The story of Gilgamesh is almost the only example by which we may judge the literary art of Babylon. Twelve broken tablets found in Ashurbanipal’s library, and now in the British Museum, form the most fascinating relic of Mesopotamian literature—the Epic of Gilgamesh. Like the Iliad, it is an accretion of loosely connected stories, some of which go back to Sumer from about 3000 B.C.E.; part of it is the Babylonian account of the Flood. Gilgamesh was a legendary ruler of Uruk or Erech, a descendant of the Utnapishtim who had survived the Deluge, and had never died. Gilgamesh enters upon the scene as a sort of Adonis-Samson—tall, massive, heroically powerful, and troublesomely handsome.
Two-thirds of him is divine, one third human.
The image of his body the Great Goddess designed
She added to him . . .
The one who saw the abyss I will make the land know;
of him who knew all, let me tell the whole story
. . . in the same way . . .
[as] the lord of wisdom, he who knew everything, Gilgamesh,
who saw things secret, opened the place hidden,
And carried back word of the time before the Flood—
he travelled the road, exhausted, in pain,
and cut his works into a stone tablet.
The people complain to the gods that he leads their sons out to exhausting toil for he “does not allow the son to go with his father; day and night he oppresses the weak . . .” nor does he “let the young woman go to her mother, the girl to the warrior, the bride to the young groom.” The gods beg the great mother-goddess Aruru to create another one equal to Gilgamesh and able to keep him busy in conflict so that the husbands of Uruk may have peace. Aruru kneads a bit of clay, spits upon it, and molds from it the satyr Enkidu, a man with the strength of a boar, the mane of a lion, and the speed of a bird. Enkidu does not care for human society, but turns and lives with the animals; “he fed with the gazelles on grass; with the wild animals he drank at waterholes; with hurrying animals his heart grew light in the waters.” A Stalker tries to capture him with nets and traps, but fails; going to Gilgamesh, the Stalker begs for the loan of a temple prostitute who may snare Enkidu with love. “Go, Stalker,” says Gilgamesh, “and take with you a love-priestess, a temple courtesan. When he waters the animals at the watering-place, have her take off her clothes, have her show him her strong beauty. When he sees her, he will come near her. His animals, who grew up in his wilderness, will turn from him.”
The Stalker and the priestess go forth and find Enkidu.
“Here he is, courtesan; get ready to embrace him.
Open your legs, show him your beauty.
Do not hold back, take his wind away.
Seeing you, he will come near.
Strip off your clothes so he can mount you.
Make him know, this-man-as-he-was, what a woman is.
His beasts who grew up in his wilderness will turn from him.
He will press his body over your wildness.”
The courtesan untied her wide belt and spread her legs, and he struck her wildness like a storm.
She was not shy; she took his wind away.
Her clothing she spread out, and he lay upon her.
She made him know, the man-as-he-was, what a woman is. . . .
The two of them made love together.
Enkidu forgot the hills where he was born.
For six days but seven nights Enkidu remains with the priestess. When he tires of pleasure, he awakes to find his friends the animals gone, whereupon he swoons with sorrow. But the priestess chides him: “You have become wise, like a god, Enkidu. Why did you range the wilderness with animals? Come, let me lead you to the heart of Uruk . . . where Gilgamesh lives, completely powerful . . . .” Ensnared by the vanity of praise and the conceit of his strength, Enkidu follows the priestess to Uruk, saying, “Come, courtesan, join with me, [travel] to the stainless house, the temple, dwelling of Anu and Ishtar, where Gilgamesh is . . . I will call to him; I’ll shout with great force. ‘I am the one who changes fates, who was born in the wild, might of strength belongs to me.’” Whereat the gods and husbands are well pleased. But Gilgamesh overcomes him, first with strength, then with kindness; they become devoted friends. Then the new friends decide to steal cedar trees from a far-off woodland prohibited to mortals. But to do so they must first fight Humbaba, the frightening monster, who protects it from mortal incursion. The two protagonists make the dangerous journey, reach the forest and together attack and slay Humbaba. They return to Uruk glorious with exploits and victory. Gilgamesh “washed his grimy hair and cleaned his straps; he shook out the braid of his hair against his back; he threw off his filthy clothes and put on clean ones; he covered himself with a cloak, fastened the sash; Gilgamesh put on his crown.” Thereupon the goddess Ishtar the insatiate falls in love with him, raises her great eyes to him, and says:
“Come, Gilgamesh, be my lover!
Give me the taste of your body.
Would that you were my husband, and I your wife!
I’d order harnessed for you a chariot of lapis lazuli and gold,
its wheels of gold and horns of precious amber.
You will drive storm demons—powerful mules!
Enter our house, into the sweet scent of cedarwood.
As you enter our house
the purification priests will kiss your feet . . .
Kings, rulers, princes will bend down before you.
Mountains and lands will bring their yield to you.”
Gilgamesh rejects her, and reminds her of the hard fate she has inflicted upon her varied lovers, including Tammuz, a hawk, a stallion, a gardener, and a lion. “So you’d love me in my turn” he tells her, “and, as with them, set my fate.” The angry Ishtar asks of her father the great god Anu that he send the Bull of Heaven to kill Gilgamesh. Anu refuses, and rebukes her: “Come, come. Didn’t you yourself pick a fight with Gilgamesh, and Gilgamesh recited your iniquities, your bad faith and your cursings?” She threatens that unless he grants her request she will suspend throughout the universe all the impulses of desire and love, and so destroy every living thing. Anu yields, and sends the ferocious Bull of Heaven; but Gilgamesh, helped by Enkidu, overcomes the beast; and when Ishtar curses the hero, Enkidu throws a limb of the monster into her face. Gilgamesh rejoices and is proud, but Ishtar strikes him down in the midst of his glory by afflicting Enkidu with a mortal illness.
Mourning over the corpse of his friend, whom he has loved more than any woman, Gilgamesh wonders over the mystery of death. Is there no escape from that dull fatality? One man eluded it— Utnapishtim; he would know the secret of deathlessness. Gilgamesh resolves to seek Utnapishtim, even if he must cross the world to find him. The way leads through a mountain guarded by a pair of giants whose heads touch the sky and whose breasts reach down to Hades. But they let him pass, and he picks his way for nineteen kilometers through a dark tunnel. He emerges upon the shore of a great ocean, and sees, far over the waters, the throne of Siduri, goddess of winemaking and brewing. He calls out to her to help him cross the water; “if it is possible, let me cross the sea; If it is possible, let me traverse the wilderness.” Siduri discourages him for even attempting the journey. Nevertheless she councils him, “Even if you, Gilgamesh, cross the sea when you arrive at the waters of death, what would you do? There, Gilgamesh, lives Urshanabi, boatman to Utnapishtim. . . . If it is possible, cross with him. If it is not possible, come back.” Urshanabi the ferryman takes him to where Utnapishtim, possessor of immortal life, lives. Gilgamesh begs of him the secret of deathlessness. Utnapishtim answers by telling at length the story of the Flood, and how the gods, relenting of their mad destructiveness, had made him and his wife immortal because they had preserved the human species. He offers Gilgamesh a plant whose fruit will confer renewed youth upon him who eats it; and Gilgamesh, happy, starts back on his long journey home. But on the way he stops to bathe, and while he bathes a serpent crawls by and steals the plant.*
Desolate, Gilgamesh reaches Uruk. He prays in temple after temple that Enkidu may be allowed to return to life, if only to speak to him for a moment. Enkidu appears, and Gilgamesh inquires of him the state of the dead. Enkidu answers, “I will not tell you, friend . . . If I must tell you the ways of the underworld that I’ve seen, [you would] sit down and weep.” Gilgamesh, symbol of that brave stupidity, philosophy, persists in his quest for truth: “I will sit down, I will weep.” Enkidu describes the miseries of Hades, and on this gloomy note the fragmentary epic ends.
* The snake was worshiped by many early peoples as a symbol of immortality, because of its apparent power to escape death by molting its skin.