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The Epic of Gilgamesh

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The Epic of Gilgamesh Summary

The Epic of Gilgamesh is an ancient Sumerian epic poem about a demigod named Gilgamesh who tries to achieve immortality.

  • As King of Uruk, Gilgamesh attracts the attention of the goddess Ishtar. Gilgamesh declines her offer of marriage.
  • Enraged, Ishtar has Gilgamesh’s friend, Enkidu, killed. 
  • Gilgamesh travels a great distance to meet Utnapishtim, who was granted immortality by the gods after he built an ark to survive a massive flood. 
  • Utnapishtim advises Gilgamesh to return home to Uruk after Gilgamesh fails a number of trials to win eternal life. Gilgamesh dies a beloved king, without having achieved his dream of immortality.

Summary

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Last Updated February 8, 2024.

The Epic of Gilgamesh, an ancient Mesopotamian epic, is one of the earliest known literary works. Composed in cuneiform on clay tablets, many of which are incomplete, the story is over 4000 years old and provides a glimpse into the cultural and religious beliefs of Sumerians. It continues to offer timeless insights into the human condition and the quest for meaning.

Tablet 1

The first tablet of The Epic of Gilgamesh introduces the titular character. The narrator speaks of a powerful man of accomplishment. Larger and stronger than all other men, he builds and fortifies the city of Uruk, becoming its king. However, Gilgamesh is a cruel and arrogant ruler.

The young men of Uruk he harries without warrant,

Gilgamesh lets no son go free to his father.

By day and by night his tyranny grows harsher

His conceit is so oppressive that the city's people seek help from the gods. In response, the sky god Anu has the goddess Aruru create Enkidu, a wild man, to challenge and humble Gilgamesh. Enkidu lives in harmony with the animals until Shamhat, a temple prostitute, is sent to civilize him. After a week of intimacy with Shamhat, Enkidu loses his wildness and gains knowledge of human ways. He is then ready to confront Gilgamesh. Before their fateful meeting, Gilgamesh has a series of dreams that his divine mother interprets as a sign that her son will make a friend.

Tablet 2

Enkidu heads off to Uruk to confront Gilgamesh. He is particularly angered by the king's practice of sleeping with brides on their wedding night. Enkidu and Gilgamesh meet in a fierce battle, with Gilgamesh as the victor. However, their fight ultimately leads to a deep friendship.

Tablets 3 and 4

The following two tablets describe Gilgamesh and Enkidu's decision to journey to the Cedar Forest and confront the monster Humbaba. Despite warnings from elders, Enkidu's misgivings, and dreams foretelling their doom, Gilgamesh and Enkidu are determined to prove their bravery and head out from the city.

Tablet 5

The two heroes encounter Humbaba. Despite their initial fear and hesitation, Gilgamesh and Enkidu, with the assistance of the sun god Shamash, engage in a fierce and prolonged fight with the monster. The god provides divine aid, empowering the heroes and ensuring their success. Eventually, Humbaba is defeated, and Gilgamesh, urged on by Enkidu, decides to kill him despite Humbaba's pleas for mercy. Before he dies, the monster curses Enkidu to die before Gilgamesh.

May the pair of them not grow old,

besides Gilgamesh his friend, none shall bury Enkidu!

Tablet 6

The narrative shifts to the goddess Ishtar's romantic interest in Gilgamesh. Ishtar, the goddess of love and war, proposes marriage to Gilgamesh, seeing him as a desirable and powerful king. However, Gilgamesh rejects Ishtar's advances, listing the misfortunes that have befallen her previous lovers.

Enraged and humiliated by the rejection, Ishtar seeks revenge by asking her father, Anu, to unleash the Bull of Heaven to punish Gilgamesh. Anu reluctantly agrees, and the Bull is sent down to wreak havoc on Uruk. Gilgamesh and Enkidu bravely confront the beast and defeat it.

Tablet 7

Enkidu tells of a nightmare he has in which the gods decree his death. Gilgamesh takes this hard. He cries over the injustice of Enkidu's impending death and his own survival. Enkidu soon falls gravely ill and experiences intense suffering. As he approaches death, he reflects on the loss of his former wild self and curses the trap of civilization.

Tablets 8 and 9

Grief-stricken by the death of...

(This entire section contains 979 words.)

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Enkidu, Gilgamesh is consumed by a fear of his own mortality. Desperate to find a way to escape death, he embarks on a quest for immortality. Gilgamesh begins a long, perilous journey, crossing vast deserts and treacherous mountains. He reaches the entrance of the twin-peaked mountain Mashu at the eastern end of the world, guarded by two scorpion-beings. Gilgamesh tells these creatures that he wishes to speak to Utnapishtim, a man who has unlocked the secret of immortality.

Tablet 10

Gilgamesh then enters the mountain, where he must run a great distance to reach the other side before the sun rises and incinerates him. He makes it just in time and finds himself in a beautiful garden. He meets Siduri, who is associated with wine-making and wisdom. She tries to dissuade Gilgamesh from pursuing immortality, advising him to enjoy life's pleasures.

Despite Siduri's counsel, Gilgamesh presses on. He then encounters Urshanabi, the boatman, and learns that the only way to reach Utnapishtim is to cross the Waters of Death. Urshanabi tells Gilgamesh that his quest for immortality is futile as the gods will not allow mortals to live forever. They venture together, though the journey across the waters is perilous, and the pathway is filled with obstacles.

Tablets 11 and 12

Gilgamesh asks Urshanabi how Utnapishtim gained immortality. The boatman tells him the story of a great flood. Long ago, the gods, led by Enil, decide to destroy humankind. However, Ea warns Utnapishtim, allowing him to build a boat and save himself, his family, several craftsmen, and pairs of animals. After surviving the deluge, Utnapishtim makes sacrifices to the gods. Enil, feeling guilty for his destruction of civilization, grants Utnapishtim and his wife eternal life.

Finally, Gilgamesh meets Utnapishtim. To test Gilgamesh's worthiness for immortality, Utnapishtim challenges him with a task. He instructs Gilgamesh to stay awake for a week. However, Gilgamesh falls asleep, exhausted and unable to overcome his mortal limitations. Utnapishtim reveals that true immortality is not granted to mortals.

As a parting gift, Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh about a miraculous plant at the bottom of the sea that can restore youth. Gilgamesh retrieves the plant but loses it when a serpent steals it while he is bathing. Having failed to attain immortality, Gilgamesh returns to Uruk. Accepting the inevitability of death, he focuses on the enduring legacy he leaves behind, contributing to the betterment of his city and humanity.

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