endowed him with courage, the great gods made his beauty perfect, surpassing all others, terrifying like a great wild bull. Two thirds they made him god and one third man.
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.
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.
The meaning of the dream is this. The father of the gods has given you kingship, such is your destiny, everlasting life is not your destiny. Because of this do not be sad at heart, do not be grieved or oppressed. He has given you power to bind and to loose, to be the darkness and light of mankind.
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!’
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.
Which of your lovers did you ever love for ever? What shepherd of yours has pleased you for all time?
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.
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.
‘Alas the days of old are turned to dust because I commanded evil; why did I command this evil in the council of all the gods? I commanded wars to destroy the people, but are they not my people, for I brought them forth? Now like the spawn of fish they float in the ocean.’ The great gods of heaven and hell wept, they covered their mouths.
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.’