The Restorative Forces of Balance in Stephen Mitchell's Gilgamesh

By David C. Shishido
2011, Vol. 3 No. 09 | pg. 1/1

Stephen Mitchell’s interpretation of the 3500 year old Sumerian epic, Gilgamesh, offers valuable lessons behind its monster-slaying, glory-seeking adventures. One such lesson explores the relationship between extremes and balance. Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk, is the epitome of extremes. He is protective of, yet tyrannical, to his people. He is compassionate yet self-seeking. Not surprisingly, Gilgamesh is reviled as much as he is revered. Despite his extremist nature, Gilgamesh is peculiarly 2/3 divine and 1/3 human, which suggests there exists balance within him. On the surface, Gilgamesh appears to teach the persuasiveness of extremes. After all, Gilgamesh’s journey, which metamorphoses him from an arrogant and self-promoting tyrant into a humble and charitable king, is propelled by extremes. I will argue, however, that in Gilgamesh the true controlling force lies in the power of balance. Balance, rather than extremes, establishes justice and controls the proper order of things in Gilgamesh’s universe. By embracing balance, Gilgamesh is able to restore peace and order to Uruk.

In order to understand the nature of balance in Gilgamesh, we must first understand the nature of extremes. In Gilgamesh, extremes are characterized by rigid perceptions of either-or, or black or white; and by rash actions that lack reflection or deliberation. Extremes, in the text, pervade not only in the stubborn convictions of Gilgamesh, but also in civilization and the divine realm. When Enkidu is first introduced to the reader, he is in an animalistic state. He lacks knowledge of human language as well as human pleasures. Shamhat, however, quickly introduces Enkidu to the ways of civilization. His initiation into society is characterized by a bombardment of extreme pleasure:

Go ahead, Enkidu. This is food,
we humans eat and drink this. Warily
he tasted the bread…
he ate a whole loaf, then ate another,
he ate until he was full, drank seven
pitchers of the beer…
and became fully human

Based on Shamhat’s interpretation, being civilized means partaking in epicurean excesses. In other parts of the text, becoming civilized also means indulging in extremes of sexual fulfillment. “For seven days he [Enkidu] stayed erect and made love with her, until he had had enough” (79). By civilizing Enkidu, Shamhat believes she is bettering Enkidu, liberating him from the confines of his animalistic nature. The gods, however, deem civilization’s pleasure-driven lifestyle as sinful, and punish mankind: “It is right to punish the sinner for his sins, / to punish the criminal for his crime…” (190). The overindulgence that Shamhat and society perceive to be righteous is actually immoral and deserving of chastisement.

Ironically, the gods react with the same extremes engaged in by civilization. Enlil, divine governor of the universe, punishes man’s extreme sin with extreme retribution by sending a massive flood intended to wipe out the entire human race. While surveying the aftermath of the flood, Ea laments over the gods’ misjudgment: “…how did it happen that you [Enlil] so recklessly / sent the Great Flood to destroy mankind?... / be merciful, do not allow all men / to die because of the sins of some” (190). The Great Flood sent to punish civilization for its sin appears to restore order. Because mankind’s population is reduced, there is, of course, a dramatic reduction of sinful behavior. The genuine anguish of the gods, however, teaches that equally severe and extreme punishments do not reestablish order. Rather, they promote further unnecessary destruction. If the gods were to celebrate in unanimous joy we could assume that Gilgamesh teaches the righteousness of extremes. Gilgamesh, instead, makes a statement about the flawed, extremist views of pleasure that human civilization espouses. Through the Flood, we learn that the destructive nature of extremes pervades beyond civilization into the realm of gods. What mankind perceives as righteous is actually destructive. Similarly, what the gods believe reestablishes order actually promotes chaos. In this way, Gilgamesh illustrates the danger of extremes.

In Gilgamesh, extremes may appear to be beneficial, but are often quite harmful. At the same time, balance may appear harmful, but is actually the force that provides order and equilibrium in Gilgamesh’s universe. Gilgamesh, 2/3 divine and 1/3 human, fervently believes his mixed composition is a curse. “We are not gods, we cannot ascend / to heaven. No, we are mortal men…Our days / are few in number, and whatever we achieve / is a puff of wind” (94). Unwilling to accept his balanced nature, Gilgamesh perceives his world through black and white. In doing so, Gilgamesh limits himself to extremist generalizations that he must either achieve complete godliness, or, if he is unable to do so, die gloriously in battle to imprint his name in history forever. Gilgamesh proclaims, “…I will cut down the tree, I will kill Humbaba, / I will make a lasting name for myself, / I will stamp my fame on men’s minds forever” (94). Gilgamesh’s obsession regarding the inadequacy of his 1/3 human composition is thus the driving force of his warrior ethos. Instead of questioning how his balanced nature can contribute to his purpose in life, Gilgamesh embarks on a journey propelled by extremes: to maximize the potential of his 1/3 human nature by achieving everlasting fame. Gilgamesh reasons that if he cannot achieve total godliness, he will become the greatest warrior humanly possible. The journey that Gilgamesh begins will prove futile and full of anguish.

In Gilgamesh, the forces of balance are often not apparent. What may appear to be a monster may not be a monster at all. Simultaneously, those who appear to be noble and mighty may actually be selfish and tyrannical. Even when manifested, balance can appear harmful but is actually the force that establishes order and stability in Gilgamesh’s universe. When Gilgamesh spontaneously announces that he will rid the world of evil, he chooses Humbaba, the terrifying protector of the Cedar Forest, as his victim. Before his death, Humbaba pleads, “You know that this is my place and that I am the forest’s guardian. Enlil put me here to terrify men, and I guard the forest as Enlil ordains” (126). Gilgamesh’s justification for murdering Humbaba, to rid the world of evil, is flawed. Humbaba is neither good nor evil. Rather, he is balanced. Humbaba is a complex creation of the gods whose purpose is to horrify men who try to destroy the Cedar Forest. While Humbaba may seem terrible and murderous to human civilization, to the natural world he is noble and grand because he protects nature. Humbaba is simply the protector of the Cedar Forest, acting in accordance with his intended purpose to prevent man from disturbing the balanced state of nature by cutting down trees. By introducing his warrior ethos and disrupting balance, Gilgamesh upsets the natural order of his universe.

Similarly, the Bull of Heaven, which appears to serve no other purpose than to be physically destructive, has a beneficial purpose in Gilgamesh. The Bull of Heaven is actually a force of balance, much like Humbaba. The oxymoronic nature of the Bull of Heaven’s name suggests its balanced nature. The word “Bull” suggests that it is a creature of rampaging power, while the word “Heaven” suggests that it is divine. The bull’s divine and destructive power is indeed awesome: “When the Bull snorted, the earth cracked open / and a hundred warriors fell in and died” (137). Because the Bull is sent to Earth to punish Gilgamesh for slandering Ishtar, it acts as a counterweight to Gilgamesh’s transgressions, and serves to maintain balance on the divine scale of justice. By slaying the Bull of Heaven, Gilgamesh and Enkidu disturb this divine scale of justice: “Not only did Gilgamesh slander me [Ishtar]—now the brute has killed his own punishment, the Bull of Heaven” (138). Enkidu—who has adopted Gilgamesh’s extremist warrior ethos—epitomizes the arrogance of this mindset in his reaction to Ishtar’s lament: “… [Enkidu] laughed, / he reached down, ripped off one of the Bull’s / thighs, and flung it in Ishtar’s face. If only I could catch you, this is what / I would do to you, I would rip you apart / and drape the Bull’s guts over your arms” (140)! By embracing the warrior ethos, Enkidu, formerly meek and timid, elicits the wrath of the gods through his extreme insolence. Consequently, Anu directs, “They have slaughtered the Bull of Heaven and killed / Humbaba… / Therefore one of the two must die” (141). Gilgamesh thus teaches that transgressions elicit inevitable punishment. The transgression of killing the Bull of Heaven, a force of balance, results in the tragic death of Gilgamesh’s beloved friend, Enkidu.

While Gilgamesh’s murder of Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven ends with the tragic death of Enkidu, Gilgamesh’s encounter with the scorpion people demonstrates the beneficial effects of embracing balance and moderation. The scorpion people are physically terrifying: “The sight of these two inspired such terror that it could kill an ordinary man… / When Gilgamesh saw them he was pierced with dread” (160). The scorpion people guard Gilgamesh’s path through the Twin Peaks. The dangerous nature of scorpions suggests that these two pose a threat to Gilgamesh. Despite their foreboding presence, however, the scorpion people turn out to be kind and courteous. “This brave man, driven by despair, his body frost-chilled, exhausted, and burnt by the desert sun—show him the way to Utnapishtim” (162). Gilgamesh, for the first time, acts in moderation and restrains his urge to fight the scorpion people. The scorpion people duly reward Gilgamesh by showing him mercy and allowing him to progress to the next stage of his journey without unnecessary danger. In this way Gilgamesh teaches the utility of balance through restraint.

While the scorpion people are strikingly similar to Humbaba—both are balanced and act as guardians of their respective domains—Gilgamesh’s approach to both are very different. When Gilgamesh acts on his warrior ethos and kills Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven, his journey is hindered by the tragic loss of Enkidu. When Gilgamesh refrains from violence and opts for moderation, the scorpion people reward him with peaceful passage through the Twin Peaks. From the severe ramifications of murdering Humbaba and slaughtering the Bull of Heaven (Enkidu’s death) and through the benefits acquired from acting in moderation with the scorpion people (peaceful continuation of his quest), Gilgamesh teaches the salutary effects of balance.

While extremes bring despair to Gilgamesh, balance ultimately aids Gilgamesh and restores his world. This occurs most poignantly when Gilgamesh finally embraces his mixed and, in reality, perfectly balanced nature. Gilgamesh’s 2/3 divine and 1/3 human composition is actually a blessing, rather than a curse. There is truly nothing wrong with Gilgamesh’s mixed nature; rather, the fallacy lies in Gilgamesh’s self-perception of inadequacy. Although Gilgamesh’s 1/3 human composition initially causes him to be self-seeking in undertaking a quest for everlasting glory, Gilgamesh’s mortality ultimately allows him the humbleness and humility to be a great king. Similarly, while his 2/3 divine nature initially stirs up feelings of arrogance and superiority within him, it ultimately allows Gilgamesh to accomplish great feats for the people of Uruk. Gilgamesh, “restore[s] the temples that the Flood had destroyed, renew[s] the statutes and sacraments for the welfare of the people and the sacred land” (72). By associating Gilgamesh with the Great Flood, symbolic of Gilgamesh’s former destructive nature, the text suggests that a metamorphosis has occurred within our hero. Gilgamesh becomes the restorative force in his world, creating a virtual renaissance for Uruk and its citizens: “Examine its brickwork, how masterfully it is built, / observe the land…the gardens, / the orchards, the glorious palaces and temples, the shops / and marketplaces, the houses and the public squares” (199). The magnificence in which Uruk is described suggests that the city emerged prosperous despite the previous oppression under Gilgamesh. By embracing all aspects of balance, including both acceptance of the self and moderate actions and perceptions, Gilgamesh betters his universe.


Mitchell, Stephen. Gilgamesh A New English Version. New York: Free Press, 2004. Print.

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