Epic of Gilgamesh
Unknown
Contributed by Sharen Felty
Tablet 10
Summary

Siduri, the veiled barmaid, is a tavern-keeper by the edge of the sea who sees a man coming toward her. He is wearing animal skin, his face is wind-bitten and battered, and it appears that he has been traveling for a long time. Scared that the stranger might be dangerous, Siduri closes the door so that the man does not enter inside her tavern. Gilgamesh knocks on the door forcefully and threatens to smash it down. Siduri asks him why he looks like a tramp and a criminal. Gilgamesh says that he is grieving for his companion who helped him fight the lions, the wolves, slays Humbaba, and the Bull of Heaven. He describes how Enkidu has been overtaken by the fate that awaits all mankind. Gilgamesh asks Siduri if that is what awaits him too. Siduri unlocks her door and reminds Gilgamesh that only the gods live forever. She invites him inside her tavern so that he can clean himself up, change clothes, eat and drink to his heart's content. But Gilgamesh has shunned all the worldly pleasures and refuses to be distracted from his quest. He only asks her how to find Utnapishtim. Siduri then tells Gilgamesh that Shamash crosses the sea every day, but no mortal has ever been able to follow him. The sea is too stormy and treacherous, she adds.

Furthermore, Siduri says that even if he miraculously survived the crossing, he would then face the poisonous Waters of Death, which only Utnapishtim’s boatman, Urshanabi, knows how to navigate. The boatman lives deep inside the forest where he guards the Urnu-snakes and the Stone Things. When Siduri realises that Gilgamesh will not be swayed from his purpose, she directs him to Urshanabi’s house and tells him to ask Urshanabi to take him to Utnapishtim, adding that he should return to her if Urshanabi refuses. In search of Urshanabi, Gilgamesh arrives near the place where the Urnu-snakes and the Stone Things reside; he attacks them with his axe and dagger. Then he introduces himself to Urshanabi. Observing that Gilgamesh’s face is worn, weathered and sorrowful, he asks Gilgamesh why he looks like a tramp. Gilgamesh tells him about Enkidu, his grief, his fear, and his determination to go to Utnapishtim.

Urshanabi agrees to take Gilgamesh to Utnapishtim but tells him that he has made the journey more difficult by smashing the Stone Things and the Urnu-snakes, which propelled and protected his boat. So, he orders Gilgamesh to go back to the forest and cut sixty poles, and then another sixty poles. In some versions, Gilgamesh must cut at least 300 poles. Each pole must be exactly sixty cubits in length, approximately ninety feet. Urshanabi orders him to fit the poles with rings and cover them with pitch, and then only they will attempt the voyage. Gilgamesh does as is directed and the two set sail across the choppy seas. They travel very fast, in three days' time they sail as far as an ordinary boat would have sailed in two months. When they reach at the Waters of Death, the boatman tells Gilgamesh to use the punting poles but makes sure that his hands don’t touch the water. Gilgamesh takes the boat through the Waters of Death but his strength causes him to break all one hundred and twenty poles. When the last pole is ruined, Gilgamesh uses the animal skin he is wearing as a sail.

An old man on the shore watches the boat approach and wonders what happened to the Stone Things and who is the stranger with Urshanabi? The old man asks Gilgamesh to identify himself as soon as they get out of the boat. The King of Uruk identifies himself and tells him what he told Siduri and Urshanabi about his grief for Enkidu, and is fearful that the same fate awaits him. More importantly, Gilgamesh apprises the old man of his desperation to avoid the same fate, it if possible.

The old man asks Gilgamesh why he is grieving about mortality. Nothing lives forever. The old man explains to him that the gods have established an order that men would suffer death. When gods give life, they also decide the day of death. Death is our destiny, even if we don’t know when it will happen, he says.

Analysis

In Mesopotamian mythology and poetry, Siduri, the veiled barmaid, is a traditional figure. She is the goddess of wine-making, beer brewing and is usually considered as a manifestation of Ishtar. Her name means 'young woman' in the Hurrian language. Throughout this episode, her warmth and kindness to Gilgamesh are notable, especially because Gilgamesh treated Ishtar with contempt in Uruk.

In many versions, it is unclear what the Stone Things or the Urnu-snakes are or why Gilgamesh destroys them. A fragmentary verse suggests that Gilgamesh also attacked a winged creature, who might have been Urshanabi himself. A later version claims that the Stone Things were magical images but some scholars have speculated that they were lodestones, a type of mineral that possesses polarity. The tablets are woefully incomplete on this matter and no other version has been able to provide suitable explanations to it. Over the years, thousands of clay tablets have been recovered from he Mesopotamian digs and are still awaiting translation, and thousand more remain to be digged out. The Italian Assyriologist Giovanni Pettinato recently discovered and translated a never-before-seen account of Gilgamesh’s death. It is a matter of time that a solution to the mystery of the Urnu-snakes and the Stone Things is discovered.

In this tablet, Gilgamesh meets three characters but none of them recognizes him when they see him. They all have same advice for him: stop this quest for immortality. Each of them takes note of Gilgamesh’s unkempt appearance, listens patiently to his fear of death, and reminds him that death is certain and life is all we have. Even Utnapishtim, who is himself immortal, advises Gilgamesh against pursuing immortality. All these encounters enforce the belief that pursuing immortality is futile and it is worthwhile to live a content life. Utnapishtim too knows it and has an idea about the value of life that Gilgamesh has not yet discovered. Utnapishtim has cheated death but he will not help Gilgamesh in attaining immortality. He says that Gilgamesh inherited his father’s mortality and, like everything else in the mortal world, he is also subject to death. Gilgamesh must continue to live as a mortal and accept life and death as part of natural and inevitable cycle.

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