The Epic of Gilgamesh

The Epic of Gilgamesh, an epic poem from Mesopotamia, is amongst the earliest surviving works of literature, perhaps, the oldest written story on Earth. It tells the tail of the Hero King Gilgamesh, a demigod of superhuman strength who built the city walls of Uruk to defend his people from external threats, and travelled to meet the sage Utnapishtim, who had survived the Great Deluge. He is usually described as two-thirds god and one third man.

The story centers on a friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Enkidu is a wild man created by the gods as Gilgamesh’s equal to distract him from oppressing the people of Uruk.

Gilgamesh is the legendary Sumerian King. He is the son of Lugalbanda, the 3rd King of Uruk, and of a goddess, Ninsun. Born into great wealth with more divinity than most demigods, Gilgamesh grows into a conceited and tyrannical ruler. His subjects, feeling this reign too harsh, pray to Anu, the King of Sumerian gods, for assistance. Anu, recognizing Gilgamesh’s cruelty as a consequence of boredom, creates a wild-man, Enkidu, as a diversion and rival for The King of Heroes.
Enkidu becomes a lord of beasts, fiercely attacking those who would hunt his animals. A trapper, irritated with the troublesome Enkidu, seeks the advice of Gilgamesh, who recommends the aid of a priestess, Shamhat. Enkidu is “civilized” through Shamhat’s seduction, and becomes forever shunned from the beasts he once protected. He then lives a quiet life aiding trappers and shepherds, but his wanderlust drives him to the Sumerian capital of Uruk. He is attracted to a wedding, where he overhears a boastful Gilgamesh exclaim his right to sleep with the new virgin bride. As Gilgamesh approaches the lover’s bedroom, a furious Enkidu bars his entry, and the two men engage in a wrestling competition.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu are evenly matched, but Gilgamesh briefly attains an advantageous position and manages to pin Enkidu. Impressed by his opponent’s prowess, Enkidu compliments Gilgamesh, and the two swear an oath of friendship. Gilgamesh proposes an adventure into the Cedar Forest to slay the demigod Humbaba, a guardian of gods. Following a tremendous battle, Humbaba is beguiled by Gilgamesh into lowering his defenses, allowing Gilgamesh to quickly restrain the brute. Although Enkidu was initially averse to killing the giant, he realizes Gilgamesh will become world famous for Humbaba’s death, and despite Humbaba’s pleas for mercy, Gilgamesh decapitates him. They then cut down the tallest Cedar trees and, using the lumber, build a raft on which they sail down the Euphrates back and back to Uruk.

Impressed by his heroic feat, the goddess Ishtar appears to Gilgamesh and offers him the opportunity to become her mortal consort. Gilgamesh rebuffs her advances, citing a host of mortal men who have romanced the goddess and met grisly ends. Flustered at her rejection, Ishtar asks her father, Anu, to send the Bull of Heaven to kill Gilgamesh and destroy Uruk. The bull rampages around Sumeria for several years, but with Enkidu’s aid, Gilgamesh proves capable enough to restrain and butcher it.

Outraged by the death of a divine beast, Ishtar demands either Gilgamesh or Enkidu be killed as retribution. The god Shamash appeals for their lives; Gilgamesh is spared, but the unfortunate Enkidu is condemned to die for meddling with divine will. Shortly after this trial, Enkidu is stricken with a dire illness and suffers for twelve days. During his last moments, he foresees a grim afterlife in a dream, and curses those who originally cultivated him. Gilgamesh mourns Enkidu’s lifeless body for many days, and fearful of meeting the same fate, embarks on a quest for immortality.

Gilgamesh seeks out Utnapishtim, a former King of Shuruppak who survived The Deluge by constructing an Ark as advised by the god Ea. In repentance for the genocide of mankind, the Sumerian Gods gift Utnapishtim with immortality and spirit him away to Dilmun, the End of the World. After journeying over Mount Mashu and through a Garden of Gems, Gilgamesh crosses the River of Death and meets Utnapishtim.

Utnapishtim explains that immortality can be achieved if Gilgamesh remains awake for six days and seven nights; Gilgamesh makes the attempt, but soon succumbs to fatigue. Gilgamesh is frustrated with his failure, but Utnapishtim offers an alternative; a magical herb, which only grows on the ocean floor surrounding Dilmun, will bestow eternal youth onto whoever consumes it. Gilgamesh successfully retrieves the plant, but doubtful the shrub’s properties, decides to test his prize on the elders of Uruk.

On the journey back, a serpent consumes the precious ambrosia while Gilgamesh bathes; horrified, he weeps at his loss. Upon arrival in Uruk, Gilgamesh stares at the imposing city walls he built and realizes mortal men cannot escape destiny, for true immortality can only be achieved through the legends dead men leave behind.