Study Guide

The Epic of Gilgamesh Perseverance

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Chapter 1, Tablet 1

He saw the Secret, discovered the Hidden,
he brought information of (the time) before the Flood.
He went on a distant journey, pushing himself to exhaustion,
but then was brought to peace. (1.5-8)

These are nearly the opening lines of the epic, and form part of a longer passage talking about the awesomeness of Gilgamesh, his accomplishments, and his city. But these lines don't just talk about what Gilgamesh accomplished; they also talk about the effort he put into accomplishing them, "pushing himself to exhaustion." By then adding in the next line that Gilgamesh "then was brought to peace," the poem lays out one of its key themes: you have to try everything.

Chapter 4, Tablet 4

At twenty leagues they broke for some food,
at thirty leagues they stopped for the night,
walking fifty leagues in a whole day,
a walk of a month and a half.
On the third day they drew near to the Lebanon.
They dug a well facing Shamash (the setting sun) …. (4.1-6)

A "league" is roughly 3 miles. This means that Gilgamesh and Enkidu walked 60 miles before taking a break for food, and another 30 miles before they stopped for the night—making a total day's journey of 90 miles. This must show some pretty serious perseverance, right? Well, maybe—unless you're basically a superhero. In that case, we're not so impressed.

Chapter 5, Tablet 5

"May he not live the longer of the two,
may Enkidu not have any 'shore'(?) more than his friend Gilgamesh!"
Enkidu spoke to Gilgamesh, saying:
"My friend, I have been talking to you but you have not been listening to me,
You have been listening to the curse of Humbaba!" (5.280-284)

The first two lines of this passage come from Humbaba's curses against Enkidu, when he realizes that he can't persuade Enkidu to save his life. The fact that Humbaba can't change Enkidu's mind shows Enkidu's perseverance—or, you know, stubbornness. But Enkidu is afraid that his friend Gilgamesh doesn't have as much perseverance as he does—and calls him out on it.

Chapter 6, Tablet 6

At his third snort a huge pit opened up,
and Enkidu fell in up to his waist.
Then Enkidu jumped out and seized the Bull of Heaven by its horns.
The Bull spewed its spittle in front of him,
with his thick tail he flung his dung behind him (?).
Enkidu addressed Gilgamesh, saying:
"My friend, we can be bold(?) …
How shall we respond …
My friend, I saw …
And my strength …
I will rip out …
I and you, we must share(?)
I shall grasp the Bull
I will fill my hands (?) …
In front …

Between the nape, the horns, and … thrust your sword." (6.124-140)

This passage is fragmentary, but we still think it's possible to get the idea of what's going on. Basically, the Bull of Heaven, sent by Ishtar, is attacking Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Because the Bull is so powerful, its snorts make giant crevices open up in the earth—and Enkidu falls into one of these. But Enkidu doesn't give up the fight; instead, as the passage tells us, he jumps up and grasps the Bull by the horns. So to speak. Then, even though the Bull starts spewing bodily waste in every direction, Enkidu keeps hanging on—and even gives his friend instructions on how to kill the beast. Once again, Gilgamesh does as he's told. Once again, Enkidu's perseverance triumphs. So … is Gilgamesh learning perseverance from Enkidu?

Chapter 9, Tablet 9

The Scorpion-being spoke to Gilgamesh …, saying:
"Never has there been, Gilgamesh, a mortal man who could do that (?).
No one has crossed through the mountains,
for twelve leagues it is darkness throughout—
dense is the darkness, and light there is none.

"Though it be in deep sadness andpain,
in cold or heat …
gasping after breath … I will go on!
Now! Open the Gate!" (9.139-146, 215-221)

Finally, Gilgamesh has arrived at the end of the earth—but the passage forward is defended by two Scorpion-beings. Gilgamesh needs permission from the Scorpion-beings to proceed further. Although what the first Scorpion-being says at this point is hard to make out (because the tablet is broken), he basically seems to be making the road ahead seems super spooky Gilgamesh will turn back. But Gilgamesh isn't about to back to down—and he gives the Scorpion-being a piece of his mind. When the Scorpion-being sees Gilgamesh's perseverance, it gives him permission to continue—and wishes that he will continue to be brave and persevere on the rest of his journey. Is this a larger message to the Sumerian readers of this text? Is perseverance a trait that we should all be aspiring to as good Sumerians?

Along the Road of the Sun he journeyed—
one league he traveled …,
dense was the darkness, light there was none.
Neither what lies ahead nor behind does it allow him to see.
Two leagues he traveled …,
dense was the darkness, light there was none,
neither what lies ahead nor behind does it allow him to see.

Eleven leagues he traveled and came out before the sun(rise)
Twelve leagues he traveled and it grew brilliant. (9.227-233, 256-277)

Here, Gilgamesh has to travel 12 leagues before the sun comes barreling along the same path, when he will be burned to a crisp. Stopping at any point on this journey is not an option. As you can see, Gilgamesh just barely escapes getting fried—but escapes nonetheless. For modern readers, the way the story is told here might seem a bit repetitious—but we think this might just be the epic's way of acting out Gilgamesh's perseverance.

Chapter 10, Tablet 10

Gilgamesh spoke to the tavern-keeper, saying:
"So now tavern-keeper, what is the way to Utanapishtim?
What are its markers? Give them to me! Give me the markers!
If possible, I will cross the sea;
if not, I will roam the wilderness." (10.73-77)

Here we see more signs of Gilgamesh's perseverance. Even though he's totally worn out, he keeps insisting on learning the way forward. If he can cross the sea, fine. If not, he'll find something else to do. Simple as that. The man doesn't know the meaning of the word "impossible."

"I went circling through all the mountains,
I traversed treacherous mountains, and crossed all the seas—
that is why (?) sweet sleep has not mellowed my face,
through sleepless striving I am strained,
my muscles are filled with pain.
I had not yet reached the tavern-keeper's area before my clothing gave out.
I killed bear, hyena, lion, panther, tiger, stag, red-stag, and beasts of the wilderness;
I ate their meat and wrapped their skins around me.
The gate of grief must be bolted shut, sealed with pitch and bitumen!" (10.244-253)

Gilgamesh explains to Utanapishtim how he's been able to make his journey—bysealing off his emotions—which he describes metaphorically as bolting a door or caulking a ship with "pitch and bitumen" (basically tar). But does this perseverance make Gilgamesh achieve the goal of his quest—to achieve immortal life? Not quite. But maybe he gets something even better.

"Hold back, Gilgamesh, take a punting pole,
but your hand must not pass over the Waters of Death …!
Take a second, Gilgamesh, a third, and a fourth pole,
take a fifth, Gilgamesh, a sixth, and a seventh pole,
take an eighth, Gilgamesh, a ninth, and a tenth pole,
take an eleventh, Gilgamesh, and a twelfth pole!"
In twice 60 rods Gilgamesh had used up the punting poles.
Then he loosened his waist-cloth(?) for …
Gilgamesh stripped off his garment
and held it up on the mast(?) with his arms. (10.167-178)

Here, we see the most basic kind of perseverance when Gilgamesh uses punting pole after punting pole to push the boat along the perilous Waters of Death. (And let's not forget that Gilgamesh himself just went into the woods and carved these punting poles.) But then we really see what Gilgamesh is made of when the punting poles run out. Does he give up? No way. Faced with adversity, Gilgamesh comes up with a solution: he uses his clothes as a sail, and holds it in place with his arms.


"If you are Gilgamesh, who killed the Guardian,
who destroyed Humbaba who lived in the Cedar Forest,
who slew lions in the mountain passes,
who grappled with the Bull that came down from heaven, and killed him,
why are your cheeks emaciated, your expression desolate?
Why is your heart so wounded, your features so haggard?
Why is there such sadness deep within you?
Why do you look like one who has been traveling a long distance
so that ice and heat have seared your face?
… you roam the wilderness?" (10.35-44)

Here, Siduri seems to think that a noble, mighty warrior is never supposed to get tired. We're not so sure about that. Maybe perseverance means getting tired, but forging ahead anyway.

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