Epic of Gilgamesh: putting the Flood story in context

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Sometimes we have to learn to see treasured, but overly-familiar truths with the eyes of a stranger in order to appreciate them better. That’s what I hope will come of the exercise I proposed last week, comparing several ancient accounts of the Great Flood.  So as we begin our look at three different literary accounts of the Great Flood, I think it best to start with the one that is probably least familiar to most of us. Why? Because the Biblical account is so familiar that we may miss its distinctive features, the features that help us draw out the intended meaning of the account. By looking first at unfamiliar versions of the story, we may be able to de-familiarize ourselves from the story of Noah and be better able to read it afresh.

Reading with understanding

As we look at each of these three Flood stories in turn, I’ll be using a slightly-modified version of the four-point analysis I introduced in a post a couple of years ago, partly because I want to make sure  I don’t skip over anything worthwhile, and partly to demonstrate the way to approach an unfamiliar text and accept it on its own terms before reaching any kind of judgment about it. (Opinion should always be based on knowledge and understanding, otherwise it’s not opinion but prejudice.)

We begin with the most ancient version of a flood myth that has survived in written form, the one found in the Epic of Gilgamesh (read it here. Go to Tablet XI for the flood story). This poem dates from as early as 2100 B.C., making it not only the earliest epic in existence, but also the oldest recorded account of the Great Flood, predating the writing of the version found in Genesis by several centuries.

Now, what I thought would be a pretty simple, side-by-side comparison has actually grown like Topsy as I delved into the most ancient account of the Great Flood, found in the Epic of Gilgamesh. The more I look at it, the more interesting it gets (the test of great literature!). But this means that my analysis has turned out to be more complex and lengthy than I first estimated, so I’m going to break it into sections and publish them in turn. I’ll stick in links so that anyone who wants to put all the parts together into a single essay can do so. Okay, let’s move on to the first point of our 4-step analysis, the rhetorical context.

What kind of work is it?

Gilgamesh is the hero of
the epic, but the hearer
of the flood story.

Rhetorical analysis refers to figuring out what sort of thing you’re reading, which in turn determines why the author wrote it the way he did. This is where we ask: What sort of thing is this work? What themes does the author develop? For what audience was this written? What was the intended purpose of this work? Failure to answer these questions carefully runs the risk of misunderstanding the work altogether.

A story within a story

In looking at this ancient Mesopotamian flood story, we should first notice that it is embedded in a larger tale. That larger story is not about the flood per se, but about a hero named Gilgamesh. The flood narrative occurs late in the poem, and is introduced as a personal account told to the hero by another character. So, to understand the rhetorical purpose of the flood narrative, we have to consider both why that character (Utnapishtim) told the story to Gilgamesh and why the poet who wrote the story of Gilgamesh wanted to include the flood narrative as one key part of the whole story.

So let’s look at what sort of thing the whole is. First, is it factual or fictional? Well, a bit of both, perhaps. It is a tale of a hero, Gilgamesh, a man who actually lived once upon a time (he was king of a Mesopotamian city called Uruk), who, after his death, became the subject of many stories about his greatness, of which the Epic of Gilgamesh is the greatest. We call the poem an epic because the protagonist is a heroic figure (a demi-god, larger than life) and the story itself explores the hero’s achievements and their significance for posterity.

The poet presupposes that his audience will be familiar with many things that are, in fact, unfamiliar to modern readers, chiefly details from his culture's creation mythology. For instance, the poet does not make direct reference to the creation of human beings by the gods, or the reason the gods became dissatisfied with them, but assumes his audience will be familiar with these things. So I will have to fill in a little of that as we go along, just so that it will be clearer to see what the poet intended.

Important themes

The central theme of this epic (and, indeed, of many subsequent epics) is the hero’s quest to understand the value of human life. In this poem, the quest is literal as well as figurative. After the death of his great friend, Enkidu, Gilgamesh begins to question the meaning of all his personal achievements — he has conquered monsters and built great ziggurats, but in the face of the crushing inevitability of death these things seem worthless. But Gilgamesh has heard of another great king who became immortal, the one achievement that he himself lacks. So he goes off to find that man and learn how he came to escape death.

Gilgamesh meets the ferryman who will take him
to Utnapishtim (Neil Dalrymple, sculptor)
That man is Utnapishtim, who tells Gilgamesh that he did not “achieve” immortality, but it was given to him by a god, after he of all men survived a great flood intended to put an end to humankind. So we see that the flood story is intended, both by Utnapishtim and by the poet, to put the whole question of human mortality into proper perspective. As it turns out, Utnapishtim's story is the thing that ultimately helps Gilgamesh come to grips with the brevity and fragility of human life.

I’d like to point out a secondary theme, which is dealt with less explicitly than the question of mortality: this is the question of what it means to be a king. In the ancient world in which this poem was composed, every city or civilization was ruled by a king, and kings generally were considered to be about as close to being gods as was humanly possible. So the question of kingship is closely related to the question of the purpose of human life, because kings were thought to enjoy life at its fullest.

Poetic method

We should also note that these serious themes are dealt with poetically, not in a straight-forward, discursive way. If you recall the point I’ve made in the past about the nature of poetry (AKA fiction), you'll understand that to deal with something “poetically” does not mean to use a bunch of fancy flourishes, but to approach a subject metaphorically or analogically. As Aristotle noted, nearly two thousand years after Gilgamesh lived, poetry (fiction) allows the reader to enter imaginatively into the experiences of the protagonist. If we do this willingly and thoroughly, we learn from his experiences even as he does (or even if he does not). It’s worth keeping this in mind, because it means that the poet hopes his readers will learn the very things that his protagonist, Gilgamesh, is (or should be) learning.

That’s enough for today. Next time, we’ll move on to the second stage of our analysis, in which we look at the story itself —  what story does Utnapishtim, a king who became immortal, tell Gilgamesh, a king who wishes to become immortal? Does his story help Gilgamesh overcome the existential angst he has suffered since losing his friend? Tune in next time! If you haven’t read the Epic of Gilgamesh yet, you can do so here. If you just want to read the story of the Flood, you'll find it on Tablet XI.

Next: the story itself

©2015 Lisa A. Nicholas

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