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World Poetry Project: Gilgamesh

Updated on April 26, 2011

Buddies in Babylon

We have the buddy film.

Ancient Mesopotamians had Gilgamesh and his companion, Enkidu. The stories of this heroic pair were lost for 2000 years until Austen Henry Layard discovered Nineveh, capital of ancient Assyria, at Mosul, Iraq, in 1844. With his assistant, Hormuzd Rassam, Layard excavated Nineveh, and with it the library of King Assurbanipal, was uncovered, packed, and sent to the British Library. Over 25,000 cuneiform tablets were collected by Layard. In 1857, cuneiform was deciphered and the work of translation began, but it was not until 1872 that a young curator, George Smith, found a "Babylonian Noah", a portion of the Gilgamesh epic.

Today, we have several versions of Gilgamesh. Five separate songs of Gilgamesh, an Old Babylonian version in 11 fragments, 3 of them almost complete, and 73 fragments of the revision of the Old Babylonian version composed by Sin-leqi-unninni around 2200 BCE. These fragments provide us with almost 2000 lines of the original 3000 in a continuous form, however, the rest are much marred and broken.

For those who wish to read the entire epic in modern English, I suggest Stephen Mitchell's translation published by the Free Press in 2004.

World Poetrydoes not have room within its ambitious scope to include the whole of Gilgamesh, but the editors chose the selection they did include well. The selection concerns the death of Gilgamesh's companion, Enkidu, and the king's reaction to that death.

The selection begins with Enkidu cursing those who brought him into civilization: the hunter and the priestess-prostitute Shamhat. For Enkidu was created as Gilgamesh's double, a man who could limit him and turn the king from harming his own people, a wild primitive to Gilgamesh's civilized man. However, a hunter had discovered this man living as one with the beasts, reported him to the king, and Shamhat had been sent to use sex to seduce him to civilization. It worked.

"As for the hunter who saw me in the grasslands,

may the creatures which he hunts, the gazelles and the others,

get away from him free. May the hunter starve

because he saw me at the watering place."

The next dawn, Enkidu curses Shamhat:

May the garbage of the city be what you eat.

May you drink what flows along the alley gutters.

May you importune in the alley shadows.

May you have no home. May you sleep on the city doorsteps.

May there be signs of vomit on your clothes.

May all men curse and revile you and turn away."

Enkidu faces death with anger and bitterness. There is no resignation here, no heroic restraint, for the heroic figure in Babylon was not restrained, nor resigned. Heroes were passionate; the closer to the gods one was in power the more likely one would behave as a god, and Gilgamesh and Enkidu are no different. Enkidu's death had been decreed, after all, as a divine punishment for the killing of the Bull of Heaven by the pair, and the Bull of Heaven had been sent them after Gilgamesh refused and insulted Inanna.

In the face of death, Enkidu wishes to erase all of civilization and return to the innocence of his days among the beasts, and he lays the blame for his predicament on the hunter who first saw him and the woman who ensnared him. Shamash, god of the Sun, is not willing to let this go, however, and he reminds Enkidu of what is owed to the priestess:

Because of her you eat the food and drink

the palace affords. Because of her you wear

the garments suitable for a prince to wear;

you sit in the place of honor nearest the king;

the great ones of the earth bow down before you.

Gilgamesh is your friend and your companion.

Enkidu is softened in his rage at Shamhat, but not the hunter. He now blesses her where he cursed her before, wishing a wealthy courtesans life for her in the future. The hunter remains condemned, and Shammash says nothing in his defense.

The next morning, Enkidu dreams, and he tells Gilgamesh of his dream. In his dream he was alone on a dark plain. On the plain, in the dark, there was another,

with a lion head and the paws of a lion too,

but the nails were talons, the talons of an eagle.

The face was dark. He took hold of me and seized me.

I fought with him. I hit at him, but he

kept moving about in the dark, too quick for me,

and then with a blow he capsized me like a raft.

I cried out in the dark to Gilgamesh.


and Gilgamesh was afraid and did not help me.

Enkidu faces his own death in his dream, alone, as he must, as every one must. But Gilgamesh has promised his friend the impossible; he has promised to join him in fighting death, he has promised that Enkidu will not die. And he will not follow Enkidu in death, either. After Enkidu's death, Gilgamesh will seek eternal life. His fear of death is his master. Enkidu's description of the afterlife may indicate why it Gilgamesh was full of dread:

the House of Darkness, the HOuse of No Return.

No one comes back who ever enters there.

The garments that they wear are made of feathers.

The food they eat is clay, the drink is dirt.

Stillness and dust are on the door and door bolt.

There is no light of any sort at all.

This is a bleak eternity, indeed. Not a heaven, nor yet completely a hell, for if Enkidu indicates there is no prize to be won in the Underworld he describes no punishments either. Existence cut off from the joys of the earth and the light of the sun is a thing of shadow and poverty. Here I am reminded of Achilles in the Odyssey: "I would rather follow the plow as thrall to another/man, one with no land allotted him and not much to live on,/than be a king over all the perished dead" (Lattimore translation, Book XI:489-491). The dead of the Odyssey too are hungry shades, frightening Odysseus with their noise and excitement as they press forward.

For twelve days more, Enkidu suffered. Then, looking to Gilgamesh, he says:

Gilgamesh, who encouraged me in the battle

saying, 'Two people, companions, they can prevail,'

Gilgamesh is afraid and does not help me!

and dies. Gilgamesh does not leave Enkidu. He does not appear to understand what has happened, not at first. He, instead, recalls all that he and his friend did together: their battles, their adventures, their affection. He weeps.

You are asleep. What has taken you into your sleep?

Your face is dark. How was your face made dark?

Enkidu's eyes were unmoving in their sockets.

Gilgamesh touched the heart of the companion.

There was nothing at all. Gilgamesh covered

Enkidu's face with a veil like the veil of a bride.

He hovered like an eagle over the body,

or as a lioness does over her brood.

Here we have Gilgamesh investigating the changes has brought to his companion with his eyes, with his hands, one would imagine with his nose as well. It is as if the reality of death, despite the fact that he is a warrior-king and one who, with Enkidu, killed before this morning, this death, has never existed for him before. He does not know it. As Camus wrote in "The Myth of Sisyphus": "nothing has been experienced but what has been lived and made conscious". Gilgamesh still doesn't know death, but it has brushed by him, and that is enough to unmoor him, so that he will leave his city to find eternal life, that he may avoid the fate of Enkidu.

Note, also, that the imagery associated with Gilgamesh at the close of this selection mirrors in a feminized form the eagle-lion enemy Enkidu faced in his dream. In the latter, the eagle-lion was predatory, and Enkidu was the kill. In association with Gilgamesh, the eagle-lion is maternal and protective, and Enkidu is the object of its protection, rather like a sphinx. Both Enkidu and Gilgamesh, one permanently and the other temporarily, have in the presence of death lost their vigor and their power, been to some extent feminized: one a bride, the other a childless mother.


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      Buffee 3 years ago

      Wow, that's a really clever way of thnkinig about it!