Places: The Gilgamesh Epic

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: c. 2000 b.c.e. (English translation, 1917)

Type of work: Poetry

Type of plot: Adventure

Time of work: Antiquity

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Uruk

*Uruk Gilgamesh Epic, The (EW-rewk). Ancient city in what is now Iraq (now called Tall al-Warka) over which the demigod Gilgamesh rules. During the period in which the epic is set (c. 2600 b.c.e.), Uruk was one of the largest cities in the world. Protected by brick walls, it preserved urban technology and order. In all versions of The Gilgamesh Epic, the city’s king or “shepherd,” Gilgamesh (also known as Bilgamesh), combines within himself civilization and fierce lawlessness, so that he can relate both to the city and to the barbarous rest of the world.

The split within Gilgamesh’s character helps the urbanites, since it gives Gilgamesh the ferocity to defend them. Nonetheless, they resent his disorderliness, particularly his leading the young in revels throughout such sacred precincts as Egalmah, the temple complex governed by the goddess Ninsun, Gilgamesh’s mother. Because of public resentment, Gilgamesh’s Uruk appears to be a grim totalitarian state. However, the prostitute whom he employs to lure Engidu (also called Enkidu) there, extols Uruk as a joyous place in which people wear wide belts and attend festivals every day that are celebrated with beautiful music.


Nagbu (NAHG-bew). Chaotic abyss, believed to exist at the center of the earth. It is the source of all rivers and maintains the aboriginal condition before order (and mortality) came to the world. Its most characteristic figure is Utnapishtim, a Noah-like being who survived a world-wide flood, thus preparing him to dwell forever amid Nagbu’s timeless waters. Appropriately, Gilgamesh finds within the abyss the plant of immortality. In the best-known and fullest version of Gilgamesh, that composed by the exorcist priest Sin-leqi-uninni (c. 1600-1000 b.c.e.), Nagbu is especially important, with Gilgamesh identified in the very first line of the poem as the one who saw this abyss. Knowledge of it is presumably why he is then described as the “lord of wisdom” who knows everything.


Edin (AY-din). Grassland surrounding Uruk. Embodying the almost total wildness and contradictoriness of that hinterland, Engidu, its heaven-appointed guardian eats grass with gazelles and releases animals from traps but also defends shepherds from wolves. A primordial savage, Engidu reflects the vitality of the region, thus threatening Gilgamesh, who therefore introduces Engidu to a human relationship with a woman in order to weaken him. After sleeping with the woman, Engidu sees his vitalizing link to the land weakened; animals desert him, and he loses in battle to Gilgamesh. However, Engidu retains sufficient rustic skills to help Gilgamesh during campaigns through Edin.

Although the epic does not dwell on the economic importance of Edin as Uruk’s primary source of raw materials or its strategic importance as a buffer zone around the city, readers should be aware of these functions. They explain why Gilgamesh must subdue Engidu, thereby symbolically conquering Edin.

Cedar wood

Cedar wood. Gloomy, dense forest area even farther from civilization than grassy Edin. Early versions of The Gilgamesh Epic–those in Babylonian and Hittite–locate this forest in the east (presumably in what is now Iran). Because of gradual deforestation in that zone, late Akkadian versions of the epic, such as Sin-leqi-uninni’s, place this forest in the west, probably in the Anti-Lebanon Mountains of Syria.

The guardian of the cedars is named Humbaba in Akkadian and Huwawa in Sumerian, Old Babylonian, and Hittite. Since the guardian breathes fire, some scholars have speculated that he personifies an eruption of lava, and thus the forest must be on a volcano. Equally, he might allegorize forest tribes conquered by Uruk; therefore, description of him as a monster who deserves death would explain how writers of The Gilgamesh Epic justified killing and robbing those tribes of their precious cedars. The earliest versions declare the guardian to be a danger to humanity, and Sin-leqi-unnini’s version terms Humbaba an enemy of Shamesh, the god of light and law. As early as the Old Babylonian version, Huwawa’s voice is likened to the flood (thus comparing him to Nagbu, a place of chaotic waters) and he is also described as a “siege-engine,” a metaphor that treats him (and consequently the region he represents) as an enemy of cities such as Uruk.


Heaven. Realm of the gods above the earth. It can be reached via Mashu, which is also the route to Nagbu. Although Gilgamesh does not conquer Heaven itself, he does kill the Bull of Heaven–the guardian sent from Heaven to earth to destroy Gilgamesh. In a sense, Gilgamesh makes his power felt even in Heaven. Modern readers might assume that Heaven is the supreme power; however, in coercing the heavenly gods to attack Gilgamesh, Ishtar threatens to raise Nagbu, thereby implying that Nagbu is more fearsome than Heaven.


Mashu (MA-shew). Legendary mountain with twin peaks, connecting the three realms: the “above” (Heaven), the “land” (Earth), and the “below” (Nagbu). These realms guard the route of Shamash, the sun god. Mashu means “twins.” A possible reason for the mountain’s having twin peaks includes their symbolizing the principal divisions in the Sun’s journey, its light, celestial path during the day and its dark, subterranean one during the night.

Embodying Mashu’s role as guardian are a pair of scorpion people, so fearsome that at first they terrify Gilgamesh. They open Mashu’s gates, allowing him to enter caverns through which the Sun passes by night. After traveling through these caverns for twenty-four hours, Gilgamesh reaches a Garden of Precious Stones. The garden’s vine-covered cedar trees with carnelian fruit and lapis-lazuli leaves make it is an earthly paradise that may threaten Gilgamesh’s journey by tempting him to stay.


Sea. “Waters of death” believed to surround land. At its “lip” (its shore), Siduri the Barmaid (presumably a manifestation of the goddess Ishtar) guards the sea. She embodies its inherently feminine qualities. No mortal has previously traversed it, but, with the aid of the supernatural boatman, Urshanabi, Gilgamesh crosses the sea to Nagbu.

BibliographyDamrosch, David. The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh. New York: H. Holt, 2007. An absorbing rendition of the origination and later discovery of the epic.Gardner, John, and John Maier, trans. Gilgamesh. New York: Vintage Books, 1985. Each column of the actual tablets is translated, then supplemented by numerous parallel texts. An appendix analyzes the tablets in more detail, demonstrating the extreme difficulty of establishing any single version of Gilgamesh.Heidel, Alexander. The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963. The first, and still the clearest, study of the close links between Sumerian and Hebrew tales of natural heroism and supernatural disaster. The parallels will be striking to the reader.Kovacs, Maureen G., trans. The Epic of Gilgamesh. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1989. This translation attempts to serve as a readable text for the student reader, including substantial notes on parallel and supplementary texts. Although Kovacs manages to create a continuous story, she achieves neither the readability of Sandars’ translation, nor the precision of Gardner and Maier’s work.Sandars, N. K., trans. The Epic of Gilgamesh. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1960. This is the standard text version of the epic, rendered as a continuous, compelling story. Although its exact readings have been superseded in many cases by discoveries made during recent decades, it remains the best attempt at recapturing the original audience’s experience of the epic.Tigay, Jeffrey H. The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982. Tigay demonstrates that numerous differences among the various redactions of the Gilgamesh saga resulted in significantly different versions of the story. Translations that combine passages from separate versions in order to achieve a more readable story therefore distort the saga.
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