The Dichotomy Within: The Conflict between The Civil and The Primitive in The Epic of Gilgamesh By Ahmad Mousattat

The Dichotomy Within: The Conflict between The Civil and The Primitive in The Epic of Gilgamesh By Ahmad Mousattat

The sense of the dichotomy within the human spirit is encapsulated within various religious and ideological streams of thought, such as in the Islamic creed, where in the chest of the human lies a perpetual battle between al-Nafs and al-‘Aql, with the former representing primitive instinct and the heart, and the latter civility and the human conscience. This notion is discoverable within The Epic of Gilgamesh. In the Sumerian epic, the civil and primitive sides of the human soul are represented by the characters of Gilgamesh and Enkidu. The design of Enkidu as a version of Gilgamesh in the state of nature, their observed difference in temperament and intrepidity, and their death and subsequent immortality in the civilisational narrative all point towards a fundamental schism between the subconscious instinct and conscious reason.

In Tablet I of The Epic of Gilgamesh, Enkidu is conceived as an equal, wild counterpart to Gilgamesh, fashioned to neutralise his might and tyranny. In the first pages of the Tablet, Gilgamesh is described as an unparalleled leader and king, a symbol of the civilisational glory of Uruk. It is asserted that he “[…] [learnt] of everything the sum of wisdom” (Tablet I, 6) and “[…] built the rampart of Uruk-the-Sheepfold,/of holy Eanna, the sacred storehouse” (11-12). He surpasses all other kings by stature and by his ability to construct as “[he] opened passes in the mountains,/ […] [and] dug wells on the slopes of the uplands” (38-39). All of these achievements accentuate the role of Gilgamesh in forming the civilisational bastion of Uruk. In this, he emerges as the symbol of the civil side of the human psyche, in which he embodies the role of men as builders and their innate desire to tame nature, moulding an anthropocentric stage as a consequence. While the king of Uruk symbolises an incarnation of civilisation and order, Enkidu stands as an example of the human in Rousseau’s model of the state of nature where a man is in a ‘primitive’ state, devoid of the necessity to form a social contract. The individuals of this model live only to satisfy their most elemental urges, such as hunger and survival, leaving no place for a polyvalence of complex sentiments such as pride, envy, and fear (Rousseau 33). Enkidu fits with this description as displayed in the first tablet:

Coated in hair like the god of the animals, with
the gazelles he grazes on grasses,
joining the throng with the game at the water-hole,
his heart delighting with the beasts in the water (Tablet I, 109-112).

Enkidu is also described as “[…] [the] offspring of silence” (104) and as “[…] [the] equal” of Gilgamesh (104). The characteristics of Enkidu are pertinent manifestations of the concept of the ‘savage’ man, since he shows the primitive side of the human essence: a neutral, blank canvas on which society and the social contract may leave their distinguished marks. The wild man roams with animals and feels delight in his existence in nature, giving no heed to complex sentiments and impulses such as pride or climbing the echelons of a social or cultural hierarchy. This contrasts with Gilgamesh, who leads a community and attains immortality in the books of history through his deeds and acts. The conception of Enkidu as an equivalent, yet distinct form to Gilgamesh, seems to symbolise the division of the human soul into the two complementary parts: the civil and conscient facet and the primitive and natural facet. The schism between the primitive and the civil is shown in the audacity of the savage Enkidu, who dares to insult the Sumerian gods. This brashness is present when the mighty Humbaba is brought down to his knees by Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Humbaba begs for his life in front of Gilgamesh, imploring: “spare my life, O Gilgamesh, […]/let me dwell here for you in [in the Forest of Cedar!]” (Tablet V, 151-152). The plea is refused when Enkidu provokes Gilgamesh to kill him, telling him to “[…] finish him, slay him, do away with his power,/ before Enlil the foremost hears what [they] do!” (186-187). He then states the following to further incite his brother-in-arms:

The [great] gods will take against us in anger, Enlil in Nippur, Shamash in
Establish for ever [a fame] that endures,
how Gilgamesh [slew ferocious] Humbaba! (188-191)

Enkidu knows that he will plant destructive rage in the hearts of the gods. He mentions Enlil and Shamash by name, proving that it is not a matter of oblivion that motivates him to encourage Gilgamesh with this terrible act; rather, it is sheer and utter brass that makes him forsake peace for the sake of the murder. Such boldness may only be observed in the state of nature, where fear doesn’t seem to englobe the mind of the ‘savage’ man (Rousseau 33). The perceived wariness and indecisiveness of Gilgamesh in what pertains to the cold-blooded execution thus contrasts with the intent of the savage Enkidu, depicting the innate subconscious and conscious sides within the human. The way Enkidu prompts Gilgamesh to kill Humbaba resembles the subconscious primitive instinct overriding reason and intellect, such as in a context of hyperarousal. This embodies the theatre of conflict between reason and
instinct in the essence of the human.

While the demise of Enkidu and Gilgamesh symbolises the inevitable mortality of the mortal body, the survival of their stories illustrates the perpetual existence of human civilisational merit. The death of the
savage man reminds Gilgamesh of his impending end as he says: “I shall die, and shall I not then be as Enkidu?/ Sorrow has entered my heart!/ I am afraid of death, so I wander the wild […]”  (Tablet IX, 3-5).
The king of Uruk recognises that though he is two-thirds god (Tablet I, 48), the sliver of human essence annuls his immortality. He then “made a statue of his friend[…]” (Tablet VIII, 69) to honour his memory and glory. This is nothing less than an endeavour to eternalise his presence in the records of history. Gilgamesh commences a journey in order to discover the path towards immortality, stating that he “[…][[…] [is seeking] the [road] of […] [his] forefather, Uta-napishti, who attended the gods’ assembly, and [found life eternal:] […]” (Tablet IX, 75-76). When he finally meets Uta-napishti, the immortal challenges him, telling him: “For six days and seven nights, come, do without slumber!” (Tablet XI,
210) As soon as Gilgamesh takes up the challenge, however, “Sleep like a fog […] [breathed] over him” (214). This declares the end of Gilgamesh’s journey. He realises that the chains of death are impossible to elude when even falling in the arms of Morpheus is inescapable. The death of Enkidu embodies the fate that awaits all that is material: disintegration. His presence in the state of nature hints towards the unbreakable link between ephemerality and life, between the body and its eventual decay. Though he is part god, Gilgamesh is killed by his human essence. The king of Uruk and his brother die as individuals; however, they survive in the annals of history through their influence on civilisation and culture.
While their primitive, physical presence has ceased to exist, their names prevail through the conscious and civilisational aspect of the existence of humans, with the construction of Uruk and the adventures that mark the meaning behind their existence. All of this alludes to the difference between the conscious and primitive facets of human nature.

The chasm between the meaning of the primitive and the civil is encapsulated by the characters of the king of Uruk and Enkidu in The Epic of Gilgamesh. The conception of Enkidu as the wild, savage
counterpart to Gilgamesh, their difference in the reverence of the gods, and their bodily death and historical survival, all point towards a deep-rooted difference between the two facets that form that is called human: the primitive heart and the cognizant brain. The representation of this sophisticated concept in an archaic Sumerian poem reveals an important aspect of the knowledge of this early civilisation, showing an insight into the very essence of what defines human existence.

Works Cited

George, Andrew. The Epic of Gilgamesh. Translated by Andrew George, Penguin Classics,1999.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. “A Discourse upon the Origin and the Foundation of the Inequality among          Mankind.” Project Gutenberg, 5 Oct. 2023,

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