Study Guide

The Epic of Gilgamesh Fear

By Sinleqqiunninni


Chapter 1, Tablet 1

A notorious trapper
came face-to-face with him [Enkidu] opposite the watering hole.
A first, a second, and a third day
he came face-to-face with him opposite the watering hole.
On seeing him the trapper's face went stark with fear,
and he (Enkidu?) and his animals drew back home (?).
He was rigid with fear; though stock-still
his heart pounded and his face drained of color.
He was miserable to the core,
and his face looked like one who had made a long journey. (1.94-103)

It doesn't look like Enkidu is doing anyone any harm, so why is the trapper so afraid? Could this just be another example of how people are afraid of what is different? Also, note the comparison in the last line of this passage, between the trapper's frightened face and the face of someone who has gone on a long journey. Could this be foreshadowing the lengthy journey Gilgamesh ends up making, because of fear?

Chapter 2, Tablet 2

"In order to protect the Cedar Forest
Enlil assigned (Humbaba) as a terror to human beings—
Humbaba's roar is a Flood, his mouth is Fire, and his breath is Death!
He can hear 100 leagues away any rustling(?) in his forest!
Who would go down into his forest?
Enlil assigned him as a terror to human beings,
and whoever goes down into his forest paralysis(?) will strike!" (2.200-206)

Is fear always a bad thing? Maybe not necessarily. First of all, we learn from these lines that the god Enlil has deliberately placed Humbaba in the Cedar Forest in order to terrify human beings. Could this be because he wants to protect the forest? If so, fear would be good. Also, bear in mind that Enkidu says this to Gilgamesh in an attempt to talk him out of going on his quest to the Cedar Forest at all. Which, all things considered, might have been a good idea.


"Who, my friend, can ascend to the heavens
(Only) the gods can dwell forever with Shamash.
As for human beings, their days are numbered,
and whatever they keep trying to achieve is but wind!
Now you are afraid of death—
what has become of your bold strength?
I will go in front of you,
and your mouth can cry out: "Go on closer, do not be afraid!"
Should I fall, I will have established my fame.
(They will say:) "It was Gilgamesh who locked in battle with Humbaba the Terrible!" (2.228-237)

But Gilgamesh seems like too much of a meathead to take Enkidu's advice. In fact, by a sort of reverse-psychology, Enkidu talking about how fearsome Humbaba seems to make Gilgamesh even more eager to fight him, just to prove that he's not afraid. Do Gilgamesh's words here show true courage, or is there some fear underlying them?

Chapter 4, Tablet 4

In the middle of the night his sleep came to an end,
so he got up and said to his friend:
"My friend, did you not call out to me? Why did I wake up?
Did you not touch me? Why am I so disturbed?
Did a god pass by? Why are my muscles trembling?
Enkidu, my friend, I have had a third dream,
and the dream I had was deeply disturbing." (4.88-101)

Poor Gilgamesh, scared of a little nightmare. (Okay, not so little. And not just one.) On the journey to the Cedar Forest to fight Humbaba, Gilgamesh is tormented every night by horrible nightmares. Each time, Enkidu is the one who steps in to interpret the dreams in a more favorable light. Do you think Enkidu really believes in the interpretations he puts forward throughout Tablet 4? Or is he just putting a brave face on things, in order to cheer up Gilgamesh? And, either way, who do you think is truly more courageous: Gilgamesh or Enkidu?

Chapter 9, Tablet 9

"I am going to die!—am I not like Enkidu?!
Deep sadness penetrates my core,
I fear death, and now roam the wilderness—
I will set out to the region of Utanapishtim, son of Ubartutu, and will go with utmost dispatch!" (9.2-5)

After Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh becomes consumed by overpowering fear—the fear of death. Why is death something to be afraid of? Or is this just another example of the fear of the unknown? In that case, it makes sense that Gilgamesh would go on a quest to find out what death is. But Gilgamesh never finds out what death is—because everybody he encounters tells him that nobody knows what death is. So how does he end up overcoming his fear?

When he reached Mount Mashu,
which daily guards the rising and setting of the Sun,
above which only the dome of the heavens reaches,
and whose flank reaches as far as the Netherworld below,
there were Scorpion-beings watching over its gate.
Trembling terror they inspire, the sight of them is death,
their frightening aura sweeps over the mountains.
At the rising and setting they watch over the Sun.
When Gilgamesh saw them, trembling terror blanketed his face,
but he pulled himself together and drew near to them. (9.48-57)

Is true courage never being afraid? Or is true courage being afraid, and then mastering your fear? If it's number two, Gilgamesh is definitely showing some courage here. Even though the whole point of the Scorpion-beings is to make people scared out of their wits, Gilgamesh musters up the gumption to go forward. Gilgamesh's ability to conquer his fear, even without his buddy Enkidu to egg him on, shows just how powerful the fear is that is driving him on—the fear of death. Compared to that, Scorpion-beings are a piece of cake.

Chapter 10, Tablet 10

"Six days and seven nights I mourned over him
and would not allow him to be buried
until a maggot fell out of his nose.
I was terrified by his appearance(?),
I began to fear death, and so roam the wilderness." (10.61-72)

In these lines, Gilgamesh explains how he developed the overpowering fear of death that drives him on his quest to find Utanapishtim. It's pretty easy to see how anyone would be scared by what Gilgamesh describes—we at Shmoop just can't get over that whole maggot falling out of the nose thing. That said, why does Gilgamesh end the passage by asking "Am I not like him?" What do you think it was that made Gilgamesh so "terrified by his appearance"?


The tavern-keeper was gazing off into the distance,
puzzling to herself, she said,
wondering to herself:
"That fellow is surely a murderer(?)!
Where is he heading?..."
As soon as the tavern-keeper saw him, she bolted her door,
bolted her gate, bolted the lock." (10.10-16)

Siduri runs a tavern in the underworld. What are her typical patrons like? Apparently much more respectable than Gilgamesh—otherwise she probably wouldn't be so put-off by his haggard appearance. Of course, it turns out that Siduri's fear is pretty much justified. Not long after these lines, Gilgamesh starts threatening to bust Siduri's door down. This looks like another example of how fear can be good: better safe than sorry, after all.

Chapter 11, Tablet 11

"Urshanabi, this plant is a plant against decay(?)
by which a man can attain his survival(?).
I will bring it to Uruk-Haven,
and have an old man eat the plant to test it.
The plant's name is 'The Old Man Becomes a Young Man.'
Then I will eat it and return to the condition of my youth." (11.279-291)

Why doesn't Gilgamesh eat the plant straightaway? Does he mistrust Utanapishtim? Clearly he trusted him enough to attach stones to his feet and dive down to the bottom of the sea in search of the plant. Is this a case of the devil you know (doing daring deeds) versus the devil you don't know (eating some weird flower)? We don't know. But Gilgamesh's hesitation might show a development in his character, as he becomes more thoughtful and less reckless over the course of his adventures.

"The gods were frightened by the Flood,
and retreated, ascending to the heaven of Anu.
The gods were cowering like dogs, crouching by the outer wall.
Ishtar shrieked like a woman in childbirth,
the sweet-voiced Mistress of the Gods wailed:
'The olden-days have alas turned to clay,
because I said evil things in the Assembly of the Gods!
How could I say evil things in the Assembly of the Gods,
ordering a catastrophe to destroy my people?!
No sooner have I given birth to my dear people
than they fill the sea like so many fish!'" (11.113-123)

The ultimate human fear in the poem is death. But the gods can't die. And yet, here they are described as being afraid. What can the gods be afraid of? Are they afraid for their own safety? But look at the words of Ishtar at the end of this quotation: it looks like she isn't afraid for herself so much as for the people of earth, who are being destroyed. Is it only the gods who are afraid on behalf of people other than themselves, or are there human characters in the poem who also feel fear for others?

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