Gilgamesh Mesopotamian Mythology
Epic of Gilgamesh 2500 BC (earliest known literary text) • 11 Clay Tablets (story) • 12th tells of Gilgamesh ruling the netherworld • Most important epic poem in human history • Various adventures of hero-king (Gilgamesh) searching for immortality • An account of the flood • Characters • Gilgamesh (2/3 god & 1/3 human) • Enkidu (wild man)
Mesopotamian Societies Sumerians • first major civilization (4000-3000 BCE) • non-Semitic people /language • Uruk (and other cities) • cuneiform writing • elaborate mythology and cult-based mythic poems Babylonians / Akkadians • later (c.1200-600 BCE) • Semitic people, language • myth based on Sumerian myth
Mesopotamian Societies • cuneiform writing Both societies share: • social/political hierarchy with kings as head of state • priestly class who also teach/write/preserve literature • tradition of sacred writings associated with actual rituals • high level of “civilization” (i.e. social structure & material wealth) • irrigation-based agriculture, water resources organized by government
Gods and Goddesses • Sin (the moon), had a higher place in the pantheon than his children • Shamash (the sun), who becomes important as a deity of all-seeing justice • Ishtar (the morning star), whose multifaceted nature includes goddess of sexual love, of justice and warfare, of communal prosperity
Gods and Goddesses • Tammuz (Dumuzi) was Ishtar’s husband – a god who died and was reborn every year. • Ereshkigal was the goddess of the Underworld (Kurnugi). • Ea was the god of fresh water, thus a fertility god; he is often a protective figure (as in the flood myth in Gilgamesh). • Belili, Dumuzi’s sister who takes her brother’s place in the underworld.
Key Themes • Companionship • Death • Immortality • Gods-Humans Relationship • “Meaning of Life” or “Growing Up”
Gilgamesh Gilgamesh is on the Sumerian king-list as one of Uruk’s earliest kings – in the realm of myth. He is featured in several Sumerian myths and in one long poem, the “Epic of Gilgamesh.” This poem was the most popular piece of literature in Mesopotamia, found in many different languages and versions across 2500 years. We discovered it in about 1920. There are two major versions: we are reading the Nineveh version, compiled by a priest in about 800-700 BCE.
Gilgamesh I shall tell the land of the one who learned all things, of the one who experienced everything, I shall teach the whole. He searched lands everywhere. He found out what was secret and uncovered what was hidden, he brought back a tale of times before the flood. He had journeyed far and wide, weary and at last resigned. He built the wall of Uruk. . . One square mile is the city, one square mile is its orchards, one square mile is its claypits, as well as the open ground of Ishtar’s temple.
Gilgamesh Gilgamesh is the son of Lugulbanda and the goddess Ninsun – and he is 2/3 god, 1/3 human. But like all humans he is destined to die. As the poem begins he is king of Uruk, busy building his city ever greater. When the epic opens, Gilgamesh, though “perfect in splendor, perect in strength” is causing problems at home. His excess energy (in building, exploration, and sex – everything in fact) is causing tension among his people, who pray to the gods for relief.
Gilgamesh and Enkidu The gods create Enkidu, a hairy wild man, and place him in the forest near Uruk. He lives like an animal, startling the locals. They send Enkidu to Gilgamesh, who suggests that they tame him by sending him a woman to sleep with. The woman (called Shamhat, a cult name of Ishtar) sleeps with Enkidu– converting him to humanity. Enkidu decides to go to Uruk. Gilgamesh dreams about Enkidu, and his mother Ninsun interprets the dreams. When the two men meet – at a celebration of Ishtar – they fight to a standstill, then become fast friends. They decide to go on a quest to free the Cedar Forest from Humbaba.
Gilgamesh and Enkidu So the heroes represent culture in a battle against nature . . . Everyone advises against fighting Humbaba. Ninsun prays to Shamash: Why did you single out my son Gilgamesh and impose a restless spirit on him? He faces an unknown struggle, he will ride along an unknown road . . . She adopts Enkidu as her son, and entreats him to watch after Gilgamesh. The heroes depart . . . Ellil destined Humbaba to keep the pine forest safe, to be the terror of people . . .
Gilgamesh • What does Gilgamesh have in common with such heroes as Odysseus, Achilles, Hercules, and others modern day heroes? • Is his story (so far) essentially different from theirs in some ways? • You’re reading the poem in fragmentary form so this may be hard to tell but . . . are there essential differences in how this story is told, compared to, say, Homer?
Characteristics of heroic myths • 1. The hero is usually a demi-god, or has a god in his family. • 2. The hero has some kind of super-natural power or has the strong support of a god. • 3. The hero is usually on a quest. He has a task or a challenge (or more than one) that an ordinary mortal could not carry out. • 4, The hero is always seeking fame, glory and most important, honor. These are more important than life itself. • 5. The hero is braver, stronger, bolder and some times more clever than most men. He is close to the gods. • 6. The hero usually has a weakness, usually too much pride or a terrible temper. This can lead to problems for him, and usually to his downfall.
The Cedar Forest When Enkidu touches the gates of the Cedar forest, he feels a supernatural cold and debility, and at first can barely continue. Then Gilgamesh has terrible dreams of destruction, which Enkidu interprets in a favorable light. The heroes battle Humbaba, who asks for mercy. But Enkidu urges Gilgamesh to kill the monster, despite the gods’ possible displeasure. Humbaba cries out: The heroes defeat Humbaba, and return to Uruk in triumph. In Uruk, the goddess Ishtar approaches Gilgamesh to become her lover. Neither one of them shall outlive his friend! Gilgamesh and Enkidu shall never become old men!
Gilgamesh & Ishtar Come to me, Gilgamesh, and be my lover! Bestow on me the gift of your fruit! You can be my husband, I can be your wife. I shall have a chariot of lapis lazuli and gold harnessed for you . . . kings, nobles and princes shall bow down beneath you. . . But Gilgamesh scornfully rejects her: You are a door that can’t keep out winds and gusts, a palace that rejects its own warriors, a waterskin which soaks its carrier . . . which of your lovers lasted forever? Which of your paramours went to heaven?
The Bull of Heaven Enraged, Ishtar sends the Bull of Heaven to ravage Uruk. Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill it, and when Ishtar reviles them, Enkidu also insults her, even throwing the “thigh” of the bull in her face. Inanna calls together the women to mourn the bull – a scene related to fertility ritual. (The Bull of Heaven is the husband of Ereshkigal.)
Gilgamesh & Ishtar What reasons does Gilgamesh give for rejecting the love of Ishtar? Have we seen anything like this in Greek myth? Why is Gilgamesh so hostile to Ishtar, given that he does reject her? How is Ishtar characterized in this exchange – benevolent, cruel, as bad as Gilgamesh says, etc. . . . What do you expect at the conclusion of this episode, when Enkidu and Gilgamesh have both disrespected the goddess?
Enkidu’s death Enkidu gets sick and over 12 days, he dies. He curses the hunter and the prostitute who found him and made him human, but Shamash persuades him not to curse the prostitute. Enkidu has a terrible nightmare: The gods were in council last night. And Anu said to Ellil, “As they have slain the Bull of Heaven, so too have they slain Humbaba: One of them must die.” Enlil replied, “Let Enkidu die, but let Gilgamesh not die.” Then heavenly Shamash said, “Was it not according to your plans?” But Enlil turned in anger to Shamash: “You accompanied them daily, like on of their comrades.” Gilgamesh mourned bitterly for Enkidu his friend, and roved the open country. “Shall I die too? Am I not like Enkidu? Grief has entered my innermost being . . .
Gilgamesh travels to the ends of the earth, through the dark mountain, the pathways of Shamash: He meets Siduri, the (female) innkeeper (another cult name of Ishtar), to whom he pours out his troubles. She directs him to Utnapishtim, and adds: When he had gone one double-hour, thick is the darkness, there is no light; he can see neither behind him nor ahead of him… When he had gone seven double hours, thick is the darkness, there is no light… At the nearing of eleven double-hours, light breaks out. At the nearing of twelve double-hours, the light is steady. As for you, Gilgamesh, let your belly be full, Make merry day and night. Of each day make a feast of rejoicing. Day and night dance and play!
Utnapishtim With the help of the boatman Urshanabi, Gilgamesh travels across the water to Dilmun, the land at the edge of time . . . He cuts 60 saplings for poles, and as each enters the waters, it is eaten away. He finally uses his tattered clothing for a sail and arrives exhausted to Utnapishtim: Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh: • how Ea told him to build a huge arc because a flood was coming; • how built the amazing thing, how he and his family alone of all mortals were saved from the Flood, • how Ishtar mourned the dead; • and how he and his wife came to Dilmun, living as immortals. I crossed uncrossable mountains. I travelled all the seas. No real sleep has calmed my face. I have worn myself out in sleeplessness; my flesh is filled with grief.
READ PP.25-32 Utnapishtim offers Gilgamesh a way to become immortal: Gilgamesh says to him, to Utnapishtim the remote, "as soon as I was ready to fall asleep, right away you touched me and roused me." Test yourself! Don't sleep for six days and seven nights." But as soon as Gilgamesh sits down, he falls asleep. He sleeps for seven days and nights, and each day, Utnapishtim’s wife puts a loaf of bread beside him. The old loaf is rotting when the last one is fresh: a metaphor for the seven decades of human life. But Utnapishtim shows him the loaves, and Gilgamesh realizes that he has failed his quest. Utnapishtim gives Gilgamesh a “consolation prize”: a rejuvenating plant. But on the way home, a snake takes it from him.
Homecoming Go up onto the wall of Uruk, and walk around! Inspect it . . . One square mile is the city, one square mile is its orchards, one square mile is its claypits, as well as the open ground of Ishtar’s temple. Urshanabi accompanies Gilgamesh home, and when they reach the city, Gilgamesh proudly points it out to him: The story's quiet close belies the significance of Gilgamesh's return. He is back where he started but a changed man, his description of Uruk here suggesting in the context a new acceptance of the meaning of the city in his life, an embracing rather than a defiance of the limits it represents… the king has evolved from a hubristic, dominating male into a wiser man, accepting the limitations that his mortal side imposes…[and] his essential kinship with all creatures who must die . Thomas van Nortwick