Mythical Ancient Mesopotamia and Lebanon; the Underworld
This epic takes place in a region known as Mesopotamia—which is a Greek term meaning "between two rivers." Shockingly, Mesopotamia rests between two rivers: the Tigris and the Euphrates. This is super important because Mesopotamia is the location of one of the earliest urban civilizations, so we know from the start that we are dealing with some pretty sophisticated and enterprising folks—just based upon where they live.
The action in Gilgamesh begins in Uruk. But, we could almost say that Uruk is another character in this story. The first 8 lines of the Epic are talking about Gilgamesh, but the next 17 are about the city of Uruk. (Basically it is all description; things like "its wall which gleams like copper" (1.11) and "the structure made of kiln-fired brick" (1.19).) So … we take this to mean that, you should keep your eye on this Uruk place.
In the Standard Version, the city has the nickname "Uruk-the-Sheep-Enclosure." Ok, so it may not be totally obvious on the surface why this makes any difference. For us to really get it, we have to stop and think about what it is like to be living in this time. We think this calls for a brief history lesson:
The Low-Down on the Mesopotamian Living
For centuries, the people who lived in the fertile river valley were nomadic hunter-gatherers. Fortunately for them, Mesopotamia was full of plants with big seeds that were easy to store to eat later (namely wheat and barley) and lots of easy-to-domesticate animals like camels, goats, sheep, and pigs.
But then. One day (or, you know, decade, or century), some of these hunter-gatherers figured out that creating permanent residences where they could farm and raise domesticated animals might take a lot of the guess-work out of day-to-day living. So, about 1200 years before the historical Gilgamesh was king of Uruk, people went from living in little villages to occupying large, developed cities with temples, palaces, complicated irrigation systems, and "sheep enclosures."
But not everyone was sold on this new-fangled city-stuff. Just like today, some people wanted to continue in the ancient ways and live outside the cities. (Or, you know, refuse to get a Facebook account.)
This is admirable and all, but these folks weren't just hippies eager to be one with nature. Living out in the elements was hard work. The ancient Sumerians didn't think about nature the way that we do—like an inherently peaceful and perfect system. If you lived out in the elements and had to contend with intermittent droughts and floods, wild animals, scant food sources, wind storms, and roving bands of other nomadic folks who may or may not want to be friends, you'd think that nature was a pretty formidable foe too.
Why, Yes, Living in the City Does Make Me Superior to You
Where were we? Oh yeah, "Uruk-the-Sheep-Enclosure." So, you see, calling the city a sheep-enclosure means that the author is drawing our attention to the fact that this is a serious city: enterprising citizens here are raising livestock, so we have disposable income, some resources at our fingertips, and we are oh-so-very unlike those less-developed people still living out in nature.
Kovacs translates some of the descriptions of Uruk as "Uruk-Haven" so as to emphasize the safety of the city (in contrast to creepy nature). So, we have to think about ol' Sinleqqiunninni's interest in reminding readers that Uruk is a strong-walled and serious fortress. In other words, it is a place of safety and a place where humanity has conquered nature.
This is important in contrast to the scenes set in the surrounding countryside, where Enkidu ends up in the wilderness. This works to set up the conflict between the wild Enkidu and the civilizing force of Shamhat—who sucks Enkidu into the civilized world which is both wonderful and tragic. Sure, she focuses on the wonderfulness of wine, women, and song, but Enkidu curses her later when he realizes the tragic elements of responsibility, consequences, and painful death.
(Another fun fact: Enkidu dies of a protracted and unpleasant illness. Lots of archaeologists think that disease became a lot more prevalent when people started living in cities—because of all that pesky crowded living, shacking up with domestic animals, and not having great sanitation business.)
Illness aside, the fact that Enkidu is the ruler of the wilderness while his bestie Gilgamesh is the king of civilized Uruk is a huge metaphor for the Sumerian's pride in taming the land (plants, animals, rivers, etc.) but still being connected to it.
Real Trees and Questionable Geography
Having said all of this, these events do supposedly take place around 2700 BCE (when it is likely that the historical Gilgamesh was king of Uruk), and we're guessing that, even back then, there was no superhuman, seven-suit-of-armor wearing monster guarding the cedar trees of Lebanon.
But think about this Cedar Forest in relation to what we know about the Sumerians—namely that they had limited resources of lumber, and lumber is pretty important when you're trying to build a civilization. So a Cedar Forest is a pretty big deal.
Plus, we may be between two rivers, but it still gets blazing hot out there in modern-day Iraq. So, when the text says "the Cedar brought forth luxurious foliage; its shade was good, extremely pleasant," we are reminded of other reasons why the Cedar Forest is an appealing—though maybe somewhat dangerous—hangout (5.7-8). It is, after all, a forest; and, forests are sort of notorious for being scary places.
Clearly, even though this story takes place in actual locations, these locations have been transformed in the scrambulator of myth, so that they come out more like scenes in a dream than in reality. This becomes most clear in Tablets 9-11, when Gilgamesh journeys beyond the edge of the earth, beyond the place where the sun rises, to the underworld, where he meets Siduri, Urshanabi, and Utanapishtim, the man granted immortality by the gods.
Sure, we're all clever and modern now, so we know that Gilgamesh can't have visited an actual, physical location here (since, you know, the Earth revolves around the sun). But it's important to bear in mind that the ancient Babylonians did think the world had an edge, and an underworld, so this part of the story might have seemed more realistic to them than it does to us.