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Plot Overview

Nine years after the start of the Trojan War, the Greek (Achaean) army sacks
Chryse, a town allied with Troy. During the battle, the Achaeans capture a pair
of beautiful maidens, Chryseis and Briseis. Agamemnon, the leader of the
Achaean forces, takes Chryseis as his prize, and Achilles, the Achaeans
greatest warrior, claims Briseis. Chryseiss father, Chryses, who serves as a
priest of the god Apollo, offers an enormous ransom in return for his daughter,
but Agamemnon refuses to give Chryseis back. Chryses then prays to Apollo,
who sends a plague upon the Achaean camp.

After many Achaeans die, Agamemnon consults the prophet Calchas to

determine the cause of the plague. When he learns that Chryseis is the
cause, he reluctantly gives her up but then demands Briseis from Achilles as
compensation. Furious at this insult, Achilles returns to his tent in the army
camp and refuses to fight in the war any longer. He vengefully yearns to see
the Achaeans destroyed and asks his mother, the sea-nymph Thetis, to enlist
the services of Zeus, king of the gods, toward this end. The Trojan and
Achaean sides have declared a cease-fire with each other, but now the
Trojans breach the treaty and Zeus comes to their aid.

With Zeus supporting the Trojans and Achilles refusing to fight, the Achaeans
suffer great losses. Several days of fierce conflict ensue, including duels
between Paris and Menelaus and between Hectorand Ajax. The Achaeans
make no progress; even the heroism of the great Achaean warrior Diomedes
proves fruitless. The Trojans push the Achaeans back, forcing them to take
refuge behind the ramparts that protect their ships. The Achaeans begin to
nurture some hope for the future when a nighttime reconnaissance mission by
Diomedes and Odysseus yields information about the Trojans plans, but the
next day brings disaster. Several Achaean commanders become wounded,
and the Trojans break through the Achaean ramparts. They advance all the
way up to the boundary of the Achaean camp and set fire to one of the ships.
Defeat seems imminent, because without the ships, the army will be stranded
at Troy and almost certainly destroyed.

Concerned for his comrades but still too proud to help them himself, Achilles
agrees to a plan proposed by Nestor that will allow his beloved friend
Patroclus to take his place in battle, wearing his armor. Patroclus is a fine
warrior, and his presence on the battlefield helps the Achaeans push the
Trojans away from the ships and back to the city walls. But the counterattack
soon falters. Apollo knocks Patrocluss armor to the ground, and Hector slays
him. Fighting then breaks out as both sides try to lay claim to the body and
armor. Hector ends up with the armor, but the Achaeans, thanks to a
courageous effort by Menelaus and others, manage to bring the body back to
their camp. When Achilles discovers that Hector has killed Patroclus, he fills
with such grief and rage that he agrees to reconcile with Agamemnon and
rejoin the battle. Thetis goes to Mount Olympus and persuades the god
Hephaestus to forge Achilles a new suit of armor, which she presents to him
the next morning. Achilles then rides out to battle at the head of the Achaean

Meanwhile, Hector, not expecting Achilles to rejoin the battle, has ordered his
men to camp outside the walls of Troy. But when the Trojan army glimpses
Achilles, it flees in terror back behind the city walls. Achilles cuts down every
Trojan he sees. Strengthened by his rage, he even fights the god of the river
Xanthus, who is angered that Achilles has caused so many corpses to fall into
his streams. Finally, Achilles confronts Hector outside the walls of Troy.
Ashamed at the poor advice that he gave his comrades, Hector refuses to flee
inside the city with them. Achilles chases him around the citys periphery three
times, but the goddess Athena finally tricks Hector into turning around and
fighting Achilles. In a dramatic duel, Achilles kills Hector. He then lashes the
body to the back of his chariot and drags it across the battlefield to the
Achaean camp. Upon Achilles arrival, the triumphant Achaeans celebrate
Patrocluss funeral with a long series of athletic games in his honor. Each day
for the next nine days, Achilles drags Hectors body in circles around
Patrocluss funeral bier.

At last, the gods agree that Hector deserves a proper burial. Zeus sends the
god Hermes to escort King Priam, Hectors father and the ruler of Troy, into
the Achaean camp. Priam tearfully pleads with Achilles to take pity on a father
bereft of his son and return Hectors body. He invokes the memory of Achilles
own father, Peleus. Deeply moved, Achilles finally relents and returns Hectors
corpse to the Trojans. Both sides agree to a temporary truce, and Hector
receives a heros funeral.

Themes, Motifs & Symbols


Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary

One can make a strong argument that The Iliad seems to celebrate war.
Characters emerge as worthy or despicable based on their degree of
competence and bravery in battle. Paris, for example, doesnt like to fight, and
correspondingly receives the scorn of both his family and his lover. Achilles,
on the other hand, wins eternal glory by explicitly rejecting the option of a
long, comfortable, uneventful life at home. The text itself seems to support this
means of judging character and extends it even to the gods. The epic holds
up warlike deities such as Athena for the readers admiration while it makes
fun of gods who run from aggression, using the timidity of Aphrodite and
Artemis to create a scene of comic relief. To fight is to prove ones honor and
integrity, while to avoid warfare is to demonstrate laziness, ignoble fear, or
misaligned priorities.
To be sure, The Iliad doesnt ignore the realities of war. Men die gruesome
deaths; women become slaves and concubines, estranged from their tearful
fathers and mothers; a plague breaks out in the Achaean camp and decimates
the army. In the face of these horrors, even the mightiest warriors occasionally
experience fear, and the poet tells us that both armies regret that the war ever
began. Though Achilles points out that all men, whether brave or cowardly,
meet the same death in the end, the poem never asks the reader to question
the legitimacy of the ongoing struggle. Homer never implies that the fight
constitutes a waste of time or human life. Rather, he portrays each side as
having a justifiable reason to fight and depicts warfare as a respectable and
even glorious manner of settling the dispute.

A theme in The Iliad closely related to the glory of war is the predominance of
military glory over family. The text clearly admires the reciprocal bonds of
deference and obligation that bind Homeric families together, but it respects
much more highly the pursuit of kleos, the glory or renown that one wins in
the eyes of others by performing great deeds. Homer constantly forces his
characters to choose between their loved ones and the quest for kleos, and
the most heroic characters invariably choose the latter. Andromache pleads
with Hector not to risk orphaning his son, but Hector knows that fighting
among the front ranks represents the only means of winning my father great
glory. Paris, on the other hand, chooses to spend time with Helen rather than
fight in the war; accordingly, both the text and the other characters treat him
with derision. Achilles debates returning home to live in ease with his aging
father, but he remains at Troy to win glory by killing Hector and avenging
Patroclus. The gravity of the decisions that Hector and Achilles make is
emphasized by the fact that each knows his fate ahead of time. The
characters prize so highly the martial values of honor, noble bravery, and glory
that they willingly sacrifice the chance to live a long life with those they love.

Although The Iliad chronicles a very brief period in a very long war, it remains
acutely conscious of the specific ends awaiting each of the people involved.
Troy is destined to fall, as Hector explains to his wife in Book 6. The text
announces that Priam and all of his children will dieHector dies even before
the close of the poem. Achilles will meet an early end as well, although not
within the pages of The Iliad. Homer constantly alludes to this event,
especially toward the end of the epic, making clear that even the greatest of
men cannot escape death. Indeed, he suggests that the very greatestthe
noblest and bravestmay yield to death sooner than others.
Similarly, The Iliad recognizes, and repeatedly reminds its readers, that the
creations of mortals have a mortality of their own. The glory of men does not
live on in their constructions, institutions, or cities. The prophecy of Calchas,
as well as Hectors tender words with Andromache and the debates of the
gods, constantly remind the reader that Troys lofty ramparts will fall. But the
Greek fortifications will not last much longer. Though the Greeks erect their
bulwarks only partway into the epic, Apollo and Poseidon plan their
destruction as early as Book 12. The poem thus emphasizes the ephemeral
nature of human beings and their world, suggesting that mortals should try to
live their lives as honorably as possible, so that they will be remembered well.
For if mortals physical bodies and material creations cannot survive them,
perhaps their words and deeds can. Certainly the existence of Homers poem
would attest to this notion.

Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to
develop and inform the texts major themes.
One would naturally expect a martial epic to depict men in arms, but armor
in The Iliad emerges as something more than merely a protective cover for a
soldiers body. In fact, Homer often portrays a heros armor as having an aura
of its own, separate from its wearer. In one of the epics more tender scenes,
Hector removes his helmet to keep its horsehair crest from frightening his son
Astyanax. When Patroclus wears Achilles armor to scare the Trojans and
drive them from the ships, Apollo and Hector quickly see through the disguise.
Then, when a fight breaks out over Patrocluss fallen body, the armor goes
one way and the corpse another. Hector dons the armor, but it ends up
betraying him, as it were, in favor of its former owner. Achilles knowledge of
its vulnerabilities makes it easier for him to run Hector through with his sword.
By this point in the story, Achilles has a new set of armor, fashioned by the
god Hephaestus, which also seems to have a life of its own. While Achilles
mortal body can be woundedand indeed, the poem reminds us of Achilles
impending death on many occasionsHomer describes the divine armor as
virtually impervious to assault.

While martial epics naturally touch upon the subject of burial, The Iliad lingers
over it. The burial of Hector is given particular attention, as it marks the
melting of Achilles crucial rage. The mighty Trojan receives a spectacular
funeral that comes only after an equally spectacular fight over his corpse.
Patrocluss burial also receives much attention in the text, as Homer devotes
an entire book to the funeral and games in the warriors honor. The poem also
describes burials unconnected to particular characters, such as in Book 7,
when both armies undertake a large-scale burial of their largely unnamed
dead. The Iliads interest in burial partly reflects the interests of ancient Greek
culture as a whole, which stressed proper burial as a requirement for the
souls peaceful rest. However, it also reflects the grim outlook of The Iliad, its
interest in the relentlessness of fate and the impermanence of human life.
Fire emerges as a recurrent image in The Iliad, often associated with internal
passions such as fury or rage, but also with their external manifestations.
Homer describes Achilles as blazing in Book 1 and compares the sparkle of
his freshly donned armor to the sun. Moreover, the poem often compares a
heros charge or an onslaught of troops to a conflagration sweeping through a
field. But fire doesnt appear just allegorically or metaphorically; it appears
materially as well. The Trojans light fires in Book 8 to watch the Achaean army
and to prevent it from slipping away by night. They constantly threaten the
Achaean ships with fire and indeed succeed in torching one of them. Thus,
whether present literally or metaphorically, the frequency with which fire
appears in The Iliad indicates the poems over-arching concern with instances
of profound power and destruction.

Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent

abstract ideas or concepts.

The Achaean ships symbolize the future of the Greek race. They constitute
the armys only means of conveying itself home, whether in triumph or defeat.
Even if the Achaean army were to lose the war, the ships could bring back
survivors; the ships destruction, however, would mean the annihilationor
automatic exileof every last soldier. Homer implies that some men shirked
the war and stayed in Greece, while others, such as Peleus, were too old to
fight. However, to Homers original audience, the Achaean warriors at Troy
represented more than a mere subpopulation of the Greek race. Homers
contemporaries believed that the heroes represented here actually lived
historically, as real kings who ruled the various city-states of Greece in their
earliest years. Ancient audiences regarded them as playing definitive roles in
the formation and development of Greece as they knew it. The mass death of
these leaders and role models would have meant the decimation of a


The Iliad is an extremely compressed narrative. Although it treats many of the

themes of human experience, it does so within the scope of a few days out of
a ten-year war. The shield constitutes only a tiny part in this martial saga, a
single piece of armor on a single man in one of the armiesyet it provides
perspective on the entire war. Depicting normal life in peacetime, it symbolizes
the world beyond the battlefield, and implies that war constitutes only one
aspect of existence. Life as a whole, the shield reminds us, includes feasts
and dances and marketplaces and crops being harvested. Human beings may
serve not only as warriors but also as artisans and laborers in the fields. Not
only do they work, they also play, as the shield depicts with its dancing
children. Interestingly, although Homer glorifies war and the life of the warrior
throughout most of his epic, his depiction of everyday life as it appears on the
shield comes across as equally noble, perhaps preferable.
The Trojans have just set sail from Sicily on the last leg of their voyage to Italy when the
goddess Juno commands Aeolus, god of the winds, to raise a storm, which drives the
Trojan fleet to the coast of Libya, site of Carthage. Dido, the city's ruler, welcomes them.
She gives a banquet in honor of their leader, Aeneas, at which she asks him to narrate
the Trojans's adventures to date.

Aeneas tells how Troy fell to the Greeks on the night they invaded it by means of a
wooden horse. Among other incidents, he describes the murder of Troy's King Priam by
the Greek warrior Pyrrhus; the death of his own wife, Creusa; and his own escape with
his father, Anchises, his son, Ascanius, and a band of fellow warriors.

On their westward sea voyage, Aeneas continues, the Trojans stopped first at Thrace,
where they began to establish a settlement. However, because the ghost of Priam's
youngest son, Polydorus, who was killed by Thrace's king, warned Aeneas to flee
Thrace, the Trojans left the region and sailed to the island of Delos. There, Aeneas
consulted an oracle of Apollo, who told him to seek his ancient homeland, which
Anchises understood to be the island of Crete. Unfortunately, when the Trojans reached
Crete, they realized that their rightful goal was Italy, so they again set sail. On an island
in the Strophads, they were tormented by Harpies, vicious bird-women, whom they
escaped by sailing to Actium and then to Buthrotum.

On Buthrotum, Aeneas and his fellow Trojans were welcomed by its ruler, Priam's son
Helenus, and Helenus's wife, Andromach, the widow of the great Trojan warrior Hector.
Helenus advised Aeneas how to reach Italy, and the warriors sailed on to Sicily, where
Anchises died at a stopover in Drepanum, whose king, Acests, received them
hospitably. Finally, bringing his story up-to-date and back to the starting point of the
narrative, Aeneas describes how the Trojans set forth from Sicily, only to be overcome
by the storm that swept them off course.

Dido, inspired with love for Aeneas, confesses her fatal passion to her sister, Anna, who
encourages the queen to satisfy it. Juno, hoping to delay Aeneas's arrival in Italy, and
Venus, Aeneas's mother, hoping to ensure her son's safety, cooperate to see that
Aeneas and Dido are joined in a sexual union, which the queen regards as a marriage.
Aware that the Trojan prince is wasting valuable time with Dido, Jupiter, the king of the
gods, sends Mercury to instruct Aeneas to sail from Carthage, which Aeneas reluctantly
does. Dido, distraught by her lover's departure, puts a curse on the Trojans, the
outcome of which will be the Punic Wars, and then commits suicide.

After the Trojans leave Carthage, another storm drives them back to Sicily, where
Acests again gives them a warm welcome. A year has passed since the death of
Anchises, in whose honor sacrifices are now made and funeral games are held. Juno,
acting through the goddess Iris, incites the Trojan women tired after seven years of
wandering and ready to settle permanently to burn the ships. Entreated by Aeneas,
Jupiter puts out the fire with rain, saving all but four of the ships. Aeneas, advised by
Anchises's ghost, permits any Trojan who wishes to remain in Sicily to do so. Those who
want to continue on to Italy are about to sail when Venus, fearing that Juno will again
cause trouble, asks the sea god Neptune to guarantee a safe voyage for her son.
Neptune does as Venus asks in exchange for one human life, which turns out to be that
of Aeneas's ship's pilot, Palinurus, who falls overboard but ably swims to land, only to be
slain by savages.

At last, the Trojans reach Italy, known as Latium. Landing at Cumae, Aeneas consults a
sibyl and with her visits the underworld. He is welcomed by Anchises's ghost, who
describes to him Rome's future and its heroes.

Having seen this vision of Rome's glory, Aeneas begins to establish a settlement in
Latium, granted permission to do so by Latium's King Latinus, who is convinced that the
Trojans are favored by destiny and so wants to cooperate with them. However, Latinus is
frustrated by his subjects, who, under the leadership of the Rutulian prince Turnus, do
not trust Aeneas and want to force the Trojans from Latium. Latinus is also besieged by
the antagonism of his wife, Amata, who sides with Turnus, to whom she wishes to marry
her and Latinus's daughter, Lavinia. Additionally, Latinus is unaware that Juno is plotting
the outbreak of war between Aeneas and Turnus.

When war between the Trojans and the Latins becomes inevitable, Aeneas enlists the
help of Evander, king of Pallanteum (site of the future Rome), and the Etruscans, who
have rebelled against their evil king, Mezentius, Turnus's ally. While Aeneas is out
securing this support, the battle between the Trojans and Turnus's forces begins. After
Aeneas returns with help from Pallanteum, the war reaches its full fury. Turnus kills
Evander's son, Pallas; Aeneas reluctantly slays Lausus, the son of Mezentius; and
Mezentius himself is hacked down at the hands of Aeneas.
The Trojans, on their way to victory, assault Laurentum, the citadel of the now-
demoralized Latins. Latinus wants peace more than ever, but Turnus stubbornly
opposes any type of settlement. After the defeat and death of the warrior maiden
Camilla, his ally in battle, Turnus offers to confront Aeneas in single combat, with the
understanding that the winner will marry Lavinia and the war cease. After a final attempt
by Juno to frustrate the Trojans and Rutulians into breaking the truce, the fight takes
place. Aeneas first wounds and then slays Turnus. With this decisive victory, the epic

Themes, Motifs & Symbols


Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary

The direction and destination of Aeneass course are preordained, and his
various sufferings and glories in battle and at sea over the course of the epic
merely postpone this unchangeable destiny. The power of fate stands above
the power of the gods in the hierarchy of supernatural forces. Often it is
associated with the will of Jupiter, the most powerful of the Olympians.
Because Jupiters will trumps the wills of all others, the interference in
Aeneass life by the lesser gods, who strive to advance their personal interests
as much as they can within the contours of the larger destiny, do not really
affect the overall outcome of events.
The development of individual characters in the epic is apparent in the
readiness and resistance with which they meet the directives of fate. Juno
and Turnus both fight destiny every step of the way, and so the epics final
resolution involves a transformation in each of them, as a result of which they
resign themselves to fate and allow the story, at last, to arrive at its destined
end. Dido desires Aeneas, whom fate denies her, and her desire consumes
her. Aeneas preserves his sanity, as well as his own life and those of his men,
by subordinating his own anxieties and desires to the demands of fate and the
rules of piety. Fate, to Virgils Roman audience, is a divine, religious principle
that determines the course of history and has culminated in the Roman

The first half of the Aeneid tells the story of the Trojans wanderings as they
make their way from Troy to Italy. Ancient culture was oriented toward familial
loyalty and geographic origin, and stressed the idea that a homeland is ones
source of identity. Because homelessness implies instability of both situation
and identity, it is a form of suffering in and of itself. But Virgil adds to the
sufferings of the wandering Trojans by putting them at the mercy of forces
larger than themselves. On the sea, their fleet buffeted by frequent storms, the
Trojans must repeatedly decide on a course of action in an uncertain world.
The Trojans also feel disoriented each time they land on an unknown shore or
learn where they are without knowing whether it is the place where they
belong. As an experience that, from the point of view of the Trojans, is
uncertain in every way, the long wanderings at sea serve as a metaphor for
the kind of wandering that is characteristic of life in general. We and Virgils
Roman audience know what fate has in store for the Trojans, but the
wandering characters themselves do not. Because these individual human
beings are not always privy to the larger picture of destiny, they are still
vulnerable to fears, surprises, desires, and unforeseen triumphs.

Virgil wrote the Aeneid during what is known as the Golden Age of the Roman
Empire, under the auspices of Romes first emperor, Caesar Augustus. Virgils
purpose was to write a myth of Romes origins that would emphasize the
grandeur and legitimize the success of an empire that had conquered most of
the known world. The Aeneid steadily points toward this already realized
cultural pinnacle; Aeneas even justifies his settlement in Latium in the same
manner that the empire justified its settlement in numerous other foreign
territories. Virgil works backward, connecting the political and social situation
of his own day with the inherited tradition of the Greek gods and heroes, to
show the former as historically derived from the latter. Order and good
government triumph emphatically over the Italian peoples, whose world prior
to the Trojans arrival is characterized as a primitive existence of war, chaos,
and emotional irrationality. By contrast, the empire under Augustus was
generally a world of peace, order, and emotional stability.

Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to
develop and inform the texts major themes.

Prophecy and prediction take many forms in the Aeneid, including dreams,
visitations from the dead, mysterious signs and omens, and direct visitations
of the gods or their divine messengers. These windows onto the future orient
mortal characters toward fate as they try to glean, sometimes clearly and
sometimes dimly, what is to come. Virgils audience, however, hears these
predictions with the advantage of hindsight, looking backward to observe the
realization of an already accomplished fate. As observers who know about the
future, the audience is in the same position as the gods, and the tension
between the audiences and the characters perspectives therefore emulates
the difference between the position of mortals and that of gods.

The mission to build a new city is an obsession for Aeneas and the Trojans. In
Book II, Aeneas relates the story of Troys destruction to Dido, who is herself
recently displaced and in the process of founding a new city of her own. In
Book III, Virgil relates several attempts undertaken by the Trojans to lay the
foundations for a city, all of which were thwarted by ill omens or plague.
Aeneas also frequently uses the image of the realized city to inspire his
people when their spirits flag. The walls, foundation, or towers of a city stand
for civilization and order itself, a remedy for the uncertainty, irrationality, and
confusion that result from wandering without a home.


Avenging a wrong, especially the death of a loved one, is an important

element of heroic culture and a pervasive motif in the Aeneid. The most
prominent instance of vengeance comes in the final lines of the poem.
Aeneas, having decided to spare Turnus, changes his mind when reminded of
the slain Pallas, whose belt Turnus wears as a trophy. It would be considered
dishonorable and disloyal to allow Pallass death go unpunished. Vengeance
comes in other, perhaps less noble, forms as well. Didos suicide is at least
partly an act of revenge on Aeneas, and she curses him as one of her last
acts. The Harpies act out of vengefulness when they curse Aeneas for having
killed their livestock. Similarly, the struggles of the gods against one another
are likewise motivated by spite and revenge: the history of bruised vanity, left
over from Pariss judgment of Venus as the fairest goddess, largely motivates
Junos aggressive behavior against the Trojans and Venus, their divine

Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent

abstract ideas or concepts.

Fire symbolizes both destruction and erotic desire or love. With images of
flames, Virgil connects the two. Pariss desire for Helen eventually leads to the
fires of the siege of Troy. When Dido confesses her love for Aeneas to Anna,
her sister, she begins, I recognize / the signs of the old flame, of old desire
(IV.3132). Dido also recalls her previous marriage in the thought of the torch
and the bridal bed (IV.25). Torches limit the power of flames by controlling
them, but the new love ignited in Didos heart is never regulated by the
institution of marriage, the bridal bed. The flames she feels do not keep her
warm but rather consume her mind. Virgil describes the way she dies in the
synonymous terms enflamed and driven mad (IV.965).

According to the Sibyl, the priestess of Apollo, the golden bough is the symbol
Aeneas must carry in order to gain access to the underworld. It is unusual for
mortals to be allowed to visit the realm of the dead and then return to life. The
golden bough is therefore the sign of Aeneass special privilege.


The opening of these gates indicates a declaration of war in a tradition that

was still recognized even in Virgils own day. That it is Juno rather than a king
or even Turnus who opens the gates emphasizes the way immortal beings
use mortals to settle scores. The Gates of War thus symbolize the chaos of a
world in which divine force, often antagonistic to the health and welfare of
mortals, overpowers human will and desire.


The hearth gods of Troy, or penates as they are called in Latin, are mentioned
repeatedly throughout the epic. They are symbols of locality and ancestry,
tribal gods associated specifically with the city of Troy, who reside in the
household hearth. Aeneas gathers them up along with his family when he
departs from his devastated home, and they symbolize the continuity of Troy
as it is transplanted to a new physical location.

The gods use weather as a force to express their will. The storm that Juno
sends at the beginning of the epic symbolizes her rage. Venus, on the other
hand, shows her affection for the Trojans by bidding the sea god, Neptune, to
protect them. In Book IV, Venus and Juno conspire to isolate Dido and Aeneas
in a cave by sending a storm to disrupt their hunting trip, symbolizing the
rupture of normal social codes as well. Greek and Roman mythology has a
tendency to make its symbols literal in this wayto connect the seen (a
storm, for example) with the unseen (divine will) causally and dramatically.
Plot Overview

The epics prelude offers a general introduction to Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, who was
two-thirds god and one-third man. He built magnificent ziggurats, or temple towers,
surrounded his city with high walls, and laid out its orchards and fields. He was
physically beautiful, immensely strong, and very wise. Although Gilgamesh was
godlike in body and mind, he began his kingship as a cruel despot. He lorded over his
subjects, raping any woman who struck his fancy, whether she was the wife of one of
his warriors or the daughter of a nobleman. He accomplished his building projects
with forced labor, and his exhausted subjects groaned under his oppression. The gods
heard his subjects pleas and decided to keep Gilgamesh in check by creating a wild
man named Enkidu, who was as magnificent as Gilgamesh. Enkidu became
Gilgameshs great friend, and Gilgameshs heart was shattered when Enkidu died of
an illness inflicted by the gods. Gilgamesh then traveled to the edge of the world and
learned about the days before the deluge and other secrets of the gods, and he
recorded them on stone tablets.
The epic begins with Enkidu. He lives with the animals, suckling at their breasts,
grazing in the meadows, and drinking at their watering places. A hunter discovers him
and sends a temple prostitute into the wilderness to tame him. In that time, people
considered women and sex calming forces that could domesticate wild men like
Enkidu and bring them into the civilized world. When Enkidu sleeps with the woman,
the animals reject him since he is no longer one of them. Now, he is part of the human
world. Then the harlot teaches him everything he needs to know to be a man. Enkidu
is outraged by what he hears about Gilgameshs excesses, so he travels to Uruk to
challenge him. When he arrives, Gilgamesh is about to force his way into a brides
wedding chamber. Enkidu steps into the doorway and blocks his passage. The two
men wrestle fiercely for a long time, and Gilgamesh finally prevails. After that, they
become friends and set about looking for an adventure to share.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu decide to steal trees from a distant cedar forest forbidden to
mortals. A terrifying demon named Humbaba, the devoted servant of Enlil, the god of
earth, wind, and air, guards it. The two heroes make the perilous journey to the forest,
and, standing side by side, fight with the monster. With assistance from Shamash the
sun god, they kill him. Then they cut down the forbidden trees, fashion the tallest into
an enormous gate, make the rest into a raft, and float on it back to Uruk. Upon their
return, Ishtar, the goddess of love, is overcome with lust for Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh
spurns her. Enraged, the goddess asks her father, Anu, the god of the sky, to send the
Bull of Heaven to punish him. The bull comes down from the sky, bringing with him
seven years of famine. Gilgamesh and Enkidu wrestle with the bull and kill it. The
gods meet in council and agree that one of the two friends must be punished for their
transgression, and they decide Enkidu is going to die. He takes ill, suffers immensely,
and shares his visions of the underworld with Gilgamesh. When he finally dies,
Gilgamesh is heartbroken.

Gilgamesh cant stop grieving for Enkidu, and he cant stop brooding about the
prospect of his own death. Exchanging his kingly garments for animal skins as a way
of mourning Enkidu, he sets off into the wilderness, determined to find Utnapishtim,
the Mesopotamian Noah. After the flood, the gods had granted Utnapishtim eternal
life, and Gilgamesh hopes that Utnapishtim can tell him how he might avoid death
too. Gilgameshs journey takes him to the twin-peaked mountain called Mashu, where
the sun sets into one side of the mountain at night and rises out of the other side in the
morning. Utnapishtim lives beyond the mountain, but the two scorpion monsters that
guard its entrance refuse to allow Gilgamesh into the tunnel that passes through it.
Gilgamesh pleads with them, and they relent.
After a harrowing passage through total darkness, Gilgamesh emerges into a beautiful
garden by the sea. There he meets Siduri, a veiled tavern keeper, and tells her about
his quest. She warns him that seeking immortality is futile and that he should be
satisfied with the pleasures of this world. However, when she cant turn him away
from his purpose, she directs him to Urshanabi, the ferryman. Urshanabi takes
Gilgamesh on the boat journey across the sea and through the Waters of Death to
Utnapishtim. Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh the story of the floodhow the gods met in
council and decided to destroy humankind. Ea, the god of wisdom, warned
Utnapishtim about the gods plans and told him how to fashion a gigantic boat in
which his family and the seed of every living creature might escape. When the waters
finally receded, the gods regretted what theyd done and agreed that they would never
try to destroy humankind again. Utnapishtim was rewarded with eternal life. Men
would die, but humankind would continue.
When Gilgamesh insists that he be allowed to live forever, Utnapishtim gives him a
test. If you think you can stay alive for eternity, he says, surely you can stay awake for
a week. Gilgamesh tries and immediately fails. So Utnapishtim orders him to clean
himself up, put on his royal garments again, and return to Uruk where he belongs. Just
as Gilgamesh is departing, however, Utnapishtims wife convinces him to tell
Gilgamesh about a miraculous plant that restores youth. Gilgamesh finds the plant and
takes it with him, planning to share it with the elders of Uruk. But a snake steals the
plant one night while they are camping. As the serpent slithers away, it sheds its skin
and becomes young again.

When Gilgamesh returns to Uruk, he is empty-handed but reconciled at last to his

mortality. He knows that he cant live forever but that humankind will. Now he sees
that the city he had repudiated in his grief and terror is a magnificent, enduring
achievementthe closest thing to immortality to which a mortal can aspire.

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols


Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

Love, both erotic and platonic, motivates change in Gilgamesh. Enkidu changes from
a wild man into a noble one because of Gilgamesh, and their friendship changes
Gilgamesh from a bully and a tyrant into an exemplary king and hero. Because they
are evenly matched, Enkidu puts a check on Gilgameshs restless, powerful energies,
and Gilgamesh pulls Enkidu out of his self-centeredness. Gilgameshs connection to
Enkidu makes it possible for Gilgamesh to identify with his peoples interests. The
love the friends have for each other makes Gilgamesh a better man in the first half of
the epic, and when Enkidu dies, Gilgameshs grief and terror impel him onto a futile
quest for immortality.
The epic may lack a female love interest, but erotic love still plays an important role.
Enkidus education as a man begins with his sexual initiation by the temple harlot, and
the two heroes troubles begin with their repudiation of Ishtar, the goddess of love.
Humanity renews itself through the female life force, which includes sex, fertility,
domesticity, and nurturance, not through an arbitrary gift of the gods. When
Gilgamesh finally sees that his place is here on Earth and returns to Uruk to resume
his kingship, Ishtar returns to her place of honor.


Death is an inevitable and inescapable fact of human life, which is the greatest lesson
Gilgamesh learns. Gilgamesh is bitter that only the gods can live forever and says as
much when Enkidu warns him away from their fight with Humbaba. Life is short, the
two warriors tell each other on their way to the deadly confrontation in the Cedar
Forest, and the only thing that lasts is fame. But when Enkidu is cursed with an
inglorious, painful death, their bravado rings hollow. Shamash, the sun god, consoles
Enkidu by reminding him how rich his life has been, but though Enkidu finally
resigns himself to his fate, Gilgamesh is terrified by the thought of his own.
Mesopotamian theology offers a vision of an afterlife, but it gives scant comfortthe
dead spend their time being dead. If Gilgameshs quest to the Cedar Forest was in
spite of death, his second quest, to Utnapishtim, is for a way to escape it.
Utnapishtims account of the flood reveals how ludicrous such a goal is, since death is
inextricably woven into the fabric of creation. But life is woven in as well, and even
though humans die, humanity continues to live. The lesson that Gilgamesh brings
back from his quest isnt ultimately about deathits about life.
Gilgamesh and Enkidu learn all too well that the gods are dangerous for mortals. Gods
live by their own laws and frequently behave as emotionally and irrationally as
children. Piety is important to the gods, and they expect obedience and flattery
whenever possible. They can often be helpful, but angering them is sheer madness
and a characters reverence for the gods is no guarantee of safety. Thus, the world
of The Epic of Gilgamesh differs markedly from that of the Judeo-Christian tradition,
in which God is both a partner in a covenant and a stern but loving parent to his
people. The covenant promises that people will receive an earthly or heavenly
inheritance if they behave well. The Judeo-Christian God represents not just what is
most powerful but what is morally besthumans should aspire to imitate him. These
differences are noteworthy because Gilgamesh also shares certain common elements
with the Judeo-Christian Bible. Both Gilgamesh and parts of the Bible are written in
similar languages: Hebrew is related to Akkadian, the Babylonian language that the
author used in composing the late versions of Gilgamesh. The Bible comes from the
same region as Gilgamesh and shares some of its motifs and stories, such as the
serpent as the enemy who deprives humans of eternal life and, most important, the
flood. In both the Bible and Gilgamesh, disobedience to a god or gods brings dire
Although we never learn exactly why the gods unleashed the great flood
in Gilgamesh, we know why Ea rescues Utnapishtim and through him all the creatures
and people of the world. As the god of wisdom and crafts, Ea is responsible for human
attributes including cleverness, inventiveness, and creativity, which enable people to
survive independently. Ishtar, too, while a fickle friend, presides over sexual desire,
fertility, nurturance, agriculture, and domesticity, which ensure humankinds future.
For the Mesopotamians, piety and respect for the gods are not true moral obligations.
Rather, piety and respect suggest a practical acknowledgment of natures power and
serve to remind humans of their place in the larger scheme of things.

Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop
and inform the texts major themes.

There are two important seductions in Gilgamesh, one successful and one a failure.
When the temple prostitute seduces Enkidu, he loses his animal attributes but gains
his self-consciousness and his humanity. In contemporary western society, people
often view human sexuality as base and lewd and may be more accustomed to a
reversal of roleswith Enkidu seducing a woman, instead of a woman seducing him.
Furthermore, Christianity encourages its followers to transcend their bodies and to
store up treasures in heaven. Sex played a much different role in the Mesopotamian
worldview. The notion of sublimation was entirely foreign to the ancient
Mesopotamians, who believed that this world is the only one and that the act of sex
mystically and physically connects people to the life force, the goddess. Sacred
prostitutes did not embody moral frailtythey were avatars and conduits of divinity.
When Gilgamesh spurns Ishtar as she attempts to seduce him, he brings disaster upon
himself and Enkidu. When he asks Ishtar what he could offer her in return since she
lacks nothing, he misses the point of her seduction. When Gilgameshwho has no
afterlife to look forward to and no moral ideal to aspire tospurns the goddess, he
spurns life itself.


Gilgamesh is full of characters and events that mirror or resemble one another. For
example, Gilgamesh and Enkidu look almost identical. After Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh
grows his hair and dons animal skins, as if trying to become his lost friend. Two
scorpion monsters guard the twin-peaked mountain, Mashu, which Shamash travels
through nightly. The gods Ea and Shamash champion the human heroes. The heroes
undertake two successful quests, one against Humbaba the demon and one against the
Bull of Heaven. Gilgameshs solitary quest to find Utnapishtim mirrors his journey
with Enkidu to the Cedar Forest. These repetitions sometimes serve to reinforce or
emphasize important features of the story, such as Gilgameshs and Enkidus power
and heroism. At other times they create contrasts, calling attention to the differences
between two similar events. Alternately, the story may be structured in terms of twins
and doubles primarily for aesthetic reasonsin other words, because the repetitions
lend the story a symmetry or cyclicality that is beautiful or poetic in itself.

Almost all of the action in Gilgamesh begins with a journey. Enkidu journeys from the
wilderness to Uruk and Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh and Enkidu journey to the Cedar
Forest. Enkidu journeys to the underworld. Gilgamesh journeys to and then through
the twin-peaked mountain Mashu. He journeys to Urshanabi to find Utnapishtim, then
travels with Urshanabi across the sea and through the sea of death, only to return to
Uruk. Gilgameshs many journeys mirror his internal journey to become a selfless and
devoted king.

Baptism imagery appears throughout Gilgamesh, signaling a continual renewal and

rebirth of the characters. Enkidu washes and anoints himself after he tastes cooked
food and beer at the shepherd camp. Ninsun washes herself before she communes
with Shamash. Gilgamesh washes himself after his return from the Cedar Forest.
Gilgamesh and Enkidu wash themselves in the Euphrates after they subdue the Bull of
Heaven. Gilgamesh undergoes a reverse baptism after Enkidus death, when he dons
skins and lets his hair grow. Siduri urges Gilgamesh to wash himself, but he refuses.
Utnapishtim orders his boatman to baptize Gilgamesh before they journey home.
Gilgamesh is in a pool of pure water when the snake steals the magic plant. Though
Gilgamesh regrets losing the plant, the baptism imagery suggests he doesnt need it
anymore. He has finally come to terms with his morality and is ready to resume his
place in the world.

Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or
Gilgamesh is rich in religious symbolism. Religious rituals in Mesopotamia involved
sacrifices, festivals, sex, dream interpretation, and shamanic magic, all of which
appear in the story. Enkidus hirsuteness symbolizes the natural, uncivilized state. The
walls of Uruk symbolize the great accomplishments of which mortals are capable. In
the context of the ancient king who built them, they represent the immortality he
achieved through his acts. Bulls represent explosive, destructive natural power, and
the ability to wrestle a bull suggests humanitys ability to harness natures power. This
symbolism accounts for Enkidus interpretation of Gilgameshs dream about the bull
in the Cedar Forest. Enkidu says the bull is Humbaba, and that the act of wrestling the
bull is Shamashs blessing. Later in the poem, Enkidu and Gilgamesh do subdue a bull
together, perhaps suggesting that humankind has the power to conquer famine.

Images of doorways, portals, and gateways constantly recur in Gilgamesh. Enkidu

blocks the doorway of the brides chamber and wrestles with Gilgamesh. Enkidu and
Gilgamesh stand awestruck and terrified before the gates to the Cedar Forest. After
their triumph there, they fashion the tallest tree into a gate for Uruk. The Scorpions
guard the gates of Mashu. Siduri the barmaid locks the door to her tavern. The
hatchway of Utnapishtims boat is caulked shut. In most cases, doorways mark a
transition from one level of consciousness to another. They also represent choices,
since characters can either shut themselves behind doorways to seek safety or boldly
venture through them.