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One of the earliest epic stories known today was also one of the most widely circulated throughout the ancient Near East. Fragments of text exist in languages as diverse as Sumerian, Assyrian, and Aramaic. These, combined with fragments of artistic representations, make it easy to imagine that the story, probably in many forms, was known to most people, literate or not, throughout the region from before Sumerian times probably until long after Roman times.
The content of the incomplete version considered “standard” today seems to date from about 1100 BC or so but was found at the archaeological site of the Assyrian capital of Nineveh (near modern Mosul), which dates from the 600s. If Gilgamesh was a real king —which we do not know— he probably reigned sometime about 2500 BC.
The Flood. With the rise of archaeology and the modern rediscovery of the Gilgamesh text in the 1800s, much European interest was focused on its famous “flood story,” immediately identified as almost certainly the inspiration for the story of Noah and his ark that is found in the Bible.
The flood —or anyway some flood or more likely a whole series of floods— no doubt really occurred. Archaeological research has found silt levels in many Mesopotamian sites. That is to be expected, since the lands in the shared valley of the Tigris and Euphrates have always been subject to the whims of those great rivers, including periodic, sometimes disastrous, floods, particularly in the southern, Sumerian region.
(The Biblical tale seems to be set closer to the Mediterranean, in the dry, mountainous land of Canaan, where flooding is unknown. Borrowed legends involving a devastating flood would have been more striking to people in that region, and would be likely to have affected the focus of retellings.)
Mortality. The flood described here is not the point of the story; it is in fact merely a story within a story —a distracting piece that started life as one of the independent traditions that merged into the epic. For the much larger narrative, the message is that all people are mortal, which we all know at some level and which most of us also tend to deny at some level.
In the story, the wise but oppressive king Gilgamesh, a lord among men, befriends the savage Enkidu, a formidable mountain of a person who is created by the gods to soften the rigid Gilgamesh through friendship. They also reason that the need for Gilgamesh to teach Enkidu to be civilized will lead Gilgamesh to be more thoughtful himself.
The two friends have many adventures, but eventually Enkidu’s illness and death plunge Gilgamesh into a profound grief, and then into the realization that, like the once mighty Enkidu, he too must die. His quest for a way to avoid death leads him to a fascinating interview with the only man ever to be allowed immortality (with his wife), and then to the acceptance of human mortality, even for the mighty, and eventually to the death that awaits us all. (Actually, we don’t really know that all versions ended with him accepting the reality of death. Therefore, in the present retelling, that is left hanging.)
Great Literature. Opinions differ on whether the Epic of Gilgamesh should be regarded as a masterwork of world literature. Its antiquity and biblical associations probably contribute more to its reputation than does its actual content, and the “author” of the versions we have in fragments hardly seems to be a Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, or Murasaki Shikibu. However the story’s apparent ancient popularity across a vast territory argues strongly for the importance of its message and the salience of its symbols, at least in the ancient Near East.
For present purposes, only a (slightly choppy) summary of the work is provided, originally published as most of Chapter 5 of E. A. Wallis Budge’s Babylonian Life & History (1883 & 1925). The text has been lightly re-edited here and chapter divisions arbitrarily added. (Chapters 5, 7 and 9 of Budge's book are available in full on this web site. Link)
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Gilgamesh was a great, wise, and learnèd king, and was well acquainted with history. He was a great traveller and a mighty hero, and he had a record of his deeds inscribed on a stone stele. He built the great wall of Erech and the temple of E-Anna. He was part-god and part-man, two-thirds of him being god and one-third man.
His people suffered so greatly from the corvée which he imposed upon them for his construction projects that they cried out to the gods to send them a deliverer, and the gods ordered the goddess Aruru to create one.
She washed her hands, took some clay, spat upon it, and made a man, who was covered with hair; he lived in the forests with the beasts, which he ruled by reason of his mighty stature and strength. He was called Enkidu.
When Gilgamesh heard of him, he sent out a woman to the forest, and she lured him into Erech, where he and Gilgamesh became great friends.
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One day the two friends quarrelled because Gilgamesh wished to go to visit the goddess Ishkhara, and in the fight that took place between them Enkidu was the victor.
It was reported to Gilgamesh that a mighty being called Khumbaba lived in the Forest of Cedars; his voice was like the roar of a storm, his breath was a whirlwind, and his mouth was like that of the gods. Gilgamesh and Enkidu set out to attack Khumbaba, and having reached the Forest of Cedars, they overthrew him there.
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When Gilgamesh returned to Erech he arrayed himself in royal apparel, and the goddess Ishtar saw him and fell in love with him and promised him a gold chariot and horses, the service of kings and nobles, abundant flocks and herds, and the tribute of foreign nations, if he would become her lover.
Gilgamesh rejected her advances, reviled her for her inconstancy, and hurled abusive words at her.
Ishtar went to Anu, the Sky-god, and Antu, her mother, and having complained bitterly of the insults of Gilgamesh, she entreated Anu to make a bull that would destroy him. Anu created a fire-breathing bull which went to Erech and killed many people in the city. Then Gilgamesh and Enkidu went out and killed the bull and presented his horns to the god Lugalbanda.
Soon after this Gilgamesh had a dream in which it seemed that disaster was about to fall upon Enkidu, and shortly afterwards that mighty hero fell sick, and died on the twelfth day of his illness. When Gilgamesh saw his dead body he thought at first that Enkidu was asleep, but when he found that he was dead his grief made him roar like a lioness robbed of her cubs, and he bitterly lamented his brave friend, the “panther of the desert.”
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When his burst of grief was over and he was wandering about the country, the thought struck him that he himself would die one day, and would then be even as was Enkidu.
He dreaded the very idea of death, and determined to consult his ancestor, Uta-Napishtim, who had become immortal, as to the means he must take to escape from it. Where this ancestor lived he did not know, but it was somewhere in the West, and he set out without delay.
He marched to Mount Mashu, fought with animals and men, talked with the Scorpion men, and then went on through a region of darkness, until he arrived in a beautiful garden, in which he saw the tree of the gods.
Here he met the goddess Siduri-Sabitu, and he asked her how he was to find the way to Uta-Napishtim. The goddess told him that the immortal lived in a place beyond the Waters of Death, which no one except the Sun-god had ever crossed, but that Ur-Shanabi, the boatman of Uta-Napishtim, was in her dwelling, and that he should see him.
Gilgamesh sought and found the boatman and, having followed his instructions, set out with him in his boat, and reached the abode of Uta-Napishtim in one month and fifteen days.
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Uta-Napishtim saw the boat coming and went down to meet Gilgamesh. When they had talked together and Gilgamesh had told him that he did not wish to become dust like his friend Enkidu, and asked him how he could escape death. Uta-Napishtim told him that the gods had decreed the fate of every man, and that death was the lot of all men. Then Gilgamesh asked him how it came about that he had obtained immortality, and in answer Uta-Napishtim told him the tale of the Great flood:
Ea Warns of a Coming Flood. The gods who dwelt in Shuruppak, a city on the Euphrates, persuaded the great gods Anu, Enlil (Bêl), Enurta, Ennugi and Ea to make a mighty storm. The god Ea spoke in a dream to Uta-Napishtim, who was sleeping in a reed hut, and told him to tear down his house, to build a ship, to abandon his goods and possessions and to save his life by means of the ship. It was to be as broad as it was long, and to have a roof, and he was to load the ship with all kinds of grain.
Uta-Napishtim replied that he heard and understood his lord’s commands and would fulfill them, but he asked Ea how he was to explain his action to his fellow-townsmen. Ea told him to say that he had incurred the wrath of Enlil, that he must leave Shuruppak and never see it again, and that he was going to sail on the ocean to his lord Ea.
Uta-Napishtim Builds a Great Ship. The next morning Uta-Napishtim made men bring him bitumen and other materials for building the ship; it was 120 cubits high, and the roof had the same dimensions. He plastered it with bitumen, made a steering-pole and its fittings, and provided water-bolts. He slaughtered oxen and sheep for the workmen and supplied them with beer, oil and wine, and celebrated the completion of the ship by making a great feast like that held on New Year’s Day, and anointed himself with unguent.
He then loaded the ship with all his goods and possessions, gold, silver, grain, and sent into it his family and kinsfolk and servants and cattle.
The Storm Strikes. The god Shamash warned him that the great storm would break at eventide and, when the night fell and the storm drew nigh, Uta-Napishtim went up into his ship and shut the door, as Shamash had commanded him; and his pilot Puzur-Bêl took charge of the ship.
At dawn the storm was raging, black clouds covered the sky, lightnings rent the heavens, thunders pealed, and the whirlwind carried away the post of the ship. Darkness was everywhere, and torrents of rain poured down, and the waters reached to the mountains.
The flood swept away the people, who struggled against it as if they were fighting a battle. The gods themselves were terrified at the storm and fled to the highest heaven and cowered by the wall like dogs.
Ishtar lamented bitterly when she saw the bodies of the drowned folk filling the sea “like little fishes,” and the gods joined their wailings to hers and sat down and wept.
The rains descended and the cyclone raged for six days and six nights, but they ceased on the seventh day.
When Uta-Napishtim looked out through the air-hole of the ship he saw water everywhere, for the land was laid flat and men had become mud; and he sat down and wept.
The Storm Ends. Twelve days later they saw an island, and the pilot steered the ship to the land of Nisir, and when it reached the slope of Mount Nisir it grounded and remained fast for six days. On the seventh day Uta-Napishtim sent out a dove from the ship, and though it flew away it came back, for it could not find land on which to alight.
He then sent out a swallow, which flew away, but, like the dove, finding no land on which to alight, came back to the ship.
Next he sent out a raven, which flew away, and, finding ground from which it could peck food, it did not return.
Then Uta-Napishtim came out of his ship and offered up a sacrifice, and poured out a libation on the top of the mountain. The gods smelt the sweet savour of the sacrifice, and gathered together about it like flies. At this moment Ishtar came, and, lifting up her necklace of lapis-lazuli (i.e., the rainbow), which her father Anu had made for her, she swore that she would never forget the days that had just passed, and invited all the gods to partake of the sacrifice, except Enlil, who had made the flood and destroyed her people.
An Impromptu Council of the Gods. But Enlil came, and when he saw the ship and the man who had escaped alive from the flood, he was filled with wrath, and declared that the man should die.
Then Ea asked Enlil how it came about that he refused to be advised and made the flood. Let the man, he said, who is a sinner suffer for his sin, and the transgressor pay for his transgression. But Enlil should be merciful and compassionate, otherwise man and everything else would be destroyed.
“I would” (Ea said) “that a lion, or a wolf, or famine, or plague had come upon man rather than thy storm.”
And in order to save the life of Uta-Napishtim, Ea told Enlil that he had not revealed to Uta-Napishtim the decision of the gods to make a storm, but had only sent him a vision through which the man had found it out.
Enlil apparently agreed to spare the life of Uta-Napishtim, for Ea went up into the ship and, taking him by the hand, led him out with his wife. Then Ea made them to kneel on the ground facing each other, and he stood up between them and blessed them, and pronounced the decree that Uta-Napishtim and his wife, who were mortals, should henceforward be immortal, like the gods, and he assigned to them a place at the mouth of the rivers in which they were to dwell.
In accordance with Ea’s decree, Uta-Napishtim and his wife were taken to a remote place at the mouth of the rivers, and there they dwelt.
Thus Uta-Napishtim obtained immortality, not for any special merit of his own, but because Enlil, having promised the gods of Shuruppak that he would send a storm to destroy the city and its people, would not permit the man who had escaped from the storm to continue his life as a man. Enlil’s word and decree were absolute and must be held to be so by gods and men.
We are not told what Gilgamesh thought of Uta-Napishtim’s Story of the Flood, but it is clear that he was not content with the statement that all men must die at one time or another. And when Uta-Napishtim asked what god would unite him to himself and make him immortal, Gilgamesh had nothing to say.
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The Way of Wakefulness. Knowing the weakness of man’s physical nature, Uta-Napishtim told him to do without sleep for six days and seven nights, but as soon as Gilgamesh sat down he became drowsy and fell asleep, and slept for six days. When Uta-Napishtim pointed this out to his wife, she had pity on Gilgamesh and asked her husband to help him to get back to his home; she baked bread and carried it to the ship, and Uta-Napishtim told Ur-Shanabi to take him back to the place whence he came.
The Way of Medicine. During a conversation about death, Gilgamesh asked his host for advice as to his future proceedings in his quest of immortality. Uta-Napishtim told him that a certain plant, which grew at the bottom of the sea, would, if he ate of it, renew his youth.
Gilgamesh tied stones to his feet and sank himself down to the bottom of the sea and found the plant, and pulled it up and returned to the boat. On his way back to Erech he and Ur-Shanabi passed a pool of cold water, and Gilgamesh decided to take a bath. He placed the plant that renewed youth in a safe place before he entered the pool, but whilst he was in the water a serpent discovered its whereabouts by its smell and ate it. Gilgamesh cursed and wept over his wasted labour and, tired and depressed, he continued his journey.
The Way of the Spirits. In due course he and Ur-Shanabi reached Erech. But the haunting fear of death continued to harass Gilgamesh, and he still hoped to find a way to attain to immortality, and thought that he might discover it among the dead. He consulted the priests, who were ready to help him on certain conditions; what these were we know not, but it is clear that they were unacceptable to him, and that he could not enter the abode of the dead to find immortality.
Then he remembered that his friend Enkidu was among the dead, and he believed that, if only he could see him and talk to him, he might obtain some useful information. As the priests could not help him, he petitioned Enlil (Bêl) to permit the spirit of Enkidu to come to him, but the god did not answer; Gilgamesh petitioned the god Sin, with the same result.
He then petitioned Ea, who, pitying him, ordered Enurta to bring the spirit of Enkidu up to earth. Enurta opened the ground, and the spirit of Enkidu came up; but such answers as it gave to the questions of Gilgamesh afforded him very little satisfaction, and helped him in no way.
Of the history of Gilgamesh after this event nothing is known.
Interactive review quizzes are available covering this reading. You can attempt them as two normal quizzes of 8 questions each (1, 2), or as a single hero version with all 16 questions in one quiz. The versions vary only in how many questions are blocked into a single quiz.
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