According to legend, Gilgamesh was a Sumerian king of the city known as Uruk around 3,500 BC. His mother was the temple priestess Ninsun (a mortal), and his father Lugalbanda, a Sumerian god. This made Gilgamesh one-third mortal and two-thirds divine. He was a lonely King who subjected his people to hard labor to build the great walls of Uruk, and abused his authority. Gilgamesh, as the king of Uruk, claimed the right to be the first to have sexual intercourse with every new bride on the day of her wedding. Powerless to defend themselves against this mighty warrior/king, the people of Uruk cried out to An/Anu, the Sumerian supreme god.
An/Anu summoned Aruru (the Sumerian creator goddess) to create an adversary to defeat Gilgamesh and free the people of Uruk from this tyranny. Aruru took a ball of clay, hurled it into the Cedar forest, and Enkidu was born. Half beast, half man, he spent his time running wild through the wilderness with the animals. Innocent to the ways of mankind, he was carefree and happy.
A hunter became annoyed with Enkidu because he freed animals caught in traps and drank from a lake the hunter used for his own purposes. He went to Uruk to seek out Gilgamesh to tell him of Enkidu-and hoping to intimidate Gilgamesh-told the king of this powerful wild man in the Cedar Forest.
Gilgamesh sent a harlot named Shamhat from
the temple of Inana/Ishtar to seduce Enkidu and "weaken"
him by making him more "human". So Shamhat went with
the hunter to seduce Enkidu-and she did. For seven days and nights
she made love to him and instructed him in the ways of humanity.
Each day he lost his innocence and his connection with nature.
Enkidu then spent time with some shepherds, who taught him how
to tend flocks, how to eat, speak properly and to wear clothes.
(This last event involving the shepherds was not in all translations,
so it may or may not have been in the original.)
In the meantime, Gilgamesh had a powerful dream about a "falling star". He was mystified by this dream and turned to his mother Ninsun for its interpretation. She told him that this "fallen star" was a metaphor representing a great friend or brother who would soon join Gilgamesh.
Enkidu entered the city of Uruk during a great celebration. Gilgamesh was about to claim his right as king to some helpless bride when he was stopped by the figure of Enkidu in the doorway of the marital chamber. Enkidu was infuriated by Gilgamesh's behavior and a great battle ensued. The two mighty men battled for hours, and after their strength was exhausted, they came to realize they were equals. (In some versions of the story, Gilgamesh defeated Enkidu and Enkidu became his slave.) Gilgamesh realized that this was the friend of whom his mother spoke in his dream.
Gilgamesh (full of himself as usual) heard Enkidu's stories about a great god who guarded the Cedar Forest known as Humbaba/Huwawa the Terrible. In his never-ending quest for fame and ego, Gilgamesh asked Enkidu to join with him to defeat this god and steal the timber for the city of Uruk. Gilgamesh believed that if he killed the powerful god he would become a national hero. Enkidu knew of Humbaba/Huwawa, and desperately tried to convince Gilgamesh not to go, fearing they would be killed by this powerful god.
Nonetheless, Gilgamesh remained undaunted and insisted that he and Enkidu go on this great adventure. Before embarking, Gilgamesh went once again to see his mother Ninsun to ask her blessing. She, along with the temple priests, attempted to discourage Gilgamesh from going, but Gilgamesh wouldn't hear of it. Ninsun asked the god Utu/Shamash (the Sumerian sun god) to protect her son on this dangerous mission. Utu/Shamash promised to protect her son, but advised that Enkidu lead the way as additional protection for Gilgamesh.
Gilgamesh and Enkidu traveled to the Cedar Forest to battle Huwawa/Humbaba. Huwawa was a powerful god who was the guardian of the forest and possessed great strength and seven layers of mystical radiance known as "melam and ni". Shamash advised Gilgamesh and Enkidu that Huwawa was only wearing one of his layers of radiance, and if attacked, would be easily weakened.
In some interpretations, Gilgamesh and Enkidu argued about strategies of attack, and in some they actually fought each other-but the end result was that they got Huwawa's attention by doing so. Huwawa's name is translated as "bigness" or "giant", and the story alludes to his stature by Gilgamesh's reaction-the great king was frozen with fear at the sight of the god.
Conversely, Enkidu fearlessly attacked the giant. Unfortunately, almost all of the original text is so badly damaged that we really have very little idea as to the details of this great battle. In some translations, Huwawa's eyes apparently shot some sort of fire that burned the trees and ground, and his "melam and ni" were blinding.
It is at this point that Shamash intervened and caused a great wind storm, enough to either distract or diminish Huwawa's radiance long enough for Enkidu to severely cripple the god. As Huwawa begged for mercy, Enkidu insisted that Gilgamesh show none-and Gilgamesh ruthlessly beheaded the giant.
The two returned to Uruk with the head of Huwawa/Humbaba and enough cedar to build a new gate for the city of Uruk. They were hailed as national heroes, and their fame spread throughout Uruk to the point where the goddess Inana/Ishtar was intrigued with Gilgamesh and fell in love with him. She attempted to lure him to spend the night with her, but Gilgamesh, knowing the sordid history of her past loves, refused her advances.
She was infuriated by his refusal and threatened to release the Bull of Heaven upon Gilgamesh and the people of Uruk. Apparently, Inana/Ishtar was a woman of her word and went before her father An/Anu-who begrudgingly granted her request.
Thus began the next battle that Gilgamesh and Enkidu faced. It should be noted that bulls from this part of the world (Mesopotamia) were tremendous, with shoulders reaching eight feet in height. However, this god may be allegorical or a metaphor of some type. In any case, the snorts of air from the Bull's nostrils created huge fissures in the ground and hundreds of people fell into the abyss.
Somehow, Enkidu managed to get hold of the horns of the great beast as Gilgamesh impaled it on his sword. This infuriated Inana/Ishtar and she cursed Enkidu-who did further damage by cutting the hind legs off the Bull of Heaven, hurling them at Inana/Ishtar.
Some scholars point out that the Bull of Heaven represents the constellation of Taurus, and if you are familiar with this constellation you already know that the hindquarters of Taurus are nonexistent.
Because of Enkidu's direct defiance to Inana/Ishtar-and the slaying of the Bull of Heaven and Huwawa-she decided to hold a council of the gods, whereupon it was decreed that one of the two "heroes" must perish. Enkidu was the unlucky choice, and he became ill with a fever and quickly died.
On his deathbed, Enkidu cursed the harlot Shamhat who taught him the ways of mankind-but Shamash rebuked Enkidu's curse, reminding Enkidu of this wondrous experience called humanity. He recounted to Enkidu his former life as an animal of the forest-with little or no creature comforts. Enkidu did realize this in time to change the curse into a blessing-but all too late.
Gilgamesh was beside himself with grief and despair-certainly for his friend and companion, but more so he grieved for himself. He knew that someday he, too, would die as Enkidu did, and he began his quest for immortality.
Gilgamesh reasoned that if he were two-thirds divine, then he may not suffer death as a mortal. He went to his mother Ninsun, who sadly assured him that he would indeed grow old and die. Gilgamesh was frustrated and angry, seeing there appeared to be no way out.
He did not bathe, shave or take care of himself for some time, and it was at this point that he decided to journey to the "Far-Away" to meet Utnapishtim. The "Far-Away" was a place at the mouth of all rivers at the end of the earth. Utnapishtim was the only mortal who was made a god because of his survival in the great flood.
At the first part of this perilous journey, he arrived at Mt. Mashu, which guarded the rising and setting of the sun. Here he found two Scorpion people-they were terrifying to look upon-and they tried to convince Gilgamesh of the futility of his journey to the "Far-Away". However, he was undaunted and they allowed him to pass.
He traveled past Mt. Mashu to the Land of Night-a land of eternal darkness. Gilgamesh walked eleven leagues before light began to appear once again. Finally, after twelve leagues he arrived into daylight, into a beautiful garden of gems where trees grew precious stones. We are told that he was able to journey this far because of his divinity-yet he was still mortal.
The next leg of his journey brought him to a small tavern on the seashore. His appearance was such that he frightened Siduri, the innkeeper, and she locked the door of the tavern to prevent his entrance. Gilgamesh begged Siduri to tell him where he could find Utnapishtim. She tried to convince Gilgamesh that this journey was too dangerous and that he must cross the "Sea of Death" to reach Utnapishtim.
She eventually let him in and asked why he was in such a state. When hearing of his restlessness and discontentment with being mortal, Siduri advised Gilgamesh to accept the fact that he was mortal and to enjoy his life as it was. Of course, Gilgamesh would not hear of this, and reluctantly Siduri directed him to the ferryman Urshanabi.
In the typical Gilgamesh style, he approached Urshanabi with arrogance and violence, destroying the sacred "stone things" that allowed one to cross over the Sea of Death without recourse. Urshanabi told Gilgamesh that it was now impossible to cross the Sea of Death because of his rampage.
He advised him that if he cut down some trees they may be used as punting poles to cross the Sea, but if Gilgamesh touched the waters he would immediately die. Somehow Gilgamesh made it across to the "Far-Away" using the crude punting poles without the "stone things".
Gilgamesh saw a man on the shore and asked if he knew where to find Ziasudra/Utnapishtim, telling this man of his quest for the secret to eternal life. The man countered by telling Gilgamesh that death was unavoidable because of the will of the gods and that all human constructs are temporary. Gilgamesh was startled by the wisdom of this old man and realized it was Ziasudra/Utnapishtim he was speaking with. He was also confused by the appearance of the old man, thinking that immortals should not look so aged.
Gilgamesh asked Utnapishtim how he attained immortality, and Utnapishtim told him the Sumerian story of the Great Flood. Before the deluge, mankind had become "noisy", depriving the gods of sleep. Enlil/Ellil tired of this, and decided to destroy mankind with a great flood and turn all living flesh to stone. All the gods agreed in secret to do this, and all agreed not to tell any mortal of the oncoming deluge.
The god Ea/Enki (credited with creating mankind), spoke to a wall of the house of Utnapishtim (who in the eyes of Enki was a righteous man)-so as not to break his agreement with the other gods. Knowing full well that Ziasudra/Utnapishtim could hear him, he told the "house" to get rid of its possessions and make itself into an Ark to save Ziasudra/Utnapishtim and his family.
Ziasudra/Utnapishtim built an Ark as instructed and gathered two of each creature on earth into the Ark. Along with the animals. He was told to bring "precious metals" with him as well. The flood came, and after seven days, Utnapishtim released a turtledove and a raven to find land. As the waters of the deluge receded, the Ark came to rest on top of Mt. Nimush, where Utnapishtim left and offered libations and sacrifices to the gods.
Enlil/Ellil smelled the burning of the sweet flesh and was drawn to it, only to find that somehow a mortal had survived the deluge. He was infuriated by this. At this point, Enki admitted his folly, but convinced Enlil that there were no humans left to offer libations to the gods. Enlil blessed Utnapishtim and his wife, making them immortal provided they stayed forever in the "Far Away", which was the starting point of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers at the "end of the world".
At this point, Gilgamesh asked Ziasudra/Utnapishtim to grant him eternal life. Ziasudra/Utnapishtim instructed Gilgamesh to stay awake for eight days, after which he would be granted eternal life. Gilgamesh rose to the challenge, but as soon as he sat down he fell fast asleep. Ziasudra/Utnapishtim remarked to his wife at how quickly the king fell asleep. She implored him to awaken Gilgamesh and send him on his way.
"Mankind is deceptive and will deceive you," Ziasudra/Utnapishtim said. "Come, bake loaves of bread and keep setting them by his head and draw on the wall each day that he lay down." The purpose of the loaves of bread was to show the various stages of decay of each loaf for each day that Gilgamesh slept.
Upon awakening eight days later, Gilgamesh denied he was asleep for so many days, claiming that he dozed off the last day. Ziasudra/Utnapishtim showed the king the eight loaves of bread in stages of decay, and Gilgamesh realized not only did he fall asleep, but he slept for eight days!
Realizing this, Gilgamesh cried to Ziasudra/Utnapishtim, "O Woe! What shall I do, Ziasudra/Utnapishtim, where shall I go? The Snatcher has taken hold of my flesh, in my bedroom Death dwells, and wherever I set foot, there, too, is Death!"
Ziasudra/Utnapishtim's wife pled with him to give Gilgamesh something to help him see that he had come so far and was in such a state. Ziasudra/Utnapishtim told Gilgamesh of a plant or flower of life that existed deep in the ocean that when eaten would make one young again-a second chance at life. Gilgamesh thanked him and left the "Far Away" with Urshanabi to find the "Flower of Life".
Our hero tied stones to his feet and dove into the ocean and retrieved the "Flower of Life". However, he decided not to eat it immediately but to wait for his return to Uruk and test it out on an elderly man. While resting on the shore on his way back to Uruk, a serpent came ashore and stole the plant, shedding its skin after ingesting the "Flower of Life"-leaving Gilgamesh with nothing.
Alas, Gilgamesh returned to Uruk a mortal king-but one who had learned many important lessons.
- Tony Garone 1/11/2001