In 1855 American poet Walt Whitman addresses the internal conflict of humanity, declaring Very well then I contradict myself / (I am large, I contain multitudes). Yet literature wrestles with this dilemma of dissonance far before Whitman enters the scene. In fact, over three thousand years prior, The Epic of Gilgamesh describes the adventures and trials of a hero who encompasses similar contradictions. Through the incomplete text of the epic, Gilgamesh struggles with the tension between wisdom and ignorance as his character develops”relationally, experientially, and emotionally”and this tension forces the reader to examine one’s own inconsistencies.
The text reveals multiple dichotomies”civilization vs. Nature, male vs. female, supernatural beings vs. average humans”but one of the most distinct is the difference between wisdom and ignorance. Many characters lack basic knowledge and fall into a state of ignorance. For definitive purposes, wisdom is more than simple knowledge. It manifests as a deeper understanding, typically after the character experiences something that demands change. For example, when Enkidu tries to exist in the wilderness after the week of ecstasy with the harlot, he is diminished. . . But he drew himself up, for his understanding had broadened. Gilgamesh, as the character undergoing the most change, is expected to acquire the greatest wisdom. The conflict created by that expectation drives the epic forward and provides a lens to analyze his growth.
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The first influences on Gilgamesh are his relationships. In the broadest sense of the word, he has a relationship with the people he governs. They praise him, dawning labels of mighty protector, protector of his people, and he rewards them with oppression. He abuses his role as king, taking the women as sexual objects and challenging the men to physical contests. If he was a wise ruler, he would not behave in this manner because it undermines his political legitimacy. These interactions demonstrate how much he must learn before he can truly embody the acclamations mentioned in the beginning of the text. This transformation must be accomplished with closer bonds.
His mother, Queen Nishun, is a confidant and advice-giver for Gilgamesh. Her characterization as the wise, the all-knowing starkly contrasts the na??ve Gilgamesh of the first tablet. He approaches her to interpret the first dream mentioned in the text. She explains that he will encounter a mighty man, a comrade who saves his friend, and he trusts her prediction. This is first time wisdom is conveyed to Gilgamesh.
Enkidu is the foreseen comrade, who starts as an adversary and becomes a best friend. This relationship is the most formative on Gilgamesh and determines his trajectory for the rest of the epic. Yet in some instances, Enkidu purposely keeps Gilgamesh in ignorance.
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