King of Uruk
Gilgamesh is featured in several Sumerian
myths, including:
•Inanna’s hulupu tree
•the “Epic” of Gilgamesh.
This poem is the most popular piece of
literature in Mesopotamia, found in
many different languages and versions
across 2500 years. It was “discovered” by
westerners about 1920.
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, perfect 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
Ninsun, goddess
of dream s and
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 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 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.
Gilgamesh and Enkidu
The heroes represent culture in
theis battle against nature . . .
Everyone advises against it.
Ninsun prays to Shamash (god
of the sun and justice):
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 . .
Ellil destined Humbaba to
keep the pine forest safe, to
be the terror of people . . .
She adopts Enkidu as her son, and
entreats him to watch after
Gilgamesh. The heroes depart . . .
•What does Gilgamesh have in
common with such heroes as
Odysseus, Achilles, Heracles,
and others?
•Is his story (so far) essentially
different from theirs in some
•You’re reading the poem in
fragmentray form so this may
be hard to tell but . . . are
there essential differences in
how this story is told,
compared to, say, Homer?
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
Neither one of them shall outlive
his friend! Gilgamesh and Enkidu
shall never become old men!
The heroes defeat
Humbaba, and return
to Uruk in triumph.
In Uruk, the goddess
Ishtar approaches
Gilgamesh to become
her lover.
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 type scene
related to fertility ritual. (The Bull of Heaven is the husband of
Gilgamesh & Ishtar
What reasons does Gilgamesh
give for rejecting the love of
Ishtar? Have we seen anything
like this in other myths?
Why is Gilgamesh so hostile to
Ishtar, given that he does reject
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 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.”
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.
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
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.
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:
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 Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh:
edge of time . . .
•how Ea told him to build a
He cuts 60 saplings for poles, and as hige arc because a flood was
each enters the waters, it is eaten
away. He finally uses his tattered
•how built the amazing thing,
clothing for a sail and arrives
how he and his family alone
exhausted to Utnapishtim, king of
of all mortals were saved from
the Flood,
I crossed uncrossable
•how Ishtar mourned the
mountains. I travelled all the
seas. No real sleep has calmed
my face. I have worn myself
• and how he and his wife
out in sleeplessness; my flesh is
came to Dilmun, living as
filled with grief.
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.
Gilgamesh says to him, to
Utnapishtim the remote,
"as soon as I was ready to
fall asleep, right away you
touched me and roused
But Utnapishtim shows him
the loaves, and Gilgamesh
realizes that he has failed his
Utnapishtim gives Gilgamesh
a “consolation prize”: a
rejuvenating plant. But on
the way home, a snake takes it
from him.
Urshanabi accompanies
Gilgamesh home, and
when they reach the city,
Gilgamesh proudly
points it out to 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.
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