| Gilgamesh makes his first appearance in myth in Inanna and the Huluppu Tree. Gilgamesh is so highly regarded in our patriarchal society that this myth is also called Gilgamesh and the Huluppu Tree despite his supporting role in the story. Gilgamesh was an historical king of Uruk in Babylonia, on the River Euphrates in what is now Iraq. He lived about 2700 B.C.Many stories and myths were written about Gilgamesh, some from about 2000 B.C. in the Sumerian cuneiform on clay tablets, which still survive. These Sumerian Gilgamesh stories were integrated into a longer poem. This poem survives not only in Akkadian (the Semitic language, related to Hebrew, spoken by the Babylonians) but also on tablets written in Hurrian and Hittite (an Indo-European language). All the above languages were written in cuneiform (“wedge-shaped.”) Below is a brief summary derived from twelve stone tablets, in the Akkadian language, found in the ruins of the library of Ashurbanipal, king of Assyria 669-633 B.C. The Persians destroyed the library in 612 B.C., and all the tablets are damaged. The tablets name an author: Shin-eqi-unninni. This is the oldest known human author identified by name. Gilgamesh is presented as superhuman, so powerful that the gods create a counterpart to moderate his desires and actions. Despite all of Gilgamesh’s power, he is unable to prevent his own and his dear friend Enkidu’s death.
He saw the great Mystery, he knew the Hidden: He recovered the knowledge of all the times before the Flood.He journeyed beyond the distant, he journeyed beyond exhaustion, and then carved his story on stone.This great hero Gilgamesh built the great city of Uruk. At the base of its gates there is a stone of lapis lazuli on which is carved Gilgamesh’s story.
Gilgamesh, two-thirds god and one-third human, is the greatest king on earth and the strongest super-human that ever existed. However, he is young and oppresses his people harshly. The people call out to the sky-god Anu. In response, Anu creates a wild man, Enkidu. The brute, Enkidu, has the strength of dozens of wild animals. He is to serve as the subhuman rival to the superhuman Gilgamesh.
A trapper’s son discovers Enkidu running naked with the wild animals and brings the temple harlot, Shamhat, with him to the forest to offer herself sexually to the Enkidu.
Enkidu submits instantly to Shamhat losing his strength and wildness but gaining understanding and knowledge. Shamhat takes him into the city to meet Gilgamesh, the only man worthy of Enkidu’s friendship.
Gilgamesh dreams first of a meteorite and then of an axe both so great that Gilgamesh can neither lift nor turn them. The people gather and celebrate first the meteorite, then the axe. Gilgamesh embraces each as he would a wife. Gilgamesh’s mother, the goddess Rimat-Ninsun, tells Gilgamesh the meaning of the dreams: a man of great force and strength will come into Uruk. Gilgamesh will embrace this man as he would a wife, and this man will help Gilgamesh perform great deeds.
Enkidu is gradually introduced to civilization by living for a time with a group of shepherds. Enkidu then enters the city of Uruk during a great celebration. As Enkidu enters the city, Gilgamesh is about to claim the right to have sexual intercourse first with every new bride on the day of her wedding. Enkidu stands in front of the door of the marital chamber and blocks Gilgamesh’s way. They fight furiously until Enkidu concedes Gilgamesh’s superiority. The two embrace and become devoted friends.
Gilgamesh and Enkidu plan a journey to the great Cedar Forest in southern Iran to cut down all the cedar trees. First they must kill the Guardian of the Cedar Forest, the great demon, Humbaba the Terrible. Enkidu tries in vain to convince Gilgamesh not to undertake this folly.
The elders of the city reluctantly agree to Gilgamesh’s endeavor. They place the life of the king in the hands of Enkidu, whom they insist shall take the forward position in the battle with Humbaba. Rimat-Ninsun laments her son’s fate in a prayer to the sun-god, Shamash (Utu). Shamash promises he will watch out for Gilgamesh’s life. Ramat-Ninsun commands Enkidu to guard the life of Gilgamesh. Enkidu again tries in vain to convince Gilgamesh not to undertake this journey.
Gilgamesh and Enkidu travel to the cedar forest. Shamash sends Gilgamesh oracular dreams. In the second dream, Gilgamesh wrestles a great bull that splits the ground with his breath. Enkidu interprets the dream; Shamash, the bull, will protect Gilgamesh. In the third dream “Death flooded from the skies.” Enkidu puts a positive spin on this and the fourth and fifth dreams saying they portend success in the upcoming battle. At the entrance to the Cedar Forest, Gilgamesh quakes with fear. Shamash orders Gilgamesh to enter the forest because Humbaba is not wearing all of his seven coats of armor. Enkidu loses his courage and turns back. Gilgamesh and Enkidu have a great fight. Humbaba comes stalking out of the Cedar Forest to challenge the intruders. Gilgamesh convinces Enkidu they should stand together against the demon.
Gilgamesh and Enkidu enter the gloriously beautiful Cedar Forest and begin to cut down the trees. Humbaba comes roaring up to them.
Enkidu shouts at Humbaba. Humbaba taunts Gilgamesh for taking orders from Enkidu. Turning his face into a hideous mask, Humbaba threatens the pair. Gilgamesh runs and hides. Enkidu inspires Gilgamesh with courage, and the two begin their epic battle with Humbaba. Shamash helps the pair, and Humbaba is defeated. Humbaba begs for his life and offers Gilgamesh all the trees in the forest and his eternal servitude.
Enkidu intervenes, telling Gilgamesh to kill Humbaba. Gilgamesh removes Humbaba’s head. Before he dies, Humbaba screams out a curse on Enkidu: “Of you two, may Enkidu not live the longer, may Enkidu not find any peace in this world!”
Gilgamesh and Enkidu cut down the cedar forest. The tallest of the cedar trees they cut to make a great cedar gate for the city of Uruk. They float down the Euphrates river on a cedar raft to their city.
After these events, Gilgamesh, his fame widespread and his frame resplendent in his wealthy clothes, attracts the sexual attention of the goddess Ishtar. Ishtar is a development of Inanna. Ishtar comes to Gilgamesh and offers to become his lover. Gilgamesh refuses. Deeply insulted, Ishtar returns to heaven and begs her father, the sky-god Anu:
Father, let me have the Bull of Heaven
To kill Gilgamesh and his city.
Anu reluctantly gives in. The Bull of Heaven is sent down into Uruk.
Each time the bull breathes, an enormous abyss opens up and hundreds of people fall to their deaths. Gilgamesh and Enkidu slay the mighty bull.
Ishtar is enraged. Enkidu insults Ishtar, ripping one of the thighs off the bull and hurling it into her face.
Enkidu falls ill after a set of ominous dreams reveal that the Chief Gods have met and decided that Enkidu should be punished for the killing of Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven. Enraged, Enkidu curses the great Cedar Gate built from the wood of the Cedar Forest. He curses the temple harlot, Shamhat, and the trapper, for introducing him to civilization. Shamash reminds him that he has enjoyed the fruits of civilization and known great happiness. Enkidu then blesses the harlot and the trapper. In a dream, a great demon comes to take Enkidu and drags him to Hell.
Enkidu commends himself to Gilgamesh, and after suffering terribly for twelve days, he dies.
Gilgamesh is torn apart by the death of his friend, ordering all of creation to never fall silent in mourning his dead friend. Gilgamesh builds a monument for Enkidu.
Gilgamesh allows his life to fall apart. He realizes that he too must die. This thought sends him into a panic. Gilgamesh decides he must be granted eternal life. He undertakes the perilous journey to Utnapishtim and his wife, the only mortals on whom the gods had granted eternal life. Utnapishtim is in the Far-Away at the ends of the world. Utnapishtim was the great king of the world before the Flood and, with his wife, was the only mortal preserved by the gods during the Flood. Gilgamesh sets out, arriving at Mount Mashu, which guards the rising and the setting of the sun. Two large scorpions try to convince him that his journey is futile and fraught with danger, but still allow him to pass. Past Mount Mashu is the land of Night. Gilgamesh journeys eleven leagues before light begin glimmers. After twelve leagues he emerges into day. He enters a brilliant garden of gems, where every tree bears precious stones.
Gilgamesh comes to a tavern by the ocean shore kept by Siduri. Siduri locks the tavern but Gilgamesh proves his identity and asks how to find Utnapishtim. Siduri tells him his journey is futile and fraught with dangers. However, she directs him to Urshanabi, the ferryman, who works for Utnapishtim. Gilgamesh approaches with great arrogance and violence. In the process Gilgamesh destroys the “stone things” that are critical for the journey to Utnapishtim. Urshanabi tells him that it is now impossible to make the journey since the “stone things” have been destroyed. Nevertheless, Urshanabi advises Gilgamesh to cut several trees down to serve as punting poles to push the boat over the Waters of Death.
After a long and dangerous journey, Gilgamesh arrives at a shore and encounters an old man who tells Gilgamesh that death is necessary by the will of the gods.
Gilgamesh realizes he is talking to Utnapishtim, the Far-Away.
Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh the great secret of immortality hidden from humans. In the time before the Flood, the counsel of the gods held a secret meeting where they all resolved to destroy the world in a great flood. Ea (one of the gods that created humanity) came to and told the secret to the walls of Utnapishtim’s house. Ea advised the walls of Utnapishtim’s house to build a great boat and to bring all living things into the boat. Utnapishtim finishes the great boat by the new year and then loads the boat with gold, silver, and all the living things of the earth, and launches the boat. The Flood is so great that even the gods are frightened:
Ishtar screamed and wailed:
“The days of old have turned to stone:
We have decided evil things in our Assembly!”
All the gods sat trembling, and wept.
The Flood lasts seven days and seven nights. Utnapishtim opens a window and the entire earth has been turned into a flat ocean. Utnapishtim falls to his knees and weeps.
Utnapishtim’s boat comes to rest on the top of Mount Nimush where it remains for seven days. On the seventh day Utnapishtim sends out a dove, a swallow and a raven. When the raven does not return Utnapishtim sends out all the living things and sacrifices a sheep.
The gods smell the odor of the sacrifice and gather around Utnapishtim. Enlil, who had originally proposed to destroy all humans arrives, furious that one of the humans had survived. Ea convinces Enlil to be merciful. Enlil then seizes Utnapishtim and his wife and blesses them:
At one time Utnapishtim was mortal.
At this time let him be a god and immortal;
Let him live in the far away at the source of all the rivers.
Utnapishtim offers Gilgamesh a chance at immortality. Gilgamesh must stay awake for six days and seven nights. Gilgamesh accepts this condition but falls asleep the instant he sits down. Gilgamesh sleeps without ever waking up for six days and seven nights.
Utnapishtim’s wife convinces the old man to have mercy on Gilgamesh. Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh of a secret plant of eternal youth at the bottom of the ocean surrounding the Far-Away. Gilgamesh plucks the magic plant and decides to test it out on an old man in Uruk first, to make sure it works.
Urshanabi takes him across the Waters of Death. Gilgamesh and Urshanabi stop to eat and sleep. While they’re sleeping, a snake slithers up and eats the magic plant and crawls away. Gilgamesh awakens to find the plant gone. The snake becomes immortal and Gilgamesh goes home to die.
At the end of his journey Gilgamesh stands before the gates of Uruk inviting Urshanabi to view the greatness of Uruk. At the base of its gates Gilgamesh’s account of his exploits is carved on a stone of lapis lazuli.
For the entire text of this remarkable epic, turn to The Epic of Gilgamesh , trans. by Maureen Gallery Kovacs (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), or Gilgamesh , translated by John Maier and John Gardner (New York: Vintage, 1981)