The Epic of Gilgamesh is considered one of the first works of literature. Dated at around 2600BC it tells the story of Gilgamesh, King of Uruk (present day Iraq), and his adventures and growth as a person. What makes this such an interesting story for me however, is not the slaying of demonic trolls and giant bulls (as cool as this is) but rather the themes that exist in a story just under 5000 years old are still themes that are prominent today. Life, death, love, fear, sex, humility, glory and redemption are just some of the things covered in this story. The life of the ancient man at its core was not too different to the life of modern man.
This post will offer a condensed version of the epic, broken up over two parts, however if you enjoy it, I would strongly recommend reading the original translation (numerous sources online). There is something special about reading a story that was first being told over 4000 years ago. I hope I do the ancients justice.
One of the clay tablets the Epic was written on. This one is on display at the British Museum.
GILGAMESH was born one third man and two thirds god. He ruled Uruk at a time when gods and mortals associated freely with one another. As king of Uruk, he helped build a magnificent city with high walls and extravagant buildings. It was the jewel of Sumer. Gilgamesh was a strong, handsome man who despite his endeavours in building such a magnificent city was hated by his people. He was mean and merciless and would often work people to near death in his pursuit of building such a grand kingdom. He also felt he had the divine right to sleep with any woman who he fancied. Grooms had to give up their newly wed brides to Gilgamesh and if there was any protest these poor sods would be put to death. The people called out to the gods to save them from this tyrant. Hearing the cries of the people the goddess of creation Aruru, created a man that would match Gilgamesh in strength and bring this man to his knees. This man was called Enkidu.
Enkidu was a wild man. He was covered in hair and would live with the gazelles in the fields. He would eat grass and berries and have no understanding that he was more than an animal. One day a hunter spotted Enkidu and was dismayed that this wild man was destroying the hunters traps. The hunter’s son goes off to Uruk to speak to Gilgamesh and obtain a prostitute to come and tame this wild man. Gilgamesh sends the prostitute Shamhat, to seduce this man and thus turn him from nature and bring him into the civilised world. Shamhat waited by the watering hole for three days before Enkidu showed up. Mesmerized by the form of a woman Enkidu has a great 7 nights and 6 days of having sex with Shamhat. Enkidu then returns to the wild to find out the animals have now rejected him. Weakened by his realisation that he is now a man of the world Enkidu returns dejected to Shamhat who then convinces him to return to Uruk with him. Enkidu agrees and it isn’t long before he hears the tales of Gilgamesh and how he feels the need to sleep with any woman he desires. Enkidu is horrified by these stories and decides to put an end to Gilgamesh’s transgression meanwhile Gilgamesh is having dreams and visions of a man who he will become brothers with.
On his way to sleep with a newly wed bride Enkidu blocks the path into the house. A fight ensues in which eventually Gilgamesh prevails, however, it serves to show that Gilgamesh is not invincible and must change his ways. Gilgamesh, humbled by the experience, becomes a better person and a better king to his people. The two instantly become friends and after a certain amount of years they become inseparable. However, Gilgamesh eventually becomes bored with life and needs a new challenge. So naturally he proposes that they go on an adventure to the cedar forest to slay the guardian of the forest, Humbaba. Through this, he feels they will obtain glory and will be remembered forever. Now Humbaba is a giant, demonic troll who was created by by the god Enlil to guard the forest and generally to strike terror in the hearts of men. Enkidu is not thrilled at the idea, in fact he tries his utmost to dissuade his friend of such a foolish endeavour that will almost certainly result in death. Gilgamesh however, is staunch in his stance and tells Enkidu he will do it with or without him. So, feeling as though he has no choice, Enkidu agrees to go with him to slay the beast. Before they do this they go off to visit Gilgamesh’s mother who blesses the two and adopts Enkidu and tells him he must look after him. He agrees and the two set off but not before offering a sacrifice of tears to the god Shamash.
Gilgamesh and Enkidu battle Humbaba.
To get to Humbaba they need to travel deep into the cedar forest, deeper than any man has travelled before and as they get closer to the monster, fear starts engulfing both men. They find strength in each other and keep venturing deeper and deeper. Every night as they camp out, Gilgamesh has terrifying dreams which seem to worry him but Enkidu tells him that they are good omens and not ones of doom that Gilgamesh believes. They get closer and closer and as they do can hear the screams and bellows of the monster awaiting them. At one point, Enkidu seems to have succumbed to his fear and begged Gilgamesh to go back with him, to which Gilgamesh replies “Dear friend, do not speak like a coward. Have we got the better of so many dangers and travelled so far, to turn back at last? You, who are tried in wars and battles, hold dose to me now and you will feel no fear of death: keep beside me and your weekness will pass, the trembling will leave your hand. Would my friend rather stay behind? No, we will, go down together into the heart of the forest. Let your courage be roused by the battle to come; forget death and follow me, a man resolute in action, but one who is not foolhardy”. So they went forth. When close enough Gilgamesh took an axe and chopped down a cedar tree. Humbaba heard the felled tree and called out who dares chop down my trees? Now Enkidu gives Gilgamesh strength at his time of weakness and the pair go on. Finally they are face to face with the monster and battle begins. Spurred by the battle the pair battle valiantly but it seems to no avail as Humbaba is just too strong. Gilgamesh cries out to the god Shamash who sends seven winds which neutralise the demon giant. Gilgamesh and Enkidu gain the upper hand and capture Humbaba. The giant pleads for his life, claiming he was forced into this life by the gods. Gilgamesh takes pity on the monster and is about to grant him his freedom when Enkidu tells him that the monster must die. If he is let loose he will take revenge on us and the people and will send famine and floods among other things. So the two take their axes and strike Humbaba three times in the neck, decapitating the monster of the cedar forest and thus returning home to Uruk as heroes.
Gilgamesh slaying Gugalanna.
Upon their return both men’s popularity soars. Gilgamesh in particular becomes loved by everyone, he did after all slay the beast Humbaba. As happens when you slay a monster women start to gather around. One particular woman, a goddess for that matter, was especially smitten with Gilgamesh. Ishtar was a woman (goddess) who usually got what she wanted and she wanted Gilgamesh. However our hero had other ideas. Gilgamesh while recognising her beauty, dismisses the goddess’ advances as he knows that eventually she will tire of him like she has tired of all the other men who had loved her in the past. So politely, he says thanks but no thanks and goes on his way. The goddess, infuriated by the rejection demands her father Anu (a god himself) to send Gugalanna, the giant bull of heaven to avenge her. Anu refuses, as it he knows her demands our completely unreasonable. At this Ishtar then threatens to “bring up the dead to eat food like the living, and the dead will outnumber the living”. Anu feels at this point he has no choice so he sends the giant bull down to Earth to kill Gilgamesh. Ishtar leads the bull to Uruk, causing mass destruction on the way. When they arrive our two heroes are waiting and the battle ensues. Enkidu takes the bull by the horns and the two quickly gain the upper hand. Gilgamesh then strikes the final blow with his sword and kills the bull of heaven. They cut out Gugalanna’s heart and offer it to the god Shamash. Ishtar, watching from the great wall of screamed out “woe to Gilgamesh for he has scorned me in killing the Bull of Heaven“. Enkidu on hearing this ripped the right thigh of the bull and tossed it at the goddess claiming “If I could lay my hands on you, it is this I should to you, and lash the entrails to your sides“. Angry, beaten and shamed, Ishtar returns to the heavens and seeks a council.
At this point of our story, the gods are quite angry at both Gilgamesh and Enkidu. They are becoming too big for their own shoes and the fact they have killed Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven means that they must be punished. It is decided that one of the heroes must die. Despite the protests of Shamash, it is decided that Enkidu will be the one who bites the dust. Very soon after, Enkidu is engulfed with a sickness and his health quickly deteriorates. At first he curses the world and all those around him. He is bitter, cynical and angry. He wishes that he had stayed in the wilds with the animals but he is quickly reminded that if he was still in the wilds, he would have never met his brother, Gilgamesh. Enkidu comes to terms with his own mortality however Gilgamesh struggles with his friends imminent death.
This next part is taken directly from the epic, as I feel it is important and moving. It deals with the moment Gilgamesh finds his friend dead.
He touched his heart but it did not beat, nor did he lift his eyes again. When Gilgamesh touched his heart it did not beat. So Gilgamesh laid a vel, as one veils the bride, over his friend. He began to rage like a lion, like a lioness robbed of her whelps. This way and that he paced around the bed, he tore out his hair and strewed it around. He dragged off his splendid robes and flung them down like they were abominations.
In the first light of dawn Gilgamesh cried out “I made you rest on a royal bed, you reclined on a couch at my left hand, the princes of the earth kissed your feet. I will cause the people of Uruk to weep over you and raise the dirge of the dead. The joyful people will stoop with sorrow; and when you have gone down to the earth I will let my hair grown long for your sake, I will wander the wilderness in the skin of a lion” The next day also, in the first light, Gilgamesh lamented; seven days and seven nights he wept for Enkidu, until the worm fastened on him. Only then he gave him up to the earth, for the Anunnaki, the judges had seized him.
COMING UP – Gilgamesh stricken by grief roams the earth in search for eternal life.