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The Epic of Gilgamesh: A Mesopotamian Blockbuster

Updated on May 3, 2014
King Gilgamesh of Uruk
King Gilgamesh of Uruk | Source

Who Was Gilgamesh

Gilgamesh was the fifth king of Uruk, a major city in Sumer, but he was not just any king. He was the son of King Lugalbanda, the third king of Uruk, and his mother was Ninsun, a Sumerian goddess. So you may be thinking this has to be all mythology, right? The truth is that Gilgamesh and Lugalbanda appear on the Sumerian Kings List with the later ruling for an amazing 1200 years. How is that you ask. Lugalbanda had his own special story to tell. As a soldier in King Enmerkar's army, Lugalbanda accomplished a couple of miraculous feats that earned him the praise of the gods. They were so pleased, in fact, that they made him a half-god. This could be why he attracted the attention of the lovely Ninsun, or Lady Wild Cow. Falling in love with Lugalbanda led her to live much of her life on Earth, as a wife and mother, even though her father, Anu, was the sky god and one of the big three in Sumerian religion, and her mother was Uras, a goddess of earth. With Lugalbanda and Ninsun as his parents, Gilgamesh was not just any hero like Hercules or Perseus. Gilgamesh was three quarters god, a fact of which he was extremely proud.

Map of Mesopotamia During Uruk Period
Map of Mesopotamia During Uruk Period | Source
Gilgamesh Working the Men while Taking the Women
Gilgamesh Working the Men while Taking the Women | Source

Tablet I: The Not-So-Good King of Uruk

When our story starts, King Gilgamesh has already taken the throne of Uruk, though his subjects are extremely unhappy about the way he is ruling. He is very arrogant, after all he is three parts god, and he towers above all men in the city. No one will dare say a word against him despite the fact that he is working his people to death. You see the king wants there to be a large wall around his city in addition to other building projects. They work every day with hardly time for meals, but this is not the only problem the people have with their mighty king. Gilgamesh, it seems, has an uncontrollable appetite for sex. He also likes a lot of variety in his women, so much so, that he sleeps with the daughters of his generals, girls barely old enough to be with a man and every bride on her wedding night. Imagine having your king have sex with your brand new wife before you even get the chance.

The people finally feel there is nothing for them to do but pray to the god Anu, who happens to be the king's grandfather, for relief, and Anu listened. He knew that talking to his daughter Ninsun would be of little use, so he went to Aruru, the creator of mankind. He asked her to create a man who would be equal to King Gilgamesh. Someone who could knock some sense into the giant of a man. Aruru began working with her clay and fashioned it into the form of a man. When she was finished, she threw it into the wilderness. Aruru had created a wild man who knew no language, was covered with hair and ate with the wild animals. His name was Enkidu.

Now not everyone in the general area of Uruk lived within the city walls. The son of one such man was a young trapper who encountered the wild man during visits to the well. After several days of seeing this massive creature, the trapper went to his father and asked his opinion. He told his father that this creature was destroying his traps and rescuing the animals before he could catch them. His father explained that King Gilgamesh, who surely was as big as this wild man, would help. He recommended asking the king for one of the prostitutes from the temple of the goddess Inanna. When the wild man sees her naked body, he will be so excited he will forget all about the other animals.

The trapper took his father's advice and went to speak with Gilgamesh in Uruk. He explained all that he had told his father about this wild man. Gilgamesh agreed to let him take Shamhat from Inanna's temple and have her tame the wild man through sex. The trapper and Shamhat returned to the well and waited several days before Enkidu appeared. When he did, Shamhat did as she was instructed. She showed the wild man her body and captured his attention. She laid with him for six days and seven nights while Enkidu remained aroused. Once he had finally reached his fill, he turned his attention back to the animals, but they were now afraid of him. He had become a man like all the others who were out to capture them.

Enkidu was very upset because his entire world had changed, but Shamhat began to speak to him. She told him that he was now like the gods. He should return with her to Uruk. She told him that the city had a might king, but he was mean to his people. Enkidu agreed to go back with her. The city sounded like just the place he wanted to be, and he would take care of this business with the king, as he was surely more powerful. Shamhat then told him that she would take him back with her, but he was wrong if he thought he could defeat Gilgamesh. The king was young, strong and beautiful and she loved him. She explained that Gilgamesh had dreamed of Enkidu and would not fear him.

Gilgamesh had been having dreams, vivid dreams that he shared with his mother, Ninsun. The dreams were always about some object that Gilgamesh could not budge. Objects that his mother forced him to compete with. Each time his mother explained to him that the object represented a man who would come and save her son. A man who would be her son's best friend. Gilgamesh had shared these dreams with Shamhat as well, and she now shared them with Enkidu. He was still determined to change the ways of the king.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu Fight
Gilgamesh and Enkidu Fight | Source

Tablet II: Gilgamesh and Enkidu Become BFFs

Instead of taking Enkidu straight to Uruk, she took him to stay with the shepherds outside of the city walls. There he was educated in how to eat food and drink beer. He was dressed as a warrior and helped the shepherds by keeping watch while they slept. In a short period of time, Enkidu had become civilized. Then one day, a young man came to tell the shepherds there was to be a wedding in the city. The young man explained that he was preparing the wedding feast for the king, as he must eat before sleeping with the bride. Enkidu, upon hearing that Gilgamesh would do such a thing, was filled with rage. He took off toward the city with Shamhat following behind him.

When Enkidu arrived in Uruk, he went straight to the marital chamber where Gilgamesh had planned to be with the bride. He was determined that he would not let this happen and blocked the doorway. When Gilgamesh appeared, expecting sex, he was surprised to find Enkidu there blocking the way. He grabbed the stranger and tried to throw him from the doorway, but Enkidu would not be moved. The two men then took to fighting. They punched each other, shoved each other throughout the palace and finally spilled out onto the streets of the city. They continued landing blows on each other with neither one being willing to give up the fight and still neither one being able to take down the other. After hours of constant fighting, Gilgamesh finally stopped to take a breath. Enkidu, not wanting to continue the fight if he did not have to, told Gilgamesh that he, Gilgamesh, was the son of Ninsun. He was better than this. He was made by the gods to rule over men, but this was not the way to go about doing it. He pointed out that while he could not defeat Gilgamesh, neither could Gilgamesh defeat him, but he would fight him every time to stop him from sleeping with every bride. Gilgamesh considered all that Enkidu had said, and he believed that his mother was correct in saying that this man was destine to be his best friend. Gilgamesh then agreed to make some changes to the way he ruled, including sleeping with every bride. The two men then hugged and became friends.

When Gilgamesh took Enkidu to meet his mother, however, she was shocked. Ninsun took her son aside and told him to think about what he was doing. This was a wild man. He had no mother or father. He had hair all over his body. How could her son befriend such a thing. Enkidu hearing what the goddess said then sat down and began to cry, but Gilgamesh would not let him leave. Gilgamesh had always wanted to make a name for himself. He wanted to be the greatest hero the world had ever seen. He knew that with his new friend, a man closer than any to being his equal, now was the time to make that wish a reality. The king then came up with a plan.

Gilgamesh explained to Enkidu that only the gods were allowed to dwell in the Heavens. As men, and the one-quarter mortal within Gilgamesh would seal his fate with theirs, time upon the Earth was short. He told his friend that no matter what they did, nothing would be remembered, but if they went on a quest together and kill the mighty beast that prevents men from reaching Heaven, where only the gods were allowed to dwell, they would forever be famous. The plan was set. The two of them would go kill the dreaded Humbaba, protector of the Cedar Forest, the gateway to Heaven.

Gilgamesh then took Enkidu to the see the local blacksmith and have them make weapons for both of them, so that they would be able to defeat the feared Humbaba. When Gilgamesh told the blacksmith where they were going to go, to make sure they weapons and armor were the very best quality, word soon spread around town. The city elders then went to the king and begged him not to make this journey. They told him he was too young and foolish to know what he was getting himself and Enkidu into, but Gilgamesh insisted that they would defeat the monster and cut down trees from the Cedar Forest. Enkidu assured the elders that by telling Gilgamesh that he cannot do this, they have ensured that he must try.

Enkidu and Gilgamesh Become Friends
Enkidu and Gilgamesh Become Friends | Source

Tablet III: Ninsun Prays for a Safe Return

Once the elders realized that there was no stopping Gilgamesh from this quest, they urged him to let Enkidu take the lead. Gilgamesh was big and strong, but he was a city boy. He had never faced the dangers of the wilderness like Enkidu. They wanted the wild man to keep their king safe.

Gilgamesh next took Enkidu with him to talk to his mother, Queen Ninsun. He explained to her that he was driven to go to the Cedar Forest and kill Humbaba. He reminded her that Shamash, the sun god, hated Humbaba and assured her that the god would assist along the way. He then asked her to speak with Shamash, ask him to watch over both he and Enkidu while they are on their journey.

Ninsun prepared herself to speak with the other deity then went to the roof of the palace. She made an offering of incense to Shamash then cried out to him asking why he had driven her boy to such madness. She asked him to watch over her son during the day and for his father Sin, god of the moon, to watch over him during the night. Following her prayers to Shamash, the desperate mother called upon Enkidu. When Enkidu appeared to her, she told him that though he was not born to her, she would take him as her son. She then put a pendant around his neck and asked him to take care of his brother until they returned to her.

Shamash God of the Sun
Shamash God of the Sun | Source

Tablet IV: A Dream Filled Journey

The two friends walked fifty leagues in one day, a distance that would take a normal man at least a month and a half to travel. Along the way, Gilgamesh made sacrifices to Shamash and asks the god to give him dreams as a sign of what is to come. That night the king had a dream that frightened him. He woke trembling in the middle of the night and finally woke Enkidu as well. Gilgamesh then told his friend about the dream. He explained that a mountain fell on him. Enkidu told his friend that this was a good omen. He insisted that the mountain represented Humbaba and the dream meant they would kill him.

The men traveled fifty leagues the following day. Again, Gilgamesh sacrificed to Shamash, again he asks the god for dreams and again he woke in the middle of the night trembling with fear. He told Enkidu that in his dream he was wrestling with a wild bull. The bull was so powerful that when it yelled out, the ground split in two. Gilgamesh explained that when he could no longer go on fighting, the bull put its arms around him and gave him water to drink. Enkidu again translated the dream of his friend. He told him that the bull was not a monster but the god Shamash who was protecting him.

The next day they walked again and Gilgamesh continued with his sacrifice. That night another dream came to him and again he told Enkidu what he saw. He told Enkidu that the sky rumbled with thunder and the ground shook but then everything became still and dark. Suddenly a bolt of lightning struck the ground and started a fire. Everything around him was burning then the fire went out and nothing was left but ash. We know that Enkidu again saw a positive sign in the dream, however, the lines explaining his thought have been lost to eternity. The next night's dream is lost to time, but we know that Enkidu took the dream as a sign that they would soon have their victory.

When Gilgamesh experienced a fifth dream, he admited to his friend that he was crying in fear before the sun god, and he begged Enkidu to remember the promise he made when they were still in Uruk that he would stand beside his friend and protect him. The king knew he would not be able to take Humbaba alone. The two men then charged the entrance of the Cedar Forest. They heard the roar of the dreaded Humbaba. They stood still and waited.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu Kill Humbaba
Gilgamesh and Enkidu Kill Humbaba | Source

Tablet V: Kill a Beast and Make a Door

The two men, Gilgamesh and Enkidu, stood together at the entrance to the forest. They saw the beauty of the trees. They saw Cedar Mountain where the gods alone dwelled. As they amazed at the wonder of the woods, there was a sound. Both men drew their weapons. Humbaba then called out to them telling the king that Enlil, god of the wind, does not come. Enkidu then called out to the beast telling him that as long as they were together, they were not afraid. Humbaba then told Gilgamesh, "An idiot and a moron should give advice to each other." The beast then asks the king why he had come. Why he following Enkidu when he does not even know his own parents. Humbaba then threatened to kill Gilgamesh and feed him to the birds. Gilgamesh cried out to his friend that the face of the beast changes. Enkidu, knowing this was all Gilgamesh's idea in the first place, asked why the king is whining and crying like a baby. He ordered his friend not to turn back in fear.

Humbaba then split the earth and set the two men spinning in circles not knowing what to do. The sky turned dark then Shamash sent in the winds from every direction. Humbaba was tossed about by the winds so badly that he could not move in any direction. Gilgamesh closed in with ax in hand. The beast Humbaba, unable to move, started begging for his life. He promised the king that he would be his servant for life, he would cut down the forest for the king's palace. As Gilgamesh stood listening, Enkidu spoke out to his friend telling him not to listen to the dreaded beast. Gilgamesh listened to Enkidu. Humbaba, seeing that it is the wild man he must talk out of killing him, started trying to reason with him. Humbaba reminded Enkidu of the laws of the forest, pointed out that though he should have killed them already, he had so far let them live. He then offered to spare Enkidu and his friend if they would just walk away. Enkidu then turned to Gilgamesh and told him they should hurry up and kill Humbaba before the gods find out what they are doing. Gilgamesh, regaining his senses, struck Humbaba about the neck killing him quickly.

Enkidu and Gilgamesh then ran through the undefended forest cutting down the sacred trees of the gods. Tree after tree fell. The men then cut down the tallest tree in the forest and Enkidu suggested that they use the wood to make a door for the Temple of Enlil to honor him. The men then lash several trees together making a large raft and take the door and the head of Humbaba down the Euphrates River to Uruk.

Inanna Goddess of Love and War
Inanna Goddess of Love and War | Source
Inanna's Temple Uruk
Inanna's Temple Uruk | Source
Gilgamesh and Enkidu Kill the Bull of Heaven
Gilgamesh and Enkidu Kill the Bull of Heaven | Source

Tablet VI: Turning Down the Goddess of Love

Once the heroes returned to Uruk, the king cleaned himself, shook the water from his long dark hair and let it fall down his back, dresses himself in his royal robes then placed his crown back on his head. Now that he was once again the strong, handsome king as well as the slayer of Humbaba, Inanna, the goddess of love and war, the patron of Uruk and madame of the local house of prostitution running out of her temple, insisted that the king should be her husband. She offered him a chariot of lapis luzuli and gold pulled by storming mountain mules. She told him that if he would grant her his lusciousness, kings, lords and princes would bow down before him. She continued to tell him of all the riches he would receive as the husband of a goddess. Gilgamesh then asked what he could possibly give to a goddess if he married her. He promised to give her anything she could ever need, food and clothing fit for the gods, wine fit for a king, but he would not marry her because she had a history with men. He then proceeds to remind her of her past. She gave a palace that crushed valiant warriors, limestone that brought down an entire wall, shoes that bit their owner's feet. He inquired as to the whereabouts of her previous husbands. Tammuz a member of the deathless gods who somehow died after marrying her, the little bird whose wing she broke, the lion she threw down a pit, the hero stallion she beat with a lash, the shepherd she turned into the wolf, the date farmer she turned into a dwarf. Gilgamesh made it clear that he would not be next on her list.

Inanna was furious at being turned down by a man. She went to the Heavens to see her father, Anu, and her mother, Anrum. She wept as she told them how she had been insulted by Gilgamesh. How he had recounted despicable deeds to her. Her father then pointed out that it was she that provoked him to say the things he did, and though she says the deeds were despicable, where they not true. Inanna, still furious, pleaded to her father to give her the great Bull of Heaven to set loose on Gilgamesh and his city then warned him that if he refused her she would knock down the gates of hell, smash all the door and let the dead eat the living. Her father, god of the sky, reminded her that if he gave her what she wished, the Bull of Heaven, there would be no crops in Uruk for seven years. Uruk was her home, where the people provided for her life, had she prepared to feed the people so they could sacrifice to her. When she assured him that she had prepared, her father gave her the bull.

Inanna led the Bull of Heaven to Uruk. At the Euphrates River, a mere snorting of the bull opened up a pit that swallowed one-hundred men from the city. When the bull snorted again, two-hundred men fell into a pit. The third snort dropped Enkidu into a pit, but with his great height, it was only up to his waist. Enkidu leaped from the pit and grabbed the bull by the horns. He called out to Gilgamesh to come, and together they would kill the beast. Gilgamesh rushed to his dearest friend's cries, and while Enkidu held the Bull of Heaven by the horns, Gilgamesh climbed upon its back. He thrust his sword into the neck of the beast and killed it swiftly. Knowing that killing the sacred animal would not sit well with the gods, they sacrificed the creature's heart to Shamash.

Now Inanna was enraged. She climbed upon the wall of Uruk and called out a curse for everyone to hear. "Woe unto Gilgamesh who slandered me and killed the Bull of Heaven!" Enkidu, upon hearing her cry, grabbed the backend of the bull and hurled it at the goddess's head yelling that if he could get at her, he would do the same thing to her that he had done to the bull. Inanna then called all of her prostitutes from the temple and made them stand in mourning over the hindquarters of the bull. Gilgamesh, not fazed by the curse, had the horns of the bull hung over his late father's bed inside the palace and went with Enkidu to wash in the Euphrates and be finished with the entire business. That night, however, Enkidu had a dream.

Tablet VII: Enkidu Suffers the Curse of the Gods

When he woke, Enkidu shared his dream with Gilgamesh. The gods were in a conference, Anu, Enlil and Shamash. He heard Anu say, "Because they killed the Bull of Heaven and have also slain Humbaba, one of the two who pulled up the Cedar of the Mountain must die!" Enlil suggested that it must be Enkidu who should die as Gilgamesh was a king and three-quarters god. Shamash then asked, but I gave them the command to kill Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven. Why is it that Enkidu should die for this? Enlil then showed his anger at Shamash for helping them but refused to resend the order.

Enkidu was now stricken with sickness and laid dying in front of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh cried to the gods to spare his brother for it was he who killed Humbaba and he was the one who killed the Bull of Heaven. Enkidu spoke to Gilgamesh and worried that in becoming a ghost he would never see his beloved brother again. Enkidu then looked at the door he created from the cedar of the forest then began to speak to it. He told of everything he had gone through to get the wood, craft the door and bring the door from the Cedar Forest to Uruk. He then told the door that had he known this was what he would get for his trouble, he would have taken an ax to the door instead. Gilgamesh, cried out to his friend not to say these things that would anger the gods more. Gilgamesh suggested that if he prayed to Enlil, offered to make him a statue of gold, that the god would have a change of heart and spare his brother, but Enkidu warned that the gods did not do such things for mortals.

In the morning, Enkidu called out to Shamash to curse the trapper who pulled him into this world for he had been happy roaming the forest. He wished the trapper would never again be able to make a living. He cursed the prostitute, Shamhat, who used her body to tame him, that she would never have a family, that she would lose her beauty, that no man would ever take pleasure of her again. Shamash then called down onto Enkidu asking why he was cursing Shamhat. He pointed out that she fed him food fit for a king, she dresses him in royal robes and she brought him a brother that he loved above all others. He told Enkidu that Gilgamesh would honor him in death and travel the wilderness once Enkidu is gone. Enkidu then understanding what the god said to be true took back all his curses on her and prayed that she would be desired by every man. Men would leave their families for her and travel miles just to be with her.

When Gilgamesh returned to him, he spoke to him of another dream. He told of being attacked by an animal so savage that he was not able to do anything to defeat it, and when he cried out to Gilgamesh for help, his brother did not appear. He was turned into a dove and led to the House of Darkness to walk the long road of death. Enkidu then told him what he saw in the House of Dust where the dead reside. He explained of seeing royal crowns in a pile for death cares not if you were a great king. He spoke of seeing those same kings now serving the gods of the dead and Ereshkigal, the Queen of the Netherworld, who would judge him.

Enkidu continued to lie dying for days and mourned that Gilgamesh had fought with him in life but now abandoned him in death. Gilgamesh woke at the sound of his brother crying out and prayed that he was still alive.

Tablet VIII: The Death of Enkidu

When Gilgamesh went to Enkidu and found him dead, he proclaimed that all the animals in the wilderness would mourn him. The elders of Uruk would mourn him. All the people of the city would mourn him. The Euphrates River would mourn him. Gilgamesh covered Enkidu's face then started pacing the floor. He was devastated at such a great loss. He looked at his robes, his weapons, everything that made him king and began ripping them off. He cut off his long dark curls then set out through the city. He called out for the blacksmith, goldsmith and jeweler to create a statue of his brother Enkidu. He demanded the chest be made of lapis luzuli, the skin of gold.

Gilgamesh could not stand to part from his friend. He left him lie in state for days, long enough for his hair to grow back over his body, then he had the Euphrates damned to make a burial place in the bed of the river. He collected gifts to present the gods in payment for safe passage for Enkidu to the Netherlands. He could not bare it, but he had to let his brother go.

Tablet IX: Twelve Leagues of Darkness

Following the funeral, Gilgamesh set out alone into the wilderness. He had been a great king, he had been a great friend to Enkidu, but now Enkidu was dead. He was doomed to the Land of Dust where he would have no future, and Gilgamesh, as one-quarter man, would suffer the same fate. The fear of death was enough to drive him to madness. He had one last hope, one chance for immortality. Utnapishtim had been given the gift of life from the gods. Utnapishtim lived beyond the wilderness. Gilgamesh would find him and find out his secret.

As the king traveled through the wilderness he saw wild animals. At night he prayed to the moon god, Sin, to keep him safe while he slept. One night while sleeping in the mountains, he awoke to the sound of lions. He grabbed his ax and drew his dagger then headed into the night mist. He attacked the lions killing both before they could attack or run. He took their skins for clothing then continued on into the wilderness.

Gilgamesh and the Scorpions
Gilgamesh and the Scorpions | Source

Days and nights past and Gilgamesh survived. He finally happened upon Mount Mashu. Mashu was the place of the setting sun, the outer edges of the dome of life. The mountain was too large to go over and too wide to go around. There was only one passage and the gate was being watched by scorpion-men. The creatures were terrifying to Gilgamesh, but the fear of death was worse. He made his way to the scorpions.

The scorpion creatures, a pair-male and female, watched as the king approached. The scorpion male called out to his mate that the creature before them was created from the gods. The female pointed out that he was only two-thirds god and one-third human then the male called out to Gilgamesh inquiring why he had traveled so far. Gilgamesh spoke truthfully to them. He told them he was seeking Utnapishtim, for whom the gods had given eternal life. He needed to speak with the man about life and death. The scorpions insisted that no mortal had ever nor could pass through the mountain for it was twelve leagues of darkness. It was enough to drive a mortal to madness. Gilgamesh pointed out that he was already subject to madness and insisted to go on through the mountain demanding they open the gate. The scorpion male opened the gate and wished the king well.

Gilgamesh Exits Mount Mashu
Gilgamesh Exits Mount Mashu | Source

Gilgamesh set out into the darkness before he lost his nerve. After one league, there was darkness with no light to be seen. After two leagues, there was darkness. Three leagues, four, five, six, seven there was darkness. At eight leagues, he cried out, but no one was there to answer. At nine leagues he could feel the wind on his face. Ten leagues then eleven he traveled then at twelve leagues he saw brilliant light. There were leaves, fruit, the sea.

Gilgamesh Cuts 300 Trees
Gilgamesh Cuts 300 Trees | Source

Tablet X: Across the Waters of Death

A tavern keeper lived by the seashore. Her name was Siduri, and she was outside tending a boiling pot when she spotted the man in the distance. He was wearing the skins of animals, his face was covered in pain. She believed him to be a murderer. She continued to watch his actions. Where could he be going? She wondered to herself. She watched until he saw her then she knew. She knew where he was headed. She ran for her door. She bolted the lock. Gilgamesh ran to her door calling out to the tavern keeper. Why had she run? What had she seen in him that scared her? He pounded on her door demanding to be let inside. He threatened to smash through the door. The door remained closed. Gilgamesh called out again, "I am Gilgamesh, I killed the Guardian! I destroyed Humbaba who lived in the Cedar Forest, I slew lions in the mountain passes! I grappled with the Bull that came down from Heaven, and killed him." Siduri spoke back through the door repeating all that he had said then asked if all this was true, why did he look like he did emaciated cheeks, desolate expression, features haggard? Why was he so sad after all the things he had done? Gilgamesh then told her about losing Enkidu, his friend, brother. He told her he could not part with his friend until a maggot fell from the nose of his dead body. Now he feared death. He was doomed to roam the wilderness until he found Utnapishtim.

Gilgamesh now asked the tavern keeper how to find the immortal one. She told him there had never been a path to the Utnapishtim. Only Shamash, the sun, could cross the seas except for one who may cross. Gilgamesh demanded to know who this one was that could cross the seas. Siduri warned that the Waters of Death were between them and Utnapishtim and even Gilgamesh would die if he tried to cross. When he still insisted on crossing the river, she told him of Urshanabi, the ferryman of Utnapishtim. She told him of stone things that he kept in the woods. Perhaps if Urshanabi saw the king's face, how desperate he was, he would take pity and help him cross. If he refused, she begged him to turn back, return to being a king.

Gilgamesh stole away to find the stone things of Urshanabi. The ferryman heard the sounds and pounced on Gilgamesh. He struck him in the head. Gilgamesh had seen the stone things and taken his ax to them. He smashed them until they were no more. Now Urshanabi was upon him but the ferryman could not take the giant of a man. He asked Gilgamesh of his appearance, of the emaciated cheeks, the sadness that had overtaken him. So once again, Gilgamesh explained about his brother, Enkidu. Now he was dead, gone to the World of Dust and how he too would follow someday unless he found Utnapishtim. He asked Urshanabi to take him over the Waters of Death. Urshanabi then looked at Gilgamesh and told him that it was his own hand that would prevent him from going to Utnapishtim. The king had broken the stone things. They were Urshanabi's way across the waters.

Gilgamesh was devastated that his last chance was now gone until Urshanabi suggested that he take his ax and go into the woods, cut down 300 trees and bring them to the boat. The king quickly took up his ax and ran into the woods. He cut down 300 trees and brought them to the boat. Once they loaded the trees onto the boat, the two men set out across the waters. After three days, they reached the Waters of Death. Urshanabi then told Gilgamesh to take a pole, tree, and push off through the water. That pole would be destroyed. The king would then take another pole, then another, then another, but never let his hands cross over the Waters of Death. When all of the poles were gone, Gilgamesh removed his clothes and held them up for a sail.

Utnapishtim stood gazing off into the distance. He puzzled as to why the stone things of the boat were smashed to bits, and why was there another man on the boat. Utnapishtim continued to look until Gilgamesh had arrived. Upon seeing the king the man asked why his cheeks were emaciated, why his expression desolate. He asked all the same things Siduri and Urshanabi had asked. Gilgamesh replied with the same answer that his friend, brother Enkidu was dead, gone to the House of Dust and that he would someday join him. He told the man how he had traveled over mountains and seas to find the one with answers. The old man listen to Gilgamesh's tale then gave him a warning. He told the king that he had been blessed by the gods. He had been given all of the blessings a mortal could receive and what was he doing with it? He was in fear of his own death yet his actions were soon bring it to him. He was seeking life but finding his own death.

Tablet XI: Utnapishtim and the Flood

After hearing what the old man had to say, Gilgamesh realized that he was Utnapishtim, but he was surprised because the old man looked no different than he did. He then asked the old man how had he gained entranced to the Assembly of the Gods, how had he gained immortality. Utnapishtim told him that he would explain what had happened to him.

Utnapishtim told of a city, Shuruppak, that sat on the Euphrates River a very long time before. Enlil, the god of weather, had grown upset with the people. He condemned the people to a flood then swore all of the other gods to secrecy. Ea, the god of creation, called out a warning to Utnapishtim to build a boat. He was instructed to give up everything of value and seek only living creatures. Ea told him to make the boat big enough to collect of all living beings, and to tell no one why. Utnapishtim then told of the boat he built, with help from others. It was six decks, each divided into seven levels. A tremendous boat he loaded with living creatures. When the rains started, it was frightening. Even the gods were so terrified that they retreated to the heavens. He explained that even Inanna shrieked like a woman in childbirth. The mountains were covered with water. The gods began to weep for the loss of their people. The rain continued for six days and seven nights.

Utnapishtim Releases a Dove
Utnapishtim Releases a Dove | Source

When the skies calmed, Utnapishtim looked for land. The entire day he looked then on Mount Nimush he spotted land. The boat came to rest there and stayed still for six days. On the seventh day, he set free a dove. The dove left but came back as there was no place for it to perch. The next day he set free a swallow, but it too came back. The next day he set free a raven. When it did not return, he set free all of the animals and sacrificed a sheep to the gods in thanks for the safe return to land. The gods started to arrive, but when Enlil appeared and saw the boat and survivors, he was furious. He demanded to know which of them had caused the humans to escape the flood. Quickly Ninurta, Enlil's son, pointed the finger at Ea. Ea then spoke to Enlil asking how he could bring this flood without thinking about all of the people? How could he assume all living creatures guilty instead of seeking out those with guilt? How could he be so uncaring of all mankind? Ea then admitted to sending a warning in a dream.

Utnapishtim continued telling Gilgamesh that Enlil took him by the hand and led him into the boat. He then brought the wife of Utnapishtim there to kneel beside him then he touched their foreheads and blessed them both. Enlil said, "Previously Utnapishtim was a human being. Now let Utnapishtim and his wife become like us, the gods!" He then explained that the gods brought he and his wife to the island at the mouth of the rivers. Utnapishtim then asked who would convene the gods on his behalf to bestow on Gilgamesh such a gift.

Upon hearing the truth, all of the struggle came down on Gilgamesh, and he lowered his head. Utnapishtim told him he must stay awake for six days and seven nights to see if the gods would appear, but the king fell asleep. Utnapishtim's wife told her husband to wake Gilgamesh, send him back the way he came, but her husband commanded her to bake a loaf of bread each day, so that when Gilgamesh woke, he would know how long he had slept. Each day's bread grew stale and moldy then on the seventh day, Utnapishtim touched Gilgamesh and he woke. Gilgamesh believed he had only dozed off and that his host and touched him instantly to wake him. It was then the Utnapishtim told him to observe the bread. One for each day. The king now wept, "O woe! What shall I do, Utnapishtim, where shall I go? The Snatcher had taken hold of my flesh, in my bedroom Death dwells, and wherever I set foot there too is Death!"

Gilgamesh Obtains the Plant of Life
Gilgamesh Obtains the Plant of Life | Source

Utnapishtim directed Urshanabi to take Gilgamesh to the bathing place to wash the mats from his hair and remove the stain of the animal skins from his body. He ordered his body coated in oil and dressed in robes fit for a king so that he could return to his home. Urshanabi did as he was ordered then prepared to set sail with Gilgamesh. Utnapishtim's wife then pleaded that the king had come to them in exhaustion, and they must give him something to show for his journey. Her husband then told Gilgamesh of a plant that if he found it, would return him to his youth. Gilgamesh went to the place where the plant would be found. He tied stones to his feet and went into the water. He grabbed the plant in one hand then cut the rope to free himself. Gilgamesh was delighted to have found something to make the old young again. He wanted quickly to return to Uruk.

Gilgamesh Loses Plant to the Snake
Gilgamesh Loses Plant to the Snake | Source
Flood Tablet from the Epic of Gilgamesh
Flood Tablet from the Epic of Gilgamesh | Source

Gilgamesh and Urshanabi set sail for Uruk. After traveling fifty leagues, they stopped for the night and the king wanted to bathe in the cool waters. A snake, being drawn in by the fragrance of the special plant, came out and carried the plant away. Gilgamesh jumped to retrieve his prize, but the snake was too fast. As it slithered away, it sloughed off its skin as if becoming new again. A devastated Gilgamesh sat down and cried at his failure to maintain the plant. He sobbed to the ferryman that all of his troubles had been for nothing. He had not gained anything to give him life. He had only helped the snake. He had done nothing for which to leave his mark on the earth. The two men traveled on to Uruk.

When they arrived at Uruk, Gilgamesh sent Urshanabi to the top of the wall to examine the structure. His wall protected his city, a large city with palm gardens and low lands to feed the people, a temple to the goddess Inanna and an open area for the people. After all his travels, all his struggles, Gilgamesh realized that his wall would be his mark.


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    • Lugalzagezi profile image


      3 years ago

      Thank you Anita , although I have read the epic many times before but I really enjoyed reading what you have written , I am looking forward for more of your outputs


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