The Epics of Gilgamesh
Origin Stories from Sumer
About 30 years ago, back around 1986, I spent a lot of time in libraries reading through anthropology, history and mythology books looking for the origin of origin stories. I was writing my own role playing universe (and system) and developing the back story. I was looking for something different and wanted to create something I could call my own without being accused of adopting any of the stories from the time. I traced lines back to Sumer, thousands of years before our Western origin stories and to when it was thought the first records began.
The stories were muddled, and there was both confusion and disagreement between many of the scholars of the time, and thirty years ago there was no Internet, no Google and few sources. I had to build my own interpretation from the often conflicting views. Some I correlated with stories from Babylonian or Egyptian lore, some I discounted as originating at a later time (as some books discussed multiple mythologies), and some I retained as I believed they were true to the period.
Central to all of them was Gilgamesh, the shepherd king of Erech. And so his epic tales began …
He was as strong as the savage bull, the most splendid amongst heroes and the most glorious amongst men. His strength was unrivalled and he had the most extraordinary good looks. This was probably due to his being of the offspring of the gods and man. His mother was the goddess Ninsun and his father the king Lugalbanda.
His restlessness and desire for adventure made him tyrannical and he frequently bullied his subjects. The people disliked this but would not appeal to the gods since he was part them. But the gods saw the displeasure and set about teaching Gilgamesh a lesson.
Gilgamesh and Enkidu
Ninhursag was called upon to fashion a wild man to overcome Gilgamesh and put him in his place. This she did, and he was named Enkidu, wild man of the plains. Enkidu was long haired and uncultured and would not fit in with the world of man where Gilgamesh lived. So he came upon a woman of Erech who took him in and tamed the wild spirit, and what Enkidu lost in muscle he gained in mental and spiritual powers. Enkidu was now prepared to subdue the arrogance of Gilgamesh. The animals he once knew as his friends had left him now, frightened of the changed ways.
Gilgamesh was not unready to meet his adversary, for he had dreamt of him and was prepared. They met outside a great hall and Gilgamesh immediately challenged Enkidu to an orgy of food and drink therein. He who remained on his feet the longest was the winner and the respected of the two. However, Enkidu’s teachings led him to condone this action since he felt it beneath his stature as a citizen to partake of such degrading sport and requested that a better way sought to settle the conflict. He spoke to Gilgamesh and tried to get him to see the futility of such a contest and would not let him in the hall.
The mighty titans drew swords, Gilgamesh had taken as much verbal abuse as he could stand. They fought for an age, and when Gilgamesh was about to be beaten he summoned up his strength and brought it under control, fell upon Enkidu, his arm upon his shoulder, and proclaimed him his friend.
This is how the two became eternal friends and constant companions, Enkidu counsellor to Gilgamesh.
Gilgamesh and Agga
Agga, king of Kish, a city foremost in the land before the Great Deluge, was becoming worried about the growing strength of Erech. So he sent an envoy to Gilgamesh to suggest that he submit to the overlordship of Kish or prepare for war. Gilgamesh did not submit to this suggestion and immediately made ready for war. He went to the elders of the town, but they rejected him and were willing to submit. Undaunted, Gilgamesh went below the High Counsel to the Lower House of the Assembly; the populace. He convinced them that war was the only way to show Kish that Erech was not a weak-willed nation and would not submit to their every whim.
Shortly after the envoy returned to Kish they besieged Erech. Gilgamesh turned to his people and asked for a volunteer, strong of heart, to go outside the city and talk with Agga. Birhurturre was the volunteer and was promptly captured as he set foot outside the city gates. He was tortured and spoke of the great king of Erech, but this did not frighten the soldiers of Kish, and they mocked his words.
Hearing the mocking cries of the soldiers outside the walls Gilgamesh climbed to the top. At the appearance of his mighty brow and strong face, the armies were overcome, and Agga restrained them. Gilgamesh was impressed by Agga’s control, and the people of Erech saw Gilgamesh’s respect and respected him more. The two talked and the cities became companions, neither bowing to the others rules.
Gilgamesh and the Nether Worlds
Ishtar had planted a willow tree to grow and be used in the making of a great throne for her to sit upon. But the tree grew with no foliage and its height was stunted, for the snake who knows no charm nested within its roots, the Imdugud bird placed its young in the crown of the tree and in its heart Lilith made her home.
Unhappy, Ishtar turned to her brother, Utu, but he would stand not by her in this matter. Depressed, she turned now to Gilgamesh and he put on his armour and took up his mighty axe. He struck down the snake at its roots with one mighty blow and the Imdugud bird took flight with its young to the mountains and Lilith tore down her house and fled.
Gilgamesh pulled down the tree and gave its trunk to Ishtar for her throne. From the roots she made a drum (Pukku) and from its crown a drumstick (Mikku) for Gilgamesh. But he used them not for pleasure, but to call the people of Erech to battle. In every street lay dead, captives and widows. Young maidens cried for their lost husbands. To show Gilgamesh that he had now gone too far, the gods took Pukku and Mikku and tossed them down into the underworld. Gilgamesh tried in vain to recover them from the Netherworlds. He sat by the gates to the underworld and wept. Enkidu consoled Gilgamesh and said that he would retrieve the drum and stick for him. Gilgamesh agreed with great haste at this suggestion but warned Enkidu that he:-
Wear not clean clothes,
Anoint himself not with clean oils
Tie not sandals on his feet
And raise not a cry in the Nether World
Lest the cry of the Nether World hold you fast.
But Enkidu heeded not the words of Gilgamesh and was caught in the Netherworld. Stricken with grief Gilgamesh journeyed to Nippur and appealed to Enlil for help, but to no avail. So Gilgamesh travelled on to Eridu to appeal to Enki. Enki stood by Gilgamesh and called on Utu to open the gate and raise Enkidu’s ghost from the Netherworld. This Utu did, and the two were reunited.
Gilgamesh asked upon Enkidu for what he saw there, but this information was never written nor can be recalled.
Gilgamesh and the Dragon
Evil had manifested itself in Huwawa, the Keeper of the Wood and a great Dragon. It was said to rest in the Cedar of his Heart in the mountains. Gilgamesh summoned an army of fifty of the finest men from Erech, and axes and swords were forged for the journey. The group set off for the mountains. After the seventh mountain, they found the Cedar of his Heart and cut it down and stripped it of all its branches. Huwawa was awakened by this action and placed Gilgamesh into a deep sleep for his actions. Eventually, in retreat, Enkidu managed to revive Gilgamesh from his slumber who vows not to return to Erech until the dragon is vanquished. The army was commanded to wait beneath the summit, while the two approached the cedar house of the Great Beast.
Huwawa fixed them with his Eye of Death and let out a great cry. Even Gilgamesh was afraid; he trembled and felt weak. They approached the great beast. Seven trees guarded Huwawa’s cedar house and realising them as its best defence Gilgamesh uprooted them one by one. The army took the branches and bundled them at the foot of the mountain.
Huwawa made no attempt to defend himself. Gilgamesh took Huwawa and pressed him to the wall and slapped his face, fixed upon him a great nose ring and tied its legs like a caught warrior. Huwawa took Gilgamesh by the hand and grovelled for mercy, and Gilgamesh took pity. He turned to Enkidu and suggested they let the Great Beast go free. Enkidu says that he should not be so generous. Obviously, Enkidu does not trust Huwawa who then turns to him and says:
Hired man, hungry, thirsty and obsequious
Why do you speak ill of me to him …
But before he could continue, Enkidu took a mighty blow with his sword and took off his head. Gilgamesh, unhappy with his companions’ actions, took up the head and they returned and placed it before Enlil. Immediately they were cursed that their faces be scorched and the food they ate be eaten by fire.
The gods were angered, and due to the joining with Gilgamesh in insulting Ishtar she tries to persuade him to her bed. Reminded of the fate of her previous lovers by Enkidu, Gilgamesh refuses her and they mock her again with deadly accuracy and unmercifully. She complains to heaven of the wrong that they commit, all the more infuriating since she knows the taunts and accusations of libidinousness and treachery to be true. But for these faults, and since they overthrew the Great Bull of Heaven sent to avenge Ishtar for these misdirections, one of the two must die. On the night of the Council when the fateful decision is made, Enkidu dreams of the Congress, and thus Enkidu is stricken.
Enkidu curses his life. He reproaches the events that brought him from the plains to the life of man, of the whore who coaxed him in. But, in heaven, Utu hears him and speaks to comfort him. He reminds Enkidu that Gilgamesh has been glorious; the princes of the world have honoured him as he was Gilgamesh’s companion. He has lived magnificently but must die knowing that Gilgamesh will command the most elaborate obsequies for him. When Enkidu heard the valiant words of Utu his vexed heart grew quiet.
Gilgamesh ordered great funeral rites and realises, in his grief, that one day the same fate that befell Enkidu will one day come upon him. He made ready for a quest and set off across the burning plains to seek immortality. As a comfort to him in the unbearable heat Enlil granted Gilgamesh seven divine rays.
Dilmun, and the story of the Deluge
Gilgamesh sets out to seek the City where the sun rises, as eternal life is surely there. As he travels he meets a woman who bears the name of Siduri. She urges him to forget his concern for Man’s condition and eat, drink and make merry. Her dwelling is on an island in a gulf where the sun walks in the mornings and the trees bear jewels.
Gilgamesh is not tempted by the solar female and continues his journey. After a period of time, he meets with the Scorpion Men Guardians of the Gates of Yesterday and Tomorrow. Also, he meets with Utu here and is awed by his presence. The scorpion men warn Gilgamesh that his journey is surely foolhardy as none have succeeded in what he is attempting to do. Gilgamesh listens to their words but is relentless in his quest and travels on to the sea to seek travel across to the isle which carries Dilmun, place of the Gods.
Gilgamesh crosses the marshlands of the delta and eventually reaches the sea. He summons Sursunabi to ferry him to Dilmun. Sursunabi agrees to ferry Gilgamesh across the Waters of Death that separate Dilmun from the land of the living, on the condition that Gilgamesh punts the boat himself. Sursunabi warns that any mortal touching the Waters is immediately killed, and advises Gilgamesh to cut 120 poles each of 60 cubits (19½ feet) in length. These poles will propel the boat across the waters and each can be discarded once used as Gilgamesh shall not touch the Waters they enter. Gilgamesh agrees and sets about cutting the poles. Soon he is ready and the two set out across the sea. The journey takes them but 3 days to cross a distance of over 300 miles, a journey that would normally take approximately 45 days by normal sea travel.
After their journey to the isle, Gilgamesh is greeted by Ziusudra and is welcomed. He asks why Gilgamesh has come. Gilgamesh recounts to him of Enkidu’s death and of his own fear of death. He pleads with Ziusudra to tell him the secret of immortality. Yet Ziusudra is the only mortal to escape the fate of mankind and to explain this destiny he tells of his part in the deluge …
The Gods, Enlil in particular, became disenchanted with the human race and decided to destroy it. Despite the decree of the High Counsel (Anunnaki), Enki friend to man and ruler of the flood waters – intervened risking the wrath of Enlil. But, so as not to betray the Gods decision he came to Shuruppak and whispered his warning at the wall of the Kings reed hut. He urges Ziusudra to build an ark, place in it family and retainers and all living creatures and set forth on the rising waters. A poem is written of the deluge:-
With the first glow of Dawn
A black cloud rose up from the horizon
Inside it Adad thunders
While Shullat and Hanish go out in front
Moving as heralds over hill and plain
Erragal tears out the posts;
Forth comes Ninurta and causes the dykes to follow
The Annunakii lift up the torches
Setting the land ablaze with their glare
Consternation over Adad reaches to the heavens
Who turned the blackness all that had been light
The wide land was shattered like a pot
For one day the south storm blew.
Gathering speed as it blew submerging the mountains
Overtaking the people like a battle
No one can see his fellow
Nor can the people be recognised from heaven
The Gods were frightened by the Deluge
And, shrinking back, they ascended to the heaven of Anu
The Gods cowered like dogs crouched against the outer wall
When the Deluge abated Ziusudra released the birds to find land. The raven that was released returns and the cubical ark settles on a mountain. Ziusudra offers up a sacrifice for the Gods who hover like flies hungry for the worship which has been denied them by the destruction of the creatures they created. Ziusudra and his wife are rewarded with immortality and are taken to the Land of Crossing to live.
When Ziusudra returns he puts Gilgamesh to a further test. He says that to become immortal Gilgamesh must resist sleep for 6 days and 7 nights. But Gilgamesh is tired and falls asleep for this time. Ziusudra wakes him and tells him of his failure. Gilgamesh despairs “Already the thief of the night has stolen my limbs, death inhabits my room; wherever I rest my foot I find death”.
Ziusudra consoles Gilgamesh and offers him a set of clothes that shall retain their newness until he returns home as he cannot offer immortality. Gilgamesh is about to return to his home in Uruk when Ziusudra’s wife whispers to him to tell of the island’s secret. Ziusudra agrees and tells Gilgamesh of a flower that grows beneath the waters of the shores of Dilmun. The plant is akin to blackthorn and if plucked will bring restored youth to its possessor. Gilgamesh is elated and sets off wrongly convinced that this is the key to immortality.
A sweet fresh water current carries Gilgamesh, weighted by stones, to the seabed to seek the flower of restored youth. He picks the flower and cuts free the stones that weighed him. The sea carried him and threw him on the shore. Gilgamesh shows unto Ziusudra the plant and says he will return to make the old of Uruk young before he eats it. Sursunabi is banished from the shores of Dilmun since he brought a mortal to its shores. Gilgamesh travels with him. (Sursunabi is husband to the daughter of Enki).
After some time they stop at a cool inviting pool, once again on the mainland. Gilgamesh removes his clothes and dives in, the flower at the water’s edge. Beneath dwells a serpent, who awakens disturbed by Gilgamesh’ s splashing. It rises up and smells the sweetness of the magical plant. It turns to eat it and immediately casts off its skin; an invariable sign to the ancients of the snake’s obvious immortality.
Thus destiny and the Gods played their final deception on Gilgamesh. He wept by the waters, not only for Enkidu and his own certain dissolution but for the hopelessness of his quest to change man’s own destiny. And it was so that he returned to Uruk, saddened.