The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the great works of literature, and one of the oldest. It was first composed in ancient Mesopotamia during the early second millennium BC, in the Akkadian language, and an excellent translation is given by Andrew George (Penguin Classics 1999). The narrative is divided into eleven books comprising about 3,000 lines in total.
It is a story of love and comradeship, arrogance and uncertainty, wisdom and folly, impetuosity and determination, immortality and the inevitability of death. In Book I, Gilgamesh is introduced as, “He who saw the deep, the foundations of the land”—a king who has travelled far and learned wisdom and knowledge of all things. It then describes the great city of Uruk and the walls built by Gilgamesh (Uruk—Biblical Erech—was once the world’s greatest ancient city, located on the old course of the Euphrates in southern Iraq). Gilgamesh dominates the city and its people, leaving no young man free to go to his father, and no young wife free to go to her bridegroom. The citizens plead with the sky god Anu for help, and their prayers are answered. The gods create a primeval man, Enkidu to be a counterbalance to Gilgamesh. He is formed from the clay of the ground, somewhere in the outback (the term for the outback is the Sumerian word Edin—compare with the second creation story of humans in Genesis 2).
A trapper is the first person to come across Enkidu, seeing him as he drinks with the wild animals at their watering holes. The trapper reports him to Gilgamesh who sends Shamhat the courtesan to tame him. She lies with Enkidu for a week, after which the animals run from him and he finds he no longer belongs to the Edin; compare again with Genesis 2 where Adam and Eve can no longer stay in Eden.
When Enkidu hears, from a passing wedding guest, that Gilgamesh takes the young brides for himself on their wedding night, he goes to Uruk to challenge him. They wrestle one another to a standstill, after which they become bosom friends, and Gilgamesh introduces Enkidu to his mother Ninsun. When she points out that he has no kith and kin, Enkidu bursts into tears, and Gilgamesh proposes a great distraction for them both—they will undertake an epic journey to the great cedar forest where they will challenge Humbaba, the guardian placed there by the god Enlil. Enkidu advises against this venture, knowing as he does the terrifying nature of Humbaba (compare with the guardian of Eden in Genesis 3:24), but Gilgamesh is determined on it. Ninsun prays to the sun god Shamash to protect her son, and takes Enkidu as an adopted son who will protect his new brother.
Giant weapons are cast for the two of them before setting out. They march in three days a distance that would take normal men a month and a half, and each day they pitch a tent to the dream god. Gilgamesh dreams fearful dreams, but Enkidu always interprets them as good omens. When they reach the forest they marvel at the tall cedars, but Shamash the sun-god quickly persuades them to challenge Humbaba while he is still unprepared, protected by only one of his seven auras. With help from the thirteen winds, they pin him down, and then have a dilemma. Gilgamesh does not wish to kill Humbaba, but Enkidu is adamant that they kill or be killed. Humbaba pleads for his life, and Gilgamesh hesitates. But Enkidu persists, and Humbaba curses him, a curse, like that of the Cyclops in the Odyssey, having ominous consequences.
After slaying Humbaba, Gilgamesh and Enkidu take down the tallest cedar in the forest to build a great door to the god Enlil. They return to Uruk where Ishtar the goddess of love hears of the heroic deed and comes to ask Gilgamesh to be her husband. He replies by describing the sorry end of her previous lovers, and rejects her in no uncertain terms. Ishtar is furious and goes to her father Anu demanding the Bull of Heaven to wreak vengeance against Gilgamesh. She threatens to open the gates of the Netherworld if he will not agree to her demand, so Anu gives in and she takes the bull to Uruk to destroy the city. Every time it snorts a huge pit opens up and scores of men fall in, but Gilgamesh and Enkidu battle the bull. They kill it, and Enkidu throws a part of its body at Ishtar. This brings us half way through the story, to the end of book VI.
In book VII, Enkidu dreams that the gods have decided to punish the two of them by killing him. In an extraordinary passage he talks to the door that they made for Enlil, and curses Shamhat the harlot who has brought him into civilization. He tells her how the highways will be her home, everyone will insult her and the drunkard will vomit over her. But Shamash the sun god, the god of justice, who in Enkidu’s dream spoke up for him in the assembly of the gods, calls from the sky, and Enkidu changes the fate he has uttered against Shamhat; princes will honour her, every type of man will desire her, and she will receive precious gifts and jewellery. Then Enkidu returns to his dream where he is dragged to the Netherworld, and after many days of sickness he dies.
Gilgamesh is distraught. He calls for the animals of the wild to mourn Enkidu, for the river Euphrates to weep for Enkidu, for the elders of the city to mourn, for the young men to mourn, for the ploughman at his plough to mourn, and finally Gilgamesh himself mourns. He lays Enkidu out on a great bed, and has expert craftsmen build a magnificent statue to him. He mourns for days, and only when a maggot falls from Enkidu’s nostril, will he have him buried. Then Gilgamesh leaves to roam the wild.
Gilgamesh now understands his own mortality, and decides to seek out the immortal, Uta-napishti from whom he might learn the secret of life without death. After fighting with lions he reaches the twin mountains where the sun rises and sets. The scorpion men who guard the mountains ask his business, and warn that his journey is impossible. They tell him he will not get through the darkness inside the mountains, but they let him pass, and he travels a mysterious path in which he races the sun itself, coming out just ahead before dawn. Gilgamesh now finds himself in a land where the trees and bushes blossom with gemstones.
At the beginning of book X, Gilgamesh arrives at a tavern at the edges of the world, kept by Shiduri. She is wrapped in wraps and enshawled in shawls—a mysterious woman who is at first fearful of this wild looking man. He tells his tale, explaining why he looks so haggard, and asks her the way to Uta-napishti. She says it is impossible to reach there, that only the sun god Shamash can cross the waters to Uta-napishti, and in the midst of the journey are the waters of death. When Gilgamesh insists, she tells him to find Ur-shanabi the ferryman for Uta-napishti. This man is in the woods with “those of stone”, and Gilgamesh falls in a fury on these mysterious stone ones, destroying them. When Ur-shanabi asks him why he is so wild he explains, as he did to Shiduri, about the death of his friend Enkidu. He is now seeking Uta-napishti to learn the secret of how to avoid death, and Ur-shanabi tells him he just destroyed the method of getting there when he smashed the stone ones. He commands Gilgamesh to cut down three hundred saplings to use as punting poles, and when all is ready they depart.
They sail, and in three days cover the journey of a month and a half, just as Gilgamesh and Enkidu did in taking the path to Humbaba’s cedar forest. At the waters of death, they use the punting poles, and finally, with Gilgamesh using his shirt as a sail, they reach the land of Uta-napishti. Gilgamesh tells Uta-napishti of his exploits, but receives the response that he is being foolish. As a king he should be taking care of his people, yet he seeks the impossible. Death is unavoidable; no-one sees the face of death or hears the voice of death, but it cuts each one down. The gods have assigned mortality to mankind, and it cannot be changed. Thus ends book X.
As book XI starts, Uta-napishti reveals a secret to Gilgamesh. He tells him the story of the flood. The gods sent a flood to destroy the human race, but one god, Ea spoke to a reed fence giving instructions on how to build a suitable boat. Uta-napishti heard the words of Ea, and saved himself, his family and all living things. The flood was upon the earth for six days and seven nights. On the seventh day the boat came to rest on a mountain, and he sent forth three birds in succession: a dove, a swallow, and a raven (compare with the flood story in Genesis 8 where the three birds were raven, dove and dove, in that order). The first two came back, and finally the raven flew off.
When Uta-napishti disembarked he made an offering to the gods, and when the mother goddess arrived she regretted the loss of human life, saying her necklace of flies would always remind her of this terrible event where humans lay on the surface of the water like flies (compare the rainbow in Genesis 9). However, the god Enlil, who originally sent the flood, was furious that anyone had survived, and it took the wise god Ea to persuade him that the ever-increasing multitude of people could be kept in check in various other ways. This suggests that the reason for sending the flood was the noise and clamour of human beings (compare with the Biblical story in which it was the iniquity of mankind that caused God to destroy everyone but Noah and his family). The noise of mankind is precisely the reason given in another ancient Mesopotamian story called Atrahasis (The Supersage), telling of the creation of humans and the great flood (in the Gilgamesh Epic, the Supersage is named Uta-napishti). Enlil accepts Ea’s idea and blesses Uta-napishti and his wife, conferring immortality on them so that they should be like gods and dwell far off.
When Uta-napishti has related this story, he tells Gilgamesh that if he seeks immortality he must first conquer sleep by staying awake for six days and seven nights. Gilgamesh immediately falls asleep, and as he sleeps, Uta-napishti has his wife bake bread every day and set it in front of Gilgamesh. When Gilgamesh finally awakes, saying he barely fell asleep, Uta-napishti is able to show him how each loaf of bread has gone stale, one worse than the next, proving that he has slept for six days and seven nights. If he cannot beat sleep he cannot beat death, and Gilgamesh now accepts the inevitable.
As for Ur-shanabi, the quayside will now reject him, the ferry will reject him, and his days of immortality are over. Uta-napishti sends him to bath Gilgamesh, give him new clothes, and then together the two of them will go to Uruk. Before they leave, however, Uta-napishti’s wife intervenes to plead that Gilgamesh not be sent away empty-handed, so Uta-napishti tells Gilgamesh a second secret. He tells him of a plant that will rejuvenate life. It grows beneath the sweet waters under the earth, so Gilgamesh ties stones to his feet and dives down to bring up the plant, and then leaves with Ur-shanabi.
They move at great speed, as did Gilgamesh and Enkidu on the way to the cedar forest. On the way, Gilgamesh bathes and a snake steals the plant, swallows it and rejuvenates itself by sloughing its skin. Gilgamesh has lost his one chance of eternal youthfulness, and returns to Uruk with nothing but his experience, and his companion Ur-shanabi to whom he proudly shows the great city walls that he once built. As king of the greatest city in the world, Gilgamesh has seen the deep and learned the wisdom to accept his lot.