Epic of Gilgamesh


Epic of Gilgamesh
   The most famous and influential of all the ancient Mesopotamian myths and epic poems, telling the story of the hero Gil-gamesh, the tragic loss of his friend En-kidu, and Gilgamesh's quest to find the secret of eternal life. In the third millennium B.C. the Sumerians had several different minor epics about Gilgamesh and his exploits. Four of these - Gilgamesh and the Land of the Living; Gilgamesh and the Bull of Heaven; Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Netherworld;and The Death of Gilgamesh - were combined into one roughly three-thousand-line poem circa 2000 B.c.byan unknown Babylonian scribe. only scattered fragments of this Babylonian version have survived. About 80 percent of a later Assyrian/Babylonian version was found in the ruins of King Ashurbanipal's library at Nineveh. Divided into twelve tablets, these have become the standard version used in modern translations.
   A carved bust of Huwawa, in mythology the chief guardian of the cedar forest. Erich Lessing/Art Resource,NY
   A Story Within a Story In the truest function of myth, the story explores certain fundamental truths about nature and humanity while capturing the imagination of and entertaining the reader/listener. Gil-gamesh and Enkidu, heroes of epic proportions, represent humanity as a whole and illustrate major ideas or truths that lie at the core of the human experience. As in Greek tragedy, human worth and destiny are questioned, and the heroes must ultimately turn to the gods for answers. But will the gods reveal the deepest, darkest secrets of the universe to puny humans? in particular, will they allow humankind to share with them the gift of immortality? Gilgamesh's attempts to acquire that precious gift lead him to Utnapishtim, or Atrahasis, a wise man and hero who saved humanity by building a large boat that enabled him and a select few people to survive a great flood sent by the gods. In a story within the story, Utnapishtim tells the tale of the flood to Gilgamesh, who is sorely disappointed by what he finds at the end of his ambitious quest.
   Adding extra depth and interest to the epic is the fact that the title character may have been a real sumerian ruler. The su-merian King List mentions a man named Gilgamesh who ruled Uruk, perhaps the oldest of the sumerian cities, in about 2700 b.c. Nothing is known about his reign, but it stands to reason that his deeds were extraordinary enough to cause later generations to remember him as a heroic figure.
   A Rival for an Arrogant King Gilgamesh is anything but a hero in the opening of the story, however. Though physically strong and a skilled, valiant warrior, he is an arrogant and somewhat disreputable person. one of his chief weaknesses is that no single woman can satisfy him; he shows his arrogance and disrespect for others by abducting young women off the streets or from the fields and forcing them to make love to him: "The people of Uruk did lament: 'Is this shepherd of Uruk's flocks protecting the women of other men by himself laying with them?'" (Epic of Gilgamesh 1.2)
   Eventually, when the people of Uruk become completely fed up with Gilgamesh's bad behavior, the great mother goddess, Aruru, Uruk's patron deity, intervenes. The city's elders ask her to create a rival for Gilgamesh, someone who can match his great strength and fighting skill. Let that rival challenge Gilgamesh and teach him a lesson, they plead, so that their city might live in peace and security. Aruru agrees to do this for the people of her city. she exits her splendid temple, departs Uruk, and goes to the riverbank.
   There, she takes some moist clay and fashions a primitive man, Enkidu, whose body is naked and covered by hair. At first Enkidu goes out into the fields with the cattle and chomps on grass and drinks from a watering hole with other wild beasts.
   The arrival of a wild man in the countryside near Uruk does not go unnoticed, of course. Word soon reaches Gil-gamesh. The curious king decides to bring Enkidu into the city and tries to civilize him. Gilgamesh sends a beautiful young woman out to lure the wild man into Uruk. In the months that follow, Enkidu lives in Gilgamesh's palace, where servants cut his hair, dress him in fine clothes, and teach him proper table manners. Fulfilling Gilgamesh's plan, the former wild man steadily becomes civilized. But as it turns out, Enkidu becomes even more civilized than the king. This is inevitable because Aruru has instilled in Enkidu a powerful sense of right and wrong and justice. One night Gilgamesh invites Enkidu to go for a walk through the city with him and some other companions. When the king is about to enter a house without being invited, Enkidu bars his way and says that Gil-gamesh has no business barging into someone's private dwelling. Furious at being told what to do by one of his subjects, Gilgamesh jumps at Enkidu and a ferocious fight ensues:
   Each body on the other did meet with ... heavy blows. Stray swings [of their fists] did the door break, did the door jamb break, and the walls did crack. On to the streets did the pair wrestle, wild heart to wild heart. Doors fell, corners [of walls] were broken off, stalls knocked down, and still on they fought. They fought to the city gates, which trembled with their blows. (Epic of Gilgamesh 2.3)
   The fight ends in a draw, and Gilgamesh is astounded to find that his opponent can match him in strength, fighting skill, and courage. The two become instant, inseparable friends. And with Enkidu as a moral example, Gilgamesh suddenly sees how wrong his past behavior had been and becomes a model ruler, inspiring cheers and praises from his subjects.
   A Heroic Mission The people of Uruk are not the only ones who notice the new friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu and the improvements in the king's behavior. Indeed, the gods heartily approve of Gilgamesh's transformation into a hero. Shamash, god of the Sun, suggests that the two friends embark on a heroic mission - to kill a monstrous giant named Huwawa (rendered Hawawa in some texts) who has been terrorizing the land of the Cedar Mountain, which lies far to the west of the Mesopotamian plains. Gilgamesh and Enkidu agree to do so and journey to the cedar forest that blankets the slopes of the Cedar Mountain. Somehow, Huwawa has heard that the heroes are coming and is prepared to fight them. There is a terrible battle in the forest; many trees come crashing to the ground, and the god Sha-mash unleashes a mighty wind on Hu-wawa.
   Hawawa fell to his knees . . . [and] cried out: "I, Hawawa, [will become] your servant. I will cut down the trees for you. Shamash has blown me down. . . . Gilgamesh you are king of Uruk. I, Hawawa can guard the wood for Uruk's gates." Enkidu with a mighty roar did say: "The demon lies. He must be killed." . . . Gilgamesh did take heart from Enkidu's words . . . [and] with his sword did slice into Hawawa's neck from the right. . . . So Enkidu with his ax did chop into Hawawa's neck from the left. And Hawawa's tongue spoke never more. (Epic of Gilgamesh 5.4)
   After killing the giant, Gilgamesh and Enkidu are congratulated and praised by the people who live in the region.
   Gilgamesh's Grief Thetwo humanheroes soon face situations even more harrowing than the fight with Huwawa. Ishtar, goddess of love, tries to take Gilgamesh as a lover, and when he refuses she tries to punish him by causing a giant bull to attack the city of Uruk. Gilgamesh and En-kidu come to the rescue and slay the bull. However, this only makes Ishtar angrier. She proceeds to cast a lethal curse on En-kidu, which makes him fall ill and die. Completely devastated, Gilgamesh mourns and calls upon all things, living or nonliving, to mourn, too:
   Gilgamesh on [Enkidu] looked and fell to weeping like a child. May every wild beast mourn for Enkidu, both predator and prey. May the mountain, the hill, the valley, the very fertile earth mourn for Enkidu. May the trees, and the grass and moss on every rock mourn for Enkidu. May the water in the sea, in the lake, in the rivers, in the dew mourn for Enkidu. May old men, may young men who fought the Bull, may children and women of every kind mourn for En-kidu. (Epic of Gilgamesh 8.2)
   Still grieving, Gilgamesh goes out into the desert and wanders for many weeks, all the while thinking about death and how it can take away a person forever when least expected. If the good and courageous Enkidu can die, Gilgamesh decides, then all people everywhere must someday face death. Yet there has to be some way to keep this terrible fate from coming to pass. Suddenly, Gilgamesh realizes what his greatest and most heroic mission must be - to hunt down the secret of immortality so that he might save humanity from the terrible fate of death. But where should he search for this highly coveted secret? There is a rumor that the gods have awarded eternal life to the former king of Shuruppak - Utnapishtim, whom some called Atrahasis, the "wise one." This old man dwells far to the west of Mesopotamia on an island in the great sea, now called the Mediterranean.
   The Quest for Immortality Gilgamesh makes the long, difficult, and dangerous journey to Mt. Mashu, the home of the god Shamash. To get to the sea, which lies on the far side of the mountain, the man sees that he must pass through a tunnel that goes clear through the bowels of the mountain. However, the tunnel's entrance is guarded by an army of scary scorpion-men. These creatures tell Gilgamesh to go away, but he fearlessly strides right up to the leader of the scorpion-men and introduces himself. Gilgamesh explains the nature of his mission, which, if successful, will benefit the scorpion-men as much as it will humans. So the chief scorpion-man allows him to enter the tunnel. It is so dark inside that Gilgamesh has to feel his way through, running his hands along the slimy rock walls.
   Reaching the far side of the mountain, Gilgamesh finds himself in a fragrant garden tended by Siduri, a goddess known for her wisdom. Siduri attempts to convince the man that he should turn around and go back to Uruk. The waters around the forbidden island are deadly, she tells him. But Gilgamesh refuses to listen to reason and persuades the goddess to take him to Utnapishtim's boatman. The boatman helps Gilgamesh into his vessel, and the two sail over the waves for more than a month.
   Eventually they reached the fabled island, and Gilgamesh enters Utnapishtim's mansion, which stands on a tall bluff overlooking the sea. Gilgamesh sees that Utnapishtim has a bald, wrinkled head and a long white beard. The old man is well aware of his visitor's identity and the reason for his journey. Utnapishtim wastes no time in telling Gilgamesh the story of how he became the only immortal human being. In the dim past, Utnapishtim recalls, he rose to the challenge when the human race was threatened by a flood sent by the gods. The god Ea had warned Utnapishtim about the coming deluge and told him to build a large boat. Put aboard it the seeds of all the living things on the face of the earth, Ea had ordered. Utnapishtim did as the god commanded, built the ark, and then loaded it:
   We loaded up the living things and then my gold, jewels, [and] every precious thing. We loaded up every household man, woman and child. We grasped sixty poles in our hands and pushed the boat towards the setting sun. We pushed then pulled the ungainly boat till solid in the river water did it lay. And in the sky the dark water heavy clouds did form as Ea had foretold. (Epic of Gilgamesh 11.2)
   For six days and seven nights the wind howled, torrents of rain flooded down onto the land, and millions of people and animals drowned, Utnapishtim tells Gil-gamesh. Finally, on the seventh day, the storm subsided and Utnapishtim looked out upon a devastated world. To reward him for saving the remnants of humanity, one of the gods gave him and his wife - but no other humans - the gift of immortality.
   Because eternal life has been a special gift, Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh, it is not possible for all people to acquire immortality. Yet Gilgamesh insists that the old man tell him where to find the "flower of youth," which will give eternal life to anyone who tastes it. The flower grows at the bottom of the sea, says Utnapishtim, at such a depth that no mortal person can hold his breath long enough to reach it. Gilgamesh's strength and courage is greater than that of most mortals, however, so he dives into the sea and brings up the magical flower.
   After thanking Utnapishtim, Gilgamesh sets out for home, intent on bringing the gift of immortality to his people. Many months pass. When he is only a few miles from Uruk, he stops to rest beside a small lake. Unfortunately for humanity, Gil-gamesh makes the mistake of putting the magical flower down for a moment; when he does, a snake snatches it and slithers away. No matter how hard he tries, Gilgamesh is never able to find the snake. The greatest human hero fails in his most difficult quest. Yet he learns an equally great truth, namely that only the gods are immortal, while human beings, no matter how powerful, good, or brave, must face death in the end.

Ancient Mesopotamia dictioary. . 2015.

Look at other dictionaries:

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