Study Guide

The Epic of Gilgamesh

The Epic of Gilgamesh Summary

Gilgamesh, the son of a man and a goddess, is king of the ancient Sumerian city-state of Uruk. Oh, and he's also the strongest and most handsome man in the world. Must be nice.

Unfortunately, Gilgamesh's assets have gone to his head, and he spends all his time wearing out the young men of the city with endless athletic contests and sexually exploiting the young women. When the citizens of Uruk can't take it anymore, they pray to the gods for help. The god Anu hears them, and commands the goddess Aruru to create another human who will be a match for Gilgamesh.

Aruru creates Enkidu, an uncivilized wild man, and places him in the woods. There, Enkidu has several run-ins with a trapper who uses the same watering hole. Terrified, the trapper goes to Uruk for help. On Gilgamesh's advice, the trapper goes back to the watering hole with Shamhat, a temple-prostitute. When Enkidu shows up, Shamhat entices him to have sex with her.

Afterward, Enkidu finds that he can no longer keep up with the animals, but that his mind has been opened. He starts living with Shamhat, who initiates him into human life. When she mentions Gilgamesh, Enkidu realizes that he wants a friend—and that he wants to give Gilgamesh a beat-down. (Frenemies!) Oh, what a coincidence—Gilgamesh has been dreaming about getting a new friend, too.

Soon enough, Enkidu goes to Uruk and faces down Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh wins, natch, but there are no hard feelings, and the two warriors become best buds.

Time passes.

One day, Gilgamesh decides to go to the distant Cedar Forest and kill Humbaba, the monster who guards it. Because, you know, why not? Against the advice of the elders of Uruk and Enkidu himself, the two friends set out on their quest. Once they make it to the Cedar Forest, the sun god Shamash helps them overpower Humbaba, who starts pleading for mercy. Gilgamesh is about to grant it, but then gives in to peer pressure from Enkidu, and kills him. (Just say no, you guys.)

The friends cut down the tallest tree in the forest, which Enkidu plans to dedicate to the god Enlil. They build a raft and sail home down the River Euphrates, taking Humbaba's head along for the ride. Fun!

At this point, the goddess Ishtar develops a crush on Gilgamesh and asks him to marry her. Gilgamesh rejects her, pointing out that all of her previous lovers have come to bad ends. Seriously pissed off, Ishtar borrows the Bull of Heaven from her dad, Anu, and sends it to earth to punish the friends. But they kill the Bull, and, when Ishtar appears on the ramparts of Uruk, Enkidu throws one of its legs in her face.

Not long afterwards, Enkidu dreams that the gods have decided that, for killing Humbaba, chopping down the cedar, and killing the Bull of Heaven, either he or Gilgamesh must die—and that Enlil picked Enkidu. In no time, Enkidu falls mysteriously ill, and dies after much suffering.

Gilgamesh is majorly bummed. Finally, he decides to travel beyond the ends of the earth to speak to Utanapishtim, the one human who has been granted immortality. An exhausting journey brings Gilgamesh to Mount Mashu, where two scorpion-beings guard the rising of the sun. Allowed to continue, Gilgamesh makes a harrowing journey to the underside of the world, barely avoiding being burned to a crisp by the sun.

Upon arrival, he meets Siduri the innkeeper, who directs him to Urshanabi the ferryman. Despite getting a bad first impression, Urshanabi helps Gilgamesh cross the Waters of Death. On the other side, Gilgamesh meets Utanapishtim, who tells him, "Tough luck: humans just can't escape death."

See, long ago, the gods decided to destroy all of humanity with a Flood. But he and his wife got some advance warning from the god Ea, and built a giant ship, on which they stored all kinds of living creatures, as well as some craftsmen. When the Flood was over, the god Enlil granted Utanapishtim and his wife immortality. Utanapishtim doesn't think Gilgamesh is worthy of such a gift; to prove it, he challenges our hero to a staying-awake contest.

Gilgamesh fails miserably. (We feel you, Gil. We fail our staying-awake contests every night.) Utanapishtim tells him to take a hike, and fires Urshanabi for good measure. After those two sail off, however, Utanapishtim's wife makes her husband call them back. This time, Utanapishtim tells Gilgamesh about a plant that will restore the youth of whoever eats it.

Gilgamesh finds the plant on the bottom of the sea and decides to take it home to Uruk and test it on an old man. (Wise—try it on someone else, first.) At the first rest stop on the way home, Gilgamesh takes a bath and leaves the flower on the ground. A snake comes by and eats the flower. D'oh! Unperturbed, Gilgamesh and Urshanabi keep journeying toward Uruk. When they reach it, Gilgamesh boasts about the city's architecture, echoing the opening of the poem

  • Chapter 1, Tablet 1

    • The narrator begins by announcing that he will be telling the story of an extraordinary person.
    • According to the narrator, this person had experienced everything, and had achieved complete knowledge. In particular, he found out information about the time before the Flood.
    • This person went on a long journey, and wrote a report about it. He was also responsible for building the mighty city of Uruk.
    • Does this feel like a game of twenty questions to you, too?
    • The narrator invites the listener/reader to inspect the city and see how awesome it is. He lists the various notable features of the city.
    • (Note: since writing "listener/reader" is going to get old really fast, we're going to make an executive Shmoop decision and go with "reader"—since you're most likely reading it. Although we love a good audiobook.)
    • Then he tells the reader to go to a specific place along the city's wall. There, he'll find a hidden box, made out of copper. Then, open a series of locks and lift the box open. Inside, he'll find a tablet made of lapis lazuli (a semi-precious stone), maybe like this.
    • The narrator says that this tablet tells the story of the extraordinary person he has been talking about: Gilgamesh.
    • (Brain snack: we've heard both "GIL-ga-mesh" and "gil-GAH-mesh." The Babylonian recording we listened to used "gil-GAH-mesh," but, hey—since there are no native speakers left, you're probably good either way.)
    • Then we get another description of how awesome Gilgamesh is. In fact the text even says "awesome to perfection" (1.35). This time, we learn that he is a king (of Uruk), and is very powerful in war. No wonder: he's the son of Lugalbanda (a mortal king of Uruk) and Ninsun (a goddess).
    • We learn that Gilgamesh supervised great public projects (carving passes through mountains, digging wells, restoring temples), and went on a long journey to the end of the earth, and met a guy named Utanapishtim (we'll be hearing more about him later).
    • We learn that the goddess Aruru herself designed the shape of Gilgamesh's body, and so he's obviously the most handsome man in the world.
    • Awesome! Sign us up for the Gilgamesh fan club!
    • Well, maybe not. There's some bad stuff thrown in the mix. Gilgamesh is extremely arrogant, and his outrageous behavior is really cheesing some of the people of Uruk.
    • What exactly is Gilgamesh doing? Unfortunately, the clay tablets of the epic are damaged at this point (it would be at the good part). The best guess is that Gilgamesh is wearing out all the young men of the city by challenging them to endless athletic contests and exhausting all the young women of the city in, uh, other ways.
    • And you can bet that the parents and husbands of the young women aren't thrilled about this either.
    • Finally, the people get so fed up that they pray to the gods for help.
    • Anu, the sky-god, father of all the other gods, hears their prayer. He calls to the goddess Aruru, who created humans. He tells her to make another human who will be able to take on Gil.
    • Aruru does as she's told. She makes a new man, named Enkidu (pronounced: ENG-kee-doo), and sticks him in the wilderness.
    • Enkidu is totally uncivilized. He is extremely hairy, wears only animal skins, eats grass, and hangs out with the animals in the forest.
    • One day, when Enkidu is drinking at a waterhole, he encounters a trapper (a guy who hunts animals. With traps). The trapper is totally freaked out, especially after three days of seeing Enkidu at the watering hole.
    • Finally, the trapper decides he's had enough. He goes and complains to his dad that a wild man is causing trouble at the watering hole. (But did we see Enkidu cause any trouble?)
    • He also complains that the wild man is destroying the traps he has set, and releasing any animals who have gotten caught in them. (But have we seen Enkidu do this? Is this the earliest example of "The dog ate my homework?")
    • The trapper's father tells him to go to the city of Uruk and ask Gilgamesh for help. According to the trapper's father, Gilgamesh will send him on his way with a woman named Shamhat. If the trapper takes her to the watering hole and gets her to lie beside it in a sexually provocative position, Enkidu won't be able to resist her charms. Once Enkidu has slept with Shamhat, says the trapper's father, he won't be a wild man anymore.
    • Now, there are quite a few strange things in the trapper's dad's plan, but one of the big ones is: why does he think this Shamhat lady will go along with it? To answer this question, we've got to bring you one of Shmoop's patented HISTORICAL CONTEXT LESSONS.
    • Here goes. Ancient Mesopotamia (the region where Gilgamesh takes place), had a cultural practice known as "temple prostitution."
    • Actually, this is a bit of a misnomer, because the women who took part in this practice were not "prostitutes" in the modern sense of the term.
    • In fact, such women were followers of Ishtar, the goddess of Love and War. Part of their role was to have sex with men, probably in some sort of sacred rite. So, we're likely supposed to think of Shamhat as one of these female followers of Ishtar, not a poor streetwalker who's about to be the next vic on SVU.
    • Got that? Good.
    • The trapper does as his father instructs, and goes to Uruk to speak to Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh says exactly what the trapper's dad said he would.
    • So the trapper sets off, accompanied by Shamhat. When they get to the watering hole, they have to wait two days before Enkidu shows up. When he does, the trapper tells Shamhat to get naked and attract Enkidu: "expose your sex, so he can take in your voluptuousness" (1.163).
    • Shamhat does her thing. Enkidu is attracted. The result has got to be a world record: Enkidu and Shamhat have sex for six days and seven nights. Seriously.
    • At the end of this marathon, Enkidu gets up to go. But, to his surprise, he discovers that he can't run as fast as he used to, or catch up to the animals. And it's not because he's worn out from his love-session with the temple prostitute: it's because he's been civilized.
    • But if Enkidu has lost one thing, he feels that he has gained another. He feels that his mind has been expanded. He turns back toward Shamhat and sits at her feet.
    • Shamhat says something like this: "Hey, you're one handsome and hairy dude. What are you doing running around with all these wild animals? Let me take you to Uruk. We can like, you know, take in all the sights and sounds. And plus, I'll introduce you to Gilgamesh."
    • Eventually, Enkidu decides that Shamhat has a point: he needs a friend.
    • But Enkidu doesn't put things that way. Instead, he basically says, "Yeah! I'm going to go to Uruk, find Gilgamesh, and kick his booty. Then everyone will know that I am the baddest bad of them all."
    • Shamhat tells Enkidu that he's going to have a great time in Uruk—that city is one non-stop party. What happens in Uruk stays in Uruk, you know? But she warns him that he might get more than he bargained for if he tries to take on Gilgamesh.
    • For one thing, Shamhat says, Gilgamesh is so strong that he never sleeps. Plus, the gods have given him wisdom. For example, she says, he has already had dreams about Enkidu.
    • (Note, when Shamhat tells about the different gods who love Gilgamesh, she mentions one named Shamash. Shamash is the god of the sun; we'll meet him later in the story. He's not connected with Shamhat—though their names are very similar.)
    • Now Shamhat tells Enkidu about the dreams Gilgamesh has had about him:
    • One morning, Gilgamesh woke up and told his mother (the goddess Ninsun) that he had a weird dream. He says that he dreamed that a meteorite fell on the ground next to him.
    • He tried to pick it up, but it was too heavy. All the people of Uruk gathered around it; men kissed it. Then Gilgamesh himself embraced the meteorite as if it was his wife (weird). He finished by placing the meteorite at his mother's feet.
    • Gilgamesh's mother Ninsun interpreted the dream as meaning that Gilgamesh would get a new friend.
    • Moms. They're really good at interpreting dreams, aren't they?
    • Another morning, Gilgamesh woke up and told his mother about another strange dream. In this dream, he found an axe lying in front of his marital chamber. All the people of Uruk were gathered around it. Gilgamesh placed it at his mother's feet … and then embraced it as if it was his wife. (Yeah, it's still weird the second time.)
    • Ninsun interpreted this dream, too, as foretelling that Gilgamesh would get a new friend.
    • Cool! Gilgamesh wants a new friend.
    • Okay, storytime over. Shamhat and Enkidu start getting it on. Again.
  • Chapter 2, Tablet 2

    • Much of Tablet 2 of The Epic of Gilgamesh is broken. Remember, this is written on clay tablets and clay tablets have a tendency to break. So, much of this chapter is just not readable. So what do we do? Do we just have to skip this section of the story?
    • No, and here's why: (1) Some of the Standard Version is preserved from Tablet 2. (If you don't know what we mean by the Standard Version, check out the "In A Nutshell" section of this learning guide.)
    • (2) Scholars can still rely on an older Babylonian version of the story to fill gaps in the Standard Version when the Standard Version breaks down (so to speak).
    • So, by piecing together the surviving fragments of the Standard Version and of the Old Babylonian version, scholars have figured out what's going on in this part of the story.
    • Now, you might be wondering: what's all this got to do with me? Well, maybe not much. We only mention it because, as you can imagine, scholars sometimes disagree over how exactly the two versions fit together. Thus, you might end up reading a translation that gives a slightly different story from the one we're about to give (probably not by much, though).
    • Got all that? Cool. Let's get back to the story.
    • At the beginning of Tablet 2, Enkidu is still hanging out with Shamhat, who is still initiating him in … uh, the ways of humans.
    • First, she gives him one of her robes to wear. Then, she takes him to see some shepherds.
    • The shepherds are all impressed by Enkidu's ample physique. They give him some food and some beer.
    • At first, Enkidu doesn't know what to do. But then Shamhat encourages him. She tells him that this is what humans do: they eat food and drink beer. (This civilization stuff sounds like fun, huh?)
    • Without further ado, Enkidu stuffs himself with food, and gulps down seven jugs of beer. This makes Enkidu very happy, and he sings for joy. (We are guessing he probably stumbles around some, too.)
    • After dinner, he washes himself and rubs oil on himself, and thus becomes human. WAIT! Did you catch that? Enkidu is part man and part beast—but mostly acts and thinks and identifies with the beasts.
    • Then, he has sex, eats food, drinks beer, has a bath, rubs himself with oil, and—voilà—he is a man. Yep. We thought that was rather odd too.
    • That night, he takes a weapon, and guards the flocks so that the farmers can sleep in peace. (Even more evidence that he doesn't identify with the beasts any more?)
    • The next day, Enkidu is hanging out with Shamhat, when he sees a young man go by in the distance. Enkidu is curious about him, and sends Shamhat after him to find out who he is.
    • The young man is going to a wedding in Uruk. But don't think that this is going to be like your Disney princess wedding. The catch is that before the groom gets to sleep with his new bride, Gilgamesh, the king, has first dibs at the bride.
    • (Same deal as in the Mel Gibson film Braveheart, but we digress.)
    • According to the young man, this is according to the will of the god Anu.
    • Divine permission or not, Enkidu doesn't like what he hears. He blushes crimson with anger. (Seems a very human thing to do, huh? Get angry?)
    • Enkidu marches off to Uruk, with Shamhat scurrying after him.
    • Once he gets to the city, Enkidu heads straight for the house of the bride and blocks the entrance to the marriage chamber.
    • Then Gilgamesh shows up. As you might imagine, he doesn't like what he sees.
    • Enkidu and Gilgamesh engage in some epic fisticuffs. The fight is closely matched—but in the end, Gilgamesh is victorious.
    • Enkidu recognizes that Gilgamesh has beaten him, and praises the stronger man. There are no hard feelings between them: instead, they embrace each other and become the closest of friends.
    • (And … presumably Gilgamesh has his way?)
    • Time passes. At some point, Gilgamesh suggests to Enkidu that they should go together into the Cedar Forest and kill the one who inhabits it—the monster Humbaba.
    • You know, just for kicks.
    • Enkidu thinks this is a horrible idea. He tells Gilgamesh that it was the god Enlil who placed Humbaba in the Cedar Forest to keep humans from going into the Cedar Forest. (How does Enkidu know all this? We guess it has something to do with his having been a beast until like two weeks ago.)
    • In any case, Humbaba is extremely powerful and frightening; they wouldn't stand a chance against him.
    • Gilgamesh tells Enkidu he's only saying that because he's chicken. He says something along the lines of: "Look, we've all got to die sometime, so we might as well earn some fame for doing great deeds. We can get the blacksmiths to make us some really killer weapons. Plus, then we can put it on YouTube and maybe it'll go viral."
    • The mention of YouTube—er, fame and honor—clinches the deal, and the two friends head over to the forge to place their order. The craftsmen agree to make some gigantic axes, sweet swords, and massive armor for them.
    • After that, Gilgamesh announces to the wise men of Uruk his plans to go to the Cedar Forest and do battle with Humbaba. He explains that his goal is to win undying fame.
    • Enkidu tries to get the wise men to talk Gilgamesh out of it. The wise men tell Gilgamesh that he is young and foolish; he is letting testosterone addle his brain. They say that Humbaba is simply too powerful; Gilgamesh will not be able to defeat him.
    • Gilgamesh listens patiently to the wise men.
  • Chapter 3, Tablet 3

    • It doesn't look like Gilgamesh has taken the wise men's advice not to fight Humbaba.
    • That's because, at the beginning of Tablet 3, the wise men are actually giving him advice on how to fight the monster. This suggests that Gilgamesh has already made his decision to go on the quest.
    • Basically, the wise men tell Gilgamesh and Enkidu to look out for each other. What's going to work? Teamwork!
    • Then, they give a special message to Enkidu: look after then king.
    • After the meeting, Gilgamesh takes Enkidu by the hand and leads him to the temple of Ninsun, Gilgamesh's goddess mother.
    • Gilgamesh prays to Ninsun to speak on their behalf to Shamash, the sun god. He asks her to get Shamash to watch over them on their quest.
    • Ninsun hears her son's prayers. She goes up to the roof of her own temple and offers prayers to Shamash, telling him to protect her son on his quest.
    • Then Ninsun performs a special ceremony to show she accepts Enkidu as a companion for her son.
    • The tablet closes with the wise men of Uruk telling Enkidu to be a steadfast friend to Gilgamesh on his journey.
    • So what does Enkidu do? He tells Gilgamesh to turn back and abandon his crazy quest. Now that's a friend.
  • Chapter 4, Tablet 4

    • Gilgamesh and Enkidu set out on their journey. Because of their superhuman prowess (or speed hack?) they cover in one day the same distance it would take ordinary humans a month and a half to walk.
    • Before they sleep that night, Gilgamesh climbs up a mountain and prays, asking for Shamash, the sun god, to send him a dream. Enkidu performs some more special rituals before Gilgamesh sleeps.
    • In the middle of the night, however, he wakes up from a terrible nightmare: he dreamed that a mountain fell on top of the two of them.
    • Enkidu tells him not to worry. The dream actually has a good meaning: the mountain represents Humbaba, and it means that they'll defeat the monster.
    • The next morning they set out again with their super speed.
    • That night, once again, Gilgamesh climbs a mountain and prays for a dream. Once again, Enkidu performs special rituals before his friend goes to sleep.
    • Guess what comes next?
    • Yep, Gilgamesh nods off, and then wakes up in the middle of the night, complaining of nightmares.
    • This time, Gilgamesh says he dreamed that he was fighting with a fearsome wild bull that split the ground with its breath. At the last minute, a mysterious figure saved him and gave him water to drink.
    • Once again, Enkidu puts a positive spin on his friend's dream. Enkidu says that the bull was Shamash, and was apparently a protector, not an enemy. He also says that the figure who gave Gilgamesh a drink was Lugalbanda—Gilgamesh's dead father—who is now his divine guardian.
    • Rinse, wash, and repeat: super speed, mountain climbing, dream, rituals, nightmare. This time, Gilgamesh says that he dreamed there was a terrible storm and earthquake; then everything was dark. At this point, a lightning bolt flashed and ignited a fire. Death rained down. (Doesn't sound good.) Then, the fire went out, and everything turned to ash. Pretty freaky stuff, huh?
    • The next section of the tablet is broken, so the story is missing. Based on what's come before, though, we can guess that Enkidu comes up with some interpretation that makes the dream good news, not bad. We don't know how to turn that last one around. Got any ideas?
    • And then this all happens again—but the tablet is badly damaged at this point, too. From the little bits that survive, however, it looks like Gilgamesh has another freaky nightmare. Just like all the other times so far, Enkidu interprets this freaky nightmare in a positive light, saying that it foretells their victory over Humbaba.
    • And then—yep.
    • It all happens again, only this time more of the tablet is missing. But we're going to go out on a limb and assume that it's more of the same: Gilgamesh has a horrible nightmare, and Enkidu interprets it as a positive omen.
    • Finally, Gilgamesh and Enkidu come to the edge of the Cedar Forest. Now, all of a sudden, Gilgamesh is overcome by fear. He starts crying, and calls out to the god Shamash for help.
    • Shamash tells the friends to stop dilly-dallying. Humbaba normally wears seven layers of armor, but right now he is only wearing one. It's time to strike!
    • Now it's Enkidu's turn to lose courage. Gilgamesh steps into the role of team captain, telling his friend that through teamwork everything is possible.
    • It works, and together they march into the Cedar Forest to do battle with the big boss, Humbaba.
  • Chapter 5, Tablet 5

    • Gilgamesh and Enkidu are stalking through the forest, looking for Humbaba. Eventually, they find him.
    • But Humbaba isn't about to back down. Instead, he engages in a little trash talk, specifically dissing Enkidu for being a nobody, who doesn't know his own parents.
    • Then he asks Gilgamesh something along the lines of: "Why would you want to hang around with a bum like that?"
    • Then Humbaba does something weird: he transforms his face so that it becomes even more hideously ugly and fearsome than it was before.
    • This time, Gilgamesh is the one who is terrified. In fact, he's so afraid that he runs away. But Enkidu calms him down by reminding him about the awesome weapons they have brought with them.
    • This gives Gilgamesh courage again, and the two friends turn back to do battle with Humbaba.
    • The god Shamash helps out by sending 13 powerful winds from all directions to blast their fury at Humbaba and prevent him from moving.
    • Thanks to Shamash's help, Gilgamesh is able to get in close with his weapons; he goes in for the kill.
    • But then Humbaba changes his tune: he starts begging for his life, telling Gilgamesh that he will become his servant, and that he will chop down as many cedar trees as Gilgamesh wants.
    • Enkidu, however, urges Gilgamesh to ignore Humbaba's pleas, and just kill him already.
    • Hearing this, Humbaba lashes out at Enkidu. He says that Enkidu knows the ways of the forest, he knows that Humbaba has been appointed by the god Enlil to guard it—he's just doing his job.
    • But Enkidu keeps urging Gilgamesh to kill Humbaba. In fact, he says that Gilgamesh should hurry up and do it quick, before the gods Enlil and Shamash hear about it.
    • (But isn't Shamash right there, helping them with the winds?)
    • Humbaba tries one more time to convince Enkidu to talk Gilgamesh out of killing him. Once again, Enkidu ignores Humbaba's pleas and encourages Gilgamesh to kill the beaten monster.
    • At this point, Humbaba realizes the jig is up. He curses Enkidu, praying that he will die before Gilgamesh.
    • Gilgamesh must be wavering at this point because Enkidu shouts at him, "Listen to me, not Humbaba's curses!"
    • Finally, Gilgamesh makes up his mind—and kills Humbaba.
    • The two friends desecrate the monster's body, pulling out his intestines and cutting out his tongue. Rain falls on the mountain.
    • Then they cut down the tallest cedar in the forest. Enkidu announces that he will use it to make a giant door. He'll donate this door to Nippur, a holy city sacred to Enlil.
    • (This is the same god who appointed Humbaba as the Guardian of the Forest. Could this be Enkidu's way of apologizing to the god? Or is it more like rubbing their deed in his face?)
    • Gilgamesh and Enkidu make a raft and sail it down the River Euphrates back to Uruk. Enkidu steers, while Gilgamesh holds the head of Humbaba.
    • It's a dirty job, but someone has to do it.
  • Chapter 6, Tablet 6

    • When Gilgamesh gets back to Uruk, he does what anyone would do after making a journey to distant lands and doing battle with a horrible monster: he has a bath.
    • When that's done, he puts on his nicest duds, and gets ready for some royal chillaxin'.
    • While he's hanging out in his finery, he catches the eye of the goddess Ishtar. She instantly develops a serious crush on him.
    • Ishtar calls out to Gilgamesh, and asks him to take her as his wife. She promises him all sorts of crazy riches if he will only accept her offer.
    • But Gilgamesh doesn't take the bait. First of all, he says he's afraid of becoming Ishtar's husband because she's probably super high-maintenance. (Because, you know, she's a goddess and all.)
    • Second of all, Gilgamesh doesn't like Ishtar's track record. According to him, Ishtar has a long history of picking up various men (and animals), loving them for a while, and then abandoning them to horribly painful fates.
    • Ishtar doesn't like that one bit. She can't stand being accused of having killed her former lovers. So what's she going to do about it? She is going to kill Gilgamesh, that's what!
    • Ishtar goes up to the heavens to speak to her father, the god Anu, and her mother, the goddess Antum. "Daddy," Ishtar says, "Can I borrow the Bull of Heaven tonight? I just want it to kill Gilgamesh, then I'll bring it right back, I promise."
    • "Now, now dear," says Anu, "don't you think you're overreacting a bit? After all, you're the one who provoked Gilgamesh in the first place…"
    • "NO!" says Ishtar, "I have to punish him! Give me the Bull of Heaven now! And if you don't, I'll go down to the underworld and release all the dead people so that they can take over the earth. Then you'll be sorry!"
    • When Anu hears these words, he starts to give in. But, like any good father, he first wants to make sure that Ishtar is ready for the responsibility. "You know, sweetie," he says, "if you unleash the Bull of Heaven, it will destroy the land of Uruk, and the crops won't grow for seven years. Have you collected enough food for the people and animals for the next seven years?"
    • "Of course, Daddy," Ishtar says. "Don't you trust me?"
    • With that, Anu gives Ishtar the keys—that is, the nose-ring of the Bull. Ishtar leads the Bull of Heaven down to the earth.
    • Once the Bull reaches Uruk, it goes on a rampage. The first time it stamps its foot, a huge crevice opens in the ground, and 100 warriors of Uruk fall into it. The second time it stamps its foot, another giant crevice opens up, and 200 warriors fall into it. The third time it stamps its foot, another giant crevice opens up, and Enkidu falls into it up to the waist.
    • But Enkidu thinks fast: he jumps out of the pit and grabs the Bull by the horns. Enkidu calls out to Gilgamesh for help. Gilgamesh stabs the Bull in the neck, killing it.
    • After killing the Bull of Heaven, Enkidu and Gilgamesh rip its heart out and present it as an offering to Shamash, the sun god.
    • In the meantime, Ishtar climbs up onto the wall of Uruk. She is seriously bummed out that she's totally wrecked her dad's Bull of Heaven. (The Gods: they're just like us.)
    • Obviously, she blames Gilgamesh.
    • When Enkidu hears this, he does something shocking: he tears off one of the Bull's back legs and throws it in Ishtar's face. Then he says that he would tear her to pieces too, if he could.
    • We think this is basically the heroic equivalent of a "NO GIRLS ALLOWED" sign.
    • After this incident, Ishtar assembles all of the women (!) in the city who are devoted to her, and leads them in mourning over the leg of the Bull.
    • Um. Is it just us, or do you get the feeling that sometimes the leg of a Bull isn't just the leg of a Bull? If you know what we mean.
    • Meanwhile, Gilgamesh organizes a victory party for himself and Enkidu. He marches through the streets proclaiming how great he is—and what a loser Ishtar is.
    • That night, while Enkidu is sleeping, he has a dream. Finally, Enkidu gets to dream! He wakes up and tells it to Gilgamesh.
  • Chapter 7, Tablet 7

    • Tablet 7 begins in the middle of Enkidu's dream—the dream he began telling Gilgamesh at the end of Tablet 6.
    • In Enkidu's dream, the gods Anu, Enlil, and Shamash are confabbing. Anu says that, because Gilgamesh and Enkidu killed the Bull of Heaven and Humbaba, whichever one of them chopped down the biggest tree in the Cedar Forest must die.
    • Enlil thinks Enkidu should be the one to get the axe this time.
    • But Shamash sticks up for the two friends, saying that they killed the Bull of Heaven and Humbaba on his orders. (Is this true?) So, Enkidu is innocent.
    • Enlil isn't too happy about this; he blames Shamash for having supported Gilgamesh and Enkidu on their quest.
    • And then Enkidu wakes up.
    • When he hears about this horrible nightmare, Gilgamesh starts crying. He can't understand why the gods are sparing him and condemning Enkidu to die.
    • At this point, Enkidu—who also can't believe that he must die—calls out to the god Enlil and says that he didn't chop down the greatest tree in the Cedar Forest. (Really?)
    • Now Enkidu starts losing it. First he curses the Cedar Door, blaming it for his misfortunes. (This is the door he made out of the cedar he chopped down in Humbaba's forest—check out the end of Tablet 5 to jog your memory.)
    • Gilgamesh tells his friend to cut out the crazy talk. He says that he will pray to Enlil on his behalf. He also promises to have his craftsmen make a statue of Enkidu out of gold. (Is this supposed to help in some way?)
    • The next morning, however, Enkidu is still sputtering curses. This time, he calls on the god Shamash to curse the trapper. (Remember him? We met him back in Tablet 1; he was the one who first spotted Enkidu at the watering-hole, and set in motion the chain of events that made the wild-man join the human world.)
    • Next on the docket for Enkidu's curses is Shamhat, the temple-servant who first initiated him into the world of human sexuality. Enkidu's curses against her are especially cruel: he hopes that she will end up as a poor prostitute of the streets.
    • Shamash isn't happy about all this cursing. He tells Enkidu to stop blaming Shamhat—has he forgotten how she took him out of the wilderness, and fed and clothed him?
    • Besides, says Shamash, if it wasn't for Shamhat, Enkidu would never have met Gilgamesh, his best friend. Once Enkidu is dead, Gilgamesh will always keep the statue of his friend beside himself and make all the people of the land worship it.
    • He also makes a mysterious prediction. Shamash says that once Enkidu is dead Gilgamesh's grief will make him "don the skin of a lion and roam the wilderness" (7.136-137).
    • Enkidu is so convinced by Shamash's words that he starts blessing Shamhat instead of cursing her. He prays that no man will be able to resist her, and that her lovers will seriously make it rain with their gifts.
    • But he's still pretty bummed out. He tells Gilgamesh about another crazy dream he had the night before.
    • In this dream, a lion-headed eagle attacked him and overpowered him. He called out to Gilgamesh, but Gilgamesh was too afraid to help him.
    • Then things got weirder. The lion-headed eagle turned Enkidu into a dove and took him down to the underworld, where people were sitting around in darkness drinking dirt and eating clay. People who had been great rulers on earth were now reduced to slaves of the gods.
    • Enkidu finishes telling Gilgamesh about his dream. He reminds him of all they've been through together, and asks that Gilgamesh not forget him.
    • Gilgamesh is frightened by Enkidu's dream.
    • Enkidu lies sick in bed for twelve days. On the final day, he cries out to Gilgamesh, accusing his friend of having abandoned him.
    • Finally, Enkidu dies with Gilgamesh at his side. Gilgamesh promises to mourn for his friend.
  • Chapter 8, Tablet 8

    • This tablet begins with Gilgamesh lamenting over the dead body of Enkidu. Gilgamesh lists off many, many different plants and animals, locations on earth, and people, and prays that they will all mourn for Enkidu.
    • Gilgamesh turns to the men of Uruk, and tells them about his grief. Then he turns back to Enkidu and speaks to the dead man directly.
    • Gilgamesh touches Enkidu's chest, but his heart is no longer beating. He covers his friend's body, and stands guard over it.
    • As a sign of mourning, Gilgamesh cuts his long hair and tears off his fancy clothes and jewelry.
    • The next day, Gilgamesh calls together the finest craftsmen of the land. He orders them to make a statue of Enkidu out of the most precious materials.
    • At this point the tablets are damaged, so there's a break in the text. We're guess it would have been a description of Enkidu's funeral. (Well—us and plenty of scholars with better guesstimates.)
    • When the story picks up again, Gilgamesh is talking to Enkidu. It's not clear if he's talking to the dead body, or is simply using his imagination, but, either way, he tells him about the statue he had made for him. (Clearly some time has passed.)
    • Another, larger section of the text is missing at this point.
    • When the story picks up again, Gilgamesh is making an offering to the god Shamash.
    • The rest of the tablet is missing. Because Tablet 9 begins with Gilgamesh wandering in the wilderness, it seems likely that the end of Tablet 8 (this one) described Gilgamesh setting off on his voyage.
  • Chapter 9, Tablet 9

    • This tablet begins with Gilgamesh roaming the wilderness, alone. We never saw him leave Uruk—but, then again, the end of Tablet 8 is missing, so maybe we heard about it then.
    • Gilgamesh is still lamenting the death of Enkidu, but his lamentation is taking on a different tone. Now, it starts to seem like what's really bugging Gilgamesh is the thought that he himself will die someday.
    • Enkidu's death has just made this thought real to him in a way that it never was before.
    • Finally, Gilgamesh figures out what he's got to do: head to the ends of the earth and meet a man called Utanapishtim.
    • Why does he need to speak to Utanapishtim? We'll find that out soon enough.
    • Also, Gilgamesh tells us about another dream. The details are a bit hard to make out, but it sounds like it was some sort of crazy nightmare. Still, Gilgamesh isn't going to let a dream turn him back now.
    • Eventually, he comes to the mountain of Mashu. This mountain is in the very, very far East. In fact, Mount Mashu is where the sun rises every day.
    • (The Babylonians thought the earth was flat; thus, if you got to its Eastern edge, you'd be where the sun rises. You can get a very rough idea of the Babylonian view of the cosmos here.)
    • Standing in front of Mount Mashu are two scorpion-beings. What are scorpion-beings? They are divine entities who are part scorpion, part human. If that doesn't help, then check out this picture—a copy of an ancient Babylonian carving of one of these weird dudes.
    • Gilgamesh is super freaked out when he sees them, but he doesn't let his fear get the better of him. Instead, he stomps right up to them.
    • Apparently, the feeling is mutual. The first scorpion-being is afraid because he thinks Gilgamesh is a god—but then his wife (the other scorpion-being) calms him down by pointing out that Gilgamesh is only 2/3 god and 1/3 mortal.
    • Gilgamesh says that he's come to speak to Utanapishtim. From Gilgamesh's words here, we learn that Utanapishtim is Gilgamesh's ancestor. But that's not nearly as important as the next thing we learn: that Utanapishtim is a mortal who has been granted eternal life by the gods. Gilgamesh wants to speak to him to learn about the mysteries of life and death.
    • At first, the scorpion-being tells Gilgamesh that no mortal man can go where Utanapishtim is. But after Gilgamesh insists, the scorpion-being backs down. He tells Gilgamesh that he can walk through the mountains to the mysterious region beyond.
    • As it happens, the road Gilgamesh takes through the mountains is the same path that the sun will take when it rises in the morning (remember: Mount Mashu is at the eastern end of the world). Thus, Gilgamesh is in a race against time: if he doesn't cover all 12 leagues of the journey before the sun rises, he'll burn to a crisp.
    • Gilgamesh makes an incredible effort and runs the whole way. Surprise, surprise, he only makes it at the very last minute; one second more, and our hero would have been Grilledgamesh.
    • (Maybe Sinleqqiunninni should move to Hollywood and make end-of-the-world, disaster movies.)
    • So where is he now? In a marvelous garden—where, instead of fruit, the trees bear precious stones.
  • Chapter 10, Tablet 10

    • 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.
  • Chapter 11, Tablet 11

    • Gilgamesh tells Utanapishtim that he can't believe he (Utanapishtim) is only a regular human being. How has he ended up being granted immortality?
    • Gee, thought you'd never ask.
    • Utanapishtim's story begins in the city of Shuruppak, on the banks of the Euphrates, many, many years ago. In those days, Shuruppak was inhabited by the gods.
    • For some reason (we aren't told why), the gods decided to destroy the world with a flood. (Translators differ on this section since many of them like to supply reasons for the flood.)
    • The flood would have come as a total surprise, were it not for the actions of one of the gods—Ea, the trickster.
    • Ea went up to the wall of a house made of reeds and said, "Hey! Hey you there! Wall made of reeds! I want to tell you a secret: destroy your house and make a boat. Put animals onto it—every kind. The boat should be in the shape of a cube. You didn't hear it from me."
    • Then Utanapishtim (who had been "coincidentally" listening on the other side of the wall of reeds) replied, "but, my lord, what should I tell the people of city?"
    • "Oh," said Ea, "Just tell them that the god Enlil hates your guts, and wants you to leave town. Oh yeah, and the god Ea is going to rain down … good things on the rest of you."
    • Utanapishtim went to work. He assembled the craftsman of Shuruppak and got them to help out. Everyone helped, even children and sickly people.
    • When the boat was finally finished, it was totally ginormous: cube-shaped, with each side 120 cubits in length. That is like 180 feet—or half a football field, including the end zone.
    • Clearly proud of himself, Utanapishtim then goes into serious detail about the cube-ship's specs: six decks and seven levels (counting the roof), interior divided into nine compartments, more punting poles than you can shake a punting pole at, crazy amounts of raw bitumen used for caulking—you name it.
    • No doubt about it, this is one serious cube-ship.
    • Utanapishtim also says that he handsomely rewarded the workmen with food and drink, so that every day spent building the cube-ship was like a feast.
    • Finally, the ship was ready to set sail. Utanapishtim put all his family members on the boat, and also all the animals of the field, and, oh yeah, also all the craftsmen of the city. (You need those guys to rebuild civilization, you know?)
    • Then the rain began to fall—a torrential rain. In no time, it had rained so much that even the gods themselves had to climb up to the highest heaven to escape from the water.There, they huddled together, weeping, they were so terrified.
    • The storm continued for six days and seven nights. When it finally calmed down, Utanapishtim was able to open a hatch and look around. At first, he couldn't see land anywhere, but eventually the boat drifted to a stop on the peak of Mount Nimush.
    • The boat stayed on top of Mount Nimush for seven days. On the seventh day, Utanapishtim released a dove. It came back: it couldn't find land. Then Utanapishtim sent out a swallow. The same thing happened: it came back; there was no dry land. Finally, Utanapishtim sent out a raven. This time, the bird didn't come back: it had found dry land. The flood was over.
    • Utanapishtim released all the animals from the boat. Then he himself got out, and made sacrifices.
    • The gods smelled the sacrifices and were happy, clustering around the smoke like flies. The goddess Beletili (another name for Aruru) was especially pleased; she said that all the other gods should prevent Enlil, the king of the gods, from coming to the sacrifice. She held him responsible for the Flood that destroyed nearly the whole human species.
    • Speak of the Enlil … and the Enlil appears. When he showed up on the scene, the king of the gods was furious to find out that some humans survived the catastrophe. Looking for someone to blame, Enlil correctly pointed the finger at Ea.
    • But Ea shot right back, accusing Enlil of being unjust for destroying all of mankind just to punish a few bad apples.
    • Enlil didn't respond directly to Ea's criticism. Instead, he found Utanapishtim and his wife and made them kneel down beside him.
    • He blessed them both and said that, from now on, they would no longer be human. Instead, they would be able to dwell far away from humankind, at the Mouth of the Rivers. (This must be where Gilgamesh is now.)
    • Here Utanapishtim ends his story. Then he makes his point: "So you see, Gilgamesh, that's why I'm so awesome. Do you think the gods are going to intervene on your behalf? Puh-lease!"
    • But Utanapishtim is willing to give Gilgamesh a chance: "OK, hot-shot. Here's what: you stay awake for six days and seven nights, and then we'll see about immortality for you."
    • Gilgamesh doesn't seem to think this is a major challenge—but then, the very second he sits down, he falls sound asleep.
    • Utanapishtim immediately starts mocking Gilgamesh, but his wife tells him to stop. She says that he should wake Gilgamesh up and send him on his way.
    • That isn't good enough for Utanapishtim, however. Instead of waking Gilgamesh up, he gets his wife to bake a loaf of bread for every day that Gilgamesh remains asleep. Every time she finished a loaf of bread, she should put it beside the sleeping man.
    • As it turns out, Gilgamesh ends up sleeping for six days and seven nights—the same amount of time he was supposed to be staying awake.
    • Just as Utanapishtim suspected, when Gilgamesh wakes up, he doesn't believe that he was ever asleep. But when Utanapishtim points out the loaves, which range from fresh to moldy (thus showing how long each one has been sitting there), Gilgamesh is forced to accept the truth.
    • Science, y'all.
    • Gilgamesh is bummed that Death is still after him.
    • But Utanapishtim doesn't answer Gilgamesh. Instead, he turns to Urshanabi, the ferryman, and fires him, but not before telling him to take Gilgamesh away and clean up him.
    • Urshanabi does as he's told. When Gilgamesh is all decked out in his fancy new duds, he and Urshanabi get in the boat, and start to sail away.
    • Just then, Utanapishtim's wife intervenes, pointing out that Gilgamesh worked hard to get there and is now heading away with nothing.
    • Gilgamesh must have been eavesdropping, because in no time he's turned his boat around and come back to the shore, hoping to get something for his trouble.
    • Utanapishtim tells Gilgamesh that he needs to find a special plant that grows on the bottom of the sea. If he eats it, he will become young again. (Not the same as becoming immortal, but not a bad deal all the same.)
    • Gilgamesh thinks this sounds like a great idea. He digs a hole in the ground until he reaches groundwater. Then, he attaches rocks to his feet and sinks down to the bottom; there, he finds the plant and grabs it.
    • At this point, he cuts the rocks off his feet and lets the underground current of water carry him out to the sea. Once he's there, he bobs up to the surface, and lets the waves carry him back to the shore where he started.
    • Not a bad round trip, if you ask us—plus Gilgamesh is now one magical plant the richer.
    • Time to head back to Uruk. Gilgamesh doesn't plan to eat the plant right away. Instead, he'll test it out on one of the old men of Uruk. If it works on the old man (makes him young again), then Gilgamesh himself will eat it.
    • Hm, seems like a sound plan.
    • In any case, Gilgamesh and Urshanabi set out for Uruk. They stop for the night beside a spring of water.
    • Gilgamesh decides to have a bath, obviously.
    • But he doesn't take the magical plant in with him. Big mistake. Instead, he leaves it on the ground.
    • While Gilgamesh isn't looking, a snake comes up and steals the plant. As the snake slithers away, it sheds its old skin—maybe because the plant has rejuvenated it?
    • Gilgamesh starts crying. He thinks that his entire quest was a waste.
    • But, all the same, he and Urshanabi keep heading for Uruk.
    • And when they arrive at the city, Gilgamesh triumphantly lists the notable features of Uruk—thus echoing the opening lines of the epic.
    • The end. (Or is it?)