The Epic of Gilgamesh (Excerpts)


The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest known work of literature. Based on much older oral sagas, the epic was first recorded in written form about 2000 B.C.E. by a Babylonian poet. It is an epic adventure and quest that tells the story of Gilgamesh, an historical figure who ruled the city state of Uruk sometime between 2700 and 2500 BCE The authors devised the tale to provide a powerful, mythological explanation for two issues that confronted the Sumerian people and that continue to face us today: the meaning of life and the reality of death.

The selections we will read focus on Gilgamesh's failed quest for eternal life. Your readings pick up after Gilgamesh and his wild-man friend, Enkidu, have embarked on a series of quests and adventures. During one of these episodes, the heroes insult the goddess of love, Ishtar, who demands Enkidu's life as compensation. The first passage begins with the dying Enkidu describing to Gilgamesh his dream of the Sumerian afterlife. After Enkidu's death, Gilgamesh confronts the reality that he too will someday die; he consequently begins a new quest to achieve immortality. During this search, he meets the goddess of wine, Siduri, who warns him that man cannot achieve immortality.

ignores her advice, and continues on his quest to find eternal life. Eventually, he meets Utnapishtim, a man who had been granted immortality by the gods.  Unnapisthim first tells Gilgamesh that immortality is not possible for humans. Next, he tells Gilgamesh of the great flood and of the gods' consequent decision to grant he and his wife eternal life. Though Utnapishtim cannot help Gilgamesh in his quest for eternal life, he tells the Sumerian hero about a special plant that can restore a person to youth and vigor.  

Questions for Consideration and Discussion

  1. Based on Enkidu's dream, what was the Sumerian conception of the afterlife?

  2. What does Gilgamesh’s quest for immortality suggest about Sumerian attitudes about life and death?
  4. What does Utnapishtim's story about the flood tell us about the Sumerians' views of the gods? What does it suggest about the various religions that came out of the Middle East after 2,500 B.C.E.?

  5. Review Siduri's advice to Gilgamesh, Utnapishtim's initial response to his request for the secret of immortality, and the epilogue.  What do these parts of the story suggest about the Sumerian conception of the meaning of life?  What, in short, is the purpose of the Gilgamesh myth?

Excerpts from The Epic of Gilgamesh

Enkidu's Dream

With these last words the dying Enkidu did pray
and say to his beloved companion:
"In dreams last night
the heavens and the earth poured
out great groans while I alone
stood facing devastation. Some fierce
and threatening creature flew down at me
and pushed me with its talons toward
the horror-filled house of death
wherein lrkalla, queen of shades,
stands in command.
There is darkness which lets no person
again see light of day.
There is a road leading away from
bright and lively life.
There dwell those who eat dry dust
and have no cooling water to quench their awful thirst.
  As I stood there I saw all those who've died
and even kings among those darkened souls
have none of their remote and former glory.
All earthly greatness was forfeit
and I entered then into the house of death.
Others who have been there long
did rise to welcome me."

Siduri's Advice

'Gilgamesh, where are you hurrying?
You will not find that life that you purusue.
When the gods created mankind,
They allotted to him death,
But life they retained in their own keeping.
As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things,
Make thou merry by day and by night.
Of each day make thou a feast of rejoicing,
Day and night dance and play!
Let your clothing be sparkling fresh,
Thy head be washed; bathe thou in water.
Love the child that holds on to thy hand,
Make your wife happy in your embrace!
For this is the lot of mankind!'

Utnapishtim's Initial Response to Gilgamesh

"Utnapishtim, you who have entered the assembly of the gods,
I wish to question you concerning the living and the dead,
How shall I find the immorality that I seek?"

Utnapishtim replied, "There is no permanance.
Do we build houses to stand forever,
Do we seal a contract to hold for all time?
Do brothers divide an inheritance to keep forever,
Does hatred persist for ever in the land?
Does the river for ever rise (and) bring on floods?
Doeshe dragon-fly leave (its) shell
That its face might (but) glance on the face of the sun?
From the days of old there is no permanence."

The Flood

Then Gilgamesh said, "Like me, you are first of
all a fighter who prefers to war-no-more. How
could one like you, so human, all-too-human,
ascend to be at one with other gods?"

10. Utnapishtim said to him in swift reply:
"Only one as bold as you would dare expect
such knowledge. But I shall tell you what
no person has ever been told.

High up the constant Euphrates
there rests a place you call Shuruppak
where gods and goddesses recline.

Then came the flood, sent by gods' intent.
Mama, Anu, and Enlil were at Shuruppak.
So too was their coachman, Ninurta,

20. and Ennugi, the beastiarilis,
and one who watches over precious infants,
the ever vigilant Ea.

And Ea refrained their chant to the higli-grown reeds
upon the shore, giving this advice to me:
'Arise! Arise! Oh wall-like reeds.
Arise and hear my words:

Citizen of Shurtippak, child of Ubaratutu,
abandon your home and build a boat.
Reject the corpse-like stench of wealth.
Choose to live and choose to love;

30. choose to rise above and give back
what you yourself were given.
Be moderate as you flee for survival
in a boat that has no place for riches.

Take the seed of all you need aboard
with you and carefully weigh anchor
after securing a roof that will let in no water.'

"Then I said back in reverent prayer:

'I understand, great Ea.
I shall do just as you say to honor god,

40. but for myself
I'll have to find a reason to give the people.'
"Then Ea voiced a fair reply:
'Tell those who'll need to know
that Enlil hates you.

Say: "I must flee the city now
and go by sea to where Enlil waits to take my life.
I will descend to the brink of Hell
to be with Ea, god,
who will send riches to you like the rain:

50. all manner of birds;
birds ... bonds ... burds...
and the rarest of rare fish.

The land will fill with crops full grown at break of day.
Ea will begin to shower
gifts of life upon you all"."'

Then Utnapishtim continued, saying words like these:

"By week's end I engineered designs
for an acre's worth of floor upon the ark we built
so that its walls rose straight toward heaven;

60. with decks all round did I design its space;
120 cubits measured its deck.
With division of six and of seven
I patterned its squares and stairs;
left space for portals too,
secured its beams and stockpiled
all that ever could be used.

Pitch for the hull I poured into the kiln
and ordered three full volumes of oil
to start with and two times three more yet.
For what is security?

70. Each day I sacrificed the holy bulls
and chosen sheep for the people
and pushed the laborers to great fatigue
and thirst, allayed alone by wine
which they drank as if it were water running
from barrels set up for holding cheer
in preparation for a New Year's party they expected.
I set up an ointment box
and cleaned my fingers with its cream.

"After one week, the ark was done,
80. though launching was more work than fun
since hull boards caught and snapped
until the water burst most of its great ton.
I supplied the craft with all I owned
of silver, gold, and seed.

My clan brought on the food they'd eat
and all the things we thought we'd need.
At last, it was my turn just then
to shepherd beasts and birds and
babies wet and loud.

90. It was Shamash who ordained the time, saying:
'Prepare the way for your whole boat
and set to sail when the storm
begins to threaten you.'

"The Anunnaki too then cried for them.
The gods themselves, finally suffering, sat up
and let their first tears flow down
cheeks and over lips pressed closed.

"For the whole next week
the sky screamed and storms wrecked the earth
100. and finally broke the war
which groaned as one in labor's throes.

Even Ishtar then bemoaned the
fates of her sad people.
Ocean silent.
Winds dead.
Flood ended.
Then I see a dawn so still;
all humans beaten to dirt
and earth itself like some vast roof.

110. I peeked through the portal into a morning sun
then turned, knelt and cried.
Tears flooded down my face.

"Then I searched high and low for the shoreline,
finally spotting an island near and dear.
Our boat stuck fast beside Mt. Nimush.
Mt. Nimush held the hull that could not sway
for one whole week.

"I released the watch-bird, to soar in search of land.
The bird came back within a day
exhausted, unrelieved from lack of rest.

120. I then released a swallow, to soar in search of land,
The bird came back within a day
exhausted, unrelieved from lack of rest.
I then released a raven, to soar in search of land.

The bird took flight above more shallow seas,
found food and found release and found no
need to fly on back to me.

"These birds I then released to carth's four corners
and offered sacrifice,
a small libation to the heights of many mountains,

130. from numbered chalices that I arranged.
Under these I spread the scents that gods favored
and when the gods smelled the sweet perfume of sacrifice,
they gathered in flight all above, like apparitions.

"From distant heights with heavenly sights,
the female of all female gods descended then;
Aruru who aroused the wry thought
that Anu made for intercourse.

'Great gods from far and wide
keep always in my mind
140. this thought for intercourse,
tokened by the sacred blue medallion on my neck,
Let me recall with smiles
these days in days to come.

Gods of my shoreline, gods of my sky,
come round this food that I prepared for you;
but do not let Enlil enjoy this too,
since he's the one who drowned my relatives
without telling the gods what he set out to do.'

When Enlil saw the boat, he released
150. his calm reason and let in the lgigi, monsters of blood.
'What force dares defy my anger!?

How dare a man be still alive!?'
Then with these words Ninurta said to Enlil:
'Can any of us besides Ea, maker of words,
create such things as speech?'

Then with these words Ea himself said to Enlil:
'Sly god,
sky darkener,
and tough fighter,
160. how dare you drown so many little people
without consulting me?
Why not just kill the one who offended you,
drown only the sinner?

Keep hold of his lifecord; harness his destiny.
Rather than killing rains, set cats at people's throats.
Rather than killing rains, set starvation on dry, parched throats.
Rather than killing rains, set sickness on the minds and hearts
of people.

I was not the one who revealed our god-awful secrets.
Blame Utnapishtim, Mr. Know-it-all,
170. who sees everything,
who knows everything."

"Reflect on these stories, my Gilgamesh."

"Then Enlil swooped down around my boat;
he gently raised me from the slime,
placed my wife beside my kneeling form
and blessed us both at once with hands upon our bowed heads.
So was it ordained.
So we were ordained."

Earlier than that time, Utnapishtim was not divine.
180. Then with his wife he was deified
and sent to rule the place where rivers start.
"Gods sent me everywhere to rule the place where rivers start."

"As for you, Gilgamesh, which gods will be called on
to direct your path and future life?

The Episode of the Special Plant

Utnapishtim says to him, to Gilgamesh,
Gilgamesh, thou hast come hither, toiling and straining.
What shall I give thee that thou mayest return to thy land?
I will disclose, 0 Gilgainesh, a hidden thing,
And . . . about a plant I will tell thee:
This plant, like the buckthorn is its . . .
Its thorns will prick thy hands just as does the rose,
If thy hands obtain the plant, thou wilt attain [eternal] life.'
No sooner had Gilgamesh heard this,
Than he opened the water-pipe,
He tied heavy stones to his feet.
They pulled him down into the deep and there he saw the plant.
He took the plant, though it pricked his hands.
He cut the heavy stones from his feet.
The sea cast him up upon its shore.
Gilgamesh says to. him, to Urshanabi, the boatman:
'Urshanabi, this plant is a plant apart,
Whereby a man may regain his life's breath.
I will take it to ramparted Uruk,
Will cause . . . to eat the plant !
Its name shall be "Man Becomes Young in Old Age."
I myself shall eat (it)
And thus return to the state of my youth.'
After twenty leagues they broke off a morsel,
After thirty (further) leagues they prepared for the night.
Gilgamesh saw a well whose water was cool.
He went down into it to bathe in the water.
A serpent snuffed the fragrance of the plant;
It came up from the water and carried off the plant.
Going back it shed its slough.
Thereupon Gilgamesh sits down and weeps,
His tears running down over his face.
He took the hand of Urshanabi, the boatman:
"Why do I bother working for nothing?
Who even notices what I do?"


The destiny was fulfilled,
which the father of the gods, Enlil of the mountain,
had decreed for Gilgamesh:
"In nether-earth the darkness will show him a light:
of mankind, all that are known, none will leave a monument
for generations to come to compare with Gilgamesh's.
The heroes, the wise men,
like the new moon have their waxing and waning.
Men will say, 'Who had ever ruled with might and with power like Gilgamesh?'
As in the dark months, the month of shadows,
so without him there is no light.
O Gilgamesh, this was the meaning of your dream.
You were given the kingdom such was your destiny.
Because of this do not be sad at heart,
do not be grieved or oppressed;
he has given you power to bind and to loose,
to be the darkness and the light of mankind.
He has given unexampled supremacy over the people,
victory in battle from which no fugitive returns,
in forays and assaults from which there is returning.
But do not abuse your power,
be just with your servants in the palace,
and act justly in the light of day.

Gilgamesh, the son of Ninsun, lies in the tomb.
At the place of offerings he weighed the bread-offering,
at the place of libation he poured out the wine.
In those days the lord Gilgamesh departed,
the son of Ninsun,
the king,
peerless, without an equal among men,
who did not neglect Enlil his master.
O Gilgamesh, lord of Kullab,
Great is thy praise.