Epic of Gilgamesh
Contributed by Sharen Felty
Tablet 11-12

Gilgamesh soon realises that the old man is none other than Utnapishtim, the very person he has been seeking. So, without wasting any time, he asks the question for which he has come so far and suffered so much. “How did Utnapishtim, a mortal man, become a god? How had he eluded death? And can Gilgamesh ever hope to do the same?”

Utnapishtim, the survivor of the flood that almost wiped out mankind, tells his story. Once upon a time, he says, he was king of Shuruppak, a beautiful, prosperous city on the banks of the Euphrates. The gods met in secret council — Anu, the god of the firmament; Ninurta, the god of war and wells; Enlil, the god of earth, wind, and air; Ennugi, the god of irrigation; and Ea, the cleverest of the gods, the god of wisdom and crafts. Enlil arbitrarily ordered a flood to destroy mankind.

Ea had been sworn to secrecy but he cleverly leaked the gods’ plans to Utnapishtim. Speaking to the walls of his house, he described the plans, while Utnapishtim heard everything on the other side of the walls. Ea, warning him that the gods would be sending a terrible flood, advised him to build a boat of immense dimensions, ten dozen cubits in height (approximately 180 feet) with six decks and one acre of space, and load it up with the seed of each living thing, his family and possessions. On Ea's advice, Utnapishtim told the people of Shuruppak, who helped him build the boat, that he is leaving the city because Enlil hates him. He further said that when he leaves the city, it will be showered with good fortune, it will have all kinds of bread and wheat, and that they will have more fish to eat. So Utnapishtim, like in festivals, butchered bulls and sheep for the workers to eat and gave them enough beer and wine to drink. The boat was ready in seven days, and with great difficulty, it was launched in the Euphrates. Utnapishtim gave his house and everything to Puzuramurri the caulker who sealed them inside. When the storm raged, the gods clambered up as high as they could go and ringed in terror. Ishtar was inconsolable as she saw her children being killed. At last, the gigantic boat ran aground on a mountain peak. After stuck there for seven days, Utnapishtim released a dove. When it could not find a dry place to rest, it returned to the boat. Utnapishtim then released a swallow, it too returned. Finally, he released a raven, it never came back.

After reaching at the shore, Utnapishtim prepared a sacrifice. The gods of heaven were famished and gathered around the altar. Ishtar, who was wearing a necklace of lapis lazuli made of beads that looked like flies, said she would forget neither her necklace nor this calamity. She would never forgive Enlil as the flood was his idea and he never discussed it with the other gods. When Enlil came to partake of the sacrifice, he saw the boat and got furious. He wanted to know how anyone escaped the flood, since he wished it to destroy everything. Ninurta disclosed the name of the culprit, Ea rebuked Enlil for creating the flood, saying that if Enlil wanted to punish someone, he should have given the punishment in proportion to the crime. Not everyone deserved to die. Enlil angrily suggested that plagues, wolves, and famine could be used to kill some people. It is not right to kill all the people at once. Enlil understood the gravity of the situation and guided Utnapishtim and his wife by the hands and made them kneel. He touched their foreheads and blessed them, turning them into gods. He granted them eternal life for saving humanity, but they alone deserved that gift.When Utnapishtim finishes his story, he looks at Gilgamesh with scorn and asks if he really thinks he is worthy of becoming a god and living forever too. As a test, he asks Gilgamesh to remain awake for full one week. Gilgamesh accepts the challenge and sits down but soon falls asleep. Utnapishtim scornfully shows his wife how Gilgamesh has fallen asleep. His wife has pity on Gilgamesh and tells Utnapishtam to wake him up and let him return home. Utnapishtim warns her that if Gilgamesh wakes up now, he’ll deny falling asleep. So, he tells his wife to bake a piece of bread each day, leave it next to him, and make a mark on the wall. It will be a proof that he actually slept. Seven days later, Utnapishtim touches Gilgamesh on the forehead and wakes him up. As expected, Gilgamesh says he’d been close to falling asleep but denies actually sleeping. Utnapishtim shows him the seven pieces of bread and the seven marks on the wall. The first piece of bread is dry as dust, the second is a little moister. The third one is soggy and rotten, the fourth moldy, the fifth spotty, and the sixth a little stale. The seventh is fresh from the oven. Gilgamesh is shattered that he has failed to escape the possibility of death.

Utnapishtim informs boatman Urshanabi that he can never return here. He orders Urshanabi to take Gilgamesh to the washing place so that he can clean himself and reveal the beauty he has been hiding. He instructs Urshanabi to have Gilgamesh tie his hair, cast away the animal skin in the sea, and put on a spotless robe so that he can return to Uruk in honor. Gilgamesh takes a bath and wears royal garments. Then he and the boatman board their boat and pole themselves away from the shore. Utnapishtim’s wife asks her husband if he can give Gilgamesh any thing to take back to his land. Gilgamesh, meanwhile, comes back to shore. Utnapishtim reveals one of the god's secret to Gilgamesh: There is a thorny plant that grows beneath the waves called How-the-Old-Man-Once-Again-Becomes-a-Young-Man. Gilgamesh dives into the sea with stone weights tied to his feet. Upon finding the plant, he cuts the stones from his feet and the waters bring him on to the shore. He tells Urshanabi that he will share this plant with the elders of Uruk and then take some himself and be young again too. But one night at a camp, Gilgamesh was taking a swim in a pool of cool water when a snake smells the plant and steals it. As it slithers away, it sheds its skin. The serpent is young again but Gilgamesh will never be. Gilgamesh is heartbroken and sits beside the pool and weeps. Later, Urshanabi and Gilgamesh reach Uruk. Gilgamesh shows the boatman the city walls, its brickwork, fields, clay pits, and orchards. He also shows him the temple of Ishtar. It is here that the main body of the poem ends here.

For some unknown reasons, Sin-Leqi-Unninni has appended a mystical poem from a much older tradition in the Tablet XII of the epic. It begins when Gilgamesh drops a drum and drumstick through the floor of “the carpenter’s house” into the nether world. Enkidu volunteers to retrieve it but Gilgamesh warns him that he must not draw attention from anyone else in the underworld or the “Cry of the Dead” will capture him. Enkidu does exactly the opposite of what Gilgamesh had advised, and is captured. Ereshkigal, the fearsome Queen of the Underworld, exposes her breasts to him and pulls him on top of her. Meanwhile, Gilgamesh goes before the gods and begs for their intervention. None of the gods help him except Ea, the god of wisdom. Ea makes Enkidu’s spirit rise up to the world again so that he and Gilgamesh can visit other places. Gilgamesh is curious to know from Enkidu what life is like in the underworld; Enkidu portrays a bleak picture of the nether world. He says that vermin devoured his body. Gilgamesh asks about the condition of the other dead people. Enkidu informs that the more sons you have in this world, the better it is in the other world. The man with seven sons lives like a god. The worst-off dead people are those who have no mourners behind.


Tablet XI recalls the gods’ secrets and the story of the deluge. The story often resembles the biblical story of Noah but the two are not exactly identical. In the biblical tale, it is the mankind’s wickedness that provokes God to send the flood. God chooses Noah to survive because of his righteousness. In Gilgamesh, the gods never give a reason for the flood. All of them, except Enlil, claim afterward that they did not support the idea. In an older version of the story, Enlil decides to vanquish humanity because their noise disturbs his sleep. His arbitrariness is evident in the epic earlier as well, he was the god who chose Enkidu to die. Utnapishtim owes his survival to Ea’s cleverness and not because of any special virtue. Noah, on the other hand, lives because of his righteousness. When Utnapishtim announces to the people they will have a many types of bread and wheat, he is making a cruel pun. In Akkadian, the word for 'bread' is almost similar to that for 'darkness', and the word for 'wheat' is similar to that for 'misfortune'.

Since the gods rely on people's’ sacrifices for their sustenance, they regret the floods immediately. Utnapishtim’s offerings are the first things they have eaten since the deluge started. In the poem, the gods’ actions may seem arbitrary but there is a clear philosophy in it: Even if the gods are capricious and men must die, mankind is meant to live at all costs. Gilgamesh finally gets his answer to the question of how to cheat death: It is simple -- he can’t. When Ea proclaims that only some people should die but not all of them, he means that death is important, but that it should apply individually. People die, but humanity will always endure. Utnapishtim’s sleeping test illustrates this point. In a way, sleep is akin to death, but it is also a bodily need as necessary as food. Gilgamesh has a mortal body, hence, it is impossible to pass the test, but his existence means he has many things to achieve in this world. The parable of the magical plant and the snake foreshadows the biblical tale of Adam, Eve, and the serpent. But the biblical version has a completely different moral dimension. After the serpent steals the plant, Gilgamesh knows that death cannot be avoided. It is a lesson he has already learnt unconsciously as he wished to share the plant with his community in Uruk. Since Enkidu's death, he has been in grief, and his wish to share the plant shows his realisation toward the responsibilities he has to other people, again. The biblical snake doomed Adam and Eve to a life marked by sin, but in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the snake actually frees him. Now, he is starting to think and act like a king. Gilgamesh’s quest for eternal life scars his present life that he should be living in the here and now. If he rules Uruk well, it will live on after him and continue to grow in power and beauty. Utnapishtim was implying the same thing when he ordered the boatman to take Gilgamesh to the washing place and return him to his city. The baptism acknowledges and honors his mortal body.

The epic hero’s final quest is his journey back home. Some critics find the ending of Gilgamesh as profoundly pessimistic. From a Christian standpoint, there is indeed some truth in it. There is no heaven, no promise of eternal life, no divine redemption or grace -- all these ideals make life worth living according to Christian beliefs. Alternatively, the ending can be deeply affirmative. Gilgamesh now has the ability to see Uruk as the marvel of human ingenuity and labor. It is a worthy monument to the mortals who erected it. In the very last verse of the poem, the temple of Ishtar appears again, it suggests the supremacy of feminine power as Gilgamesh’s spiritual journey comes to an end. Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s troubles began after they spurned the goddess Ishtar. Yet Gilgamesh’s attitude changes after experiencing Siduri’s and Utnapishtim’s wife’s kindness and Ishtar’s grief for humanity after the flood. Now, he accepts that the present earthly life, even though mortal, is of prime importance. Therefore, the female force which propagates humanity and keeps the fire lit in the hearth once again becomes central. It is ironic that Gilgamesh, one of the world’s great homoerotic love stories, ends with the hero’s return to the 'house of Ishtar', where a woman is a dominant force.

Tablet XII, although fragmentary in nature, parallels the main poem. It has many obscurities, such as the carpenter’s house whose ownership is not very clear, the drum and the drumstick, which possibly have shamanistic significance. In this section, Enkidu commits hara-kiri by deliberately provoking the denizens of the underworld. Earlier also, he provoked Ishtar by killing the Bull of Heaven. Ea is the only god who intervenes on behalf of Gilgamesh and it is clear from Utnapishtim’s story that Ea is a steadfast friend of humanity. Enkidu does not have any good news to report from the underworld but he does say that the richer the life is in this world, and the more a man leaves behind in the form of children, reputation, and friends, the easier death will be.

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