The Epic of Gilgamesh Summary

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The Epic of Gilgamesh

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The Epic of Gilgamesh Summary

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The Epic of Gilgamesh is an epic poem from ancient Mesopotamia, considered by most as the earliest surviving great work of literature. It consists of twelve tablets, and tells the story of Gilgamesh, king of the ancient city of Uruk, and his arch-nemesis Enkidu, a wild man created by the Gods to oppress Gilgamesh’s oppressive rule. The two later become allies and friends, but Enkidu’s death sends Gilgamesh into a quest to find the secret of eternal life. Although most of the original tablets no longer exist, the story has been translated into many languages and adapted into different formats. It explores themes of mortality, morality, and the code of a warrior, as well as man’s relationship to the Gods. Many of the plot elements are believed to resemble stories later told in the bible, including the tale of the Garden of Eden, and Noah and the great flood. Adapted into operas, novels, stage dramas, and film and television, it maintains a powerful presence in pop culture. The author of the original tablets is unknown, but the first known version was discovered and translated by Assyriologist George Smith.

The Epic of Gilgamesh begins with the first tablet, which introduces Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk. Two-thirds God and one-third man, he is a cruel king and his people cry out to the Gods for aid. The Gods respond by creating a primitive man named Enkidu, who lives wild with the animals. The Gods send a temple prostitute named Shamhat to seduce Enkidu, and he is soon tamed and taken to a shepherd’s camp to be civilized. Gilgamesh, meanwhile, has been having prophetic dreams about the arrival of a new companion. In tablet two, Enkidu becomes the night watchman at the camp and learns about Gilgamesh’s violent ways with the women in his kingdom. He is especially shocked at Gilgamesh having his way with all new bridges. He arrives in Uruk and blocks one of Gilgamesh’s visits to a young bride. They battle, Enkidu is impressed by Gilgamesh’s strength, and they become friends. Gilgamesh suggests a quest to slay the demi-god Humbaba for glory. Enkidu tries to warn him off, but Gilgamesh is undeterred. In tablet three, Gilgamesh takes advice from the Elders for his journey, and visits his mother, the Goddess Ninsun. She adopts Enkidu as her son, and seeks the protection of the sun god Shamash for the journey. Leaving Uruk in the hands of his allies, they head out on their journey.

In tablet four, Gilgamesh and Enkidu journey to the Cedar Forest, where they camp. Gilgamesh has terrifying dreams about falling mountains, thunderstorms, wild bulls, and a fire-breathing thunderbird. Enkidu interprets these as good omens, despite the dream’s resemblance to Humbaba. As they approach, they hear Humbaba roaring, and steel each other as they proceed. Tablet five chronicles the battle, where the two warriors confront Humbaba. The demigod taunts and threatens them, and Shamash sends the wind to bind Humbaba. Gilgamesh and Enkidu capture him, the creature pleads for his life. Although Gilgamesh is tempted by Humbaba’s offers, Enkidu knows the beast is lying. Gilgamesh kills Humbaba, and they return home with the head of Humbaba and a giant tree they cut down to make a gate for the temple. In tablet six, Gilgamesh is seduced by the goddess Ishtar, but rebuffs her because she has treated past lovers poorly. Outraged, she tells her father Anu to send the Bull of Heaven to avenge her. After she threatens her father with raising the dead in her anger, he sends the bull and it rampages through Uruk. Gilgamesh and Enkidu do battle with the bull and defeat it without any help from the Gods. They offer the bull’s heart up to Shamash while Ishrar rages. The city celebrates, but Enkidu has a dream that his greatest failure is coming.

Tablet seven reveals that in Enkidu’s dream, the Gods decide that one of the heroes must die because of their killings of Humbaba and the bull. Enkidu is marked for death despite Shamash attempting to protect him. Enkidu curses his choices and the people who brought him there, and Shamash visits him and comforts him with the great honors he will receive in death. Enkidu has visions of terrifying angels of death and the underworld, and takes ill. He dies after twelve days, regretting that he could not die a hero in battle. In tablet eight, Gilgamesh laments Enkidu’s death, calling on all of Uruk to mourn him. Consumed by grief, he holds a great banquet where offerings are made to the Gods to ensure Enkidu is received favorably in the afterlife. In tablet nine, Gilgamesh is roaming in the wild and mourning Enkidu. Fearing his own death, he seeks Utnapishtim, or “The Faraway”, to learn the secret of eternal life. Utnapishtim is an ancient man who survived the great flood of the Gods, and he and his wife were granted immortality. He has a long journey, killing a pack of lions along the way. He confronts a pair of scorpion-men guarding a mysterious tunnel, and they let him through once they recognize his true nature. He follows a dark road, being chased by the sun, and arrives in the Garden of the Gods, full of jewel-covered trees.

As tablet ten begins, Gilgamesh meets Siduri, a Goddess of drink. Although she is suspicious of him, she sends him to Urshanabi the ferryman. In his rage, Gilgamesh kills the stone giants that live with the ferryman. Those creatures were the only ones who could cross the waters of death, so Gilgamesh cuts down 120 trees and uses them to row the boat. They reach Utnapishtim, who hears Gilgamesh’s story and reprimands him, saying that all humans must accept death and enjoy life’s joys while they have them. In tablet eleven, Gilgamesh asks Utnapishtim how he became immortal, and the ancient man tells Gilgamesh the story of the great flood. As the sole survivor, he and his family were granted immortality by the Goddess Enlil. Although Utnapishtim cannot help Gilgamesh gain immortality, his wife tells Gilgamesh there is a plant at the bottom of the sea that can make him young again. Gilgamesh binds stones to his feet and obtains it, and plans to test it on an old man in Uruk, but it is stolen by a snake before he can return. Gilgamesh weeps at the futility of his efforts.

The final tablet is inconsistent with the rest of the story, as Enkidu is still alive and travels to the underworld to retrieve Gilgamesh’s belongings. The underworld keeps Enkidu, and Gilgamesh goes on an epic quest to retrieve his friend. In many ways, it is a stand-alone parallel to the rest of the story. There are an additional five Sumerian poems, older than the main tablet, that also expand on some of the elements in the main story and integrate some lessons such as whether to show mercy to captives.