Study Guide

The Epic of Gilgamesh Chapter 1, Tablet 1

By Sinleqqiunninni

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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.

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