The Epic of Gilgamesh, also known as the Izdubar Epic, recounts the adventures of the historical king Gilgamesh who ruled the ancient Mesopotamian city of Uruk (modern day Iraq) around 2750 BCE. Written in cuneiform on baked clay tablets, its first fragments were discovered in the ruins of Nineveh (modern day Mosul) in 1853 although it wasn’t deciphered or translated until many years later.
Written over 3,500 years ago, the poem continues to resonate. It speaks to us about love, grief over the death of a beloved, despair, fear of death, and overweening arrogance. It raises questions about the nature of good and evil and illustrates the law of unintended consequences.
In brief, the story is as follows:
The poem opens in the city of Uruk with a description of Gilgamesh who is part man, part god. He terrorizes his people with his boundless energy, selfishness, and voracious appetite for women. The people plead to the gods for help. The gods respond by fashioning a man from the earth, Enkidu. Enkidu lives in the wild with animals. He is Adam before the Fall, innocent, uncivilized, natural, naked, and peaceful.
Gilgamesh hears of the existence of Enkidu and sends the trapper with Shamhat, a priestess from the temple of Ishtar, to seduce Enkidu. Gilgamesh assumes Enkidu’s initiation through sex will cause him to be rejected by animals and force him to join the company of civilized humans. All goes according to plan. Enkidu succumbs to Shamhat’s seductive wiles, is introduced to civilization, and eventually goes to Uruk where he encounters Gilgamesh.
After their initial contact, (which can best be described as a ferocious battle between two giants), Gilgamesh and Enkidu establish a bond that transcends friendship. They share adventures and exploits. Together they journey to the Cedar Forest and kill Humbaba, the guardian of the forest. They kill the Bull of Heaven sent by the goddess Ishtar to punish Gilgamesh for rejecting her offer of marriage. Angered by these actions, the gods decide someone must pay for the humiliation. They cast the eyes of death on Enkidu. So Enkidu dies, but not before he endures twelve days of excruciating agony.
Gilgamesh falls into deep despair at the death of his beloved and decides to embark on an epic journey to meet with his ancestor Utnapishtim to learn from him how he was able to conquer death. Overcoming many challenges on his journey, he arrives at the garden of the gods where he encounters Siduri, the wine-maker of the gods. She gives him some choice words of wisdom, which Gilgamesh promptly ignores.
Eventually, Gilgamesh comes face to face with Utnapishtim and asks him the burning question: How did you cheat death? Utnapishtim’s response includes a description of the Great Flood, a description that serves as the precursor for the Flood story in Genesis. Gilgamesh returns to Uruk where he is embraced as a hero. The poet concludes by praising Gilgamesh as a king who ruled his people with compassion and wisdom.
This very brief summary doesn’t begin to do the poem justice. The Epic of Gilgamesh is a great work of literature and must be read in its entirety to be fully appreciated. There are many translations available for those who wish to delve into it, but my absolute favorite by far is Stephen Mitchell’s Gilgamesh.
Rather than discussing the ins and outs of the whole poem, I aim to focus on three specific episodes: the killing of Humbaba, the victory strut after killing the Bull of Heaven, and the advice of Siduri. My next post will address the killing of Humbaba.