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Chapter 16

A Levi-Straussian Analysis
of the Epic of Gilgamesh
G. S. Kirk
The Gist of This Chapter
• Kirk suggests that in the Epic of
Gilgamesh, the meaning has to do with the
relationship between two characters, one
of whom is identified with nature and the
other with culture.
Syntagmatic Relationship

The relationship of items on a chain to

each other: that is, in the example
above, the relationship of the Subject of
a sentence to the Verb and of the Verb
to the Object.
Paradigmatic Relationship
The relationship of items that can be
substituted at the same point in a chain. In
the example below, it is the relationship of
“ate” to “licked” and “liked.”
Graphic Representation of
Kirk’s Main Point
• For Claude Levi-Strauss and G. S. Kirk, myth is a mode
of human communication.
• It is the underlying structure of relations that reveals the
real “meaning” of a myth.
• Examples of codes useful for studying myth:
sociological, culinary (or techno-economic), acoustic,
cosmological, astronomical.
• The message of a myth is found in the mediation
between pairs of opposites expressed by these codes.
• For every human society, some pairs of opposites are
more important than others.
Versions of the Epic of Gilgamesh
• 2300 B.C.E. – The Sumerian empire, which
told stories about the great leader
Gilgamesh, was conquered by the
• The main motive, the establishment of a
reputation, is the same in the Sumerian
and the Akkadian versions of the Epic.
Differences between the Sumerian
and Akkadian Versions
• In the Sumerian, Gilgamesh accepts the full
facts of death: he has seen the corpses of
ordinary men and is aware that he will suffer the
same fate.
• In the Sumerian, Enkidu plays a lesser part; he
is the servant of Gilgamesh and not his near-
equal, as in the Akkadian epic.
• In the Sumerian, Enkidu’s death is caused by his
own heedlessness in not following Gilgamesh’s
Differences between the Sumerian
and Akkadian Versions, 2
• In the Akkadian, Enkidu is the wild man
from the desert who is gradually
introduced to civilization and culture.
• In the Akkadian, Enkidu’s death is linked
to what he has become – overly civilized.
He dies because, by association with
Gilgamesh, he has lost his essence as a
person of nature.
Nature–Culture Contrast
• Humans have always considered the
relationship between nature and culture,
the untamed and the tamed, the raw and
the cooked.
• The differences are apparent between the
organization of the village and its
surrounding fields, or the whole cultivated
area and the enfolding forest or desert.
Start of the Poem
Enkidu Encounters the Harlot
Gilgamesh Misbehaves in the City
Enkidu’s Friendship with
Huwawa’s Relationship with
Enkidu and Gilgamesh
The Full Movement of Enkidu
Ishtar’s Love
• Gilgamesh rejects her: she seems to
reverse the position of her lovers between
nature and culture.
• Example: The lion – the embodiment of
power and freedom – through having been
loved by her, is trapped and confined in
the hunter’s pit.
Enkidu’s Curses
• Enkidu sickens and curses three
instruments of his downfall: the gate, the
hunter, and the harlot.
• Two of these three are directly associated
with his passage from nature to culture.
Gilgamesh’s Search for Immortality
• He roams like an animal in the wild – not only
like an animal, but also clad in a wild animal’s
skin. This represents his turning from culture to
• His rejection of the world and of the
appurtenances of culture is a rejection of death
• Later, in returning to Uruk, washed and dressed
in clean clothes, he signifies his resignation to
death and his acceptance of culture as not being
the cause of death.

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