Lesson 2: The Epic of Gilgamesh & The Four Functions of Mythology

Learning Objective:

To memorize, understand, and apply the four functions of mythology to the stories we read in this course; and to become intimate with The Epic of Gilgamesh, that is, achieve a recognition of the significant transformations of the major characters, and to memorize what those transformations signify.


1. Read: The Invention of Writing and Earliest Literatures ; The Epic of Gilgamesh

2. Read: “Mythological Themes in Creative Literature and Art” by Joseph Campbell

Supplemental Aids:

Ancient Near East

Lecture Notes:


Critics note that The Epic of Gilgamesh can be divided into three seven day periods, each associated with a profound transformation:

First Seven Day Period Second Seven Day Period Third Seven Day Period
Nonhuman → Human Human → Nonhuman Nonhuman → Human
Enkidu is a essentially an innocent animal, a nonhuman, until he is transformed by his encounter with Shamhat. Shamhat’s role is that of a mother and a seductress. She feeds, bathes, and clothes him as a mother would her child; this signifies Enkidu’s entering into the human world. She also has sex with him, which signifies Enkidu’s entrance into the adult human world. Note that the beer and the bread she offers him are both products of fermentation. Cooked food is symbolic of human civilization. Enkidu’s death causes Gilgamesh to transform. Refusing to wash, putting on no fresh clothes, leaving society behind, covering himself in grime, Gilgamesh becomes what Enkidu was before he met Shamhat. Then Gilgamesh rejects his former heroic ideal, and seeks eternal life. Or is his journey a flight from death rather than a quest for life? Gilgamesh fails to stay awake in the presence of Utanapishtim; the bread proves it. If he cannot simply keep his eyes open (sleep is the cousin of death) how can he expect to gain immortality? He finally bathes and casts off his dirty cloaks, grudgingly accepting his mortality. And during his return to Uruk, he fails to keep the plant of eternal life in his clutches, and is truly humbled, brought to a moment of redemptive humor: “I did the serpent underground good service!” Finally, the boy-king can laugh at his mistake. He has learned not to take himself so seriously. In other words, he has grown up. He is human: flawed.

The table below breaks up the story in correlation with each of its clay tablets.

Tablet Episodes
1-2 Gilgamesh portrayed as a tyrant. Enkidu transformed by Shamhat. Gilgamesh and Enkidu meet and wrestle. Gilgamesh wins. Enkidu kneels before Gilgamesh, a symbol of civilization asserting itself over the wilds of pure nature.
3-4 Humbaba adventure.
6 Gilgamesh rebukes Ishtar (an act of hubris, arrogance.. Bull of Heaven is killed 
7-8 Death of Enkidu. Culture is once again asserted over nature when Enkidu withdraws his condemnation of the harlot and blesses her.
9-10 The Great Journey: Gilgamesh ignores everyone; he is obsessed and willing to sacrifice the five values for which the psychologists Abraham Maslow claims we all live: Survival, Security, Personal Relationships, Prestige, Self-development.




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