Gilgamesh. Mesopotamian Mythology. Mesopotamian Societies. Sumerians first major civilization (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)
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Gilgamesh is on the Sumerian king-list as one of Uruk’s earliest kings – in the realm of myth.
He features in several Sumerian myths (such as the one with Inanna’s hulupu tree), and in one long poem, the “Epic” of Gilgamesh.
This poem is the most popular pieceof 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.
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 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.
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 to Gilgamesh, who suggests thay they tame him by sending him a woman to sleep with.
The woman (called Shamhat, a cult name of Ishtar) sleeps with him – converting him to humanity. Enkidu decides to go to Uruk.
Gilgamesh dreams about him, 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 of Humbaba.
So the heroes represent culture in theis battle against nature . . .
Everyone advises against it. 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 . . .
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!
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?
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 type scene related to fertility ritual. (The Bull of Heaven is the husband of
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 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!
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:
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.
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."
Utnapishtim offers Gilgamesh a way to become immortal:
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.
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