Few poems are nobler in expression and content than the Epic of Gilgamesh. Its Sumerian hero was famous throughout the Near East from about 2000 B.C.E. to the seventh century B.C.E. when the epic was "written down and collated in the palace of Ashurbanipal, King of the World, King of Assyria." Gilgamesh was reckoned by Ashurbanipal as an ancestor—good reason for wanting his adventures preserved.
But this is a tale worth any king's attention, as relevant today as to the Sumerians of ancient Iraq. It tells of a man who finds a friend, loses him to death, and embarks on a quest for immortality. It speaks of earthy things given mythic status: felling trees, guarding sheep, baking bread, washing clothes, making wine, punting boats, diving in the sea. These amount to a celebration of life that gives poignancy to the poem's stark message: Death is the end of existence.
There was no greater city than Uruk, but Gilgamesh, its king, being two-thirds god, was driven by the relentless energy of divinity. Resting neither day or night, he took young men to labor on grandiose buildings, and carried brides off from their weddings. ("He is the first. The husband comes after.") Hearing the people's complaints, the gods told Aruru, goddess of creation, to make a match for him, to divert his energies. She fashioned a wild man, huge, hairy and strong, who roamed the plains with the gazelle. His name was Enkidu.
When word of Enkidu reached Uruk, a temple prostitute was sent to seduce him, so that his animal companions would shun him. After this, she "made him a man," teaching him human speech, and how to eat human food, drink alcohol, dress his hair, and wear clothes. Because of his strength, Enkidu was asked to stop Gilgamesh from abducting a bride and barred his way. They wrestled until Enkidu was thrown, but Gilgamesh acknowledged he had won because he was semi-divine: "In truth, you are my equal." Here began their friendship.
Their first exploit was to go to the Cedar Forest to kill its giant guardian, Humbaba. Their second was to kill the Bull of Heaven (drought personified) sent because Gilgamesh rejected advances by Ishtar, goddess of love. The gods decreed that for the two slayings one of the friends must die. The lot fell on Enkidu.
The Gate of the Cedar Forest had seemed so beautiful to Enkidu that he could not hack it down, and instead pushed it open with his hand. But there was an enchantment on it, which blasted the hand, so that a fever spread from it and he dreamed of dying. He cursed the prostitute and the Forest Gate, and on the twelfth day fell silent. For seven days and nights Gilgamesh would not give him up for burial, and only when a maggot fell from his nose accepted his death.
Knowing that, like Enkidu, he would die. Gilgamesh set out to find Utnapishtim, the one man saved by the gods from The Flood. Making him immortal, they had placed him with his wife in Dilmun, the Garden of the Gods. Gilgamesh would ask Utnapishtim how to become immortal himself.
His quest led him through a gate guarded by Scorpion People with flaming aureoles into Mashu, the mountain into which the sun passes at night. He journeyed in darkness before coming out in the Garden of the Sun, where Shamash walked at evening. The sun god said his quest would fail: All mortals must die. Next he encountered Siduri, Woman of the Vine, beside her house making wine for the gods. She urged him to live from day to day, taking pleasure in food, wine, and the love of wife and children, "for love was granted men as well as death."
Seeing him undeterred, Siduri directed him to the Images of Stone, near which he would find Urshanabi, Utnapishtim's boatman. To reach Dilmun, one must cross the deep, bitter Waters of Death, and the Images kept the ferryman safe on the crossing. In a fit of temper, Gilgamesh broke the Images of Stone and, when he found the boatman, Urshanabi said that it was now too dangerous to cross. However, he had Gilgamesh cut long poles from the woods, and they launched the boat on the sea. When they reached the Waters of Death that lay between it and Dilmun, Gilgamesh punted the boat along, dropping each pole before his hand touched the fatal Waters.
Reaching Dilmun, Gilgamesh told Utnapishtim why he had come there. Utnapishtim said first he must pass a test: not sleeping for six days and seven nights. But Gilgamesh was exhausted by his journey and he who had once needed no rest now fell into a profound slumber. Every day, Utnapishtim's wife stood a fresh loaf of bread beside him. When Utnapishtim woke him, he saw six of them and despaired.
Utnapishtim now dismissed him, together with Urshanabi, who, having ferried a living man over the Waters, had broken the rule of the gods. Utnapishtim's wife persuaded him to give Gilgamesh something in return for his suffering. So Utnapishtim told him of a place in the sea where grew the Flower of Youth, which would make the old young again.
Reaching the spot, Gilgamesh tied stones on his feet and jumped into the water. Down to the bottom he sank and, despite its thorns, plucked the flower. Cutting off the stones, he surfaced in triumph, telling Urshanabi he would give it to the old of Uruk to eat, and eventually eat it himself. But on their homeward voyage, they went ashore to rest and Gilgamesh bathed in a nearby pool, leaving the Flower of Youth on the bank. Deep in the pool lay a serpent that snuffed the fragrance of the flower, rose up, devoured it, and grew young again (sloughing its skin as snakes have ever since).
Then Gilgamesh wept. He had failed to win everlasting life, and with the Flower of Youth in his grasp lost even that. But presently he said they should continue to Uruk and he would show Urshanabi his fine city. There at least his labors had not been fruitless.
The story of Gilgamesh comes from Sumer on the Persian Gulf. The Sumerians entered southern Iraq around 4000 B.C.E. and established city-states, each with its king. One of these was Gilgamesh, who appears in a king-list as the fifth king in Uruk (biblical Erech). Another Sumerian text tells of a conflict between Gilgamesh and Agga, king of Kish (c. 2700 B.C.E.). Some identify Gilgamesh as the "mighty hunter," Nimrod son of Cush, mentioned in the Book of Genesis. Thus the epic may be based on traditions of real events.
But it has a mythic dimension. Gilgamesh was the son of Ninsun, a minor goddess residing in Egalmah, the "Great Palace" of Uruk, by "the high priest of Kullab" in the same city. Gilgamesh was regarded as superhuman. In the Epic he is said to be 11 cubits (approximately 18 feet) tall, and his punt poles were each 60 cubits long. The king-list says that he reigned for 126 years.
In about the fourteenth century B.C.E., Akkadians living north of Sumer established Babylon as their capital and took control of the whole area between Baghdad and the Gulf. The Babylonians preserved the Sumerian language as their language of religion, and with it Sumerian legends and myths.
The Hebrews may have learned Sumerian tales during their Babylonian exile. There are echoes of the Epic of Gilgamesh in the Bible: The flaming guardians of the Otherworld gate and the loss of immortality to a serpent are mythic themes that recur in the Expulsion from Eden in the Book of Genesis. Noah's Ark also corresponds in some details to the Epic 's account of The Flood.
The Babylonians were succeeded in the region by the Assyrians. Originally the exploits of Gilgamesh were recounted in separate poems, such as "Gilgamesh and the Land of the Living," a surviving Sumerian account of his quest. If Sumerians or Babylonians ever strung these poems together into an epic, it has been lost. The Epic of Gilgamesh exists only in the Assyrian version, written on twelve clay tablets in Ashurbanipal's library at Nineveh and recovered at different times. From these the epic has been pieced together, breaks in the text being supplemented from separate poems. Some mysteries remain. What were the Images of Stone?
Despite its enigmas, the Epic is one of the literary masterpieces of the world, at one level a swashbuckling adventure story; at another a "buddy" tale prefiguring the great friendships of David and Jonathan and Roland and Oliver; at another, a demonstration that the gods have an agenda independent of human interests (Enkidu is a toy for Gilgamesh, and expendable). At yet another level it is a contemplation of what it means to be human, in the figure of the wild man "tamed," civilized by the prostitute to his undoing, for he responds to the Forest Gate as man not brute (which is why he curses both it and her).
At its most profound, the poem is a meditation on living in the knowledge of death. Enkidu tells Gilgamesh a fever-dream he has of dying. He is standing before a dark being whose talons are choking out his life. Then it turns his arms into wings and leads him to the house of the underworld queen, Ereshkigal. Everyone here has feathered wings and sits in eternal darkness, "dust their food and clay their sustenance." This was the common lot in the ancient Near East. It is because "darkness is the end of mortal life" that Gilgamesh is desperate to learn Utnapishtim's secret.
After failure comes resignation. He proudly shows Urshanabi his city—this much he has achieved. But his words before the Cedar Forest adventure return to haunt readers: "Only the gods live forever . . . As for mankind, numbered are their days; Whatever they achieve is but the wind!" One of the ironies of time is that Gilgamesh's great city was long ago ruined; and it is the story of his heroic failure, written on brittle tablets of clay, that survives.
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