The Epic of Gilgamesh Summary

  • Last updated on March 25, 2021
"infobox Book "
name The Epic of Gilgamesh
image
image caption 2006 Penguin Books Edition
author Unknown
translator N.K. Sandars
country Mesopotamia
original language Sumerian
translated language English language
genre(s) Poetry
publisher Penguin
release date 2100-1200 BCE
media type Paperback
pages 120
isbn 0141026286

The Epic of Gilgamesh (/ˈɡɪlɡəmɛʃ/) is an epic poem from ancient Mesopotamia, regarded as the earliest surviving notable literature and the second oldest religious text, after the Pyramid Texts.

An epic poem from ancient Mesopotamia and written by an unknown author, The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest surviving piece of notable literature the second-oldest religious text in history, second only to the Pyramid Texts.

Character Summaries

Gilgamesh

The protagonist of the story. The king of Uruk, and a great warrior. He goes on several quests throughout the poem.

Enkidu

The friend of Gilgamesh. Enkidu is a brave warrior who was once a wild man.

Aruru

The goddess who created mankind

Ishtar

The goddess of war and lust.

Shamhat

A prostitute who is able to turn Enkidu from his wild ways.

Utnapishtim

An immortal who Gilgamesh seeks out at the end of the poem.

Utnapishtim's Wife

Another immortal. She convinces Utnapishtim to reveal to Gilgamesh the secret of the youth-giving plant.

Urshanabi

The ferryman who takes Gilgamesh across the treacherous sea to find Utnapishtim.

Anu

The king of the gods.

Ea

The god who warns Utnapishtim about the oncoming flood.

Humbaba

The monster who Gilgamesh and Enkidu slay at the start of the poem.

Siduri

The tavern-keeper (and also a goddess).

Shamash

The sun god.

Enlil

The god of earth, wind and air.

Ninsun

The goddess who is also Gilgamesh's mother.

Plot Summary

Tablet One

Gilgamesh is introduced in the first tablet. He is a good warrior and protector of his people, and is the king of Uruk.

Gilgamesh is strong and powerful, and has accomplished much, such as crossing the oceans and exploring the world. He is two-third god and one-third human, and basically the most perfect physical specimen of a man that there is.

However, Gilgamesh is not always looked upon favourably by his people, as he rapes many women, and oppresses his people.

Enkidu is created by Aruru (the Goddess who created mankind) because the people of Uruk pray to the gods for someone to keep Gilgamesh in line. Enkidu is physically wild, and is as strong as Gilgamesh is.  He is hairy and strange-looking and lives with the wild animals, practically as an animal himself.

One day a trapper encounters Enkidu at a watering hole, and is scared of him. The trapper returns home and tells his father about what he has seen, saying that Enkidu is “the mightiest in the land”, and that he is disrupting the trapper’s hunting.

The father of the trapper tells him that nobody is stronger than Gilgamesh. He advises his son to go and see Gilgamesh and tell him about Enkidu. He says that Gilgamesh will give the trapper a prostitute called Shamhat, and that Shamhat will be able to tame Enkidu by exposing her naked body to him. The trapper’s father says that Enkidu will be so entranced by the sight of a naked woman that he will no longer want to live amongst the animals.

The trapper does what his father tells him, and Gilgamesh does exactly what the trapper’s father says he would. After a few days spent waiting at the watering hole for Enkidu, the trapper and Shamhat encounter him. The trapper tells Shamhat to let Enkidu sleep with her. Enkidu does, for a whole entire week. Afterwards, the animal brethren he had had up until this point abandon him.

Shamhat then takes Enkidu back to the Holy Temple where Gilgamesh lives.

Gilgamesh has been having strange dreams.. He tells his mother about this, and she says that the things he has been dreaming about are essentially metaphors for Enkidu, who Gilgamesh will come to love as a dear friend.

Tablet Two

[This tablet is missing the first thirty lines.]

Shamhat clothes Enkidu and remarks on how much like Gilgamesh he looks. Enkidu then learns how to eat regular food like bread and beer. He really enjoys the taste of regular food, and dressing and bathing like a human. His status as a wild man is gone. He becomes a shepherd.

[The next thirty-three lines are missing]

Enkidu encounters a young man, who tells Enkidu that he is going to a wedding, and that it is customary for Gilgamesh to sleep with the wife before her new husband. This angers Enkidu, who decides to go to Uruk to challenge him.

Enkidu blocks Gilgamesh’s access to the bedroom of the new bride, and the two have a big fight that spills out into the street. The fight ends, and Enkidu says to Gilgamesh that he is “unique” and has been “destined for …. Kingship over the people.”

[Some lines are missing in this section]

The fight ends and the two men become friends, and swear to fight alongside each other. Then, Gilgamesh goes and tells his men that he wants to make himself “more mighty” by going on a long journey and facing new challenges. They are going to go and fight a monster known as Humbaba, who is guarding the Cedar Forest (a place where mortal men are not allowed to go). Despite Enkidu telling Gilgamesh that fighting the Humbaba is impossible, Gilgamesh still wants to go.

The two men organise themselves for the fight with new weapons and armour.

Tablet Three

The Elders warn Gilgamesh not to rely only on his vast strength, that he needs to fight strategically. They tell him that Enkidu should go ahead, because he knows how to get to the Cedar Forest and that he will protect Gilgamesh.

They tell Enkidu that they have “entrusted the king” to him, and that it is his job to look after Gilgamesh and make sure Gilgamesh returns home safely.

The two men then leave, on their way telling Ninsun (the Great Queen) that they are going to fight the Humbaba, and that they want her blessing. Ninsun (Gilgamesh’s mother) is very upset at what Gilgamesh is planning to do. She changes into her ceremonial robes and prays to Shamash, the sun god.

She asks Shamash why he has “inflicted a restless heart” on Gilgamesh, making him want to go on this dangerous adventure. She prays that the gods will watch over Gilgamesh. She also claims Enkidu as her own son.

Tablet Four

Gilgamesh and Enkidu are able to cover a massive amount of distance in only a few days. They pray to Shamash the sun god, and continue on the journey. One night Gilgamesh has a nightmare that the mountains of the gorges fell on him, and Enkidu says that this was a good sign. He says that the mountain that Gilgamesh saw in the dream is actually Humbaba, and that the dream is prophetic, meaning that they will be able to capture and kill Humbaba.

The following night, Gilgamesh has a similarly strange dream, although this time he is fighting a bull. Enkidu says that the bull is Shamash, and that the dream means Shamash is protecting them.

In the third dream that Gilgamesh has, he sees lighting that causes a fire that burns up the land. [Forty lines of the text are missing here, so we don’t know what that dream means]/

Gilgamesh’s forth dream involves a similar message to the previous ones, as does the fifth.

The men then receive a warning from the sky telling them to put on their armour and be prepared to fight. They discuss their plan of attack. Gilgamesh tells Enkidu that he is an experienced warrior, and need not fear death.

Tablet Five

The two men stand at the edge of the forest. There is a trail that will lead them straight to Humbaba. The shade of the trees is very pleasant, and the two men can see the Cedar Mountain, the Dwelling of the Gods and the throne dais of Imini.

Then, Humbaba arrives. There is an epic battle, and Humbaba begs for his life. Enkidu urges Gilgamesh not to listen, however – he should just kill Humbaba.

Humbaba tries to appeal to Enkidu and encourage the man to convince Gilgamesh to spare his life. He taunts Enkidu and says that Enkidu is jealous, worried that Humbaba will replace him as Gilgamesh’s best friend. He also says that the two will be cursed if they kill him, because Humbaba serves Enlil, a more powerful god than Shamash.

Enkidu will not be swayed, however, and tells Gilgamesh to “grid up, kill, pulverize and destroy” Humbaba, lest the gods become angry with them for what they are doing. He tells Gilgamesh that the only way for them to become famous is to kill Humbaba.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu end up killing Humbaba, and cutting down the trees of the Cedar Forest. They take the head of Humbaba with them back to Uruk.

Tablet Six

Gilgamesh cleans himself up and dresses himself in his regal clothing. He attracts the notice of princess Ishtar (the goddess of both war and lust), who wants him to marry her. She says that she will bless his life with prosperity if he does.

Gilgamesh asks her what she wants in exchange for marriage – he knows that there isn’t anything he can give her that she can’t already get for herself, and he knows what negative things have happened to her other mortal lovers.

He tells her as much, and this upsets her. Ishtar goes crying to her parents, Anu and Anrum, and says that Gilgamesh has insulted her. Anu simply says that it was her fault because she provoked him.

Ishtar then says that she wants Anu to give her the Bull of Heaven to kill Gilgamesh, and that she will cause destruction to the Gates of the Netherworld if her request is refused. This means that the dead will be able to come into the mortal realm and attack the living.

Anu says that if she wants the Bull of Heaven, she must have prepared enough food for the people of Uruk, because otherwise there will be nothing for them. Ishtar assures them that she has, so she is granted the Bull of Heaven.

Ishtar leads the Bull to earth and when it arrives, it creates several big pits in the earth, in which hundreds of men, including Enkidu, fall into.

Enkidu and Gilgamesh are able to work together to kill the bull. They bring its heart as a gift for Shamash.

Ishtar is very upset by what has happened. She complains and complains and Enkidu overhears her. He throws the bull’s hindquarter into her face, saying that he wishes he could kill her like he did the bull.

Gilgamesh turns the body of the bull into ornaments. Gilgamesh is proclaimed the bravest of men.

That night Enkidu has a strange dream that he tells to Gilgamesh.

Tablet Seven

Enkidu tells Gilgamesh about his dream.

He dreamed that Anu, Enlil and Shamash held a council in which Anu tells Enlil that because Enkidu and Gilgamesh have not only killed the Bull of Heaven, but Humbaba too, one of them has to die.

In the dream Enlil said that it should be Enkidu who dies, but Shamash says Enkidu should not die because he is innocent.

Enlil angrily tells Shamash that everything is his fault because he helped them on the journey and travelled with them as a friend.

Enkidu is sick with despair, saying that the gods absolve him instead of Gilgamesh, and that he must die and become a ghost, and never see Gilgamesh again. Enkidu curses the gate made of cedar that he and Gilgamesh brought back after slaying Humbaba, saying that he would have destroyed it and just been forgotten if he knew what was going to happen to him.

Gilgamesh is upset, but even though he tries to appeal to Enlil, it is of no use. Gilgamesh tells Enkidu that he will create a better monument for him, one entirely made of gold.

The morning comes, and Enkidu cries out to Shamash. He tries to appeal to the god, cursing the trapper who was the one who brought him into this life in the first place. He also curses Shamhat, the woman that he first slept with.

Shamash hears Enkidu’s curses and asks him why he is saying such things – without the trapper and Shamhat, Enkidu would never have changed his life and come to meet Gilgamesh.

This calms Enkidu, who changes his curses to blessings for Shamhat.

He then explains to Gilgamesh the dream he had the previous night, in which he saw a man who resembled the Anzu, with hands like lion paws and nails like eagle talons. The man attacked him and Enkidu was changed into a bird-like creature. He then was dragged down into the underworld and saw all of the gods, kings and priests dressed in feathers.

Enkidu tells Gilgamesh that he rather would have died in battle. After twelve days he dies. [There are several lines missing during this section].

Tablet Eight

[There are several incomplete lines during this section].

After Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh offers a long list of all of the people who should be mourning him. He laments the loss of his good friend, and then lists all of the things he will mis about him.

Everyone mourns the loss of Enkidu, but none more than Gilgamesh, who is absolutely destroyed by it. He goes off into the wilderness alone after becoming wild like Enkidu.

[Many lines are missing at the end].

Tablet Nine

Gilgamesh roams about the wilderness, mourning the loss of his friend.

[Several lines are missing in this section]

Gilgamesh sets off on a quest to Mount Mashu, which “guards the rising and setting of the Sun”, and is so high that only heaven is above it, and extends so far down into the earth that the only thing below it is the underworld.

Scorpion-beings guard its gate, and they are terrifying creatures. When he first sees them, Gilgamesh is frightened, but he pulls himself together and is able to talk to them.

One of the scorpion-beings says that Gilgamesh has the flesh of the Gods, to which another scorpion-being corrects him by saying that Gilgamesh is only two-thirds god. They then ask Gilgamesh why he has come.

[Several lines are missing here].

Gilgamesh says that he has come on account of his ancestor Utnapishtim, who was granted eternal life upon joining the Assembly of the Gods.

The scorpion-being tells Gilgamesh that that is impossible, that no mortal has ever been here.

Gilgamesh is able to convince the scorpion-being to let him through, and he travels for a long time in the complete darkness.

Tablet Ten

Gilgamesh encounters a tavern-keeper named Siduri (who is actually a goddess), who lives by the ocean and provides him with shelter after he convinces her that he is not a murderer, and is instead a brave warrior.

He tells her about his journey and asks for the way to Utnapishtim. She provides him with the information he needs, but warns him that the passage is dangerous and that nobody else has ever done it before except Shamash.

Gilgamesh then leaves and encounters the ferryman, Urshanabi, who can take him across the Waters of Death.

Urshanabi asks Gilgamesh the same questions as Siduri – why does he look so sad and haggard? Gilgamesh repeats his story – his friend has died, he is distraught at the death. He then asks Urshanabi how to get to Utnapishtim. Urshanabi tells him that Gilgamesh has smashed the stone things that hold the retaining ropes of the boat, that Gilgamesh has to get some wood to repair them.

Gilgamesh does this, and then they sail off. Travelling through the Waters of Death is dangerous, but they eventually get there.

Waiting on the shore is Utnapishtim, old man. He asks about Gilgamesh, and Gilgamesh repeats what he has told Siduri and Urshanabi. Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh that death is the destiny of everyone.

Tablet Eleven

Gilgamesh and Utnapishtim continue to talk. He says that Utnapishtim’s appearance is not so strange, that they look similar. He asks how Utnapishtim was able to get eternal life, and Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh “The Story of the Flood”.

There was a city called Shuruppak on the banks of the river Euphrates. The Gods inflicted a great Flood on the city, and it nearly wiped out everyone. Utnapishtim was able to survive the flood because he overheard the Gods making plans and was advised to build a big boat by one of the Gods named Ea.

Ea advised Utnapishtim to tell everyone else that he was leaving the city because he was hated by Enlil, and that they should all stay there because good things were about to happen to them. Eventually Utnapishtim was able to build the boat, and he left with his family and his possessions, as the rest of the city was destroyed by the flood. He sailed for a long time and eventually reached a mountain peak. He discovered dry land by releasing a series of birds, each one returning when it couldn’t find land, until eventually one never came back.

Utnapishtim prayed and prepared a sacrifice for the gods, but Ishtar was angry with Enlil because humanity was destroyed. Enlil became enraged when he saw Utnapishtim’s boat, because it meant that someone had escaped the flood. Ea revealed the truth and told Enlil that he shouldn’t have killed off all of humanity.

Utnapishtim and his wife were then made gods because of Enlil’s contrition – only he and his wife are immortal humans.

The story ends, and Utnapishtim asks if Gilgamesh really thinks he deserves the gift of immortal life. He says that Gilgamesh should prove himself by completing the challenge of not sleeping for a week. Gilgamesh tries to, but almost immediately falls asleep.

Utnapishtim and his wife devise a plan to reveal to Gilgamesh just how long he has slept – for seven days. Gilgamesh is dismayed when he wakes up and realises that he failed the challenge and will not be granted eternal life.

Gilgamesh is then ordered to return home, but Utnapishtim has at least given him one gift – a secret. He tells Gilgamesh about a plant called “The Old Man Becomes a Young Man”. It grows under the sea, and if Gilgamesh eats it he will be young again.

Gilgamesh manages to get some of the plant, but it is eaten by a snake one night. Gilgamesh is very upset.

The journey continues, and Gilgamesh and Urshanabi return to Uruk.

Categories: Classics, Poems