Our criteria for what constitutes an “epic” includes a story containing a heroic or semi-divine figure and told in a formal, elevated style. With these criteria before us, it is impossible to deny that the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest stories known to man, is indeed the epic that it claims to be.
Thematically, the story itself begins with the friendship of Gilgamesh and Enkidu in the first part, and Enkidu’s death with Gilgamesh’s subsequent search for immortality in the second. That such an ancient story deals with such a timeless and oft-repeated theme—man’s yearning for immortality, the idea that it is man’s natural inclination to seek this Holy Grail—is reinforced. We see that from the ancient time of Gilgamesh’s Mesopotamia to our present world, the human condition has remained steadfast in this respect: we yearn for immortality.
Though written down, the power of writing and reading cuneiform was not held by all citizens of Mesopotamia’s cities. As the earliest known form of writing, this still new medium had not yet eradicated a culture that told stories orally, sometimes memorizing hundreds of lines. The oral nature of the cultures that wrote Gilgamesh is very visible in the text. Many lines in Gilgamesh are repeated, especially the capabilities and stations of the characters, as well as actions undertaken. For example, the characterization of Gilgamesh’s mother, Ninsun, is repeated both in the same stanza, as well as one page later:
[The mother of Gilgamesh] was clever and wise,
well versed in everything, she said to her son –
[Wild-Cow] Ninsun was clever and wise,
well versed in everything, she said to Gilgamesh (255-256)
As Walter Ong tells us in Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, oral cultures developed mnemonic patterns to help them with recall. Forming thoughts, or poetry, in
“rhythmic, balanced patterns, in repetitions or anthesis, in alliterations and assonances, in epithetic and other formulary expressions, in standard thematic setting (the assembly, the meal, the duel, the hero’s “helper,” and so on), in proverbs which are constantly heard by everyone so that they come to mind readily and which themselves are patterned for retention and ready recall, or in other mnemonic form. Serious thought is intertwined with memory systems. Mnemonic needs determine even syntax” (Ong 3).
In other words, the reason for repetition within the poem simply reflected the thought and speech patterns held by these oral peoples, and were done for purposes of retention. Looking at Ong’s list of the way poetry was developed in oral cultures, The Epic of Gilgamesh contains rhythmic balanced patterns throughout, repetition, and formulary expressions (as with the flaterring description of Ninsun), standard thematic setting (Enkidu as “the hero’s ‘helper’”, the meal, the meeting, the battle). If Ong is correct and “mnemonic needs determine even syntax”, then the form of the verses and the syntax of the lines in The Epic of Gilgamesh was determined by this need to be easily recalled by those who recite the poem. This differs from today’s writing, in which multiple things, including imagery, theme, etc, determine form.