Humanities 110: Section Y17
September 13, 2014
He Who Saw the Deep: Wisdom in the Epic of Gilgamesh
The Epic of Gilgamesh is a legendary tale told about an impulsive tyrant and his journey to find the truth about mortality. It begins with the memorable line “he who saw the Deep…was wise in all matters”1. What does this phrase “he who saw the Deep” truly mean? And what does it mean when it is said that Gilgamesh is “wise in all matter”. The ancient Mesopotamian world, as shown by scenes of the epic such as Enkidu’s anointment into human civilization, is a vastly different culture from us in the modern times. We view their practices and believes, such as the fact that the world is surrounded by a giant circular river, to be fundamentally “other” and perhaps even barbaric. However, their insights into enlightenment, wisdom, and the true meaning of “the Deep”, shown through “The Epic of Gilgamesh”, are still topics that are deeply relevant today. The beginning of the first tablet provides a summary of the epic’s standpoint on this theme. It shows the manifestation of wisdom through humbleness, such as obedience to the gods and acceptance of mortality, and the structures of civilization.
In the Epic of Gilgamesh, a big aspect of wisdom is humility, manifested in the form of obeying the will of the gods, and accepting their dominance over mortals. In the beginning, Gilgamesh is described to be a figure so great and revered that he has achieved almost god like status. The epic describes him as “tall, magnificent and terrible”, claiming that he is “surpassing all other kings, heroic in stature”2. This description sets Gilgamesh apart from the rest of humanity going on to claim that he is “two thirds…god and one third human”3. However, despite his divine blood and stature, Gilgamesh is still one-third man, just like everyone else, thus he must suffer from the same curse of humanity. At the beginning of the narrative, Gilgamesh is extremely proud and impulsive, as if he is acting like a god. His antics with Enkidu such as visiting the Cedar Forest and killing the bull of heaven are acts of defiance, leading directly to the death of Enkidu. Gilgamesh even rejects the goddess Ishtar directly, bringing upon himself her wrath. However, after Gilgamesh returns from his journey, newly humbled and enlightened, he builds the temple “Eanna, seat of Ishtar” that is “half a square mile”4. This temple is mentioned three times in association with the greatness of Uruk, showing its importance in association to the wise rule of Gilgamesh.
Like listening to the gods, our acceptance of our own mortality is also a sign of wisdom. The epic’s main sage figure, Uta-napishti, is sage due to his knowledge of the truth of mortality and his first-hand experience in the story of the Deluge. Similarly, the second stanza of the epic describes Gilgamesh’s wisdom as being derived from the same knowledge, stating that “He…everywhere…and learnt of everything the sum of wisdom…saw what was secret, discovered what was hidden”5. The “secret” to which this lines refers is most likely the “mystery of the gods” that Uta-napishti divulges later, the story of the Deluge6. Despite Gilgamesh’s many adventures, the event that manages to precipitate his change in personality is after his loss of the plant. When Uta-napishti decides to share with Gilgamesh the secret of the plant, he tells Gilgamesh that he will “disclose… a matter most secret… a mystery of the gods7. This language mirrors the beginning of his Deluge story, suggesting that Uta-napishti’s true purpose in showing Gilgamesh the plant is for him to fail, and through failure, gain understanding. When Gilgamesh discovers his lost, he laments, “Had I only turned back, and left the boat on the shore!”8. This is the first instance where Gilgamesh is shown to experience regret at his own actions, leading to him discovering his own humility in the face of death. After his return from his final journey,