Epic of Gilgamesh

by contributor

Jack Shields

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Plot Summary

Gilgamesh is an ancient Mesopotamiam poem which is often considered as the earliest surviving great work of literature. The literary history of Gilgamesh begins with five Sumerian poems about the king of Uruk, dating back from the third dynasty of Ur. The first surviving version of this combined epic, complied by Sin-Leqi-Unninni, dates back to the 18th century BC. The standard and the latest version dates back from the 13th to the 10th centuries BC. The older Old Babylonian tablets and later Akkadian version are the important sources for modern translations.

The prelude to the Epic of Gilgamesh gives a general introduction to the king of Uruk, Gilgamesh, who was two-thirds god and one-third man. He had an imposing physique with incredible strength and was regarded as a very wise king. The mythical king built magnificent temple towers (ziggurats), raised high wall around his city, and laid out its orchards and fields. Although godlike in body and mind, Gilgamesh ruled over his kingdom as a cruel dictator often torturing his subjects, raping women who struck his fancy. It did not matter to him whether she was the wife of one of his warriors or the daughter of a nobleman. He made imposing buildings by exploiting the labor his subjects and oppressed them cruelly till they were dead. Hearing the pleas of subjects, the Gods finally decided to stop Gilgamesh. They created a wild man named Enkidu, who was as powerful as Gilgamesh. Enkidu travelled to Uruk and challenged Gilgamesh for a test of strength. Although Gilgamesh beat Uruk, the duo became great friends later on. However, Enkidu dies of an illness inflicted by the gods. Gilgamesh, in search of the secret of eternal life, traveled to the edge of the world and learned about the days before the deluge and other secrets of the gods. He recorded hem on clay tablets. The epic of Gilgamesh begins with Enkidu leading a life with the animals, suckling at their breasts, grazing in the meadows, and drinking at their watering holes. A hunter sees him in the forest and sends a temple prostitute to civilise, tame him. In earlier times, women and sex were regarded as calming forces that could tame wild men like Enkidu and bring them into the civilized world. After Enkidu sleeps with the woman, the animal kingdom rejects him saying he is no longer one of them. Enkidu is now part of the human world. The woman initiates him to everything he needs to know to be a man. Enkidu is outraged on hearing about the excesses of Gilgamesh. So, he travels to Uruk to challenge him. Upon reaching there, he sees Gilgamesh about to force his way into a bride’s wedding chamber. Enkidu stands on the doorway and blocks his passage. A fierce wrestling bout ensues in which Gilgamesh emerges victorious. But the duo is impressed with each other's fighting skills and soon become friends. They plan to go on an adventure. Gilgamesh and Enkidu decide to steal trees from a distant cedar forest forbidden for mortals. Humbaba, a ferocious monster and the devoted servant of Enlil, the god of earth, wind, and air, guards it.

The duo makes a perilous six-day journey to the forest and fight with the monster shoulder to shoulder. With the help from Shamash, the sun god, they slay him. Then, they cut down the forbidden trees, fashion the tallest into a huge gate, make a raft, and paddle it back to Uruk. The goddess of love, Ishtar, is overcome with lust for Gilgamesh, but he spurns her. Angry, Ishtar asks her father, Anu, the god of the sky, to send the Bull of Heaven to punish him. Bringing with him seven years of famine, the bull charges down from the sky in an aggressive mood. Gilgamesh and Enkidu wrestle with the bull and slay it. Seeing this, the gods are worried and hold a meeting where it is decided that one of the two friends must be punished. Finally, it is decided that Enkidu is going to die. He suffers an illness, undergoes a lot of pain and has visions of the underworld, which he shares with Gilgamesh. Enkidu's death leaves Gilgamesh heartbroken. He can't stop grieving for Enkidu and keeps brooding about the prospect of his own death. To mourn the death of Enkidu, the king of Uruk exchanges his royal garments for animal skins. He goes into the wilderness, determined to find Utnapishtim, the Mesopotamian Noah whom gods had granted eternal life after the flood. Gilgamesh hopes that Utnapishtim can tell him the secret to avoid death too. He reaches near a twin-peaked mountain called Mashu where the sun sets into one side of the mountain and arises out of the other side in the morning. Utnapishtim resides beyond the mountain but the two scorpion monsters guarding the entrance of the mountain do not allow Gilgamesh to pass through the tunnel. It takes a lot pleading by the king only then they allow him to pass through it. Gilgamesh undergoes a harrowing passage through the darkness to reach near a beautiful garden by the sea. There he meets Siduri, a veiled tavern keeper, and tells her about his quest. She warns him that it is futile to seek immortality, instead, he should seek and be satisfied with the worldly pleasures. Gilgamesh is unrelenting, so Siduri directs him to a ferryman, Urshanabi. He takes Gilgamesh on a boat journey across the sea and through the Waters of Death to Utnapishtim. Gilgamesh meets Utnapishtim who tells him the story of the flood and how the gods met and decided to destroy humankind.

Ea, the god of wisdom, warned Utnapishtim about the gods’ plans and advised him to make a gigantic boat in which his family and the seed of every living being might escape. When the waters receded, the gods realised their mistake and regretted what they’d done. They resolved to never try to destroy humankind again. Utnapishtim, thus, was rewarded with eternal life. Men would die, but humankind would continue.

When Gilgamesh insists that he too be allowed to live forever, Utnapishtim gives him a test, saying, "If you think you can stay alive for eternity, surely you can stay awake for a week." Gilgamesh tries but fails. Utnapishtim directs Gilgamesh him to clean himself up, put on his royal garments again, and return to Uruk where he belongs. Just as the king is about to leave, Utnapishtim’s wife convinces him to tell Gilgamesh about a miraculous plant that restores youth. Satisfied, Gilgamesh finds the plant and takes it with him, thinking of sharing it with the elders of Uruk. But one night while camping, a snake steals the plant. As the serpent slithers away, it sheds its skin and becomes young again.

Gilgamesh returns to Uruk empty-handed but is reconciled to his mortality, content in the knowledge that he can not live forever but that humankind will. Now, he can see that the city he had left in his grief has become a magnificent and an example of enduring achievement of mankind. It is indeed the closest thing to immortality which a mortal can aspire.

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