The Epic of Gilgamesh

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The Epic of Gilgamesh
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Gilgamesh battling the Bull of Heaven
Central Theme:
Synopsis: The king of Uruk befriends a wildman, they go on quests, and the gods get annoyed with them.
First published: somewhere between 2100 and 1200 years BCE
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You must have been told that this is what your being a human involves.
You must have been told that this is what the cutting of your umbilical cord involved.
The darkest day of humans awaits you now.
The solitary place of humans awaits you now.
The unstoppable flood-wave awaits you now.
The unequal struggle awaits you now.
The unavoidable battle awaits you now.
The unescapable evil awaits you now.

The Death of Gilgamesh (Sumerian poem, ca. 2200 BC)

When one wants to pin down Tropes that are The Oldest Ones in The Book, there's rarely a better source than the Oldest Book.

Before we get started, mongrels, we're not talking about the recurring Final Fantasy and Fate/stay night characters. Now then...

A legend from ancient Babylon and Akkad, the epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest heroic epic that survives to this day and is very much Older Than Dirt. See Ur Example below for more details.

Gilgamesh is the super strong, ruggedly handsome, two-thirds god and one-third mortal king of Uruk, and he is bored. He spends his free time sleeping with each new bride the night of her wedding, which their husbands are not too happy about, but he is the king, and he can do what he wants. The people of Uruk beg the gods to provide Gilgamesh with something better to do. The gods decide that what the restless, powerful, adventure-hungry hero needs is a best friend and Worthy Opponent. So they have the womb goddess Aruru make a wild man named Enkidu, who lives out in the wilderness among the animals, annoying farmers and hunters. One of them convinces a temple harlot Shamhat to make a civilized man out of him, by sleeping with him for a week. After his first taste of sex, Shamhat convinces Enkidu to come back with her to the temple and learn how to live like a civilized human, promising she will introduce him to a best friend so he'll never be lonely again. He accepts.

So Gilgamesh and Enkidu become inseparable friends (after beating each other to a pulp in the streets). To celebrate, Gilgamesh decides they should go on an adventure to the Forest of Cedars, defeat the guardian monster Humbaba, and cut down the giant cedar. Why? Why not, when you only live once. Against the advice of everybody, they go through with it.

The partners have their next adventure when Gilgamesh turns down the goddess Ishtar's offer to sleep with her, noting the unsavoury fates that befall her lovers, and she retaliates by unleashing the Bull of Heaven on Uruk. The two heroes manage to slay it, which the gods aren't too happy about and decide Enkidu will have to die because of this.

His friend's death only intensifies Gilgamesh's fear of dying and hatred of his own mortality—curse those one-third mortal genes! There's only one thing to do—go to the ends of the Earth and find the secret of eternal life. His advisors tell him that's crazy and that he should get over it. The Scorpion Men who guard the underground tunnel that the sun uses to reach the other side of the Earth every night tell him to turn back and get over it. Siduri, keeper of the inn at the end of the tunnel, tells him to stop causing himself so much stress and enjoy life while he has the chance and get over his obsession. Utanapishtim, the survivor of the great flood who was made immortal, tells Gilgamesh immortality isn't for humans and he should get over his crazy wish of living forever. Sensing the pattern yet?

To make a long story short, Gilgamesh ultimately fails Utanapishtim's test of staying awake for seven nights (he doesn't even last seven seconds). But Utanapishtim's wife convinces him to be nice and give the seeker something for his trouble. So he tells Gilgamesh where to find a plant that will grant eternal life and youth. The good news is he finds it. The bad news is a snake eats it when he takes a break on the way home to bathe. Tough luck. Looks like Gilgamesh the Not So Invincible After All has to come to terms with the fact that We Are as Mayflies and content himself with the beauty and majesty of his mighty kingdom.

Tropes used in The Epic of Gilgamesh include:

"They cast great daggers
Their blades were 120 pounds each
The cross guards of their handles thirty pounds each
They carried daggers worked with thirty pounds of gold
Gilgamesh and Enkidu bore ten times sixty pounds each."

  • Bittersweet Ending
  • Character Development: The introduction implies that after his adventure, Gilgamesh became a decent king.
  • Coming of Age Story
  • Contractual Immortality: The gods put it to a vote about whether Gilgamesh or Enkidu should die. One guess who they choose...
  • Dead Sidekick: Gilgamesh completely falls apart after Enkidu's death.
  • Death by Sex: Enkidu blames Shamhat for leading him to an early death by seducing him. And Ishtar's lovers all died because of her, as noted below.
  • Defeat Means Friendship: How Enkidu and Gilgamesh meet and become best buddies: by beating the crap out of each other.
  • Determinator: Gilgamesh.
  • Diabolus Ex Machina: Apparently, Happily Ever After is Newer Than They Think.
  • Did You Just Flip Off Cthulhu?: After killing the Bull of Heaven, Enkidu throws its 'hindquarters' in Ishtar's face.
  • Downer Ending: It was the first story of a hero going through every trial, a heroic journey to try to achieve something, and in the end, he failed. What message does that send?
    • This is actually a staple of hero epics in itself, enough so that it occupies threads 16-20 of Lord Raglan's 22-part Hero Pattern. The hero typically fails or is abandoned or goes into exile due to the general shittiness of mankind, and then dies on top of a hill (or other high place), signifying that they were in fact too good for this sinful Earth. See Jesus, Moses, Krishna, Romulus, Hercules, the Prince of Wei, etc. The more divine and greater than human a hero is, the more likely they are to die alone and unloved (until their story is remembered in epic verse). Contrast Achilles and Ulysses, for instance.
    • It really isn't a downer ending, as Gilgamesh comes to realize that mortality is the lot of all mankind and responds to this information by building high his city walls (i.e. creating works that perpetuate mankind and expand upon our knowledge.)
    • Having the hero fail is what proves this is a civilized peoples' tale, not merely the account of a tribal folk hero.
    • The ending also combines a lot of useful Stock Aesops - acceptance, appreciation and living the life you've got.
  • Dream Sequence: Several.
  • Dual-Wielding: Gilgamesh uses a sword and an axe, sometimes both at once.
  • Femme Fatale: The goddess Ishtar.
  • The Ferry Man: Urshanabi, as he transports Gilgamesh to where Utnapishtim is staying.
  • Flowery Insults: When Enkidu curses Shamhat for indirectly leading to his death, he lets off a whole string of these, which (in at least one translation) ends with the... memorable "May the drunkard soil with his vomit any place you enjoy."
  • Genre Savvy: Gilgamesh, when it comes to sleeping with Ishtar.
  • God-Emperor: Gilgamesh again (well, they did name it after him). It also points out how the Sumerian kings are specifically not this.
  • Going to See the Elephant: Why did Gilgamesh drag Enkidu on a mission to defeat Humbaba and cut down the giant cedar? Because it was there! [1]
    • According to Bilgames and Ḫuwawa, the Sumerian original, it's for glory and by Utu's suggestion.
  • Half-Human Hybrid: Well, "one third human" hybrid, anyway. Yeah, genetically not possible, but it works if you take into account that the ancient Babylonians didn't know about genetics: divine + divine + human = 2/3 divine and 1/3 human.
    • He could have been the product of, say, a divine/human breeding experiment where he is the tenth generation descendant of pairings involving 1365 out of 2048 8×great-grandparents who were divine, yielding someone who is 66.65% divine. Close enough for government work!
  • Heroic BSOD: He could have gone back for more of the Flower of Youth, but turns out having everyone say something is impossible and reckless, going out and doing it, then having it snatched away at the last second can change your outlook on things a bit.
  • Homoerotic Subtext: Enkidu and Gilgamesh. Honestly, do things ever change?
    • This is another one of those "life was really different 4,000 years ago" things, but sexual orientation as we know it didn't really exist back then. It's pretty strongly hinted in some translations that Gilgamesh and Enkidu were in fact lovers. Sandar's translation gives a line from the Coming of Enkidu as; "When you see him you will be glad; you will love him as a woman and he will never forsake you."
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Shamhat
  • I Love You Because I Can't Control You
  • If You Ever Do Anything to Hurt Her...: Ishtar runs crying to her father after Gilgamesh spurns her, so he gives her the Bull of Heaven to terrorize Uruk in revenge. He only does it because Ishtar was being a Bratty Teenage Daughter about it, even after he warned her that making the Bull will cause a seven-year drought.
  • Immortality Seeker: Gilgamesh spends a good chunk of the story trying to win immortality.
  • It Gets Better: Most of the long speeches are palatable enough, but there are a handful that get repeated verbatim to several people. On the other hand, this probably shouldn't be too surprising as the work was originally "written" on clay tablets with pictographs impressed into them while still wet. Likely the "template" for these speeches was reused. Ur Example of Copy Paste?
    • A more likely reason is that despite having been written down and codified, the epic was derived from oral sources and for most people continued to be oral storytelling. Back then most people were illiterate, after all. Repetitions, rhyme and such are essentially mnemonic devices to help people repeat the story verbatim from memory. Repetition is also a common stylistic element of oral storytelling, used for pacing, emphasis and symmetry. Think of song refrains, fairy tales and the like.
      • Recent[when?] studies have suggested that people in ancient Mesopotamia (and Egypt) were surprisingly literate. Even so, every tablet had to be hand copied, so some repetitiveness no doubt helped keep things straight and prevent errors.
  • Jumped At the Call: Gilgamesh has a craving for adventure.
  • Kill Him Already: After Gilgamesh defeats the Humbaba and has him at knife-point, Humbaba begs for mercy. Gilgamesh seems ready to grant it, but his friend Enkidu persuades him to get on with it.
  • Know When to Fold'Em: Gilgamesh doesn't.
  • Making a Splash: Gilgamesh goes to find the survivors of the flood, who were granted Immortality.
  • A Man Is Not a Virgin: Enkidu isn't really truly human until Shamhat has sex with him.
  • Missing Episode: Thanks to the very old age of the work, the story had to be reconstructed from various fragments on tablets. Not all of them have been found.
  • Mood Swinger: Ishtar. At least Gilgamesh was Genre Savvy enough to know not to sleep with someone who's goddess of love by night, but goddess of war by day...
  • More Expendable Than You
  • Narrative Poem: The Ur Example
  • The Nothing After Death: Irkalla, the underworld, isn't fun.
  • Overprotective Dad
  • Our Giants Are Bigger: Humbaba -- "His maw is fire, his breath is death... Who, even among gods, could attack him?"
  • Outrun the Fireball: Possibly the last trope in the world you'd expect to be Older Than Dirt, but there it is: on his journey to Dilmun, Gilgamesh had to pass through the tunnel through which the sun goes at night. The tunnel was long, and before he could get to the other end, the sun god entered from the other side... If that's not a fireball to outrun, I don't know what is.
  • Rule of Cool: Two-thirds god...
  • Science Marches On: The "two-thirds god" thing can be a head-scratcher,[2] until you learn that ancient Sumerians believed that if a woman became pregnant after sleeping with multiple partners, all of them helped father the child.
  • Semi-Divine: Gilgamesh is two-thirds god.
  • Sex as Rite-of-Passage: Shamhat and Enkidu
  • Spanner in the Works: That darn snake...
  • Super Strength: Gilgamesh has it.
  • Threshold Guardians: The Scorpion Men.
  • Tragic Bromance: Gilgamesh and Enkidu.
  • Ur Example: This story is considered the oldest heroic epic, older than The Iliad and The Bible. Thus all the tropes listed here are Ur Examples.
    • Really, this is zigzagged. The standard Akkadian version dates to ca. 1200 and it borrows material from the Epic of Atrahasis, which dates to 1650. Atrahasis has a narrative structure similar to Genesis from the Bible, and it deals with the story of Utnapishtim, so it should qualify as a heroic epic. But the very earliest Sumerian Gilgamesh poems – including narratives of the Cedar Forest, the Bull of Heaven, and the Underworld – date from 2200. Is Gilgamesh from 1200 or 2200? Doesn't quite matter, since the fictional narratives Instructions of Shuruppak and Legend of Etana date to 2600 – during or before the actual reign of Gilgamesh. So Gilgamesh isn't the oldest bit of fiction or writing, but it is considered the oldest heroic epic, and it's certainly the oldest piece of written fiction which self-consciously uses literary tropes.
    • Oh, and the Sumerian poems actually were written in the Third Dynasty of Ur.
  • Walking the Earth: Gilgamesh after Enkidu's death.
  • We Are as Mayflies
  • Who Wants to Live Forever? Gilgamesh does. The story is largely about him learning that he really shouldn't.
  • Wild Hair: Enkidu has it.
  • Woman Scorned: Ishtar
  • Worthy Opponent: Enkidu and Gilgamesh.
  • Yandere: Ishtar.
  • You Can't Fight Fate: You can't escape your mortality (unless you're Utnapishtim).
  • Zombie Apocalypse: Ishtar threatens to knock down the doors of the underworld to bring the dead up, who will eat the living.
  1. It's entirely possible that the reason is in one of the missing sections.
  2. The child of a half breed and full breed with a half breed make a fairly close 62% which can get closer with additional 75% partners