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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.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1112

Gilgamesh is the wisest, strongest, and most handsome of mortals, for he is two-thirds god and one-third man. As king of the city-state of Uruk he builds a monumental wall around the city, but in doing so he overworks the city’s inhabitants unmercifully, to the point where they pray to the gods for relief.

The god Anu hears their plea and calls the goddess Aruru to fashion another demigod like Gilgamesh in order that the two heroes might fight and thus give Uruk peace. Aruru creates the warrior Engidu out of clay and sends him to live among the animals of the hills. A hunter of Uruk finds Engidu and in terror reports his existence to Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh advises the hunter to take a priest to Engidu’s watering place to lure Engidu to the joys of civilization and away from his animal life. The priest initiates Engidu into civilization with her body, her bread, and her wine. Having forsaken his animal existence, Engidu and the priest start for Uruk. On their arrival she tells him of the strength and wisdom of Gilgamesh and of how Gilgamesh told the goddess Ninsun about his dreams of meeting Engidu, his equal, in combat.

Engidu challenges Gilgamesh by barring his way to the temple. An earth-shaking fight ensues in which Gilgamesh stops Engidu’s onslaught. Engidu praises Gilgamesh’s strength and the two enemies became inseparable friends. Gilgamesh informs Engidu of his wish to conquer the terrible monster, Khumbaba, and challenges him to go along. Engidu replies that the undertaking is full of peril for both. Gilgamesh answers that Engidu’s fear of death deprives him of his might. At last Engidu agrees to go with his friend. Gilgamesh then goes to the elders and they, like Engidu, warn him of the perils he will encounter. Seeing his determination, the elders give him their blessing. Gilgamesh then goes to Ninsun and she also warns him of the great dangers, but to no avail. Then she takes Engidu aside and tells him to give Gilgamesh special protection.

Upon climbing the cedar mountain to reach Khumbaba, Gilgamesh relates three terrible dreams to Engidu, who shores up Gilgamesh’s spirit by placing a favorable interpretation on them. On reaching the gate to the cedar wood where Khumbaba resides, the pair are stopped by the watchman, who possesses seven magic mantles. The two heroes succeed in overcoming him. Accidentally, Engidu touches the magic portal of the gate; immediately he feels faint and weak, as if afraid of death. The champions enter the cedar wood and, with the aid of the sun god, slay Khumbaba.

Upon their return to Uruk after their victory, the goddess Ishtar falls in love with Gilgamesh and asks him to be her consort. Gilgamesh, being wiser than her previous consorts, recalls all of the evil things she did to her earlier lovers. Ishtar then angrily ascends to heaven and reports his scornful refusal to Anu. Threatening to destroy humanity, she forces Anu to create a monster bull that will kill Gilgamesh.

Anu forms the bull and sends it to Uruk. After it slays five hundred warriors in two snorts, Engidu jumps on its back while Gilgamesh drives his sword into its neck. Engidu then throws the bull’s thighbone in Ishtar’s face, and Gilgamesh holds a feast of victory in his palace.

Engidu, still ailing from touching the portal to the cedar wood, curses those who showed him civilization. He relates his nightmares to Gilgamesh, grows fainthearted, and fears death. Since Engidu was cursed by touching the gate, he dies. Gilgamesh mourns his friend six days and nights; on the seventh he leaves Uruk to cross the steppes in search of Utnapishtim, the mortal who discovered the secret of life.

Upon reaching the mountain named Mashu, he finds scorpion men guarding the entrance to the underground passage. They receive him cordially when they learn he is seeking Utnapishtim, but they warn him that no one has ever found a way through the mountain.

Gilgamesh travels the twelve miles through the mountain in pitch darkness, and at last he enters a garden. There he finds Siduri, the cup-bearing goddess, who remarks on his haggard condition. Gilgamesh explains that his woeful appearance has been caused by the loss of Engidu, and that he seeks Utnapishtim. The goddess advises him to live in pleasure at home and warns him of the dangers ahead.

Gilgamesh continues ahead, seeking the boatman Ur-Shanabi, who might possibly take him across the waters of death. On finding Ur-Shanabi’s stone coffers, Gilgamesh breaks them in anger, but he makes up for them by presenting the boatman with huge poles. Ur-Shanabi then ferries Gilgamesh across the waters of death.

Utnapishtim, meeting Gilgamesh on the shore, also speaks of his haggard condition. Gilgamesh tells him about the loss of Engidu and his own search for the secret of life. Utnapishtim replies that nothing is made to last forever, that life is transient, and that death is part of the inevitable process.

Gilgamesh then asks how Utnapishtim found the secret of eternal life, and Utnapishtim tells him the story of the Great Flood. Utnapishtim was told in a dream of the gods’ plans to flood the land. So he built an ark and put his family and all kinds of animals on it. When the flood came, he and those on the ark survived, and when the flood subsided he found himself on Mount Nisser. After the waters had returned to their normal level, he gave thanks to the gods, and in return the god Ea blessed him and his wife with the secret of life everlasting.

After finishing his story Utnapishtim advises Gilgamesh to return home, and before he leaves, Ur-Shanabi bathes Gilgamesh and clothes him in a robe that would remain clean as long as he lived. As Gilgamesh is leaving, Utnapishtim gives him the secret of life, a magic plant that grows at the bottom of the waters of death. However, as Gilgamesh bathes in a pool on his way home, an evil serpent eats the plant.

On arriving home Gilgamesh goes to Ninsun to inquire how he can reach Engidu in the land of the dead. Although Ninsun directs him, he fails in his attempt because he breaks some of the taboos that she has laid out for him. Deeply disappointed, he makes one final appeal to the god Ea, the lord of the depths of the waters, and Engidu is brought forth. Gilgamesh asks Engidu what happens after death, and Engidu lays bare the full terrors of the afterworld. Worms, neglect, and disrespect are the lot of the dead.

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