The Epic of Gilgamesh Chapter 10, Tablet 10 Summary
Beside the underground sea where Gilgamesh has arrived, there's a tavern. Why somebody thought this would be a promising business location, we have no idea.
This tavern is kept by a woman named Siduri. When Siduri sees Gilgamesh, she's terrified. Because of his long journey, he's haggard and destitute looking. So, obviously, he must be a murderer. To keep safe, she bolts her door.
Gilgamesh is Not Happy and starts shouting threats at her.
To make his words more convincing, Gilgamesh throws in some boasts about how he iced Humbaba, and liquidated the Bull of Heaven.
But Siduri doesn't believe it's really him—he's just that haggard-looking.
Gilgamesh sticks up for himself, however, and gives her the whole story: his grief over his friend's death, and how he mourned over him for six days and seven nights, refusing to let Enkidu be buried until—finally—a maggot fell out of Enkidu's nose.
We hope you aren't eating as you read this.
And then Gilgamesh asks Siduri if he, too, must die.
In the Old Babylonian Version of the Epic of Gilgamesh, Siduri has an answer for Gilgamesh. Most translators include Siduri's reply along with the main text of the Standard Version. (For more info on the Old Babylonian Version and the Standard Version, check out the "Writing Style" section of this module.) Because Maureen Gallery Kovacs (the translator we're following) includes it, we will too.
Basically, Siduri tells Gilgamesh not to worry so much. She says that humans simply cannot achieve immortality—the gods won't let them.
Instead, they should just make the most of what they have on earth. She tells Gilgamesh to make every day a party, and to be good to his children and wife. That's what life's all about.
We can kind of get behind that.
But not Gilgamesh. Instead, he just keeps asking how he can find Utanapishtim.
Siduri tells Gilgamesh that to see Utanapishtim, he first has to cross the Waters of Death (oooh, that doesn't sound pleasant). To do that, he has to talk to a guy called Urshanabi (not to be confused with Utanapishtim), the ferryman over the Waters of Death.
Siduri tells Gilgamesh where to find Urshanabi's boat, and his "stone things." What are the "stone things"? We don't really know. They are somehow critical to a successful journey across the Waters of Death, but that is all we know.
Option (1): some scholars (and the translator Stephen Mitchell) think that they are stone men—living statues that help out Urshanabi.
Option (2): some scholars think of them as lodestones (a naturally magnetized mineral used as a compass in the ancient world).
Option (3): since we don't know, you're free to imagine the "stone things" as being whatever you want them to be.
Once Gilgamesh has gotten Siduri's directions, he runs off—and attacks Urshanabi's "stone things." In fact, he destroys all of them. (Geez. That was uncalled for.)
Hearing the commotion, Urshanabi comes running back from the forest, where he was gathering mint. The text of the clay tablet is unclear at this point, but the basic idea seems to be, "Hey! Why the heck did you break all my stone things?"
After this, we get basically a repeat of the exchange between Siduri and Gilgamesh. Urshanabi asks Gilgamesh why he's looking so wiped out and down on his luck.
Oh, well, you know, he's just lost his greatest friend and is terrified of death. He follows up his story by demanding to see Utanapishtim.
Can you predict what Urshanabi says here? That's right: he says, "Well, you know, Gilgamesh, it would have been easy enough to cross the Waters of Death—if you hadn't smashed all my stone things, that is."
Fortunately, Urshanabi has a backup plan. He tells Gilgamesh to go into the woods and cut 300 punting poles (sticks to push off on the bottom of the lake), each 60 cubits in length.
How big is a cubit, you ask? Here you go. As you can see from the diagram, we mean "handy-dandy" literally.
Gilgamesh doesn't need to be told twice. In no time, he has come back with the 300 punting poles, as per the instructions. He and Urshanabi get into the boat and they're off across the Waters of Death.
Urshanabi tells Gilgamesh to get as much leverage out of each punting pole as he can—and then throw it away. He can't let his hands touch the Waters of Death, otherwise he'll, you know, die.
Unfortunately, when Gilgamesh runs out of punting poles, they still aren't at the other side of the Waters of Death. But Gilgamesh isn't about to give up. Instead, he takes off his cloak and holds it up as a sail.
At about this point, on the far side of the Waters of Death, Utanapishtim sees them coming. He can't understand why Urshanabi's "stone things" have been destroyed—or why somebody other than Urshanabi is sailing on the boat.
When Urshanabi and Gilgamesh arrive on shore, we get yet another repetition of the original exchange between Gilgamesh and Siduri. Utanapishtim asks Gilgamesh why he looks so worn-out.
Gilgamesh explains about his grief for his friend (he still doesn't realize who he's talking to), and then gives a really detailed description of all the trials and tribulations he's been through on his voyage this far.
Utanapishtim replies with a long speech of his own. Unfortunately, the beginning of this speech is not well-preserved. From the fragments that survive, it looks like he is telling Gilgamesh to count his blessings, since he was born a rich and powerful king, not a poor fool.
Then Utanapishtim tells Gilgamesh that it is pointless for humans to try to escape death, because it is the will of the gods that all humans must die. The only thing that's uncertain is when a person will die, not whether he or she will.