Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others - The Epic of Gilgamesh - Standard version and Old Babylonian Version Summary & Analysis

Stephanie Dalley
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The Epic of Gilgamesh - Standard version and Old Babylonian Version Summary and Analysis

The author begins by explaining a bit about the epic of Gilgamesh. As the longest composition written in Akkadian, the piece is a legendary epic that is not yet in its entirety. The epic, according to the author, is about a man's quest for fame and immortality, who is pursued by a man with a huge capacity for love, friendship, adventure, emotion, and weakness who loses an opportunity through carelessness alone. The life of Gilgamesh is believed to have occurred between 2800 and 2500 BC. He is said to be the son of the goddess Lady Wild Cow and a demon. There appear to be several versions of the story, and all are pieced together to form a single work. The author then notes ties between the Epic of Gilgamesh and such tales as the Odyssey, Sinbad the Sailor, and Arabian Nights, again suggesting all come from a central event, and explaining the differences in versions. The author also asserts that the tale was written in part to support kingship, in that the story shows that while kings can be imperfect, their kingship will still prevail.

Gilgamesh begins by introducing the story of a hero. Gilgamesh is described as superior to other kings, the son of the wild cow Ninsun and king Lugalbanda, making him one third mortal and two thirds divine. However, Gilgamesh is also constantly fighting the young men of Uruk to prove himself superior and molesting the women of the town. Finally, to calm Gilgamesh, Aruru, goddess of creation, also called Belet-ili, creates Enkidu, a primitive man, to rival Gilgamesh. A hunter sees the man and tells his father, who instructs him to go speak with Gilgamesh in Uruk. Gilgamesh instructs him to lead the harlot Shamhat to the watering hole Enkidu drinks from. She is to entice him to enter her, at which time he will leave be forced to leave the society of animals and join mankind. Shamhat does so. After, Enkidu is unable to rejoin the animals, and instead plans to travel to Uruk with Shamhat to challenge Gilgamesh. Shamhat, however, tells Enkidu of a dream Gilgamesh told to his mother Ninsun, where a man as strong as he arrives in Uruk. Ninsun told Gilgamesh the man was to be his friend. After a gap of forty-five lines, the story finds Enkidu in Uruk, where the locals are impressed with his similarities to Gilgamesh. Enkidu stands in the way of Gilgamesh, however, at the door to Ishhara, and the two men fight brutally. The two eventually see one another as equals and embrace as fiends.

Gilgamesh decides to go stop Humbaba, the keeper of the Pine Forest, and appears to do so at the bidding of Shamash. It is clear Gilgamesh is determined to go on his journey, despite warnings from Enkidu as well as the elders of Uruk. Gilgamesh and Enkidu travel to speak with Ninsun, who asks Shamash why he has chosen her son to face Humbaba. Ninsun then tells Enkidu she adopts him as her own, and tells the two men to travel to the Pine Forest. The two travel for many days, where Gilgamesh has many disturbing dreams. Enkidu, however, sees the dreams as good omens for success again Humbaba. After several gaps in the text, the two men arrive at the forest. Humbaba hears them and threatens to kill them, but Gilgamesh calls out to Shamash for assistance. Shamash calls forth the thirteen winds, and Gilgamesh begins to win the fight. Gilgamesh, at Enkidu's command, beheads Humbaba. The men make a raft and send the head down the Euphrates. Afterward, Ishtar, the evil goddess of love, offers to marry Gilgamesh, but he refuses, knowing she kills her husbands soon after marriage. Angry, Ishtar asks her father to send the Bull of Heaven down to strike Gilgamesh, and after some arguing, he relents. Ishtar lands the bull in Uruk, but Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill the bull, after which Ishtar curses Gilgamesh. The following day, Enkidu tells Gilgamesh of a dream in which Anu orders one of the two men to die for their victories over Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven, and Ellil says Enkidu must perish. Upon waking, Enkidu, realizes he will soon die, and curses the hunter and the harlot. Enkidu falls ill and dreams of his journey to the underworld. He perishes in the arms of Gilgamesh, who then recalls his journey with Enkidu and promises him the people will weep for him.

Gilgamesh mourns his friend bitterly, and sets out roaming the open country, searching for Ut-napishtim and immortality. Readers may recall Ut-napishtim as Atrahasis in the story of the Flood. It is clear Gilgamesh is attempting to avoid death. His travels lead him across the world through two mountains guarded by scorpion beings. They allow him to pass into total darkness, but Gilgamesh continues onward to reach the other side, where a beautiful land with leaves of jewels exists. Siduri, the midwife, greets Gilgamesh, and after he tells her of his misery following the loss of Enkidu, directs him to the boatman Urshanabi. Urshanabi is surrounded by "things of stone", argued by the author to represent stone golumns. However, Gilgamesh kills them, believing them to be hostile. In reality, the boatman explains, the stone creatures were the only ones able to cross to the land of Ut-napishtim, since it is across a lethal body of water. The boatman orders Gilgamesh to cut three hundred poles from the forest, so that they can cross the water without the stone creatures. When they finally arrive at Ut-napishtim, however, Ut-napishtium tells Gilgamesh he is a fool because all mortals must die. Gilgamesh asks why Ut-napishtium, a mortal, is allowed immortality, and he explains that he is the savior of mankind. He then tells the story of Atrahasis. At the end, he tells Gilgamesh that if he does not sleep for six days and seven nights, he will tell him how to attain immortality. However, Gilgamesh falls asleep. Ut-napishtim tells his wife to bake a loaf of bread for each day Gilgamesh sleeps. When he awakens, Ut-napishtim proves to him he has been sleeping, and banishes him and the boatman. However, Ut-napishtim's wife talks him into relenting, and he tells Gilgamesh of a plant growing down in the Apsu that will grant immortality. Gilgamesh immediately sinks to retrieve it, and declares he will take it back to Uruk. However, in the night, a snake steals the plant. Gilgamesh returns to Uruk a failure, but remarks about the success of Uruk upon their return.

The final tablet of Gilgamesh appears to be unassociated with the previous text. In this, Gilgamesh tells Enkidu of a toy he has dropped in the underworld, and Enkidu offers to fetch it. Gilgamesh tells him what not to do in the underworld so that he is able to return. However, Enkidu ignores his orders and is kept by the underworld. Gilgamesh prays to Ellil and Sin to assist, but they ignore his pleas. Finally, he prays to Ea, who opens a hole in the earth from which Enkidu springs. He and Gilgamesh embrace, and Enkidu tells Gilgamesh of the agonizing conditions of the underworld.

The Old Babylonian version of the tale of Gilgamesh is slightly different than that of the standard version. The entire first tablet is missing. Enkidu and Shamkat (a different translation that Shamhat in the previous version) mate, and she brings him to Uruk. In this version, Shamkat and Enkidu are to marry, but Gilgamesh attempts to sleep with Shamkat first. The two battle, but become friends. Tablet three is highly fragmented, but seems to tell the same tale of Gilgamesh's desire to travel to kill Hubaba, translated in this version as Huwawa. Tablet four appears to tell the tale of the slaughter of Huwawa. Enkidu tells Gilgamesh the Pine Forest has changed. Tablets five through nine are missing. Tablet ten begins with the telling of Gilgamesh's conversation with Shamash, and his admittance of overwhelming grief over the death of Enkidu. Gilgamesh meets the alewife who sends him to Sur-Sunabu, the boatman translated as Urshanabi in the standard version. Gilgamesh again smashes the stone golumns, and the boatman tells him again to make three hundred oars to cross the sea. The rest of the tablets are damaged.

While highly fragmented, this version of the story shows clearly the story of Gilgamesh was consistent other than naming translations throughout time as well as location. Showing both versions here serves to support the idea that these stories were originally orally transmitted from area to area, and were written down far later in time than the original story was developed. Additionally, the presentation of both versions serves to show literary differences between the two societies.

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