The Role of Dreams in "Epic of Gilgamesh"

Gilgamesh, in his wide-ranging adventures and battles, embodies the ancient epic hero.
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“The Epic of Gilgamesh,” which recounts the adventures of an ancient Mesopotamian king, is considered one of the world’s oldest literary works. While based on a historical figure, the hero Gilgamesh lives in a mythological realm of gods, monsters and portents. Several distinct dream sequences in the standard version of the epic lend insight into its symbolism and allegorical weight, along with ancient man’s understandings of the divine and afterlife.

1 Communication Between Gods and Men

Throughout “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” dreams serve as conduits between gods and men. Gilgamesh’s dreams of the meteor and axe in Tablet One are interpreted as omens of the god-sent Enkidu. In Tablet Four, Gilgamesh prays to Shamash, the sun god, for visions about the monster Humbaba. Gilgamesh later becomes frustrated in his quest for the sage Utnapishtim and entreats the god of the moon, Sin, for a dream. In Tablets Six and Seven, as the gods deliberate over and ultimately condemn Enkidu, they grant the beast-man a vision of the proceedings as they occur.

2 Visions of the Future

Many of the dreams experienced by Gilgamesh and Enkidu serve as portents of future events. In addition to their function as foreshadowing, these dreams serve to underscore the notion of fated heroes with preordained destinies. These portents also provide insight into ancient Mesopotamian religious beliefs and suggest notions of predestination and the timelessness of the divine. Gilgamesh’s mother, the goddess Ninsun, correctly interprets his dreams in Tablet One as prophetic of the arrival of Enkidu. In Tablet Seven, Enkidu foretells his own demise with a symbolically complex vision of the underworld.

3 Dream Symbolism

Gilgamesh and Enkidu both have dreams with strange symbolic images. The meteor and axe that appear in the first two dreams, representative of Enkidu, inspire feelings of sexual possessiveness in Gilgamesh. The meteor, which falls from heaven, represents the god-sent nature of Enkidu, while the axe represents Enkidu’s role as a battle companion. The sexual connotation symbolizes Gilgamesh’s strong feelings for his male companion, which he previously only associated with sexual desire. A bird-man greets Enkidu in his nightmare of the underworld, and the dead appear cloaked in feathers. The avian emphasis reflects a deeply-rooted symbolic association of birds with the souls of the dead, also present in imagery and stories from Hindu and Egyptian mythology.

4 The Role of the Seer

Certain figures serve as explainers of dreams and fulfill a priestly role as interpreters of divine messages. Ninsun, the minor goddess associated with wisdom, displays her affinity with the divine when she accurately explains Gilgamesh’s odd visions in Tablet One. The wild-man Enkidu, who represents man in a state closer to nature and the divine, also accurately interprets dreams. Enkidu optimistically explains away Gilgamesh’s terrifying visions of Humbaba and promises Gilgamesh's victory over the monster. In Tablet Seven, Enkidu correctly understands his own nightmarish vision of the underworld. Enkidu also receives a comforting vision from Shamash that describes Gilgamesh’s mournfulness in the aftermath of his death.

Douglas Matus is the travel writer for "West Fort Worth Lifestyle" magazine, and spent four years as the Director of Humanities for a college-prep school in Austin. Since 2005, he has published articles on education, travel and culture in such publications as "Nexus," "People's World" and "USA Today." Matus received an Education Pioneers fellowship in 2010 and an MFA from CalArts in 2011.