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The Literary Function of Dreams in the Epic of Gilgamesh Essay

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Updated: Jul 1st, 2020

In a society, dreams serve various purposes depending on the culture, community, or family. The significance of dreams is related to the way an individual feels about them. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, which was developed over a period of nearly a thousand years from about 2500 to 1500 B.C., several dreams are told involving the fifth king of Uruk, Gilgamesh, and his compatriot, Enkidu. Even though the original author of the book is not known, it is largely associated with Sinleqe-unninni, a scholar who lived in the ancient Mesopotamia.

Gilgamesh, who is described as two-thirds god and one-third man, is the central character in the story. Because of the importance of dreams, at critical instances, Gilgamesh does elaborate rituals to evoke dreams to advise and guide him. In fact, he follows this internal guide over every other counsel. These dreams greatly influence the plot of the narrative since the characters perceived that the deities sent the dreams, they needed interpretation because they had a unique revelation, and were able to foretell the future.

First, we see that as the story starts, King Gilgamesh of Uruk is depicted to be in mature manhood and superior to all other men in both beauty and strength. The unsatisfied craving of his two-thirds divinity makes him to find no suitable mate in love or war. More so, his daemonic energy makes his subjects to be unsatisfied with his rule.

The men of Uruk murmured in their houses, “Gilgamesh sounds the tocsin for his amusement; his arrogance has no bounds by day or night. No son is left with his father; for the king takes them all… his lust leaves no virgin to her lover” (Lawall, 13).

Since there were no challenges worthy of his nature, Gilgamesh turned to excess and indulgence, and he celebrated his victories with too much debauched partying, which annoyed the individuals in the city as well as the gods in the temples. Because of his oppressive rule, the people asked for help from the gods since they feared that someday Gilgamesh would ask for a greater part of his divine heritage, challenge the gods and even rock the pillars of heaven if he was not controlled.

Therefore, to counter the threat, the gods devised a plan of creating Enkidu, who was the mirror image of Gilgamesh. They believed that the king would divert his dangerous energies toward that rival thereby stop challenging heaven.

he sky god, Anu (An), and the mother goddess, Ninlil (Ninhursag), made Enkidu from clay and gave it life before dropping him in the wilderness to live and eat like an animal. In time, a trapper met him and asked a harlot from the city to seduce him so that the wild animals can reject him. The trapper said to the harlot, “When he comes near uncover yourself and lie with him; teach him the savage art…for when he murmurs love to you, the wild beasts that shared his life in the hills will reject him” (Lawall, 14).

Thereafter, an irrevocable step was taken to domesticate the ‘natural man.’ This involved taking him through various stages such as learning to wear clothes and feeding him on food prepared by humans. He was tamed slowly by slowly until he was able to make it to the great-civilized city of Uruk.

To foretell the coming of Enkidu, the gods sent two dreams to the king. He then narrated the dreams to his mother. Concerning the first dream, he said, “There were stars in the heaven…one of them, a meteorite, fell down to me. I tried to lift it, but it was too heavy for me; I tried to move it away, but I could not remove it…. I bent it as over a woman, and put it at your feet, and you yourself did put it on a par with me” (Lawall, 15).

His mother, Ninsun, who was a goddess, gave him the meaning of the dreams that he was experiencing. He told him that the star, which was too heavy for him to carry, was the man whom she had made to be his companion.

This man, she said, would watch over him, as would a wife; he would never keep away from him and would always come to his aid. More so, the weight of his strength would be felt throughout the country. Ninsun stated, “I myself put him on a par with you…He is a strong companion, one who helps a friend in need …That you did bend over him, as over a woman means that he will never forsake you. This is the meaning” (Lawall, 15).

The first dream in the story predicts the coming together of Gilgamesh and Enkidu. This sets up the theme of the story by demonstrating their eternal friendship. This dream introduces the important idea of the solidarity between the two men and helps to develop the plot of the story since subsequent events in the story is based on this newly found friendship.

Gilgamesh then tells his mother about the second dream. He said, “I saw it (the axe) and was glad. I bent down, deeply drawn towards it; I loved it like a woman and wore it at my side” (Lawall, 15). His mother explained that it was not an axe: “That axe, which you saw…that is the comrade whom I give you…he is the brave companion who rescues his friend” (Lawall, 15).

She explained that Gilgamesh would not succeed in overpowering Enkidu; however, ultimately they would associate with one another intimately and conquer their enemies with ease. This shows that dreams are mantic, that is, able to foretell the future. On the other hand, the interpretation given to Gilgamesh also anticipates a contemporary approach. The axe, phallic and violent, represents a man who will be hostile at first but turn into a friend, and to embrace an axe is to change hostility into love and friendship.

Thereafter, Gilgamesh and Enkidu upheld the spirit of comradeship. When Gilgamesh afterward had a dream concerning his fate, his compatriot told him its meaning. Gilgamesh dreamt that Enlil, the father of the gods, had concealed his destiny.

In interpreting the dream, Enkidu told him that it represented his certain mortality, the rewards of unexampled preeminence over the people and success during combat. When the two heroes decide to steal trees from a far away cedar forest, which a terrifying demon called Humbaba protects and is prohibited to mortals, they had dreams that were very influential to their mission. The dreams were actually ignited by Gilgamesh.

He achieved this by digging a well, going up to the mountain, and sprinkling some substances on the earth to plead with the gods to send him a dream concerning the journey to the forest. In his subsequent dreams, Gilgamesh’s astounding courage and unwavering confidence, which he had when the story started, is disputed. Implying a sense of fear and uncertainty, he states, “I seized hold of a wild bull in the wilderness.

It bellowed and beat up the dust till the whole sky was dark, my arm was seized” (Lawall, 21). This seems to imply an anticipation of a fight that they were about to encounter. In the same way, in his other dream, Gilgamesh recounts, “I dreamed again. We stood in a deep gorge of the mountain… and suddenly the mountain fell, it struck me and caught my feet from under me” (Lawall, 21).

In giving the interpretation, Enkidu appears to verify that they would not match up the strength of the gigantic Humbaba when he says that the mountain that he saw is the terrifying demon. However, he is optimistic that “they will seize and kill him” (Lawall, 21). In both the dreams, Gilgamesh is saved and each time refreshed with water; therefore, this seems to foretell the eventual triumph that they will have.

Motivated by the explanations of the dreams, they embarked on a mission to the forest, where Humbaba lives, to cut down the trees. In the forest, they succeeded in killing Humbaba. Moreover, they butchered a semi-divine bull, the Bull of Heaven, which was sent by Anu, the god of the sky, to teach them a lesson for disobeying Ishtar, the goddess of love.

After the success of their mission, Enkidu now dreamt that they had gone contrary to the wishes of the gods so much that one of them must be sacrificed. Thereafter, he quickly succumbed to a fatal disease. When he was sick, Enkidu dreamt of the afterlife in which he saw the earthly privileges of most people scrapped from them. After Enkidu’s death, Gilgamesh moaned the loss of his compatriot, and in spite of his relentless effort to penetrate the mysteries, he never had any significant dreams.

In the Epic of Gilgamesh, dreams are recurrent and since they foreshadow events in the future, they are useful in motivating the characters in their endeavors. For example, Gilgamesh dreams give him the self-confidence he needs to prevail over impediments such as a horrifying monster like Humbaba or the Bull of Heaven by making him to be focused and heroic in his ways.

The dreams persistently were a major source of encouragement for Gilgamesh that is why he even asked the gods for a dream in certain occasions. The relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu was strengthened when they knew what was going to happen in the future since they clung together to fulfill their missions.

In conclusion, it is evident that dreams serve a variety of literary roles all through the story. The main role seems to be in foretelling the future events and ideas thereby building the plot of the story. The story is a mixture of pure adventure, morality, and tragedy and dreams are interpretable as messages from deities intended to communicate to those few mortals of high status in the ancient Mesopotamia society.

Works Cited

Lawall, Sarah. “Gilgamesh.” The Norton Anthology of World Literarture, Vol. A: Beginnings to A.D. 100, 2nd ed. New York: W W Norton & Co Inc, 2003. 10-41. Print.

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