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Mesopotamia / Myths and Legends /
Gilgamesh



Tablet of Gilgamesh. Found at Nineveh, now in British Museum
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Tablet of Gilgamesh. Found at Nineveh, now in British Museum.

Babylonian epic poem, composed before 2000 BCE in southern Mesopotamia.
The most completely preserved version dates back to the 7th century BCE, consisting of 12 incomplete tablets, all in the Akkadian language, found at Nineveh. Fragments of other compositions of the Gilgamesh Epic have been found in other places in Mesopotamia and as far away as Syria and Turkey. Many of the gaps from the Nineveh tablets have been filled in with textual information from these.
Moreover, there are 5 shorter poems discovered in the Sumerian language, more than 1000 years older than the Ninevite tablets. These are "Gilgamesh and Huwawa," "Gilgamesh and the Bull of Heaven," "Gilgamesh and Agga of Kish," "Gilgamesh, Enkidu and the Netherworld" and "Death of Gilgamesh."
Gilgamesh relates ancient folklore, tales and myths. It is believed that there were many different smaller stories and myths that over time grew together into one complete work.
The basic story is about King Gilgamesh and his friendship with Enkidu. The two embark on an adventure to Iran, challenging the demon, Humbaba. Another central adventure takes place when Gilgamesh, after the death of Enkidu, sets out on the search of immortality, in order to reclaim his friend from Hell. During this search, Gilgamesh is told the story about the great flood, a story that may later have informed Biblical writers as they developed the narrative about Noah and the deluge.
It is likely that Gilgamesh himself was an historical figure, king of Uruk and contemporary of Agga, king of Kish. In Sumerian king lists, Gilgamesh is noted as a king ruling after the flood.
The main characters of the Gilgamesh Epic are in addition to Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk, and the divinely created Enkidu; Ninsun, wise goddess and mother of Gilgamesh; Shamhat, a sacred girl who brings Gilgamesh and Enkidu together; Anu, father of the gods and patron of Uruk; Humbaba, a demon that must be killed; Ishtar, goddess and Gilgamesh's spurned and vengeful suitor; Enti, the god who unleashes the great flood; Siduri, the bar maid with worldly advice; Urshanabi, the boatman who gives passage to Paradise; and Utnaspishtim, the former king who holds the secret of eternal life.

Tablet 1
Detailed articleFull text of Tablet 1
Gilgamesh is praised as a ruler of great knowledge, two-thirds god and one-third man. He is presented as the strongest king and human ever to have lived, we still hear that he oppresses his people harshly.
In despair, his people calls out to the sky god, Anu, to help them.
Anu creates the wild man, Enkidu, and places him out in the wild forest. But Enkidu is seduced by a woman, the temple harlot, Shamhat, leading to his losing his strength, while, alternatively, gaining understanding and knowledge. Shamhat takes Enkidu with her to Uruk, to introduce him to the joy of civilization, and to meet King Gilgamesh, the only man worthy of Enkidu's friendship.
Gilgamesh has two dreams warning him about a great force that has entered into Uruk. But his mother, Ninsun, tells him that Enkidu will help Gilgamesh in his deeds.

Tablet 2
Detailed articleFull text of Tablet 2
Enkidu is introduced to the ways of human life while living with shepherds. He enters Uruk at a time when Gilgamesh is about to claim his royal right to spend the first night with every newly wed woman. Enkidu challenges this, and the two start to fight furiously. Gilgamesh wins over Enkidu, but the two become friends.
Gilgamesh suggests that the two new friends embark on an adventure, travelling to Iran to cut down all the cedar trees. The challenge of this entails their first defeating Humbaba, the demon guarding the forest. Enkidu tries to talk Gilgamesh out of this.

Tablet 3
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Most of this tablet has been lost, and little is capable of being extracted from other sources.
The elders of Uruk, Gilgamesh's mother, and once again, Enkidu all try to convince Gilgamesh not to challenge Humbaba. Gilgamesh's mother makes the sun-god, Shamash promise to protect Gilgamesh.

Tablet 4
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Gilgamesh and Enkidu set out for Iran. Gilgamesh prays to Shamash, and has ominous dreams at night. Enkidu interprets these as a promise of protection.
At the point of arrival, Gilgamesh expresses his fear. But Shamash calls upon him to attack, since Humbaba is wearing only one of his 7 coats of armour. Enkidu wants to leave, and as Gilgamesh tries to stop him, Humbaba comes out of the forest.

Tablet 5
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Unlike the situation at the end of tablet 4, Enkidu is now the braver of the two. He has to inspire Gilgamesh to join him against Humbaba. With the help of Shamash's intervention, the two manage to defeat Humbaba.
Gilgamesh forces Humbaba to his knees, but cannot decide whether to kill him. Enkidu tells him that if he does so, he will achieve widespread fame from the killing. Gilgamesh decapitates Humbaba, while, simultaneously, Humbaba casts a curse on Enkidu, promising him a speedy death.
Enkidu and Gilgamesh cut down the cedar forest, and float the trees on the Euphrates to Uruk.

Tablet 6
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With his new fame, Gilgamesh is courted by the goddess Ishtar. But knowing the tragic fate of her earlier lovers, Gilgamesh brutally rejects her offers. The insulted Ishtar gets her father Anu to send the Bull of Heaven against Gilgamesh in revenge.
Gilgamesh and Enkidu manage to slay the bull, and Enkidu insults Ishtar even more.

Tablet 7
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Enkidu falls ill, and finds out that he has been selected for vengeance from the gods for killing Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven.
Enkidu foresees the pains of hell in his dreams, and after 12 days of vicarious suffering, he dies.

Tablet 8
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Large parts of this tablet is missing. It appears to be devoted to Gilgamesh's mourning over his dead friend. Some passages indicate that he builds a monument for Enkidu.

Tablet 9
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After a long period of mourning, Gilgamesh decides to set out on a dangerous journey to visit Utnaspishtim and his wife. They are the only human beings to whom the gods have granted eternal life. Utnaspishtim had been a king before the Great Flood.
Gilgamesh travels to Mount Mashu, which guards the rising and setting of the sun. He arrives, despite warnings from two scorpions here, and enters the Land of Night, where the sun never shines. He travels deeply into this land, before daylight reappears. Here he enters a garden with trees hanging heavy with precious stones.

Tablet 10
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In this tablet, the story's focus changes. Gilgamesh gets directions to Utnaspishtim from the female innkeeper, Siduri. He asks for help from the ferryman Urshanabi, to cross a river flowing with the Water of Death, but Gilgamesh inadvertently destroys some important stones needed to cross. He is forced to cut down trees to ford his way across the river.
Across the river he meets an old man, also looking for Utnaspishtim, who tells him that death with its permanence has been created by the gods, and that all human life is merely temporary, never permanent.

Tablet 11
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Gilgamesh understands that the old man is Utnaspishtim. As he asks him how he gained immortality, Utnaspishtim tells about the great flood. The gods had decided to destroy the world, but none of the gods could tell any living thing about their plans.
Ea decided to tell the walls of Utnaspishtim's house about the coming flood, and advice that they should build a boat. Utnaspishtim acts according to this information, and loads the boat with gold, silver and all kinds of creatures living in the world.
The flood lasts for 7 days and 7 nights before light returns to earth. Utnaspishtim looks out from his boat, and sees nothing but water. Later his boat arrives at the top of Mount Nimush, and settles on the tip just below the surface.
Utnaspishtim sends out 3 birds to look for land. The first two return, but the third never comes back, indicating that the water has receded. Utnaspishtim opens up the boat, and sends all living creatures back into the world.
The gods, and especially Enlil, get furious when they see that some human beings are still alive. But Ea talks Enlil into being merciful.
Ea then grants Utnaspishtim and his wife immortality, but commands them to settle far away, at the source of the rivers.
Upon concluding the story, Utnaspishtim offers Gilgamesh the opportunity to gain eternal life as well. Gilgamesh has to stay awake for 6 days and 7 nights. But Gilgamesh falls asleep, and doesn't wake up until opportunity has passed.
Utnaspishtim then offers him youth. Gilgamesh has to track down a plant on the bottom of the ocean. With the help of Urshanabi, Gilgamesh finds the plant, but hesitates to eat it. While Gilgamesh and Urshanabi sleep, a snake steals the magic plant. Gilgamesh laments and complains about his misfortunes.
The tablet ends with Gilgamesh showing Urshanabi the greatness of Uruk.

Tablet 12
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Many scholars believe the 12th tablet to be an addition to the original 11. Its content and style appear completely different from the preceding 11.
It begins with objects given to Gilgamesh by Ishtar. Then the spirit of Enkidu appears, promising their recovery.
Then there is a pessimistic description of the Underworld — the oldest such description known.





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