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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...©
Type of Work
.......Gilgamesh is an
epic about the adventures and character development of a young king endowed with superhuman powers. It is similar to later epics such as Homer's Iliad and Odyssey in several ways. For example, Gilgamesh and the Iliad each center on a hero with extraordinary physical prowess. (In the Iliad, the
superman is Achilles). Moreover, in Gilgamesh and the Odyssey, each main character fights monsters, crosses seas, and visits mysterious lands. In all three epics, mythological gods play a major role, but the settings are in real lands—Gilgamesh in Mesopotamia (in present-day Iraq), the Iliad in and just outside the walled city of Troy (in present-day Turkey), and the
Odyssey in countries and islands in the Mediterranean region.
.......However, unlike the Iliad and the Odyssey—as well as many other epics—Gilgamesh does not begin with an invocation of
goddesses called Muses. Instead, it begins with a prologue that briefly provides background information and introduces Gilgamesh as a powerful ruler. Also, unlike literary epics such as Dante's Divine Comedy and Milton's Paradise Lost, Gilgamesh is not the product of a single author who relied primarily
on his imagination and poetic skills to create his narration.
Sources and Authorship
.......Research indicates that Gilgamesh was a real-life king of Uruk, a city-state in Mesopotamia, in about 2700 BC. (For geographical information about Uruk and Mesopotamia, see Setting, above.) After his death, unidentified authors and storytellers presented accounts of his life that grew into
legends that greatly exaggerated his powers—so much so that he was described as two-thirds divine and one-third human. Over the centuries, these accounts remained highly popular. Between 2100 BC and 1600 BC, scribes etched the accounts into clay tablets in wedge-shaped characters that made up a writing system called cuneiform, used to record information in various languages in Mesopotamia. Most of the information about Gilgamesh was in verse stories in the Akkadian language (which derives its name from Akkad, a region in
southern Mesopotamia). Additional information appeared in five poems in the Sumerian language (which derives its name from Sumer, also in southern Mesopotamia).
.......Between 1400 and 1200 BC, an author of the priestly caste read the tablets about Gilgamesh
and compiled the stories about him, taken mostly from the Akkadian accounts, into a single work. His name was Sin-leqi-unninni. Although he retained much of the wording on the clay tablets, he made some revisions and introduced original wording of his own. Sin-leqi-unninni's account disappeared from later history but resurfaced in the 1840s, when British-led archeolgical excavations near the
present-day city of Mosul, Iraq, turned up the ruins of the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh, as well as the library maintained there by one of Assyria's greatest rulers, Ashurbanipal, who ruled Assyria (in northern Mesopotamia) from 668 to 627 BC. (Mosul is about 225 miles northwest of Baghdad.) In the ruins of the library on this site were the Gilgamesh tablets—which had been damaged—along with
thousands of other tablets on subjects unrelated to Gilgamesh. These tablets were sent to the British Museum in London.
.......In the second half of the nineteenth century, scholars deciphered the cuneiform symbols on these tablets, symbols that represented
syllables or entire words. Through further research and detective work, they linked the cuneiform symbols on the Nineveh tablets to two major languages, Sumerian and Akkadian, as well as to dialects of these languages. In the 1870s, Sin-leqi-unninni's account of the Gilgamesh story began to emerge. Because of the damaged cuneiform tablets that Sin-leqi-unninni used for his Akkadian account of the
deeds of Gilgamesh, gaps existed in the story. But there was enough information in his account to form the basis of The Gilgamesh Epic that we know today. Since the nineteenth century, writers and scholars have used Sin-leqi-unninni's account, along with new research and additional Gilgamesh tablets found at various archeological sites, to piece together their own versions of the Gilgamesh
.......The time is circa 2700 BC in Mesopotamia, a region between the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf incorporating much of present-day Iraq and portions of southeastern Turkey, eastern Syria, and southwestern Iran. The action takes place in the Mesopotamian city-state of Uruk, just east of the Euphrates River and
north of the Persian Gulf; in forests and plains; on waterways; and in the domain of mythological gods. The modern town of Tall al-Warka', about 155 miles southeast of Baghdad, is on the site of ancient Uruk. In the Bible, Uruk is referred to as
Erech (Genesis 10:10). For detailed information on Mesopotamia, click here.
Gilgamesh: Young king of ancient Uruq (in
present-day Iraq) in 2700 BC. Over the centuries, legends grew about this king (probably a real historical figure) that attributed to him superhuman powers. He was said to be two-thirds divine and one-third human. However, he was regarded as a man and thus was told he had to suffer the ultimate fate of all men, death. The young Gilgamesh of the epic is a headstrong ruler who takes advantage of
his subjects and itches for challenges and adventures to prove his prowess and enhance his reputation. In this respect, he may be compared with military leaders of later centuries who sought glory on the battlefield, such as Alexander the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, and General George Patton. He may also be compared with present-day presidents, prime ministers, and dictators who recklessly wage
war to demonstrate their resolve and win popular approval. Eventually, Gilgamesh tames his wilder instincts and achieves a measure of wisdom after undergoing deep depression and suffering prompted by the death of his friend, Enkindu, another hero with superhuman powers.
Enkidu: Powerful hero created by the gods to offset the unbridled power of Gligamesh.
He first lives in the wilds grazing among the animals, for he has no knowledge of man and his ways. After a prostitute named Shamhat from the temple of the goddess of love seduces him, he begins to learn the ways of man with the help of Shamhat, and the animals reject him. Believing himself superior to Gilgamesh, he travels to Uruk to confront him. The two clash in a raging struggle but end up
becoming inseparable friends. After Gilgamesh and Enkindu kill the monstrous guardian of the cedar forests, Humbaba, and slay the Bull of Heaven, the angry gods decree that one of the men must die--Enkidu.
Anu: Father of the gods. He is the personification of
Aruru: Goddess of creation. She fashions Enkidu from clay.
Ninsun: Goddess and mother of Gilgamesh.
Lugulbanda: Late king of Uruk and father of Gilgamesh.
Ishtar: Goddess of love. Gilgamesh refuses her proposal that they marry.
Enlil: God of the winds and earth. It was he who made Humbaba guardian of the cedar forest.
Tammuz: God of fertility and vegetation. He is one of the many lovers of Ishtar whom she
punished or rejected.
Ninurta: God of war.
Trapper: Man who traps animals in the wilds occupied by Enkidu.
Shamhat: Prostitute in Ishtar's temple who seduces Enkidu.
Humbaba: Monster that guards the cedar forest.
Shamash: Sun god. He approves Gilgamesh's plan to enter the cedar forest and kill Humbaba.
Scorpion Man: A half-man and half-scorpion. He guards the cedar forest.
Scorpion Man's Mate
Utnapishtim the Faraway: Survivor of the Great Flood upon whom the gods conferred immortality. Gilgamesh hopes to learn from him the secret to eternal life.
Wife of Utnapishtim: She also received the gift of immortality after surviving the Great Flood. She pities Gilgamesh and implores her husband to tell him about a secret plant that immortalizes those who eat of it.
Siduri: Winemaker of the gods. She lives in a beautiful garden near the sea. Although she advises Gilgamesh that his quest for eternal life will fail, she provides him directions to the abode of Utnapishtim, the one man who may be able to provide Gilgamesh the answers he is seeking.
Urshanabi: Boatman who ferries Gilgamesh to Utnapishtim's abode.
Ea: God of wisdom and waters.
.......The Gilgamesh Epic opens with a short introduction (or prologue) in first-person point of view that attests to the great deeds of Gilgamesh. The main story is in omniscient third-person point of view. The narrator remains impartial during the main story, although he praises Gilgamesh in the
.......The main story is a flashback that presents the details of the story outlined in the introduction. Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings..© 2009
.......When the gods created Gilgamesh, they made him two-thirds divine and one-third human and endowed him with extraordinary size, strength, and good looks. Like his father before him, Lugulbanda, he became king of Uruk, a city-state between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers (in present-day Iraq). Thirsty for adventure,
he crossed seas and roamed many lands. When he returned to Uruk, he carved into stone the story of his adventures.
.......Gilgamesh was renowned as a the greatest of kings and as the builder of Uruk's temples and the city's gigantic walls. Here is his
.......As the young king of Uruk, Gilgamesh is the protector of his people. But in time he takes advantage of his powers, oppressing the people and freely using any woman to satisfy his desires. His subjects complain to the heavens. In response, the mother goddess Aruru makes a new creature, Enkidu, who rivals Gilgamesh
in size and good looks. Ninurta, the god of war, gives him the gift of great strength. With no knowledge of earth and its creatures, Enkidu grazes with gazelles and other wild animals and drinks with them at water holes. He protects the beasts, freeing them from snares set by a trapper. His enormous size terrifies the trapper.
.......The trapper’s father advises his son to go to Uruk to seek the help of Gilgamesh. In particular, he tells his son to ask Gilgamesh for a sultry harlot from the temple of Ishtar, the goddess of love, to tempt the wild man away from the animals. The trapper will then be able to resume his livelihood. After he goes to Uruk and states his
request, Gilgamesh provides him a woman called Shamhat..
.......After the trapper returns to the wilds with her, she displays herself to Enkidu. So enchanted is he that he spends a week at her side before he can tear himself away and return to the animals. But the
animals reject him now, for they realize he is not really one of them. He is a human. When he returns to the woman, she invites him to go with her to Uruk to meet Gilgamesh, the mightiest of men. Enkidu agrees to the proposal, for he wants to make the acquaintance of someone like himself, a comrade. And he wants to prove that he is superior to Gilgamesh.
.......In Uruk, Gilgamesh has a dream that alerts him to the coming of Enkidu. His mother, the goddess Ninsun, interprets the dream for him, describing Enkidu and telling Gilgamesh that he and Enkidu will become inseparable companions.
.......Meanwhile, on their way to Uruk, the harlot takes Enkidu to shepherds, who provide him bread and wine. He lives with them for a time and improves their lot by killing lions and wolves that prey on their herds.
.......When Enkidu arrives in Uruk, the people gather around to admire him, remarking that he is certainly the equal of Gilgamesh. At this time, Gilgamesh is planning to invade the bed of a new bride even before her husband has a chance to be with her for the first time. At
night, as she waits for her husband, Gilgamesh approaches the house. However, Enkidu sees him in the street and, eager to prove himself, blocks his access to the gate of the house. They fight like to raging animals. The posts of doors break as they struggle for advantage. Walls shake. Finally, Gilgamesh throws Enkidu to the ground. But rather than continuing to fight, Enkidu compliments Gilgamesh
on his strength, saying there is no other like him on earth. They embrace and become the best of friends.
.......In time, Enkidu languishes for lack of activity to maintain his strength. So Gilgamesh proposes that they go into the vast cedar forest and kill
Humbaba, the giant whom the god of the winds and earth, Enlil, had made protector of the trees. But Enkidu tells Gilgamesh that he is wary of the scheme. Having lived in the wilds, he well knows that Humbaba has incredible strength. Even the breath he exhales is a windstorm. But Gilgamesh says they must live life to the fullest, not letting fear stand in the way of their exploits. Even if Humbaba
kills him, Gilgamesh says, his name will live on in history for having had the courage to fight the monster.
.......Gilgamesh petitions the sun god, Shamash, for permission to undertake his and Enkidu’s adventure, promising to erect in the forest a monument
to the gods. If he returns safely, he says, he will offer gifts to Shamash and glorify his name. Shamash grants the request. In addition, he orders great winds to assist the two friends in their struggle. Then Gilgamesh directs armorers to fashion huge axes, bows and arrows, and swords for them.
.......When counselors of Uruk warn him against fighting the terrible Humbaba, Gilgamesh ignores their advice. The counselors then give him their blessing and implore Shamash to protect the adventurers.
.......In just a few days, Gilgamesh and Enkidu walk a distance that would take ordinary men six weeks to traverse. After entering the forest of Humbaba, Gilgamesh cuts down one of the tall cedars. Far off in the forest, Humbaba—who never sleeps—hears the tree strike the ground. Enkidu is afraid and wants to turn back, but Gilgamesh heartens him with brave words. When Humbaba
approaches, Gilgamesh calls upon Shamash for assistance, and the sun god sends the winds—eight of them in all, some blazing hot, some icy cold. They close in on Humbaba from different directions and prevent him from moving. Humbaba pleads for his life. Gilgamesh feels pity for him and is ready to release him, but Enkidu goads him on. Gilgamesh then drives his sword into Humbaba’s neck, and Enkidu
strikes a second blow. After they finish him, Enlil curses them.
.......When Gilgamesh and Enkidu return in glory, the goddess of love, Ishtar, proposes marriage to Gilgamesh. If he consents, she will shower him with many gifts, including a wondrous golden chariot
studded with lapus lazuli, and will cause the mightiest rulers to kneel at his feet and pay him homage. But Gilgamesh refuses the proposal, telling her that he could not abide the infidelity for which she is famous. He recites for her a list of the lovers she enticed and then rejected. She turned one of them into a mole, another into a wolf. Deeply insulted, she petitions her father, the god Anu,
to loose the great Bull of Heaven against Gilgamesh. Though Anu is well aware of his daughter’s wanton ways, he gives in to her request after she threatens to break into hell and release the dead to work havoc among the living.
.......After Anu sends down the Bull
of Heaven, Ishtar leads it to Uruk. When it snorts, it opens a gaping fissure in the earth into which a hundred men fall. When it snorts again, it opens another fissure. Two hundred men fall into it. With a third snort, it knocks down Enkidu, but he recovers and mounts it, grasping it by its horns. Gilgamesh then drives his sword into it and kills it. The two comrades remove its heart as a gift
for Shamash, and they take its horns as a trophy. In the palace of Gilgamesh, they celebrate their victory with a great feast.
.......During the night, Enkidu dreams that the gods convene and, against the protest of Shamash, decide to avenge the deaths of
Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven. One of the heroes must die—Enkidu. After telling Gilgamesh of his dream, Enkidu falls ill and suffers for many days as the sickness drains his strength and, finally, stops his heart.
.......Deep sorrow for the loss of his beloved
companion overwhelms Gilgamesh. Moreover, Enkidu’s death awakens a fear of death in Gilgamesh. His terrible sorrow and his new fear linger on and on; he can find no relief from them. At length, he decides to set out for the land of Utnapishtim the Faraway, who survived the Great Flood with his wife. (Although some researchers conjecture that this was the same flood that prompted the bibilical
Noah to build his ark, evidence is lacking to prove this theory or to make a claim that the biblical account was a retelling of the Gilgamesh account.) They were the only mortals to whom the gods granted immortality. Surely, Utnapishtim will know the secret to eternal life, Gilgamesh believes.
.......Gilgamesh travels through the wild and across waters and vast plains. At night while sleeping, he awakens to find lions closing in. With his axe and sword, he kills several and drives the rest off. He sets out again and eventually arrives at the foot of a great mountain, Mashu, with two peaks. The sun rises on one side and sets
on the other. Between the two peaks is a vast plain of darkness leading to Utnapishtim’s abode. At a gate opening into the plain are a scorpion man and his mate. The scorpion man can kill with the mere glare of his eyes. He greets Gilgamesh and asks him why he has come to this place. Gilgamesh, who is able to withstand the deadly gaze, tells the gatekeeper about Enkidu's death and explains why he
wishes to speak with Utnapishtim. The gatekeeper lets him pass.
.......Gilgamesh travels through twelve leagues (about thirty-six miles) of total darkness until light returns and he enters a wondrous garden in which the plants bear pearls, carnelian, lapis
lazuli, and other precious gems. It is the garden of the gods. In a vineyard near the sea is a veiled woman, Siduri, who makes the wine of the gods. After Gilgamesh tells her his story, she warns him that he cannot find eternal life on earth. Immortality is reserved for the gods alone. She advises him to go back and make the most of his limited life with feasting and merriment and with a wife and
children. When Gilgamesh tells her he is determined to press on, she directs him to a ferryman, Urshanabi, who takes Gilgamesh across a sea and the waters of death to the abode of Utnapishtim.
.......There, Gilgamesh recounts his tale of woe. Utnapishtim
then tells him that houses are not made to stand forever. Nor is man. The gods have decreed that man is mortal, but the day of his death they keep secret. Then why is it, asks Gilgamesh, that Utnapishtim—himself a man—will live forever?
Utnapishtim says, the world abounded with human life. As men went about their activities, they made a great noise that rose to the heavens and disturbed the sleep of the gods. At the instigation of Enlil, they approved a plan to annihilate humankind. However, the god Ea warned Utnapishtim of the impending doom, telling him to construct a gigantic boat that would carry him through a great flood.
Marshaling his family, relatives, and shipbuilders, Utnapishtim built the vessel and took aboard all of his loved ones and the workers. In addition, as instructed by Ea, he took with him a variety of animals, wild and tame. After the waters came and swept over civilization, Utnapishtim’s boat road the waters safely until coming to rest on the mountain of Nisir. There it remained grounded for
seven days. Then Utnapishtim released a dove. If it did not return, he would know that it had found land. But it returned. He next released a swallow. It too returned. Finally, he released a raven. It did not return. Heartened, Utnapishtim made sacrifices to the gods. In turn, they recanted their condemnation of humankind and spared the boat and its cargo. Utnapishtim and his wife won
.......Utnapishtim then tells Gilgamesh that he must undergo a trial to prove himself worthy of eternal life: Through seven nights, he must remain fully awake. But Gilgamesh fails the test. At the prompting of Utnapishtim's wife, who pities Gilgamesh,
Utnapishtim gives the king a second chance, telling him about a prickly underwater plant that confers youthfulness on its bearer. Gilgamesh dives into the sea and finds it in the depths. But he does not eat of it immediately. Instead, he decides to take it back to Uruk to let an elder of Uruk eat of it first. (It is not clear here whether he wants to protect himself against possible ill effects
or whether he wants to share his good fortune with his people.) Unfortunately, after stopping to bathe on his way back to Uruk, he sets the plant aside and a snake slithers off with it, eats of it, molts, and becomes young again.
returns to Uruk without having gained eternal life. But he is wiser now by far than when he left the city. He accepts the inevitability of death and takes comfort in the fact that the city he built and his other great achievements will immortalize his name. And, as the information in the prologue pointed out at the beginning of the epic, he became a great king to his people.
The plot summary was compiled from a version of The Gilgamesh Epic provided online by the Assyrian International News Agency....
.......Although he is a demigod with extraordinary strength and good looks, King Gilgamesh lacks maturity when the story begins. He abuses his people. He is boastful and reckless. With Enkidu, he kills the guardian of the cedar forest, Humbaba, simply because he craves adventure and seeks to enhance his reputation.
However, the death of Enkidu profoundly changes him. It makes him realize that he, like the common lot that he rules, is vulnerable to suffering and eventually death. After his quest for immortality fails, he returns to Uruk and, as the prologue has already told us, becomes the benefactor and protector of his people—a man who accepts his mortality but takes comfort in the fact that the walls of
Uruk and his other mighty works will live on after him.
.......Gilgamesh and Enkidu become inseparable friends. The friendship teaches Gilgamesh that he is not an island unto himself but needs others to complement his life. Whether he and Enkidu succumb to a deviant sexual relationship is debatable. Passages in the text leave open this possibility.
.......Gilgamesh welcomes adventure and derring-do—partly for the pleasure of it, partly for the glory he will reap. His desire to strike out—to cross seas, to enter forbidden lands, to fight battles—are in keeping with the ideals of ancient civilization. He goes wrong, however, when he becomes unduly proud and
.......Gilgamesh boasts of his heroic deeds and recklessly challenges Humbaba to enhance his reputation. As in later Greek tragedies, he pays a price for his pride: the death of Enkidu, as decreed by the angry gods.
Desire for Immortality
.......Gilgamesh yearns for immortality. Through his heroic deeds, his construction of the wall of Uruk, and other works, he does achieve everlasting fame. But the one thing he most desires, eternal life on earth, he cannot have. In this respect, he is like all of us human beings. We want to live forever on earth, and we
go to great lengths to prolong our mortal life as long as possible. In the end, though, only the record of our achievements survives.
Respect for Nature
.......In The Gilgamesh Epic, respect for nature seems to be part of the Mesopotamian worldview. Note, for example, that Humbaba keeps watch over the great cedar trees in a forest forbidden to men and that a scorpion man and his mate stand guard at the gate to the twin-peaked mountain, Mashu, that protects the
rising and setting sun. Siduri, the winemaker of the gods, keeps a close watch on her vineyards and bolts a door against Gilgamesh when he first approaches her..
.......Gilgamesh experiences both external and internal conflicts. The external ones include conflicts with the gods, Humbaba, and the Bull of Heaven. The internal ones include his difficulty coping with the loss of Enkidu and overcoming the fear of death.
.......The climax of the epic occurs when Enkidu dies. His death is a turning point in the life of Gilgamesh; it sends him on a quest that educates and matures him. Writing Characteristics
.......The writing in The Gilgamesh Epic is succinct, plain, and fast-paced, English translations of Sin-leqi-unninni's version (see Sources and Authorship, above) of the epic indicate. Concrete similes and metaphors abound,
comparing Gilgamesh to a bull, for example, and Enkidu to a star. But the predominant figure of speech, certainly, is hyperbole. The entire story is a gross exaggeration of the deeds of an idealized king, but it is a magnificent exaggeration. Oddly, though, the writing does not sensationalize or titillate. To be sure, it candidly tells of the encounter between
Enkidu and the temple prostitute, but it omits lurid details. Passages describing violence are suspenseful, but gore and carnage are not part of them. Another important writing device in this epic is repetition. Many key narrations and descriptions are repeated word for word, suggesting that the Gilgamesh story had an oral tradition before it was committed to clay tablets. The following is an
example of a passage that contains repetition (which is highlighted in blue).
"Why should you [Enkidu] roam the wilderness and live like an animal? Let me take you to great-walled Uruk, to the temple of Ishtar, to the palace of Gilgamesh the mighty king, who in his arrogance oppresses the people, trampling upon them like a wild bull." She finished, and Enkidu nodded his head. Deep
in his heart he felt something stir, a longing he had never known before, the longing for a true friend. Enkidu said, "I will go, Shamhat. Take me with you to great-walled Uruk, to the temple of Ishtar, to the palace of Gilgamesh the mighty king. I will challenge him." (Mitchell)Repetition helped listeners to absorb the details of the story. After all, they had no books from which they could reread passages; they had only ears to hear the story told and retold.
.......Still another noticeable
writing device is the use of the epithet, such as great-walled Uruk in the above passage or the term Utnapishtim the Faraway to refer to the survivor of the Great Flood.
Mitchell, Stephen. Gilgamesh: a New English Version. New York: Free Press, 2004. Page 80.
Study Questions and Essay Topics
1...Write an essay that compares and contrasts Gilgamesh and Enkidu.
2...Which quality of Gilgamesh does the story emphasize more, physical strength or intellect?
3...What was the attitude of the Mesopotamians toward nature and its resources?
4...Write an essay that compares and contrasts Gilgamesh with
the hero of another epic, such as the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, or Beowulf.
5...Why did the Mesopotamians, as well as people of other ancient cultures, believe in so many gods?