Illustration of Gilgamesh's face

The Epic of Gilgamesh

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Prologue The Prologue establishes Gilgamesh's stature as the special creation of the gods: he is the son of a goddess and a human and thus partly divine. The strongest and wisest of all humans, he is also the renowned builder and king of the great city of Uruk. The Prologue sets the story in the distant past, in "the days before the flood" (1.61), when Gilgamesh himself etched the whole story in stone.

1. The Coming of Enkidu Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, is the strongest of all men, but he is a harsh and unkind ruler. The people of Uruk describe his abuses to Anu, god of Uruk, who asks Aruru, goddess of creation, to create an equal or ''second self'' (1.62) to oppose Gilgamesh and leave them at peace. Aruru creates Enkidu out of the raw stuff of nature. Enkidu is a fearfully strong, uncultured "wild man" with long hair and coarse features who runs with the beasts and eats grass. A trapper sees Enkidu at a watering hole, and tells his father about the wild man who disrupts his snares. The father advises the son to tell Gilgamesh about the wild man. Gilgamesh gives him a temple courtesan to tame the wild man. The woman embraces Enkidu, cleans and clothes him, and teaches him civilized behavior. When Enkidu is brought to Uruk, Gilgamesh puts off his pending marriage to Ishtar, the goddess of love, and meets Enkidu, who has challenged him, in the street. They fight, and after Gilgamesh throws Enkidu, they embrace and become friends.

2. The Forest Journey Enlil, father of the gods, establishes Gilgamesh's destiny to be king and achieve great feats, but Enkidu is "oppressed by [the] idleness" (1. 70) of living in Uruk. In order to establish his eternal reputation, to "leave behind me a name that endures" (1. 71), Gilgamesh purposes to travel with Enkidu to the Land of the Cedars and kill its guardian, the fearsome giant Humbaba. Gilgamesh prepares for the journey both by making a sacrifice to Shamash, who gives him the natural elements as allies; by forging a set of formidable weapons, including an axe, bow, and shield; and by seeking the intervention of his mother Ninsun, who adopts Enkidu as her own. Now brothers as well as companions, Gilgamesh and Enkidu begin their journey. On the way, Gilgamesh has three dreams, which though frightening portend a successful end to his quest. Humbaba, the guardian of the cedars, can hear an animal stir from many miles away, and he has seven fearsome ''splendors" as weapons. After they arrive at the grove, Gilgamesh and Enkidu send Humbaba into a rage by cutting down one of the sacred trees. After a fierce battle, Gilgamesh defeats Humbaba, who begs for his life. Gilgamesh nearly relents, saving Humbaba momentarily, but acting on Enkidu's warning, Gilgamesh cuts off the giant's head. They present Humbaba's head to Enlil, who rages at them for their actions.

3. Ishtar and Gilgamesh, and the Death of Enkidu After Gilgamesh slays Humbaba, Ishtar calls Gilgamesh back to be her groom by promising him many expensive gifts. Gilgamesh now flatly refuses her offer because of her "abominable behaviour" (1.87), for he knows how badly Ishtar has treated her previous lovers, turning many of them into animals. Ishtar becomes angry and pressures her parents, Anu and Antum, to set loose the Bull of Heaven upon Uruk and Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh and Enkidu together slay the bull, proving again their great fame and prowess. Afterward, Enkidu has a dream in which a council of the gods has decreed that Enkidu must die...

(This entire section contains 1323 words.)

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for their deeds. Enkidu falls ill, cursing the trapper and courtesan who brought him to civilization, but Shamash reminds him how much good came from the trapper's and harlot's action. Enkidu has a second dream about the underworld and its inhabitants, which Gilgamesh interprets as an omen of death. Enkidu languishes for days before he dies, and Gilgamesh, who mourns for seven days, offers a moving lament and builds a noble statue in tribute to his friend.

4. The Search for Everlasting Life In his despair, Gilgamesh begins a lengthy quest to find the answer to life's mysteries, especially the mystery of eternal life. He decides to seek out Utnapishtim, "the Faraway," his ancient ancestor who "has entered the assembly of the gods" (1. 97) and received everlasting life. Sick at heart for the death of Enkidu and realizing for the first time his own mortality, Gilgamesh travels through the great mountains of Mashu, gate to the afterlife where the sun sets, where he defeats a band of lions. He then encounters the frightful Scorpion-Demon and his mate who guard Mashu. He persuades them to let him enter. Gilgamesh travels through twelve leagues of darkness (24 hours) until he enters the garden of the gods. There, in turn, he meets Shamash, the sun god, who discourages his quest; Siduri, goddess of wine and the vines, who encourages him to ''dance and be merry, feast and rejoice'' (1.102); and finally Urshanabi, the ferryman of Utnapishtim, who at first tells him his quest is futile but then takes him to Utnapishtim. Gilgamesh recounts the story of his journey, Enkidu's death, and his quest. In response to Gilgamesh's questioning about eternal life, Utnapishtim replies flatly, "There is no permanence" (1.196). Gilgamesh persists until Utnapishtim agrees to tell Gilgamesh "a mystery" (1. 107), the story of how he gained immortality.

5. The Story of the Flood In the ancient city of Shurrupak on the Euphrates, according the Utnapishtim's tale, the clamor of humanity rises up to the gods and disturbs their peace. Enlil calls for the gods "to exterminate mankind" (1. 108). The council of the gods agree, but Ea warns Utnapishtim secretly in a dream that a flood is coming. To protect her favorite, Ea tells Utnapishtim to build a boat and "take up into the boat the seed of all living creatures" (1. 108). It takes Utnapishtim seven days to build a boat of seven decks, and after loading it with his family, wealth, craftspeople, and animals, he rides out a six-day storm. On the seventh day, the boat runs aground and Utnapishtim releases three birds in succession. A dove and swallow return, but a raven does not, indicating the presence of dry land. After Utnapishtim makes a sacrifice, over which the gods "gathered like flies" (1. Ill), Ishtar presents her opulent necklace as a remembrance of the disaster, and Enlil makes restitution for his rash act by giving Utnapishtim and his wife immortality.

6. The Return Utnapishtim puts Gilgamesh's desire for eternal life to the test: "only prevail against sleep for six days and seven nights'' (1.114). Gilgamesh, however, quickly falls asleep as the result of his exertions. To prove that Gilgamesh has slept, Utnapishtim has his wife bake a loaf of bread for each of the seven days Gilgamesh sleeps. After Utnapishtim wakes Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh sees the proof and despairs, realizing more clearly than ever that "death inhabits my room" (1. 115). Utnapishtim then curses Urshanabi for bringing Gilgamesh to him and commands Urshanabi to bathe and dress Gilgamesh, who is covered in grime and clothed in skins. Utnapishtim's wife asks Utnapishtim not to send Gilgamesh away empty-handed. In response, Utnapishtim reveals the location to a secret underwater plant that will "restore his lost youth to a man" (1. 116). Gilgamesh harvests the plant and purposes to take it back to Uruk with him, but when Gilgamesh stops at an oasis to bathe, a serpent from the well steals and eats the plant, sloughs off its skin, and disappears again. Gilgamesh bewails the loss— his last chance for immortality—and returns to Uruk. There he engraves his exploits in stone to testify to his greatness.

7. Death of Gilgamesh Gilgamesh has fulfilled his destiny to be king, but his dream of eternal life eludes him. The narration concludes with a lament on Gilgamesh's mortality, a description of the funerary ritual, and a paean of praise to Gilgamesh: his family, his servants, the city of Uruk, and the pantheon of gods all mourn his loss.