To learn what kind of ruler Gilgamesh becomes after returning home from his adventure, we have to turn to the beginning of the poem where the poet first introduces us to Gilgamesh.
The poet tells us upon his return to Uruk after his epic voyage to Utnapishtim, Gilgamesh dug wells, restored the temple, brought back the ancient rites, was loved by his soldiers, protected his people, sought their welfare, and sought the welfare of his city. This is no longer the same Gilgamesh we encountered earlier, a Gilgamesh consumed by his own self-image, a Gilgamesh terrorizing his people, a Gilgamesh exhibiting an overweening arrogance. He has changed for the better.
As we saw earlier, Gilgamesh is initially deaf to Siduri’s advice, dismissing it with impatience. But her advice bears repeating. She reminds Gilgamesh (and us) life is fleeting, so we need to appreciate it while we can by enjoying all it has to offer. Since a healthy body leads to a healthy mind, eating well and maintaining good hygiene makes us feel good about ourselves. However, Siduri is not advocating a life of self-absorbed pleasure seeking. Far from it. She reminds us in addition to seeking our own happiness, we have an obligation to ensure the happiness of those around us: our children, our spouses, our community. In the case of Gilgamesh, this would also include his subjects since he is their king and protector.
Although the poet does not tells us where or how it happened, it is evident Gilgamesh experiences a transformation on his journey back to Uruk, one allowing him to assimilate Siduri’s advice and make it part of his being. The Gilgamesh who returns to Uruk behaves as a caring, selfless, and compassionate king: he builds the infrastructure of the city, seeks the welfare of his people, and acts as their spiritual guide.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is a beautiful and poignant epic poem that continues to resonate with a contemporary audience on many levels. It addresses the universal themes of the quest for the meaning of life, the pride that comes before a fall, the love between soul mates, and the experience of grief at the loss of a beloved. Additionally, it demonstrates how the law of unintended consequences can initially lead to catastrophe but may eventually take us on a circuitous route that ultimately leads to a positive outcome. In the case of Gilgamesh, the law of unintended consequences initially led to devastating grief at the loss of his beloved Enkidu. But it ultimately also led to the humbling of a king—a humbling that served to benefit the king, as well as his whole community.
My next post will draw some thematic connections between The Epic of Gilgamesh and other texts.