The Epic of Gilgamesh

This is the first in a series tracing the development of the modern novel.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is, perhaps, the oldest surviving example of literature. It is, as its name suggests, an epic story of a man named Gilgamesh who, unlike Robin Hood, king Arthur and the heroes of Greek mythology, actually existed. Gilgamesh was the fifth king of Uruk, a Sumerian city-state that is mentioned in the bible where it is called Erech. Gilgamesh ruled Uruk c. 2,700 BC at a time when it was the largest city in the world with walls that were six miles long and supposedly had more than nine hundred towers on them. It was originally situated on the east bank of the Euphrates in southern Iraq, but the river has since changed course and the ruined city now lies in a dry gully where it was discovered in 1849 by the English geologist William Loftus (1820 – 1858).

The story is a compilation from a number of Sumerian poems that date from the late third millennium BC. These poems provided material for a number of Babylonian narrative poems written around 1,700 BC, which took episodes from the Sumerian poems and combined them into a continuous narrative that we recognise as a story. Pieces of a number of different versions of this story have been recovered from clay tablets found in Mesopotamia, Syria, the Levant and Anatolia, suggesting a story that became widely distributed in ancient times. These are known to scholars as the Old Babylonian versions and are titled from the incipit, Shutur eli sharri “Surpassing All Other Kings.”

The Middle versions, date from around 1,500 – 1,000 BC and preserve only some of the material of the Old Babylonian versions. Of these, a sub-set known as the Standard version dates from around the seventh century BC. Attesting to the popularity of the story, there is also a parody version that scholars refer to as the Gilgamesh Letter.

The story is known from versions in several different languages, Sumerian, Babylonian, Akkadian, Hittite and Hurrian among them, but no complete version of the story exists in any language. That’s actually quite important so I’m going to say it again: no complete version of the story exists in any language. There are lines with words missing, verses with lines missing, speeches with verses missing and whole speeches and possibly whole scenes of the story missing from the text we have. This permits a certain flexibility in interpreting the story that some readers may find infuriating whilst others may find it liberating and invigorating.

The compilation known as the Standard version (the one used for this essay), was written in Akkadian and is generally attributed to a man known as Sin-leqe-unninni, a scholar who lived in the second half of the second millennium BC, centuries after the Old version was written. Very little else is known about him. This version is titled from its incipit, Sha naqba imuru, “He who Saw the Deep,” where deep could possibly be a metaphor for the unknown, or it could mean literally the deep, since at one point Gilgamesh dives underwater to  recover a plant with magical properties.

Fragments of approximately two thirds of this longer version were found on twelve clay tablets. Some translations treat the twelfth tablet as though it were not part of the main story but an appendix to it so readers will sometimes see reference to eleven tablets rather than twelve. The tablets were originally discovered not at Uruk but at the Royal Library of Ashurbanipal, in the ancient city of Nineveh, a city on the west bank of the Euphrates in northern Iraq. Ashurbanipal was an Assyrian king who ruled from 668 BC – c. 627 BC and he was popular with his people but ruthless and cruel to his enemies. His famed library at Nineveh is thought to have inspired Alexander the Great to create his own library that eventually became the equally famous Great Library of Alexandria. The tablets are not themselves dated, but from their history must date from before the destruction of the library in 612 BC when a coalition of Babylonians, Scythians and Medes attacked and burned the palace at Nineveh. They were discovered in the 1850s by Austen Henry Layard (1817 – 1894) and his Assyrian collaborator Hormuzd Rassam (1826 – 1910) and are today housed in the British Museum in London.

The tablets were written in the cuneiform script which was deciphered by Henry Rawlinson (1810 – 1895), a Persian speaking British army officer who translated the Behistun Inscription, a tri-lingual inscription found in three locations on Mount Behistun near the city of Kermanshah in western Iran. The Behistun Inscription is sometimes referred to as the Stone of Darius, and is analogous to the Rosetta Stone that permitted decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics. The inscription tells the story of king Darius the Great in three languages, Old Persian, Elamite, and Akkadian (the language of Babylonia and Assyria). From the inscription Rawlinson was able to determine the important insight that each cuneiform symbol may have more than one meaning depending on context. This can be thought of as the equivalent of the situation common in modern English where, for example, the word father might refer to the verb to father or the noun my father, depending on context.

The Historical Gilgamesh
Gilgamesh is an identifiable historical figure, a king who reigned over the Sumerian city-state of Uruk around 2,700 BC. Stories about the adventures of Gilgamesh were first written down in Sumerian around 2,100 BC, during the, `Third Dynasty of the city of Ur,’ a place that is mentioned in the bible (Genesis 11:31) as Ur of the Chaldees, as being the place where Abraham was living before he went into Canaan. These narrative poems celebrated the life and exploits of both Gilgamesh and his father Lugulbanda, and were enjoyed at the royal court which was keen to promote a connection to an ancient and revered ancestor. Whether such a connection actually existed is not known. In the first millennium BC Gilgamesh was invoked in funerary rituals as a deity of the underworld, with one prayer to him reading, “O Gilgamesh, perfect king, judge of the netherworld gods, Deliberative prince, neckstock of the peoples,” and continues to say that when he was in session in the underworld, his would have been the final verdict.

He is also mentioned in the Book of Giants, which was found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, indicating that memory of him had lasted much longer than the Mesopotamian civilization to which he belonged. In these legends his father is called Lugalbanda, his mother is described as the goddess Ninsun, a deified wild cow, and he is often referred to as being one third human, two-thirds divine.

One common assumption about ancient stories, whether they originate in Mesopotamia, Greece, India or elsewhere, is that they are survivors of an aural tradition, that the version first written down has previously evolved over time during many performances. There is no evidence of this with the Epic of Gilgamesh. It seems to have originated from entirely written sources although this does not preclude it being performed or recited in public.

The story is essentially quite straightforward: Gilgamesh is a good king but he abuses his subjects. A rival, called Enkidu, is created and they become friends. Gilgamesh and Enkidu go on a quest to the forest of cedars where they slay a monster called Humbaba and they bring back a gigantic tree from which they make a door. A goddess admires the hero Gilgamesh and proposes marriage to him, but he spurns her and she jealously releases the Bull of Heaven, which Gilgamesh and Enkidu overcome and kill. The gods require a punishment for the death of the Bull and Enkidu is chosen, falls ill and dies. Gilgamesh mourns his friend’s death and then becoming fearful of his own death he sets off on a quest for the secret of eternal life. He fails in this final quest, but learns something almost as valuable as the secret he sought.

Textual Notes
Tablet I is a prologue similar in style to that found in Homer’s Iliad. It opens with an introduction of Gilgamesh, the central character, as a man who has experienced many trials, which he has not only survived but from which he has learned much. There is then a brief resume of his accomplishments including instructions for the reader to admire the city of Uruk that he has built.

Go up, pace out the walls of Uruk,
Study the foundation terrace and examine the brickwork.
Is not its masonry of kiln-fired brick?
And did not the seven masters lay its foundations?
One square mile of city, one square mile of gardens,
One square mile of clay pits, a half square mile of Ishtar’s dwelling,
Three and a half square miles is the measure of Uruk!

This is an impressive city and we are meant to be impressed with Gilgamesh the king of Uruk who built various of these structures including the famed walls of Uruk and a treasury, he is celebrated as the restorer of holy places and the founder of justice for his people. He is considered to be one third human, two thirds divine and is a physically perfect man, being described as “Ideally handsome.” He is, however, arrogant and aloof and abuses his subjects, including that on her wedding night he takes each bride before her groom.

Anu, the chief sky god, heard the people complaining about Gilgamesh and told them to summon Aruru, the birth goddess who created human beings, and let her create a partner for Gilgamesh equal to him in strength. This was done and Aruru made Enkidu from wet clay. He was made, “lush with head hair,” strong, he dressed in animal skins and lived with them feeding on grass and drinking at their waterholes. He befriended the animals and tore up traps laid for them and filled in pits intended to capture them.

A hunter encountered Enkidu at a water hole and was terrified of him. Enkidu had filled in the hunter’s animal pits and dug up his traps and the hunter was afraid to confront him. He asked his father for advice, and he told him to go to Uruk and ask Gilgamesh to bring the harlot Shamhat to the wild man to tame him.

This was done, and the harlot Shamhat waited by the water hole until Enkidu arrived and she stripped off and tempted him and he succumbed to her charms for six days and seven nights. When he returned to his animals they did not know him, he could not run as before but he had somehow gained in understanding. Shamhat told him of the perfect man Gilgamesh who was, “perfect in strength,” but he, “lords it over the young men,” and Enkidu returned to the city with Shamhat to challenge Gilgamesh.

At this point it is worth noting that to start with Enkidu was essentially an animal but through having copious sex with a harlot over a period of six days he somehow became fully human and acquired a morality. It isn’t obvious how that could have happened just from having sex, and we might assume that either the harlot or sex are meant to be read as metaphor for something else, although quite what is not immediately obvious.

There are many precedents for this story of a hairy wild man who lives with animals and is lured into human society by a woman. They come mostly from Asia where they seem to originate with stories of the orang utan, who was perceived as a wild man who purposely spurned the company of other men. Over three thousand years later Mary Shelley had the monster in her novel Frankenstein (1818) acquire morality by the equally unlikely process of watching humans through a knot hole in a piece of wood. The source of morality and what makes humans human has been and remains a perplexing problem for thinkers in many disciplines, and asking that question and investigating potential solutions is a part of what novelists do.

The action continues in the city of Uruk where Gilgamesh explained some dreams of his to his mother Ninsun, who interpreted the dreams favourably for her son. Since the original text is fragmentary the actual number of dreams that Gilgamesh had is not known for certain and the number and specifics of the dreams may vary from one translation to another. For our purpose the point to take from this episode is that he had dreams, his mother interpreted them, the dreams predicted that Gilgamesh and Enkidu would meet, become great friends who have mutual love one for the other, and at the end of the tablet, it is revealed that Shamhat the harlot was simultaneously telling the dreams of Gilgamesh to Enkidu, which would seem to imply that she was not merely a harlot.

Gods in stories can be interpreted in several different ways. They can be seen as characters who live in the sky and have control over the world and influence to some degree the actions of the humans on a big stage spread out before them like a giant game of civilisation. My earliest attempts to read Homer’s Iliad were like this, but in time I came to see that gods can also represent a writerly way to express the emotions and desires of the characters in the story. We all have an inner dialogue going on inside our head and without a narrator to interpret and explain this dialogue one way to introduce it into the story as a way of explaining what characters do is to attribute this dialogue to a god. One thing we might notice with later novels, then, is the gradual emergence of this omniscient narrator and the simultaneous disappearance of the inner dialogue gods in stories. There will still be gods in stories, but as the narrator assumes the role of interpreting and explaining what characters do gods will gradually morph into being purely the sky dwelling omnipotent magical controllers of the universe.

Dreams in stories can also be interpreted in a number of ways. They can be read simply as a magical plot device to give a character knowledge he could not acquire in any other way. They can be thought of as divine messages, implying that one or more gods are controlling at least some aspects of the events that transpire, or they can be seen as a form of foreshadowing, a technique we will come across in many other contexts. Foreshadowing is a way to demonstrate to the reader the result of a choice made by a character in the story. A character is presented with a situation and chooses a course of action which turns out good or bad. Later in the story, the same or a different character is presented with a similar situation and they may make the same choice, so that the reader but not the character already knows how things are going to work out, or they may learn the lesson from the previous example and make a different choice allowing the writer to show us how that turns out. It’s a technique for developing tension and psychological interest in the events of even a very simple story.

In the Epic of Gilgamesh this first set of dreams serve the function of allowing the reader to know what a character knows. Once Ninsun interprets the dreams the reader knows that Gilgamesh and Enkidu both know of the other and that they are in some sense fated to meet and become friends. What is not revealed by the dreams is how Enkidu intends to deal with his revelation that Gilgamesh was wrong to treat his subjects the way he did.

Tablet II begins with Shamhat civilising Enkidu. She dressed him and took him to a sheepfold where the shepherds fed him bread and beer and gradually Enkidu became more like a man. He sang songs, anointed himself with oil, took up weapons and hunted lions and slew wolves. A passerby on his way to a wedding feast told Enkidu how Gilgamesh abused his authority, being the first to take the bride on her wedding night, before even her  groom. Enkidu strode off to Uruk to right this wrong.

A point worth noting here is that Shamhat led Enkidu to the sheepfold, reminiscent of an image from Mesopotamian art in which a person is led by a guardian deity, often female, into the presence of a great god. But after the revelation by the passing stranger and his transformation into a more human form they change places and it is Enkidu who is leading Shamhat to Uruk to challenge Gilgamesh. To a Mesopotamian this would have signified a more significant change in Enkidu than just having a haircut and shave and anointing with oil. Something has happened to the man he is.

Another point worth considering here is whether it is necessary for the reader to know this for them to appreciate the story. Does the reader need to know about Mesopotamian deity worship and religious ritual to appreciate the story? If so, can that knowledge be introduced into the story in some way so that any reader would know that? How, for example, do writers of science fiction, say, deal with this issue when writing about life  forms, cultures and belief systems that are, by definition, alien to us?

When Enkidu arrived in Uruk a crowd gathered around him. This had been foreseen in the dreams that Gilgamesh had, and it serves the purpose of telling us that Enkidu was seen by ordinary people as being a superlative man, but not fearsome or frightening. He may have had animal characteristics but he did not look like an animal and the people compared him favourably to Gilgamesh; shorter, possibly, but stronger in build.

A celebration was underway and the implication is that it is a wedding feast. Gilgamesh was making his way to the bride’s bedroom for his usual pleasure but Enkidu blocked the  doorway. A fight ensued that made the house shake, they shattered the doorpost and the fight continued in the street and in the public square. Gilgamesh eventually won but the two combatants had admiration for each other and kissed and made friends.

There is obviously at least one great speech missing from the text at this point because the motivation for the winner of the fight to learn a moral lesson from his victory is not immediately obvious. There must have been at least one speech and possibly more in which Enkidu explained to Gilgamesh the error of his ways. Unfortunately, we have only the first four lines of this speech and they do not help us very much, Enkidu said:

As one unique did your mother bear you,
The wild cow of the ramparts, Ninsun,
Exalted you above the most valorous of men!
Enlil has granted you kinship over the people.”

This is obviously the start of a speech in which Enkidu tells Gilgamesh how smart and fabulous and wonderful he is, but, hey, you know what, you have faults too!

The two friends agreed to go on a quest together, to a distant country where a monster called Humbaba lived. Their mission was to kill the monster and bring back a cedar tree that must be, “big enough to make whirlwinds when it falls.”

Killing monsters is always a good thing to have in a story but quite why they need to bring back the tree is never explained in the text but a note in the Norton edition tells us that, “felling evergreen trees on distant mountains was a well-known demonstration of kingly power in early Mesopotamia.” Which is a bit odd when you think about it. Mesopotamia is a desert country with no trees and they grow wheat in fields irrigated by rivers, but they want their king to be an expert and heroic lumberjack!

Gilgamesh explained to Enkidu, who, it has to be said, needed some persuading before embarking on the quest, that, “People’s days are numbered, Whatever they attempt is a puff of air,” which is obviously the forerunner of the philosophy that this is not a rehearsal, you only get one go at life, so live it.

They had some great axes and daggers made for the fight. Enkidu tried to warn him not to go. The elders of the city counselled him not to go and every ten lines Enkidu repeated that Humbaba was a fearsome monster:

Humbaba’s cry is the roar of a deluge,
His maw is fire, his breath is death,
He can hear rustling in the forest for sixty double leagues,
Who can go into his forest?

The repetition of this warning is one very simple way of adding tension into the story. There is a rhythmic certainty to it that builds gradually with each iteration and when declaiming the story out loud I found my voice swelling and the volume rising so that by the time the friends were ready to leave I was virtually shouting it to them to make sure they heard me:

Humbaba’s cry is the roar of a deluge,
His maw is fire, his breath is death,
He can hear rustling in the forest for sixty double leagues,
Who can go into his forest?

It’s a technique we don’t see in more modern texts and I have personal experience in creative writing workshops of being criticised for using it. Maybe it works better in poetry than in prose, or maybe modern readers have a lower threshold for being told something more than once, more than once.

Tablet III begins with the elders urging Gilgamesh that if he must go he should entrust his safety to Enkidu, then they told Enkidu that they were entrusting their king to him and he should entrust the king to them on his return.

The elders did this because, apparently, “He knows the way to the forest of cedars. He has seen battle, been exposed to combat,” though when these things happened and how the elders know of them is not obvious from the text we have. It is possible that these events are explained in the speeches missing from after the fight when they became friends.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu then went to the temple of Ninsun to ask for her blessing. She prayed for Gilgamesh and adopted Enkidu as her son. Gilgamesh then consulted the oracle Shamash to see how his quest would turn out. What the oracle said is missing from the text. After making further plans and preparations they made sure they had their weapons, axes, daggers, and a great Elamite bow, and they set out on their quest.

Tablet IV consists of the journey to the forest. Each evening Enkidu made a circle of flour in which they lay down and went to sleep. Each evening Gilgamesh had a dream, woke up, and told Enkidu his dream. Enkidu interpreted the dream favourably and their journey continued. Once again, due to the fragmentary nature of the text we cannot be certain how many dreams Gilgamesh had; there seem to be about five altogether. One of the dreams appears to be less favourable and Gilgamesh grew concerned but the god Shamash came to them and gave them courage to continue. Finally, they heard the cry of Humbaba from the forest and Gilgamesh suggested they should not face the monster separately.

It is possible to interpret these dreams as representing Gilgamesh’s fears, as evidenced by his suggestion that neither of them should face the monster alone. However, Gilgamesh is meant to be the hero of this story, a strong king with almost super-human qualities. He was also the one who suggested the mission in the first place and he had to work quite hard to persuade Enkidu to join him on this quest. It should be obvious, then, that there are problems with identifying Gilgamesh as having fears. One suggestion could be that by representing his legitimate concerns the dreams focus attention on the dangers ahead and thereby add tension and interest to the story without presenting Gilgamesh as a fearful ninny-head. To this end he is at one point described as the, “circumspect-man.” By contrast, in Greek mythology, and in the story of Achilles specifically, it was considered fine for a hero to have an identifiable weakness, and this gives us an opportunity to consider how human we want our heroes to be.

Tablet V begins with Gilgamesh and Enkidu at the edge of the forest, admiring the tall trees, the path made by Humbaba and the cedar mountain where their gods lived. They drew out their weapons and advanced into the forest. Humbaba approached them but turned out to be a bit picky about who he devoured. Humbaba ignored Enkidu, “who does not know his father, who sucked no mother’s milk.” Gilgamesh hesitated and Enkidu mocked him for taking his time and urged him on, “let your blow strike home,” he said.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu engaged in battle so fierce their feet gouged out the Lebanon rift valley but eventually, with the help of Shamash who brought forth thirteen winds against Humbaba, Gilgamesh prevailed and Humbaba begged for mercy and promised Gilgamesh he could have as many trees as he wanted. Enkidu urged him to show no quarter and Gilgamesh killed Humbaba. As he died Humbaba cursed them, “May the pair of them never reach old age,” he said. They cut down some giant cedar trees and fashioned a door for Enlil, their chief god. They made a raft to float the wood down the river to the city of Nippur. Enkidu climbed aboard, then Gilgamesh, who brought with him the head of Humbaba.

Tablet VI resumes with Gilgamesh and Enkidu back in Uruk where the princess Ishtar, goddess of love and sex, tempted Gilgamesh with a proposal of marriage. Unusually, from our perspective at least, she offered him other lavish items such as chariots drawn by storm demons, gems, a fine house and so forth should he agree to marry her.

He rejected her proposal, first describing her as several uncomplimentary things: “A flimsy door that keeps out neither wind nor draught,” as “Weak stone that undermines a wall,” as a “Shoe that pinches its wearer,” and several more. Then he pointed out that for several of her previous lovers marriage had not turned out well for them at all. One ended up with a broken wing, another was whipped and goaded and lashed, another was turned into a wolf and yet another was turned into a scarecrow. No thank you, said Gilgamesh.

Ishtar was furious at being spurned in this way and went up to heaven and sulked to her father, Anu, the supreme sky god, and he reminded her that she had both provoked Gilgamesh and deserved the truths he said about her.

She pleaded with him to let her have the Bull of Heaven, and even threatened to, “raise up the dead to devour the living, The dead shall outnumber the living.” First he made her promise that, “the widow of Uruk has gathered seven years of chaff, The farmer of Uruk has raised seven years of hay.” Then he gave her the lead of the Bull of Heaven.

This story of the seven years of chaff and seven years of hay reminded me of the story in the bible where the Pharaoh dreamed of seven fat cows and seven lean cows and the seven lean cows ate the seven fat cows but were still lean. Then he dreamed of seven fat ears of corn and seven thin ears of corn and the thin ears devoured the fat ears but were still thin. And no one could interpret the dream but Joseph who predicted seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine (Genesis 41:1-36). The point is that Joseph told the Pharaoh that during the years of plenty they should put food by and save it for the years of famine, and that is exactly what Anu is telling Ishtar, make sure the people have put by seven years of food for both people and animals and only after she had promised this had been done did he give her the lead of the Bull of Heaven. Maybe Anu knew something we don’t.

The Bull of Heaven represents the constellation Taurus. In Mesopotamian thought he was the god of the Spring Equinox which equates him with renewal and growth and agricultural plenty. Ishtar wanted to let the Bull of Heaven loose to trample the crops to punish the people for the way Gilgamesh had treated her.

Ishtar let the bull loose and it rampaged down the river Euphrates opening up huge pits that devoured hundreds of men at a time. Enkidu seized the bull by its horns while Gilgamesh slit its throat with a knife. They offered the heart of the bull to Shamash with a prayer, but Ishtar was distraught and lamented the death of the Bull of Heaven.

Gilgamesh mounted the bull’s horns on his bedroom wall then he and Enkidu paraded through the street enjoying their victory and ended with a speech condemning Ishtar followed by a celebration dinner in the palace. That night, Enkidu had a dream.

Tablet VII begins with a question. Enkidu asked Gilgamesh about his dream, “My friend, why were the great gods in council?

In his dream, Enkidu saw the gods Anu, Enlil, Ea and Shamash in council discussing what to do about the death of the Bull of Heaven. Anu decided that because Gilgamesh and Enkidu killed the Bull, one of them must die. Enlil, whose temple received the door they brought back from the forest of cedars, decided that Enkidu should die. Shamash thought this unfair but Enlil overruled him.

Gilgamesh consoled his friend and promised to make a magnificent statue of him. Enkidu prayed to Shamash for revenge against the hunter and Shamhat the harlot, the two people he blamed for his predicament. For the hunter, which is translated in my edition with a marvellous compound word as the entrapping-man, he prayed that anything falling into his traps would escape, and for the harlot he prayed for her to have the worst of a whore’s life, to be homeless, friendless, loveless and to have drunkards vomit over her and much more.

Shamash heard this and thought Enkidu was being unfair. Shamhat had fed and clothed him and given him Gilgamesh for a friend, she did not deserve his ire. Shamash nevertheless promised Enkidu a fine funeral and said that Gilgamesh would take Enkidu’s place as the wild man of the steppe; “he will let his hair grow matted, He will put on a lion skin and roam the steppe.”

Enkidu then reversed everything he wished for Shamhat, praying that rich men fall in love with her and give her expensive gifts of obsidian, lapis lazuli and gold. But inside he was sick because of a dream he had. In the dream a weird apparition of a man with paws of a lion and the talons of an eagle plucked him up from the earth and Enkidu cried out for Gilgamesh to save him but Gilgamesh was afraid and did nothing. The lion-man turned Enkidu into a dove, trussed him and transported him down into the underworld, a dark place of shadows and dust where:

Dwelt high priests and acolytes,
Dwelt reciters of spells and ecstatics,
Dwelt the anointers of the great gods,
Dwelt the old king Etana and the god of the beasts,”

. . . and finally he came before Ereshkigal, the queen of the underworld, who turned to him and said, “Who brought this man?

The two friends agreed that this dream needed no interpretation. Enkidu became ill the day he had the dream and he slowly wasted away. He had wanted so much to die gloriously in battle and instead he watched his life slip slowly away as he lay quietly in bed.

Tablet VIII begins with Gilgamesh lamenting his friend’s death. “Enkidu, my friend, your mother the gazelle, Your father the wild ass brought you into the world.” Since Aruru made Enkidu of clay he does not have a mother and father so these are metaphorical parents intended to describe his characteristics and tell us something about him. He gets his speed and grace from his mother and his stubborn strength from his father, perhaps.

The lament for Enkidu has a repeating structure:

May the crowd who blessed our departure weep for you,
May the heights of highland and mountain weep for you,
May the forest of balsam and cedar weep for you,
May the holy Euphrates weep for you,”

Reading this I was reminded of a scene from the film The Exorcist (1973). The two priests are conducting the exorcism at the heart of the story and they kneel on the floor holding out their crosses intoning:

May the power of Christ possess you,
May the power of Christ possess you,
May the power of Christ possess you,”

The seemingly endless repetition builds to a crescendo with spittle pluming from their mouths as the inexorable certainty of their conviction grinds down the resistance within the girl manacled to the bed. The repetition of a simple phrase has a mesmerising effect and in the lament of Gilgamesh it bears down on the reader in the same way, tearing emotions out of the hypnotic rhythm and forcing the reader to experience his grief first hand.

Finally, after asking that everything and everyone weep for his friend, Gilgamesh ripped his hair out and tore off his clothes fulfilling the prophesy that he would become the wild man of the steppe. This was not merely Gilgamesh aping his friend Enkidu who originally lived with animals and wore animal skins, it was a highly symbolic transformation of the human into a non-human and denotes the second of three rights of passage in the story.

Enkidu transformed from a non-human to human during his week with Shamhat, in this scene Gilgamesh transformed the other way, human to non-human as he commenced his search for the secret of immortality, and at the end he will transform back from non-human to human as he becomes reconciled to his humanity. This transformation represents not just the growth of one individual but the process of evolution by which humans have become, at least in our own minds, non-animal creatures and the shedding of clothes and growing of the hair symbolises that it is a physical process and not merely a state of mind.

Gilgamesh then sent out a proclamation to all the skilled artisans of the city to make an image of his friend. When that had been done he supervised the building of a splendid tomb decorated with the most expensive things he could find, carnelian, alabaster, and gold. He prepared a lavish feast for the gods of the underworld so that they would welcome his friend and let him walk at their side and he presented them with gifts of similarly precious materials so that they would care for him in the afterlife.

Tablet IX begins with Gilgamesh roaming the steppe. He let his hair grow long and matted and cast off his clothes and wore a lion skin. He was still pained by the death of Enkidu and wept bitterly. His thoughts, however, had turned in towards himself and the consequences of what he has learned. Like his friend he had dreamed of a heroic death in battle bringing him everlasting glory and renown but he had only ever thought of this in the abstract. Watching his friend die enabled him to see that abstract concept turned into a harsh and brutal reality. After death we cannot stand and watch the people celebrate our life or see the statues they erect to our glory, becoming civilised has not allowed us to escape the same fate as the animals we once were; death is inevitable, nasty, ugly, and final. Gilgamesh began not to welcome a heroic death but to fear death, and in time he realised that if he was to overcome death he needed to find Utanapishtim, who, along with his wife, were the only humans to have survived the flood. Gilgamesh hoped to obtain from Utanapishtim the secret of immortality.

To reach Utanapishtim Gilgamesh had to travel through a tunnel under a mountain pass between two peaks called Mashum, which watched over the daily rising and the setting of the sun. The pass and tunnel were guarded by two scorpion monsters, a married couple without names. One version of the story has Shamash become aware of what Gilgamesh was doing and attempt to dissuade him, “The eternal life you are seeking you shall not find,” he said, but Gilgamesh replied, “Darkness is infinite, how little light there is.” Gilgamesh was saying that the light of life is so brief and the darkness of the afterlife is infinite, all he wanted was to turn his face to the sun for just a little longer. “Now let my eyes see the sun, let me have all the light I could wish for.”

As he approached the tunnel the scorpion monsters challenged him. They told him that the sun travels over the sky during the twelve hours of day and returns through the tunnel during the twelve hours of night, so no one can pass through the tunnel because the journey takes twelve double-hours and they would be burned up by the returning sun. Somehow, Gilgamesh persuaded them to let him pass. Scholars tend to the view, based on other similar events in the text, that the wife-scorpion persuaded her husband to let him pass, but this part of the story is missing. However he did it the male scorpion opened the gateway and Gilgamesh raced through the tunnel.

When we are travelling through a tunnel we usually look ahead to see the light at the end of the tunnel signalling that our journey is coming to an end. Unusually, Gilgamesh must exit the tunnel before he sees the light ahead of him which would signal the returning sun coming through the tunnel towards him. This traverse under the mountains is then not just a race against the sun, it is a race against all expectations.

Again, the repeating cadence is used to build tension as the hours of his journey are counted.

When he had gone six double hours,
Dense was the darkness, no light was there,
It would not let him look behind him.
When he had gone seven double hours,
Dense was the darkness, there was no light,
It would not let him look behind him.”

But, of course, he made it. “When he had gone twelve double hours, he came out ahead of the sun!” Because he had beaten the sun it was still daylight and he found himself in a grove of the trees of the gods, bearing leaves made of lapis lazuli and fruits made of carnelian, chlorite, amber and other fabulous things. Gilgamesh walked among the grove of trees and marvelled at everything he saw.

Tablet X begins with Gilgamesh nearing a tavern. He is supposedly at the edge of the world in a place where people do not normally go so who might be the customers in this tavern is not immediately obvious, but a tavern there is, at the edge of the sea. The tavern keeper is a woman called Siduri, and it is interesting to note that she is not married. Interesting because in this story all the single women have names and all the married women are known simply as their husband’s wife, and that might be telling us something but I’m not sure I can figure out what it is telling us. It might be that Gilgamesh was a bachelor and although he was not actively looking for a wife any single woman might be considered a prospective wife whereas a woman who was already married is not. It could equally be connected to Mesopotamian cultural norms, a subject about which I know nothing at all. Or it might just be a coincidence.

Siduri the tavern keeper was alarmed at the appearance of Gilgamesh, dressed as he was in animal skins with long, matted hair, and she locked the tavern to keep him out and she retreated to the roof. Gilgamesh told her he was the one who killed Humbaba, the monster in the forest of cedars, he was the one who killed the Bull of Heaven, and she asked him if he was such a famous person why did he look as though he had been dragged through a bush backwards and not had a decent meal in weeks? Gilgamesh told her how he wept for Enkidu, how he had become afraid to die and that he was wandering to the ends of the earth seeking the secret of eternal life.

Siduri told him he would not find it because when the gods made man they, “established death for mankind, And withheld eternal life for themselves.” She advised him to eat well, wash regularly, wear clean clothes, take care of himself, be happy, and make the most of life’s opportunities. “Look proudly on the little one holding your hand,” she told him, “Let your mate be always blissful in your loins, This, then, is the work of mankind.”

Gilgamesh told her he needed to cross the sea to find Utanapishtim, and after much wrangling she told him that the only way to cross the waters of death was with the boatman, Ur-Shanabi, who was in the forest trimming pine trees. Gilgamesh should ask him.

Gilgamesh found Ur-Shanabi and without warning he smashed the boatman’s stone charms. These were amulets or a necklace of some sort that protected his boat and without which no one could cross the waters of death. Gilgamesh smashed them and threw them into the water. Then he asked Ur-Shanabi to take him across the water and the man quite reasonably replied that his own anger had foiled him, he could not cross without the charms.

However, Gilgamesh went into the forest and cut a load of punting poles for the boat and it seems that with enough of these they didn’t need the stone charms anyway. It also seems to be the case that not all of the water they had to cross was known as the waters of death, only a channel or current within the larger body of water, but the details of this are confused and the actual journey they make covers distances and times that do not add up. Possibly there is some magical component to it like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz who is, however improbably, no longer in Kansas while Spock from the TV series Star Trek stands on the sidelines saying, “that does not compute.”

However it happened, the boat with Ur-Shanabi and Gilgamesh on board docked at Utanapishtim’s jetty. Utanapishtim had seen them coming and was curious, to say the least, as to how they crossed without the magical charms, and who this passenger might be. Gilgamesh poured out his tale of woe, how he wept for his friend Enkidu and threw off his clothes and wore lion skins and let his hair grow and wandered in the wilderness and went without food and without sleep and wandered some more and crossed seas and fought lions and bears and panthers and raced through tunnels and he ached all over and everyone should feel sorry for him and just do what he wanted because he hadn’t had a bath in weeks.

Utanapishtim’s other name is The Distant One, and when he replied to Gilgamesh we discover that it might not refer to him living a long way away. He was not moved at all. He criticised Gilgamesh, who was two-thirds a god, for his excess of self pity and for allowing himself to have got into such a state. “The village idiot goes unwashed and wears rags and no one thinks any the better of him for it,” Utanapishtim said. He gave Gilgamesh a stern talking to about the foolishness of his errand, of how torturing himself with needless toil will only hasten his end and he finished with a sobering thought, that when the gods, “established death and life, They did not reveal the time of death.” It may come for you at any time, not only when you are ready. Gilgamesh learned the hard way that manly heroics would only get him so far. For his quest to succeed he would need not just a heroic attitude and a sword with a keen edged blade but knowledge.

Tablet XI begins with a question. Gilgamesh asked Utanapishtim how he had acquired immortality. In reply Utanapishtim told him the story of the flood. There are several flood stories, not just the one (or two) in the bible, and there is some archaeological evidence to support the idea that one or two of them might have happened, but there is no evidence the whole world ever suffered a deluge. Then again, if your idea of transport technology is a donkey cart the whole world can be a surprisingly small place. So these flood stories might be based on knowledge of real events but there are interesting similarities between the Gilgamesh flood narrative and the one in the bible (Genesis 6:1-8:14). The similarities might also suggest that one is based on the other, or that they are both based on an earlier common source. One possibility for that source is a Sumerian poem called Atrahasis, named after the central character who built the boat.

The similarities include that a god told Utanapishtim that there was going to be a flood and that he should build a big boat and get his family and all the animals on board. They built the boat and the flood came and they were cast up on a mountain. Utanapishtim set three birds free, a dove, a swallow and a raven, and only when the raven did not return did Utanapishtim decide the waters had receded suffciently for there to be land. Afterwards, the gods realised it had not been a good idea.

There are also differences. In Gilgamesh the gods decided to flood the land because there were too many men, whereas Yahweh did it because men were evil. Utanapishtim is told of the flood in secret, through a reed wall, because he is not supposed to know, whereas the biblical god chooses Noah and tells him explicitly to build the boat. In the bible only Noah and his family get on the boat but in Gilgamesh lots of craftsmen and artisans do too, to preserve their skills. In the bible, god sees Noah sacrifice to the gods afterwards and realises that he has not got rid of evil after all, in Gilgamesh the gods argue about the wisdom of doing it in the first place and that is why Utanapishtim is granted immortality, so that he can join the gods and preserve the knowledge he has gained. Noah lived to the ripe old age of nine hundred and fifty years (Genesis 9:29) but was not actually immortal.

When reading the flood story in Gilgamesh I got the impression it did not really belong there, that it was not part of the main story but a lengthy digression from it that goes into too much unnecessary detail and had probably been inserted at a later time. I suspect that originally Utanapishtim told Gilgamesh a shortened version of the story, just suffcient to make the point that knowing how Utanapishtim gained immortality was not going to help Gilgamesh, because that was a once only card that had already been played. “Now then,” Utanapishtim concludes, “who will convene the gods for your sake, That you may find the eternal life you seek?” Answer: No one.

Utanapishtim did, however, offer him something. “Come, come, try not to sleep for six days and seven nights,” he counsels. This is usually interpreted in the form of a rhetorical question. The point is that if he cannot stay awake for a week how could he hope to live forever. I see it rather differently. I see Utanapishtim demonstrating to Gilgamesh that he is not even in control of his own body much less the master of his own destiny. He must succumb to the fates just as he must succumb to sleep, and as if to prove the point, even as he is asked to stay awake Gilgamesh drifts off to sleep.

Utanapishtim and his wife left Gilgamesh to sleep for seven days. This time period occurs often in the story; Enkidu was with the harlot Shamhat for six days and seven nights, it took them seven days to walk to the forest of cedars, Gilgamesh mourned for Enkidu for seven days, it took him seven days to find Utanapishtim and he slept for seven days. The number seven also occurred in the episode of the Bull of Heaven because Anu urged Ishtar to make sure the people had corn for seven years and hay for seven years. It seems unlikely that this is a coincidence and there really should be some obvious significance to the repeated use of the number seven but I have no idea what it might be. There are, rather obviously, seven days in a week and in Genesis the lord made heaven and earth in seven days but did those things take that long because the number seven was already considered significant or is the number special purely because there are seven days in the week? Chickens and eggs spring to mind here, and for all we know that might even be the point.

Gilgamesh awoke and after being convinced that he had actually slept for seven days he realised that his quest was over. There is no secret of immortality and he would just have to accept that in due course he will die like everyone else. Utanapishtim directed the boatman, Ur-Shanabi, to take Gilgamesh home and his wife urged the immortal to give the man something to show for his quest. He told him that at the bottom of the water there is a plant that will rejuvenate him. Ur-Shanabi took him to the place and Gilgamesh tied stones to his feet and dived overboard and finding the plant he tore it up, cut the stones from his feet and came to the surface.

Magically he surfaced on his home shore, and although Ur-Shanabi was there with him the boat was gone and Gilgamesh no longer had any stones or tools so could not get any more of the plant. They went some way on their journey back to Uruk when Gilgamesh found a pool where he could bathe. He stripped off and went in the water, leaving the rejuvenating plant on the bank. As he bathed a snake came by and ate the plant and Gilgamesh saw it shed its skin as it slithered away. Gilgamesh wept that his long journey had brought him nothing, the only thing to benefit from his long toil was a reptile.

Ur-Shanabi threw away Gilgamesh’s old tattered skins and dressed him in fine clothes, completing his third and final transformation back into fully human form. He was now ready in all respects to rejoin his people. Ur-Shanabi and Gilgamesh completed their journey back to Uruk and Gilgamesh proudly showed his guest around the city, using exactly the same words as in the introduction Gilgamesh described the wonders of the place he had built and that will long outlive him.

Go up, pace out the walls of Uruk,
Study the foundation terrace and examine the brickwork.
Is not its masonry of kiln-fired brick?
And did not the seven masters lay its foundations?
One square mile of city, one square mile of gardens,
One square mile of clay pits, a half square mile of Ishtar’s dwelling,
Three and a half square miles is the measure of Uruk!

As Gilgamesh recited these words that frame the story, we can perhaps imagine him coming to the realisation that his quest was not for nothing after all. It has taught him that although a man might be mortal, the things he does can live after him and that although a single man might die, the race of men can live on through his children and his children’s children, forever.

1. I was reading the Norton Critical edition translated by Benjamin R. Foster, Professor of Near Eastern Languages at Yale University. There are plenty of other editions to choose from including a number of places online where editions are available for free.

2. Genesis 10:10 – “And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel, and Erech, and Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar.” Babel – In cuneiform script the name was written bab-ili, which means, “the gate of God.” The Hebrews called the country as well as the city Babhel, and the Greeks called it Babylon. Erech has long been thought to have derived from the Sumerian Unug, a word meaning “seat,” probably in the sense of a place of power or authority, as in, “the seat of government.”. Accad was the city from where Akkadians originate. The identification of Calneh is uncertain, some authorities think it might have been Nippur.

3. A neckstock was a wooden device secured around a prisoner’s neck with holes for their hands ensuring they could not run away.

4. An Elamite was a person or thing from Elam, a country in southwestern Iran, apparently known for its fine bows.

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