Posted by: mattcolvin | September 17, 2010

Notes on Gilgamesh

For the past 7 years, minus one, I have taught the Epic of Gilgamesh to 9th graders. Here are my notes on the book.

I.11-23 Compare Gilgamesh’s boast over the wall of Uruk and temple of Eanna with Nebuchadnezzar’s boast over Babylon in Dan. 4:30.

I.24-28 Note the heightened delight in a well-made book of fine materials. This is prooemial material, intended to gratify the audience or possessor of the copy of the epic. It indicates how it was used: for entertainment, by the rich.

I.33-40 G. is a force of nature — “a mighty bank,” a “violent flood-wave,” or a “wild bull.” Like Xerxes in Herodotus, he imposes his will on natural features — he opens passes in the mountains, digs wells in the uplands, and crosses the oceans.

I.42 “sheer force” — G’s calling card. We will see that this is the only modus operandi he knows until he learns wisdom from Uta-napishti.

I.43-44 “restored cult centres destroyed by the Deluge” — return of idolatry? “Set in place for the people the rites of the cosmos” — restores the ante-diluvian order. “Cosmos” in the Greek sense of the word, implying an ordered whole, not mere chaos. It is interesting to note that, although no nod is given to the true God who inflicted the deluge and restored order after it (Gen. 9:1-7), yet there was an awareness that the ante-diluvian order, with the dominion mandate etc., had been restored. This work is ascribed to kings (though they are the means by which the gods ultimately accomplished it). Kings are the civilizing force of society. (Cf. The Sumerian King-List: “The Flood then swept over. After the Flood had swept over, and kingship had descended from heaven, Kish became the seat of Kingship.”) Read Andrew George’s introduction to his Penguin translation, p. xlix-l.

I.45-65 The physical description of Gilgamesh calls to mind Gen. 6:1-4, with its mention of intermarriage between “the sons of God” and the “daughters of men”, with the resulting “giants on the earth” who were “mighty men of old, men of renown.”

I.67-78 Gilgamesh’s tyranny is described. There is no scholarly agreement: is it sexual oppression? Forced labor on public works? Compulsory participation in martial sports or games for the king’s amusement? It is unclear. (Other translations have “he sounds the tocsin — call to arms — for his own amusement,” which might suggest frivolous warfare.) But whatever the form it took, the oppression amounted to encroachment by the king (state) upon the family, both in its filial relations and in its conjugal. This is a perpetual and natural danger throughout history, and one which the Israelite monarchy also posed: 1 Sam. 8:10-17 (esp. 11-13) speaks of a similar arrogation of the youth of the land to the service of the king.
In all this, the epic of Gilgamesh assumes that there is a proper relation between a king and his subjects, from which relation the unpleasant behavior of Gilgamesh is a deviation and declension. We do not have to do with a normless and undefined relation in which no one could question the behavior of the king, because “might makes right,” but rather, with a situation sufficiently unjust — and known to be so — that the subjects have grounds to appeal to the gods.

I.87-89 Expresses the contrast between Gilgamesh’s proper role (“shepherd of the people”) and his present misbehavior.

Excursus: What is manhood? What is strength? What is it to be a man in Gilgamesh? We have a shared conception of what it is not – it is not to be unmanned by a prostitute or Ishtar. But what it is, that is something that Gilgamesh is not so clear on. Feats of strength; domination of other men; ability to kill (Humbaba), so far so good. But as a ruler, Gilgamesh is wicked; he is a despot, tyrannizing his subjects and seeking only selfish aims. Yet from the appeal of the people, we see something of what manhood is. As Steve Schlissel likes to say, “You’re not a man just because you can take care of yourself. A cockroach can take care of itself. You’re a man if you can take care of others.”

But the Epic of Gilgamesh is not interested in this sort of covenantally protective manhood. For Gilgamesh, and for Enkidu, women get in the way

I.96 Enkidu’s creation by Aruru. He is made out of clay, and “thrown down in the wild.” A raider of the hunters’ traps, he is himself a trap for Gilgamesh, in much the same way that Pandora was created as a trap for man in Hesiod’s Works and Days.

I.108 Enkidu is separate from civilization, which is is expressed by “he knows not a people, nor even a country.” Rather than the society of men, he keeps company with gazelles (l. 110) and is “with the herd” (l. 127). The force of “nor even a country” is to emphasize that Enkidu, as an animal rather than a man, lacks any defined relationship to the land; he has no citizenship, no allegiance, no agricultural concern.

I.113ff. Highly picturesque language playing with the concepts of hunter and prey and role-reversal. The hunter from Uruk will trap Enkidu like one of the animals; he will not use a literal snare, but rather, the harlot Shamhat. But before that, “when the hunter saw him, his expression froze” (l. 117) — like the proverbial deer in the headlights. At first, the hunter is the hunted. Yet the hunter says of Enkidu, “[always] his tracks [are found] by the water-hole,” and it is of course the quarry, not the hunter, who leaves tracks.

I.128-141 The power of woman does not consist in her physical strength; rather, it is indirect, in the influence she has on men. Yet despite this it is not any the less powerful; indeed, it is more so: “[do not rely on] the strength of a man! / [Go, my son, and] fetch [Shamhat the harlot,] / [her allure is a match] for even the mighty!”

The harlot tells Enkidu, after she has seduced him successfully, “You are wise (or beautiful), Enkidu. You have become like a god.” Basically the same flattery used by Satan (Gen. 3:4-5) “You will not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

We may compare the harlot to the wicked woman of the book of Proverbs, who spells destruction for all her lovers (Pr. 5). This is a major theme in Gilgamesh; Endiku falls for the harlot, and is led to his destruction, albeit through the course of long adventures first. Gilgamesh, in tablet 6, rejects the offer of Ishtar (Inanna) to become her lover, for precisely the reasons Proverbs stipulates.

I.164-5 By lying with the harlot, Enkidu thereby will transfer himself to her society — he is “one flesh” with her, and therefore, will be rejected by his former society of gazelles — “his herd will spurn him, though he grew up amonst it.”

I.195-199 Enkidu’s herd rejects him now, since he has “defiled his body” with the society of the harlot. But he now has “reason, and wide understanding” — like Adam and Eve after eating the fruit.

I.203-206 Enkidu is now a pupil of the harlot, giving her his undivided attention: “He …sat at the feet of the harlot, watching the harlot, observing her features. Then to the harlot’s words he listened intently…” He is, effectively, now a pupil of Folly, of the woman of Proverbs 7: “With her enticing speech she caused him to yield, with her flattering lips she seduced him. Immediately he went after her, as an ox goes to the slaughter, Or as a fool to the correction of the stocks, Till an arrow struck his liver. As a bird hastens to the snare, He did not know it would cost his life.”

I.245-298 A frame narration of Gilgamesh’s dream about Enkidu, related to Enkidu himself by the harlot.

Gilgamesh’s dreams about Enkidu: These fall into the category of dream-interpretation common to the book of Daniel and Joseph in Egypt.

I. 277-280 Why is Enkidu symbolized as an axe in Gilgamesh’s dream? What is the relationship between this symbolism and the adventure to Humbaba’s forest and the felling of the cedar?


P54-55 Shamhat’s flattery of Enkidu reveals a basic divide in Mesopotamian worldview: “you are like a god” — i.e. extremely noble, strong, and civilized — “why with the beasts do you wander the wild?” — settle down and work like a man, in one place: P60-63 “…to the temple Eanna, the home of Anu, where men are engaged in labours of skill, you, too, like a man, will find a place for yourself.”

P66-70 The harlot takes off her vestment and clothes Enkidu in part of it — so that he thereby assumes her identity and role to a large extent. As she was a trap for him, so will he be for Gilgamesh. Consider function of clothing in the Bible — “clothed with Christ”, also Adam and Eve and their garments.

II.220-223 Enkidu threatens to “change the way things are ordered.” In other words, he threatens to become the new king, for the king is, as we have seen, the source of the gods’ order for the world of men.

What follows bears some careful examination and pondering. Enkidu becomes Gilgamesh’s sidekick — indeed, the earliest recorded sidekick in all of literature. And this happens in a manner that will be a pattern for future hero-sidekick stories. Probably the closest parallel is the story of Robin Hood and John Little (later “Little John”). The hero meets the sidekick-to-be while en route to a destination of his own; they are at cross purposes, pursuing the same object — hence “get out my way”. The sidekick-to-be blocks the path of the hero; combat ensues; the hero wins; the sidekick then contracts a friendship or alliance with the hero, and becomes his faithful companion. So it is with Enkidu.

P235-240 Enkidu pronounces a blessing on Gilgamesh. Then they kissed each other, sealing the friendship. (Social sacrament.) Thus formal covenanting follows contest, as in the case of Jacob and the angel of the Lord (Gen. 32), but in this case it is between roughly equal parties.

But questions arise. Why should the sidekick attach himself to the hero who has worsted him? What does that attachment mean? Some propose that if strength is the esteemed currency of the culture, then Enkidu’s realization that Gilgamesh possesses this currency in abundance leads him to the conclusion that G. is admirable and desirable as a lord and friend. “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”

II.169-177 Apparently, though the text is very fragmentary, Ninsun explains to her son Gilgamesh who this Enkidu who just opposed him as he was coming to the bridal house. She describes him in terms that clearly express Enkidu’s total lack of social ties and integration: “Enkidu possesses no [kith or kin.] Shaggy hair hanging loose …… he was born in the wild and [has] no [brother].”

It is unclear how we get from the emotional reaction of Enkidu (II.190) to the plans for the expedition against Humbaba (Y97]. What might have come in between? Given Humbaba’s charges of treachery against Enkidu, there may very well have been some explanation of Humbaba’s probable wrath upon discovery that Enkidu had abandoned his former life to join Gilgamesh and civilization.

This would then serve to motivate Gilgamesh’s proposal (Y97-8) of slaying Humbaba in some way other than as mere chest-thumping machismo. Slaying Humbaba would then serve as a solution to the problem of Enkidu’s impending punishment by his lord.

On the other hand, Y106-109 seems to indicate that the geographical domain of Humbaba (the forest) did not intersect with that of Enkidu (the uplands).


In III. 45-108 (p. 24-26), Ninsun, G’s mother, intercedes for him with Shamash, much as we will see Achilles’ mother Thetis intercede for him with Zeus.

What might have occured in the lacuna to explain Enkidu’s change of mind about the advisability of the journey to the forest of cedar?


Ishtar, the goddess of Uruk whose temple Eanna is the biggest monument of the city, comes to Gilgamesh and invites him to become her lover.

Gilgamesh begins with the reasonable observation that he and the goddess are not the same sort of being — they do not normally share food, drink, or clothing. They are different in kind. He then warms to his task, introducing proverbial metaphors p. 49 VI.32-43 and beginning the sorry story of Ishtar’s lovers.

When the two friends returned to civilization, their reentry from the wilderness was marked by Gilgamesh’ putting on clean clothes and his crown (p. 48, VI.1-5). At that very point, Ishtar responds to Gilgamesh not only as a potent male, pumped up with the success that the adventure brings, but also as a king, because the union she wants would be an enactment of the sacred marriage rite, but this time with the real deity rather than a mortal surrogate. Gilgamesh is thus offered a chance to bring fertility to his city (VI.18-21). His adamant refusal has consequences in two different levels.

The personal consequences occupy the foreground. Ishtar offers some things, and Gilgamesh expects others in reality. He wants a Mesopotamian woman who will give him ale and bread and attend to his needs. Ishtar will not do this, not only because she is a goddess, and thus not likely to be subservient to her prospective human husband, but because she is a bad wife by Mesopotamian standards — a claim that is illustrated at length by the review of her track record.

But there is another level, that of civic responsibility. The king is the shepherd of his people; his refusal of Ishtar is thus a rejection of fertility for the land, and the provocation of the goddess to inflict civic misfortune on it, in the form of famine from the Bull of Heaven. G. is still not taking his kingly responsiblities in hand properly.

Enkidu is foreshadowing Gilgamesh’s journey: he entered civilization (became “just like a god”) by his sexual encounter with the harlot. Gilgamesh is prevented by his own pride from access to what Ishtar claims is the world of the gods, but which he himself sees as the world Enkidu left.

VI.103-114 echoes the common ancient mythological story of the slighted or offended fertility goddess who inflicts famine or hardship on the earth. Cf. Demeter and Persephone. G’s heroism costs the citizens dearly.

Heroes double-team the bull, sacrifice it to Shamash. This seems to be de rigeur for victorious heroes: when Enkidu lies on his deathbed later, in Book VII.47-58, he says to the door he has fashioned that if he had survived, he would have dedicated it also to Shamash.

VI.156 Parallel but contrasting gathering: Ishtar assmbles the courtesans mourning over the Bull of Heaven’s haunch, while G summons the smiths and craftsmen.

Enkidu continues to lead the way for his friend. Enkidu’s response to impending death previews in many ways the struggle of Gilgamesh in the remainder of the story: first come fear and anger, then acceptance. Gilgamesh will experience a similar sequence, and will be reconciled to death by a similar appeal: civilization is the cure.

Gilgamesh experiences grief. First he recalls what seems most important about enkidu, his origins in the wild and their adventures together. He then slips further into that world, becoming in his mind, an animal: VIII.60 (p. 65) “like an eagle he circled around him. Like a lioness deprived of her cubs, he paced to and fro, this way and that.”

In VIII.63-6, G defiles his finery and hair, reverting into an Enkidu-like state.

Long and elaborate description of his burial preparations.

Invocation of the numerous deities concerned.

When we next see the king, he is acting out the roaming that began in his imagination. He goes again into the wilderness, looking for relief from his pain (IX.1-10).

His journey takes him past various boundary figures who test his resolve and ultimately help him on his way. First are the Scorpion man and woman, guarding the gate of Mashu beyond which Shamash passes each day. Gilgamesh is already pressing against the normal bounds of human existence.

IX.170-195 Gilgamesh encounters the garden of the gods, which is all made out of stone – rare material in Mesopotamia.

Guardian goddess Shiduri keeps an alehouse (extreme outpost of civilization: “last beer for 100 miles!”) and guards the waters of death. Taking him for a hunter, she bars her gate. This is the first of the obstacles standing between Gilgamesh and immortality.

X.22 Brute force is Gilgamesh’ modus operandi.

X.34-45 presents a contrast between the deeds and attitude of the blithe heroes, and Gilgamesh’ obvious awareness of death.

X.67-69 Enkidu is turned to “clay.” cf. the death sentence on Adam in Genesis: “until you return to the ground from which you were taken…for dust you are, and to dust you shall return.”

X.81-82 “…only Shamash can cross the waters of death” — the Sun, in its repeated transit of the sky, sinking into the sea, is a marker of time and thus a symbol of eternity. The “waters of death” recall the Deluge. Eternity and death: man cannot attain the one, nor escape the other.

X.92-106 Gilgamesh attacks Ur-shanabi’s “stone ones.” Recall that the garden of the gods was of stone. Why stone? Recall that this is Mesopotamia. When the builders of Babel attempted to construct their tower to heaven, what did they use? “Bricks for stone and mud for mortar.” Like the Forest of Cedar, the Stone of the gods’ garden and of Ur-Shanabi’s crew is divine because it is alien to the everyday life of Mesopotamia.

The attack on the Stone Ones is another instance of Gilgamesh’ overly direct heroic method.

X.112-154 A verbatim reiteration of Gilgamesh’ self-explanation originally given to the sea-side tavern-keeper. The self-identification of a traveling hero is an epic commonplace. τίς, τίνος ἐσσι, τίνος πατρίδος, τί δ’ ἐνικησας;

The destruction of the Stone Ones necessitates their replacement with a superhuman number of punting poles, which Gilgamesh must cut and provide to Ur-Shanabi, and which ultimately prove insufficient, requiring Gilgamesh to serve as a mast, using his garments as sails.

X.184 Note the narratological change: we have been experiencing the journey from Gilgamesh and Ur-Shanabi’s perspective. This is the sort of cinematic effect that also causes us to see the events of the narrative through a different focalizer: having identified ourselves with Gilgamesh, so that we are emotionally invested in the success or failure of his quest, and pressing, straining forward as he propels his boat, we suddenly are made to consider the same events from the perspective of Uta-Napishti instead. From his perspective, Gilgamesh is a frightful sight: things are not right; the Stone Ones have been wrecked, and the normal order of things (Ur-Shanabi in charge of his boat) has been upset. We stand now with Uta-Napishti, in his realm beyond the Water of Death, and the main fact that should strike us as we consider Gilgamesh’ onset from the perspective of the Babylonian Noah is that he does not belong here. Hence Uta-Napishti’s thrice-repeated phrase, “He who comes is no man of mine… no man of mine…is not mine…” Gilgamesh does not belong here. He is transgressing.

X.218-265 Gilgamesh explains for the third time his identity and errand, and the past history of Enkidu’s death that has impelled him to undertake his quest.

X.266-280 The form of Uta-Napishti’s reply is an attempt to jar Gilgamesh out of his tyrannical and heroic mode of existence — with its attendant unhappiness (“Why …do you ever chase sorrow?”) — to the lowly and wretched existence of someone else in the society of Uruk, in this case, the fool (court jester?). The latter’s existence is evaluated in material terms: he gets left-over yeast, bran and grist; he dresses in rags; a rope for a belt; he has no friends or counsellors. The standard of evaluation, the criterion of happiness, should be familiar to us by now. It is the standard employed by Shamhat in urging Enkidu into civilization — “young men are girt with waistbands”, no rope for a belt here!; there is dancing, etc. It is the standard employed by Enkidu on his deathbed when he curses the hunter and Shamhat. We might think of much worse things to call down on someone who had ostensibly ruined our lives, but the Mesopotamian mindset, reflected in Enkidu, runs first to the infliction of economic disaster: “destoy his profit, diminish his income!” Likewise, Shamhat is cursed in her property: “a household to delight in you shall not acquire….things of beauty [you shall never acquire]….No …shall you have! No table [for a banquet], the people’s abundance, shall be laid in your house!” Thus Enkidu’s idea of how to inflict evil on his enemies is to curse them with poverty. Conversely, Shamash’s way of persuading Enkidu that his perceived enemies have actually done him good is to point to the material blessings — bread, ale, a splendid garment — that he has gained as a result of his commerce with Shamhat. The Mesopotamian worldview is extremely materialistic in the economic sense of the word.

X.282-4 Though fragmentary, this appears to be a stanza linking sleeplessness with immortality — a linkage that will be crucial to the test to which Gilgamesh is subjected by Uta-Napishti’s wife in XI.

X.296-322 A discourse on the futility of striving and the inevitability of death very akin to Ecclesiastes.


The account of the deluge and Uta-Napishti’s survival and preservation of animal life on the ark diverges in interesting ways from the Biblical account of Noah.

XI.146-156 Three birds, not two. The swallow is added to the dove and raven. Note also that it is the raven, and not the dove as in the Noah story, who comes back. Also, the dove brings back a branch as evidence of the existence of trees once more, while in Gilgamesh there is no token brought by any of the birds; it is only their failure to return that signals the official conclusion of the flood.

XI.163 Just as the Biblical Noah’s first act upon emerging from the Ark was to sacrifice to the Lord, so in Gilgamesh, Uta-Napishti’s first action is to sacrifice. In both instances, the aroma is described as sweet and pleasing. There is a rather comical depiction of the gods as buzzing flies.

XI.168 The flood is depicted as the result of the gods’ failure to act in concert, with Belet-ili finding fault with Enlil for causing it, and Enlil enraged at Uta-Napishti’s survival.

XI.185-6 Ea faults Enlil for the unfairness of the deluge, which slew the innocent with the wicked: “On him who transgresses, inflict his crime! On him who does wrong, inflict his wrongdoing!” Note that in the Bible, the Deluge is just precisely because Noah is the only righteous man on earth.

XI.188-195 Various fairer alternatives to the Deluge are suggested that could have done away with the wicked selectively.

XI.205-6 After Uta-Napishti’s survival, the gods deify him and settle him “where the rivers flow forth.” Note that this is the same language used of Eden in Gen. 2:10. Uta-Napishti is thus returned to a paradisal situation.

XI.209 The test of seven days’ vigil is an a fortiori one. Recall that x.282-4 had linked sleep and death; vigil is thus the equivalent of immortality.

XI.220-242 It is significant that bread is the instrument of Uta-Napishti’s wife’s demonstration to Gilgamesh of his own mortality. It is the quintessential symbol of civilization: a product of agriculture, processed by grinding, baked by fire in brick ovens, and eaten in society. One may have civilization or immortality; not both.

XI.242-246 Gilgamesh’s despairing confession of his mortality; the quest is at an end, and has failed.

XI.247-249 Ur-shanabi, as the accessory to Gilgamesh’s transgression of the divine boundaries, is banished; thus the way to Uta-Napishti is closed forever after, ensuring that Gilgamesh will be the last to reach that realm.

XI.251-270 Gilgamesh is prepared for the return to civilization, with hairdressing, change of raiment, and bath. Notice (269-270) that the robes do not decay until he reaches Uruk.

What follows has the appearance of an addendum to the episode, which might originally have ended with Gilgamesh’s dismissal to Uruk. Instead, by an ingenious plot device which preserves Uta-Napishti’s decisiveness, the further episode of the undersea plant of youth is introduced: it is Uta-Napishti’s wife who persuades her husband not to send Gilgamesh away utterly disappointed (XI.274-5).

XI.282-286 The prickly plant is an inferior solution to Gilgamesh’s problem of death: it will not accomplish what he wants (immortality), but will greatly extend his life until he has exhausted his supply of it. Notice that like Uta-Napishti’s abode, the plant also is located in a place which Gilgamesh must reach by traversing water — in this case, diving, not sailing. Water again is a symbol of death; the deluge is the background to this imagery.

XI.302-6 The theft of the plant by the snake is an aetiological myth, and one of the earliest recorded. It is interesting that the aetiology of snakes features also in Genesis, with the curse of God on the serpent explaining that creature’s leglessness, while the Epic of Gilgamesh explains the animal’s molting.

XI.323-end Gilgamesh calls Ur-Shanabi’s attention to the walls of Uruk, repeating lines from I.10-21. It is the epic’s final solution to the problem of death — and still less satisfactory than either apotheosis or rejuvenation. Yet it is still a solution.


  1. If wishes were horses, I would be in your ninth grade class!

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