Epic of Gilgamesh
Contributed by Sharen Felty
Tablet 8-9

Enkidu’s death shatters Gilgamesh; he rips his clothes and tears his hair. Encircling Enkidu’s body like an eagle, he paces restlessly like a lioness whose cubs have been killed. Gilgamesh proclaims his grief in front of the city elders, his lamentation overflowing with animal, natural imagery. Everyone mourns Enkidu's death, including the creatures of the field and plain, the elders of the city, and the prostitute who domesticated Enkidu. The pathways to the Cedar Forest, the rivers Ulaja and Euphrates, and the farmers and shepherds in their fields all mourn Enkidu’s death. To honor his deeds and celebrate Enkidu's fame, Gilgamesh summons the craftsmen of Uruk, metalworkers, stone carvers, goldsmiths, and engravers and orders them to make a grand, magnificent statue of Enkidu.

Gilgamesh stays by Enkidu's dead body till a worm crawls out of its nose. Then, in disgust, he takes off his royal garments as if they were filthy, and puts on unscarred, hair-covered animal skins.

Gilgamesh pours honey into a carnelian bowl, places some butter in a bowl of lapis lazuli, and makes an offering to Shamash. Then Gilgamesh goes into the wilderness as Shamash had prophesized to the dying Enkidu. Desolate with sorrow, Gilgamesh wanders alone in the forest, mulling if he must die too. At last, he decides to find out Utnapishtim, who survived the flood that had almost ended life on earth and subsequently got the gift of everlasting life by the gods. He hopes to know from Utnapishtim the secret for everlasting life. Utnapishtim lives on the edge of the earth from where the sun rises, a place where no mortal has ever gone. One night before going to sleep, Gilgamesh prays to the moon god, Sin, to grant him a vision. He wakes up in the middle of night to see himself surrounded by lions. Taking out his axe from his belt, he attacks them and revels in their killing. After travelling for some more days, he reaches Mashu, the twin-headed mountain. Its one peak is in the west, toward the setting of the sun, and the other is toward east, its rising. The peaks of Mashu touch heaven and its udders stretch down into the underworld. Two monsters, a Scorpion-man and his wife, guard its gates. The male monster tells his wife that a person who dares to reach here must be a god. The wife informs him that two-third of him is god and one-third is human. The male monster enquires from Gilgamesh his identity and the reason for travelling through dreaded wilderness and braving dangers to come here. Gilgamesh explains to the monsters about his quest, the Scorpion-man guides him that Utnapishtim lives on the other side of the mountain. To reach there, Gilgamesh needs to go through a tunnel that runs through the mountain. Every night, Shamash travels back to the place where he rises in the morning through this tunnel. It would take Gilgamesh twelve double hours to travel through the tunnel which is completely dark. It is pertinent to mention here that the Babylonian hour was sixty minutes, and the day was divided into twelve “double hours". It was impossible for an ordinary mortal to survive such darkness, hence, the monsters do not permit him to go through it. Gilgamesh’s pleads repeatedly and the monsters relent, advising him to be careful.

In the total darkness, Gilgamesh walks through the tunnel without being able to see in the front or behind him. He travels the first, second, and third double hour and struggles for breath in hot dark tunnel. The four, five, and six double hours are spent walking in the tunnel with the north wind blowing in his face. The darkness begins to fade only as the eleventh double hour approaches. At the end of the twelfth double hour, Gilgamesh emerges from the tunnel into the sweet morning air and the sunlight.

He enters a beautiful garden filled with fruit and foliage with the hues of carnelian, rubies, and other jewels. Beyond the garden, there is a glittering sea.


Enkidu's wild origins have been beautifully portrayed in Gilgamesh's lament for his dead companion. Gilgamesh personifies the meadows and landscape and projects his grief upon them. The form and imagery in these passages can be seen in later poems in the form of pastoral and pastoral elegy. These modes turned out to be very important form of literature ranging from ancient Rome to Shakespeare’s time and beyond. Pastoral literature relates to simple, natural life of shepherds in an idealised way. Pastoral elegies follow this tradition by providing extended descriptions of the deceased’s life, the mourners, the injustice of death and the possibility of life after death. A perfect example of a pastoral elegy is Milton’s Lycidas in which a man drowns during a sea voyage. The passages in Lycidas also echo the biblical ‘Song of Songs'. Much ahead of its time, Gilgamesh’s passage through Mashu is written deliberately in archaic style, a self-conscious imitation of ancient Sumerian poetry that tends to be very repetitive. Different translators have described the lions scene differently, it can be concluded that the passage is fragmentary in nature. In some versions, the lions are a dream vision. In others, Gilgamesh attacks them out of frustration as the gods have not sent him a vision. It is undoubtedly a bizarre scene and lacks the context but the nocturnal violence deeply conveys Gilgamesh’s black mood. Although the poet/editor Sin-Leqi-Unninni’s name means 'Moon god, accept my plea', Gilgamesh mentions the moon god only once, here, in the epic. In Tablet XII, Gilgamesh appeals to him once more but the moon god chooses not to answer his plea. After Enkidu anointed himself with oil and covered his hairy body with clothes, the shepherds are in awe of his resemblance to Gilgamesh. But after Enkidu's death the process is reversed, Gilgamesh exchanges his royal garments for hairy skins as if he wants to imitate his dead friend. Undone by grief and overwhelmed by dread Gilgamesh ignores civilization and culture as they no longer mean anything to him, even though he had once epitomized them. He now resembles Enkidu when he was still a wild man. Gilgamesh's second departure from Uruk is different from the first when the duo strode to confront Humbaba in the forbidden Cedar Forest. At that time they were heavily armed conquerors, who were looking for glory. If one stumbled, the other was there to support him. But now, Gilgamesh is a humble, solitary seeker. The second quest, much darker than the first one, is a common motif in romantic quest tales. Gilgamesh's first adventure was to earn name and fame but now he seeks the deeper meaning of his life. His journey to the double-peaked mountain and the dark tunnel re-enact the movement of the entire epic so far. The hero successfully overcomes great dangers only to plunge into a horrible darkness. When Gilgamesh comes out of the tunnel into a magical garden, he is experiencing a symbolic rebirth.

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