Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...©
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
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
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
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.
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).
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.
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 story.
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,
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.
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 heaven.
Aruru: Goddess of
creation. She fashions Enkidu from clay.
Ninsun: Goddess and
mother of Gilgamesh.
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
Ninurta: God of war.
Trapper: Man who
traps animals in the wilds occupied by Enkidu.
in Ishtar's temple who seduces Enkidu.
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.
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.
who ferries Gilgamesh to Utnapishtim's abode.
Ea: God of wisdom
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 introduction.
main story is a flashback that presents the details of the story outlined
in the introduction.
Michael J. Cummings..©
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.
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 story.
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.
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..
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
ago, 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
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.
thus 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.
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.
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.
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 rash.
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
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
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..
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.
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
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
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
an essay that compares and contrasts Gilgamesh and Enkidu.
quality of Gilgamesh does the story emphasize more, physical strength or
was the attitude of the Mesopotamians toward nature and its resources?
an essay that compares and contrasts Gilgamesh with the hero of another
epic, such as the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid,
did the Mesopotamians, as well as people of other ancient cultures, believe
in so many gods?