The Flood in the Epic of Gilgamesh: What does it all mean?

In the past couple of posts in this series, we’ve been looking at the Great Flood narrative found in the Epic of Gilgamesh, trying to put the flood story into context, both within the larger story of Gilgamesh’s quest for godlike immortality and within the overall rhetorical context of the poem. Having done so, we’ve now reached the point where we can sort out what it all means. Here again, though, the question is more complex than it might seem at first glance. There’s the “meaning” of the poem from the poet’s point of view (what meaning did he apparently intend his readers to derive from the story), and the enduring significance of the story over time.

Answer the dramatic questions to find the meaning

The simplest way to get at the meaning of any story is to see what dramatic question the story poses and how that question gets answered. This refers to a question, raised at the beginning of the story, which holds the reader’s attention and drives the action of the story. Since Utnapishtim’s account of the Great Flood is a story-within-a-story, we’ll need to consider two dramatic questions — the one that governs the epic as a whole, and the one that governs the Flood narrative specifically — and to think about how the two bear upon one another.

The Larger Question: Can Gilgamesh be reined in?

His friendship with Enkidu restrained Gilgamesh
... for a time.
The story of Gilgamesh begins with the people of Uruk crying out to the gods for relief from the despotism of their king. In response to this plea, the gods create a wild man, Enkidu, “equal to Gilgamesh’s stormy heart … so that Uruk may find peace.” This raises the question in the reader’s mind, “Will this do the trick? Will Enkidu somehow secure peace for the people of Uruk?”

In the first part of the poem, it would seem that the coming of Enkidu does indeed solve the Gilgamesh problem (but perhaps not in the way that the gods intended). Enkidu learns that Gilgamesh is about to ravish a bride before her wedding night, and becomes enraged at this inhuman behavior. Even someone like himself, as much a beast as a man, recognizes the barbarity of such an act. So Enkidu defends the endangered bride against the king and the two men battle fiercely throughout the city. Eventually Gilgamesh manages to overpower Enkidu, but rather than killing his opponent, whom he has come to admire for his fierce strength, Gilgamesh  instead makes a friend of him. In this way, although Gilgamesh has vanquished Enkidu, it is the king who is tamed through the friendship born of their strife.

Once they have sworn friendship, the two heroes no longer exercise their power against those weaker than themselves, but against fierce monsters that plague the countryside. However, when they slay one of these monsters, they rile the anger of the gods, who punish them. It might seem that they punish only Enkidu, since he is the only one of the two who dies, but in fact Gilgamesh suffers terribly when he loses his only friend. It’s as if the gods knew that this loss would be a more bitter punishment for Gilgamesh than death itself. When Enkidu sickens and dies, Gilgamesh goes mad with grief and despair. Having lost the only person with whom he had a genuine, human connection, he now turns away from humanity more resolutely than ever, seeking the immortality that will make him the equal of a god. This quest leads him to Utnapishtim the Faraway, a man who was once a mortal king but now is immortal, an equal to the gods.

The only immortality Gilgamesh achieved was
his undying fame.
When the two first meet, however,  Utnapishtim tries to discourage Gilgamesh from his quest to become immortal, telling him that he should not struggle against fate. But Gilgamesh will not be dissuaded. He insists that Utnapishtim tell him how he achieved immortality, and the deathless man does as he asks, only to reveal that it was not achieved through  effort of his own, but was the unwarranted gift of a god. Gilgamesh, though, still insists that immortality is the only thing that can make his life worth living. For a third time, Utnapishtim tries to convince him by demonstrating that Gilgamesh cannot resist even the “little death” of sleep. Finally, Gilgamesh is convinced that he is powerless to resist death, and once again despairs. At his wife’s urging, Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh of a marvelous plant that can restore a man’s youth — it’s not quite the same as being immortal, but it is  close enough to suit Gilgamesh, who immediately heads off to seize the revitalizing herb. Although he is able to pluck the plant from the bottom of the sea, it is stolen from him by a snake before he can return with it to his city. After all his questing, Gilgamesh must return to his city empty-handed. The last lines of the poem show him admiring the greatness of the city he has built, as if he realizes that he must content himself with his human achievements.

And so Gilgamesh, “two thirds god and one third man,” gives up his struggle to become “three thirds” a god. He accepts his human limitations, and takes comfort in his great achievements, the towering city that will outlast him. Whereas Utnapistim, when given the choice, chose life over wealth and possessions, Gilgamesh, recognizing that he has no choice, contents himself with what he is able to achieve as a mortal man. Thus, the dramatic question of the epic — will Gilgamesh be subdued? — is answered. The man at the end of the poem is no longer the ravisher of virgins and slayer of young men, yet he remains a mighty king who has achieved true greatness.

The inner question: What is the value of immortality?

Tablet XI of the Epic of Gilgamesh contains
Utnapishtim's account of the Great Flood.
Now let’s turn our attention to the inner story, Utnapishtim’s account of the Great Flood. Recall that Utnapishtim was trying to dissuade Gilgamesh from seeking immortality, and this story was just one part of that effort. This fact raises a number of questions that we’ll need to answer if we want to understand this inner story properly. First, why would Utnapishtim want to dissuade him? And then, if he did, which details of his account support that purpose? And, thinking of the poet’s artistic purpose, we should also ask how this flood account serves the meaning of the poem as a whole.

Let’s start first with the poet’s purpose. Scholars agree that the story of the Great Flood is considerably more ancient than the tales of the heroism of Gilgamesh. The Flood story originally was part of the mythology of the creation of all things, which told that the gods had created humankind to serve them, but later became unhappy with the results of their efforts and wanted to start over and try again. The Flood was the means they intended to use to wipe the slate clean.

This myth is part of the “raw material” that the poet worked from to create the story he wanted to tell. But in lifting the Flood narrative out of its original context and dropping it into his story of Gilgamesh, the poet “re-purposes” it. He is not interested in explaining why the gods decided to destroy mankind — in fact, in his account Utnapishtim doesn’t even mention a reason — but he is interested in demonstrating that literal immortality is not a good thing for human beings.

So the poet puts into the mouth of his character, Utnapishtim, a version of the Flood narrative that emphasizes the speaker’s own attempt to cheat death. When the wily god Ea whispers through the wall to Utnapishtim to warn him of the coming flood, he tells him that he must make a choice:
Tear down the house and build a boat!
Abandon wealth and seek living beings!
Spurn possessions and keep alive living beings!
Make all living beings go up into the boat.
He can cling to life, or cling to his possessions, but he cannot hang onto both. Utnapishtim chooses life, but he isn’t entirely willing to give up his possessions. We know this because he mentions that when he was stocking the boat with “the seed of all living things,” he also managed to sneak aboard his silver and gold. He was a king, after all, accustomed to splendor. He obeyed the god insofar as doing so saved his life, and disobeyed insofar as doing so preserved his wealth. In doing both, he deceived and betrayed his people, telling them that if they helped him prepare the boat and leave the city the gods would rain down abundance upon them — while knowing, in fact, that they would rain down destruction.

So he preserved his life, along with his silver and his gold, but what is a king with no one to bow to his might, with no one to admire his opulence? When Gilgamesh meets him, Utnapishtim is living with his wife (who shares his immortality), but they have no servants, and no royal subjects. They live at the ends of the earth, in utter solitude. The king’s wife herself must bake their daily bread.

Notice, too, the way Utnapishtim became immortal — not as a favor from Ea, the god who saved him, but as decree of Enlil, the god who had wanted to destroy every human being, who was angry when the fumes of Utnapishtim’s sacrifice announced his survival. There is a kind of bitter irony in Enlil’s words: “Now let Utanapishtim and his wife become like us, the gods!” before he banishes him to the ends of the earth. Thus, it seems clear that Enlil did not intend the immortality he confers on Utnapishtim to be a kindness, but a punishment. It’s as if Enlil says, “So you want to  cling to your life? Okay, here’s unending life. Let’s see how you like that!” And, of course, Utnapishtim doesn’t like it. He does everything he can to convince Gilgamesh not to seek the same fate.

As a result of his meeting with “Utnapishtim the Faraway,” Gilgamesh returns empty-handed, but not without having gained something: whether he wished to or not, he has learned not to make the mistake that Utnapishtim did in clinging to life by giving up everything that makes life worth living. He will die someday, but his legacy will live on. Utnapishtim the immortal could not claim as much.

Finally, we should notice the way the stories of these two kings parallel each other, and the ways in which they diverge. If we do so, we can see that the poem suggests something important about the proper exercise of kingship, namely that any king who uses his people for his own personal pleasure or gain has overreached himself, and must taught a lesson by the gods. Utnapishtim was taught that the cost of immortality was too high — he has lost both his legitimate achievements and all the people who had honored him. Learning from Utnapishtim's example, Gilgamesh regains both his people and the magnificent city he has built. Thus, we may conclude that the wise king will find a way to demonstrate his greatness without offending either his people or the gods.

Enduring significance

Crumbled ziggurat of ancient Uruk,
the city of Gilgamesh.
The meaning of the Flood account, then, as well as the poem as a whole, is this: Immortality is not something for man to grasp at; even if the gods should confer it, it will not make him happy. A human being is not a god, and should not try to grasp at divinity. He must be content with the figurative kind of immortality that is proper to human beings: to produce great works that will endure, achievements that will bear lasting witness to the greatness of the one who made them.

This is a theme that gets taken up time and and again in later epics, such as those of Homer and Vergil, who will develop the theme with much greater subtlety than the Gilgamesh poet does. This poet contents himself with implying that immortality would be unbearable for anyone not born to it, even if he had any way of grasping it. This knowledge alone should make a great man like Gilgamesh content to produce works of lasting grandeur.

While we are thinking about achieving immortality through our great achievements, we should consider this: The nameless poet who composed the Epic of Gilgamesh created a masterpiece that has had an enduring legacy. Although all copies of the poem were literally lost beneath the sands of time for millennia, this poem set the pattern for the stories of heroes for many centuries. The themes of this poem are echoed and embroidered in the great Greek and Roman epics that followed it — Homer, writing more than a thousand years later, and Vergil, seven centuries later still, both portrayed heroes who struggled with their mortality, who strove to leave a worthy legacy that would continue to attest to their greatness after their inevitable deaths. All of these poets have demonstrated that epic poetry can serve to immortalize not only the deeds of great heroes but also the talents of the poets who made them.

This idea has motivated poets for thousands of years. William Shakespeare clearly had it in mind when he wrote Sonnet 55:
Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone besmeared with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils root out the work of masonry,
Nor Mars his sword nor war's quick fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.
’Gainst death and all oblivious enmity
Shall you pace forth: your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
   So, till the judgment that yourself arise,
   You live in this, and dwell in lovers' eyes.
Next time, we’ll finish our consideration of the account of the Great Flood in the Epic of Gilgamesh, and prepare to move on to look at another ancient, non-Biblical story of a primeval flood sent by the gods to destroy humankind. Until then, enjoy this modern re-creation of the way an ancient audience might once have heard the story of Gilgamesh.



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