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The Epic of Gilgamesh

Prof’s Notes: The following text is a translation of Tablets I, II and XI from the Epic of Gilgamesh. The translation information and online text can be found here. A few things worth noting as you read:

First, the text is incomplete because large chunks of the original tablets are simply missing. So, when you see ellipses or question marks, the translator isn’t being coy; there’s literally no text to translate.

This is part of why the story doesn’t always make precise linear sense. But then, ancient peoples weren’t always as concerned with plots the way we are. It’s worth asking then: What were the creators of and listeners to this story concerned with? What were the themes they were drawn to? What messages - about morality, politics, religion, or human nature - did they wish to convey?

As you read, I encourage you to grapple with the text, leave comments/questions about what confuses you, give yourself some grace not to understand everything, and check outside sources when necessary. (The Wikipedia article is quite thorough in this case.)

Tablet 1

He 1 who has seen everything I will make known (?) to the lands.
I will teach (?) about him who experienced all things,
... alike,
Anu 2 granted him the totality of knowledge of all.
He saw the Secret, discovered the Hidden,
he brought information of (the time) before the Flood.
He went on a distant journey, pushing himself to exhaustion,
but then was brought to peace.
He carved on a stone stela all of his toils,
and built the wall of Uruk-Haven,
the wall of the sacred Eanna Temple, the holy sanctuary.3
Look at its wall which gleams like copper(?),
inspect its inner wall, the likes of which no one can equal!
Take hold of the threshold stone--it dates from ancient times!
Go close to the Eanna Temple, the residence of Ishtar,
such as no later king or man ever equaled!
Go up on the wall of Uruk and walk around,
examine its foundation, inspect its brickwork thoroughly.
Is not (even the core of) the brick structure made of kiln-fired brick,
and did not the Seven Sages themselves lay out its plans?
One league city, one league palm gardens, one league lowlands, the open area(?) of the Ishtar Temple,
three leagues and the open area(?) of Uruk it (the wall) encloses.
Find the copper tablet box,
open the ... of its lock of bronze,
undo the fastening of its secret opening.
Take and read out from the lapis lazuli tablet
how Gilgamesh went through every hardship.

  1. The narrator begins by introducing Gilgamesh to the audience of listeners. The Epic would originally have been presented orally. It was written down long after the origin of the story.

  2. There are a number of Mesopotamian deities mentioned throughout the text - Anu, Ishtar, Aruru... This Wikipedia page might be a helpful primer.

  3. The narrator praises Gilgamesh for the monuments he has built - the wall around Uruk keeps the city safe; the wall around the temple of Eanna, dedicated to the fertility goddes, Ishtar, is an indication of Gilgamesh's respect for the city's deities.

Supreme over other kings, lordly in appearance,
he is the hero, born of Uruk, the goring wild bull.4
He walks out in front, the leader,
and walks at the rear, trusted by his companions.
Mighty net, protector of his people,
raging flood-wave who destroys even walls of stone!
Offspring of Lugalbanda, Gilgamesh is strong to perfection,
son of the august cow, Rimat-Ninsun;5... Gilgamesh is awesome to perfection.
It was he who opened the mountain passes,
who dug wells on the flank of the mountain.
It was he who crossed the ocean, the vast seas, to the rising sun,
who explored the world regions, seeking life.
It was he who reached by his own sheer strength Utanapishtim, the Faraway,
who restored the sanctuaries (or: cities) that the Flood had destroyed!6
... for teeming mankind.
Who can compare with him in kingliness?
Who can say like Gilgamesh: "I am King!"?
Whose name, from the day of his birth, was called "Gilgamesh"?
Two-thirds of him is god, one-third of him is human.
The Great Goddess [Aruru] designed(?) the model for his body,
she prepared his form ...
... beautiful, handsomest of men,
... perfect
He walks around in the enclosure of Uruk,
Like a wild bull he makes himself mighty, head raised (over others).
There is no rival who can raise his weapon against him.
His fellows stand (at the alert), attentive to his (orders ?),
and the men of Uruk become anxious in ...
Gilgamesh does not leave a son to his father,7
day and night he arrogant[y(?) ...

  1. The Epic of Gilgamesh is often considered the world's first hero narrative. One of our central questions for class discussion will be: Is Gilgamesh a hero in this narrative? What makes him a hero?

  2. Ninsun is a Mesopotamian goddess, best known as the mother of Gilgamesh. She was also a primary deity for the Sumerian city of Lagash and appears to have been closely associated with and/or represented as a cow in Sumerian mythology.

  3. Tablet XI, described below and narrated in the linked video, describes the tale of Utanapishtim, the man who survived the terrible flood sent by the deities to wipe out humankind. Utanapishtim, his wife, and family survived by building a boat and taking with them a host of animals. If that sounds familiar, it's because the flood narrative in Tablet XI is most likely the inspiration and primary source material for the story of Noah in the book of Genesis (a story shared by all three monotheistic world religions).

  4. Gilgamesh constantly calls the young men of the city to go to war with him or take part in his monumental building projects.

[The following lines are interpreted as rhetorical, perhaps spoken by the oppressed citizens of Uruk.] 8

Is Gilgamesh the shepherd of Uruk-Haven,
is he the shepherd. ...
bold, eminent, knowing, and wise!
Gilgamesh does not leave a girl to her mother(?)9
The daughter of the warrior, the bride of the young man,
the gods kept hearing their complaints, so
the gods of the heavens implored the Lord of Uruk [Anu]

  1. How does Gilgamesh treat the citizens of Uruk? What are their complaints against him? Who do they address their complaints to?

  2. We'll see this play out in Tablet II - where we're informed that Gilgamesh believes and acts as if it is his right to sleep with a bride on her wedding night, before her husband.

"You have indeed brought into being a mighty wild bull, head raised!
"There is no rival who can raise a weapon against him.
"His fellows stand (at the alert), attentive to his (orders !),
"Gilgamesh does not leave a son to his father,
"day and night he arrogantly ...
"Is he the shepherd of Uruk-Haven,
"is he their shepherd...
"bold, eminent, knowing, and wise,
"Gilgamesh does not leave a girl to her mother(?)!"
The daughter of the warrior, the bride of the young man,
Anu listened to their complaints,
and (the gods) called out to Aruru:
"it was you, Aruru, who created mankind(?),
now create a zikru10 to it/him.
Let him be equal to his (Gilgamesh's) stormy heart,
let them be a match for each other so that Uruk may find peace!"
When Aruru heard this she created within herself the zikrtt of Anu.
Aruru washed her hands, she pinched off some clay, and threw it into the wilderness.
In the wildness(?) she created valiant Enkidu,
born of Silence, endowed with strength by Ninurta.
His whole body was shaggy with hair,
he had a full head of hair like a woman,
his locks billowed in profusion like Ashnan.
He knew neither people nor settled living,
but wore a garment like Sumukan.
He ate grasses with the gazelles,
and jostled at the watering hole with the animals;
as with animals, his thirst was slaked with (mere) water.
A notorious trapper came face-to-face with him opposite the watering hole.
A first, a second, and a third day
he came face-to-face with him opposite the watering hole.
On seeing him the trapper's face went stark with fear,
and he (the trapper?) and his animals drew back home.
He was rigid with fear; though stock-still
his heart pounded and his face drained of color.
He was miserable to the core,
and his face looked like one who had made a long journey.
The trapper addressed his father saying:

  1. Zikru remains untranslated here because it's a potentially complicated word in the original language - at least according to this source.

"Father, a certain fellow has come from the mountains.
He is the mightiest in the land,
his strength is as mighty as the meteorite(?) of Anu!
He continually goes over the mountains,
he continually jostles at the watering place with the animals,
he continually plants his feet opposite the watering place.
I was afraid, so I did not go up to him.
He filled in the pits that I had dug,
wrenched out my traps that I had spread,
released from my grasp the wild animals.
He does not let me make my rounds in the wilderness!"
The trapper's father spoke to him saying:
"My son, there lives in Uruk a certain Gilgamesh.
There is no one stronger than he,
he is as strong as the meteorite(?) of Anu.
Go, set off to Uruk,
tell Gilgamesh of this Man of Might.
He will give you the harlot11 Shamhat, take her with you.
The woman will overcome the fellow (?) as if she were strong.
When the animals are drinking at the watering place
have her take off her robe and expose her sex.
When he sees her he will draw near to her,
and his animals, who grew up in his wilderness, will be alien to him."

  1. A quick note on Shamhat. "Harlot" may not be the right word here. Much scholarship on Gilgamesh suggests Shamhat was a sacred/temple prostitute - a woman dedicated to a goddess (most likely the fertility goddess, Ishtar) who participated in sexual rites that symbolized or created connections to a deity.

He heeded his father's advice.
The trapper went off to Uruk,
he made the journey, stood inside of Uruk,
and declared to ... Gilgamesh:
"There is a certain fellow who has come from the mountains--
he is the mightiest in the land,
his strength is as mighty as the meteorite(?) of Anu!
He continually goes over the mountains,
he continually jostles at the watering place with the animals,
he continually plants his feet opposite the watering place.12
I was afraid, so I did not go up to him.
He filled in the pits that I had dug,
wrenched out my traps that I had spread,
released from my grasp the wild animals.
He does not let me make my rounds in the wilderness!"
Gilgamesh said to the trapper:
"Go, trapper, bring the harlot, Shamhat, with you.
When the animals are drinking at the watering place
have her take off her robe and expose her sex.13

When he sees her he will draw near to her,
and his animals, who grew up in his wilderness, will be alien to him."

  1. This passage sounds familiar, yes? Repetition serves a purpose in oral tradition - it's like highlighting or underlining in a text to show what's most important. Or you could think of it like the hook or chorus of a pop song; the repeated parts are meant to stick in your head.

  2. Surprised at how explicit this text is? Ancient literature tends to be more open about sex/sexuality/the role of sex in a story. We'll follow that trend through other texts this semester. Sexuality in ancient/medieval lit also makes for great blog post material... Just saying. ;)

The trapper went, bringing the harlot14, Shamhat, with him.
They set off on the journey, making direct way.
On the third day they arrived at the appointed place,
and the trapper and the harlot sat down at their posts(?).
A first day and a second they sat opposite the watering hole.
The animals arrived and drank at the watering hole,
the wild beasts arrived and slaked their thirst with water.
Then he, Enkidu, offspring of the mountains,
who eats grasses with the gazelles,
came to drink at the watering hole with the animals,
with the wild beasts he slaked his thirst with water.
Then Shamhat saw him--a primitive,
a savage fellow from the depths of the wilderness!
"That is he, Shamhat! Release your clenched arms,
expose your sex so he can take in your voluptuousness.
Do not be restrained--take his energy!
When he sees you he will draw near to you.
Spread out your robe so he can lie upon you,
and perform for this primitive the task of womankind!
His animals, who grew up in his wilderness, will become alien to him,
and his lust will groan over you."
Shamhat unclutched her bosom, exposed her sex, and he took in her voluptuousness.
She was not restrained, but took his energy.
She spread out her robe and he lay upon her,
she performed for the primitive the task of womankind.15
His lust groaned over her;
for six days and seven nights Enkidu stayed aroused,
and had intercourse with the harlot
until he was sated with her charms. 16

  1. Again, temple priestess or sacred prostitute is closer to the mark.

  2. Oof. This is a tough line to read from a modern, feminist perspective. Other translations are both worse and better.

    1928 R Campbell Thompson translation - "With the wiles of a woman she plied him”

    1984 John Gardner and John Maier: “She made him know, the man-as-he-was, what a woman is”

    2004 Andrew George: Shamhat is instructed to “show [Enkidu] what a woman is”

  3. I'm telling you - Hollywood has nothing on the ancient epics...

    Striking as this passage is, it's worth considering - why does the epic spend so much time describing this encounter? What is the larger purpose of this part of the tale?

But when he turned his attention to his animals,
the gazelles saw Enkidu and darted off,
the wild animals distanced themselves from his body.
Enkidu ... his utterly depleted(?) body,
his knees that wanted to go off with his animals went rigid;
Enkidu was diminished, his running was not as before.
But then he drew himself up, for his understanding had broadened.17
Turning around, he sat down at the harlot's feet,
gazing into her face, his ears attentive as the harlot spoke.
The harlot said to Enkidu:
"You are beautiful," Enkidu, you are become like a god.
Why do you gallop around the wilderness with the wild beasts?
Come, let me bring you into Uruk-Haven,
to the Holy Temple, the residence of Anu and Ishtar,
the place of Gilgamesh, who is wise to perfection,
but who struts his power over the people like a wild bull."
What she kept saying found favor with him.
Becoming aware of himself, he sought a friend.
Enkidu spoke to the harlot:
"Come, Shamhat, take me away with you
to the sacred Holy Temple, the residence of Anu and Ishtar,
the place of Gilgamesh, who is wise to perfection,
but who struts his power over the people like a wild bull.
I will challenge him ...
Let me shout out in Uruk: I am the mighty one!'
Lead me in and I will change the order of things;
he whose strength is mightiest is the one born in the wilderness!"

  1. It's worth noting the change here in Enkidu - he goes from animalistic to rational; from wild man to civilized.

[Shamhat to Enkidu:]
"Come, let us go, so he may see your face.
I will lead you to Gilgamesh--I know where he will be.
Look about, Enkidu, inside Uruk-Haven,
where the people show off in skirted finery,
where every day is a day for some festival,
where the lyre(?) and drum play continually,
where harlots stand about prettily,
exuding voluptuousness, full of laughter
and on the couch of night the sheets are spread (!)."
Enkidu, you who do not know, how to live,
I will show you Gilgamesh, a man of extreme feelings (!).
Look at him, gaze at his face--
he is a handsome youth, with freshness(!),
his entire body exudes voluptuousness
He has mightier strength than you,
without sleeping day or night!
Enkidu, it is your wrong thoughts you must change!
It is Gilgamesh whom Shamhat loves,
and Anu, Enlil, and La have enlarged his mind."
Even before you came from the mountain
Gilgamesh in Uruk had dreams about you."18

  1. Cue flashback. Shamhat proceeds to narrate the dreams Gilgamesh had before he sent Shamhat to meet Enkidu.

Gilgamesh got up and revealed the dream, saying to his mother 19 :
"Mother, I had a dream last night.
Stars of the sky appeared,
and some kind of meteorite(?) of Anu fell next to me.
I tried to lift it but it was too mighty for me,
I tried to turn it over but I could not budge it.
The Land of Uruk was standing around it,
the whole land had assembled about it,
the populace was thronging around it,
the Men clustered about it,
and kissed its feet as if it were a little baby (!).
I loved it and embraced it as a wife.
I laid it down at your feet,
and you made it compete with me."

  1. Gilgamesh's mother, Ninsun, plays an important part in this story but is often overlooked (Shamhat sort of steals the show).

    What role does she play? How does her presence broaden or constrict our sense of women's roles in the story?.

The mother of Gilgamesh, the wise, all-knowing, said to her Lord;
Rimat-Ninsun, the wise, all-knowing, said to Gilgamesh:
"As for the stars of the sky that appeared
and the meteorite(?) of Anu which fell next to you,
you tried to lift but it was too mighty for you,
you tried to turn it over but were unable to budge it,
you laid it down at my feet,
and I made it compete with you,
and you loved and embraced it as a wife."

"There will come to you a mighty man, a comrade who saves his friend--
he is the mightiest in the land, he is strongest,
his strength is mighty as the meteorite(!) of Anu!
You loved him and embraced him as a wife;
and it is he who will repeatedly save you.
Your dream is good and propitious!"

A second time Gilgamesh said to his mother: "Mother, I have had another dream:20
"At the gate of my marital chamber there lay an axe,
"and people had collected about it.
"The Land of Uruk was standing around it,
"the whole land had assembled about it,
"the populace was thronging around it.
"I laid it down at your feet,
"I loved it and embraced it as a wife,
"and you made it compete with me."

  1. Dreams carry weight in the epic. They're significant enough to trouble Gilgamesh, anyway. What might that tell us about the citizens of Uruk and how they make sense of the world?

The mother of Gilgamesh, the wise, all-knowing, said to her son;
Rimat-Ninsun, the wise, all-knowing, said to Gilgamesh:
""The axe that you saw (is) a man.
"... (that) you love him and embrace as a wife,
"but (that) I have compete with you."
"" There will come to you a mighty man,
" a comrade who saves his friend--
"he is the mightiest in the land, he is strongest,
"he is as mighty as the meteorite(!) of Anu!"
Gilgamesh spoke to his mother saying:
""By the command of Enlil, the Great Counselor, so may it to pass!
"May I have a friend and adviser, a friend and adviser may I have!
"You have interpreted for me the dreams about him!"

After the harlot recounted the dreams of Gilgamesh to Enkidu
the two of them made love.

Tablet II

Enkidu sits in front of her [Shamhat].

[ The next 30 lines are missing; some of the fragmentary lines from 35 on are restored from parallels in the Old Babylonian. ] 21

"Why ..."(?)
His own counsel ...
At his instruction ...
Who knows his heart...
Shamhat pulled off her clothing,
and clothed him with one piece
while she clothed herself with a second.
She took hold of him as the gods do'
and brought him to the hut of the shepherds.
The shepherds gathered all around about him,
they marveled to themselves:
"How the youth resembles Gilgamesh--22
tall in stature, towering up to the battlements over the wall!
Surely he was born in the mountains;
his strength is as mighty as the meteorite(!) of Anu!"
They placed food in front of him,
they placed beer in front of him;
Enkidu knew nothing about eating bread for food,
and of drinking beer he had not been taught.
The harlot spoke to Enkidu, saying:
"Eat the food, Enkidu, it is the way one lives.
Drink the beer, as is the custom of the land."
Enkidu ate the food until he was sated,
he drank the beer-seven jugs!-- and became expansive and sang with joy!
He was elated and his face glowed.
He splashed his shaggy body with water,
and rubbed himself with oil, and turned into a human.
He put on some clothing and became like a warrior(!).
He took up his weapon and chased lions so that the shepherds could eat
He routed the wolves, and chased the lions.
With Enkidu as their guard, the herders could lie down.
A wakeful man, a singular youth, he was twice as tall (?) (as normal men

  1. This portion of the translation is pieced together from multiple versions of the Epic - including the version recorded in Old Babylonian.

  2. There are parallels suggested between Enkidu and Gilgamesh throughout the story. (They're both strong as the meteorite of Anu, they resemble each other...) What role might those parallels play in the story? What symbolic or narrative purpose do the similarities serve?

[ The next 33 lines are missing in the Standard Version; lines 57-86 are taken from the Old Babylonian. ]

Then he raised his eyes and saw a man.
He said to the harlot:
"Shamhat, have that man go away!
Why has he come'? I will call out his name!"
The harlot called out to the man
and went over to him and spoke with him.
"Young man, where are you hurrying!
Why this arduous pace!"
The young man spoke, saying to Enkidu:
"They have invited me to a wedding,
as is the custom of the people.
... the selection(!) of brides(!) ..
I have heaped up tasty delights for the wedding on the ceremonial(!) platter.
For the King of Broad-Marted Uruk,
open is the veil(!) of the people for choosing (a girl).
For Gilgamesh, the King of Broad-Marted Uruk,
open is the veil(?) of the people for choosing.
He will have intercourse with the 'destined wife,'
he first, the husband afterward.
This is ordered by the counsel of Anu,
from the severing of his umbilical cord it has been destined
for him."

At the young man's speech his (Enkidu's) face flushed (with anger).
[Several lines are missing.]
Enkidu walked in front, and Shamhat after him.
[The Standard Version resumes.]
He (Enkidu) walked down the street of Uruk-Haven,
... mighty...
He blocked the way through Uruk the Sheepfold.
The land of Uruk stood around him,
the whole land assembled about him,
the populace was thronging around him,
the men were clustered about him,
and kissed his feet as if he were a little baby(!).
Suddenly a handsome young man ...
For Ishara the bed of night(?)/marriage(?) is ready,
for Gilgamesh as for a god a counterpart(!) is set up.
Enkidu blocked the entry to the marital chamber,
and would not allow Gilgamreh to be brought in.
They grappled with each other at the entry to the marital chamber,
in the street they attacked each other, the public square of the land.
The doorposts trembled and the wall shook,

[ About 42 lines are missing from the Standard Version; lines 103-129 are taken from the Old Babylonian version. ]

Gilgamesh bent his knees, with his other foot on the ground,
his anger abated and he turned his chest away.
After he turned his chest Enkidu said to Gilgamesh:
"Your mother bore you ever unique(!),
the Wild Cow of the Enclosure, Ninsun,
your head is elevated over (other) men,
Enlil has destined for you the kingship over the people."
[19 lines are missing here.]

They kissed each other and became friends.23 [...]

  1. While two men kissing or in close contact can be (and has been) read as homoerotic by modern readers, we need to consider the original context. How would the original listeners have perceived this passage? What would such close physical contact between men have meant to them?

Prof’s Summary of Tablets II through X:

The remainder of Tablet II and all of Tablet III involve a discussion of whether or not Gilgamesh and Enkidu should go fight Humbaba, “The Guardian of the Cedar Forest” whose “roar is a Flood,his mouth is Fire, his breath Death!” You know, basic epic story monster stuff.

Tablets IV and V recount the journey to find Humbaba and Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s victory over Humbaba.

Tablet VI involves an encounter with the goddess Ishtar, who proposes that Gilgamesh becomes her lover and husband. Gilgamesh rejects her, none too kindly.

In Tablet VII, Enkidu and Gilgamesh have dreams of a conference of the gods in which Enlil, one of the high gods, decrees that Enkidu must die for slaying Humbaba - who was under Enlil’s protection. In the dream, Gilgamesh is spared through the intervention of another deity.

At the end of this tablet, the dream appears to come true. Enkidu becomes ill and slowly dies. Tablets VIII and IX are largely filled with mourning for Enkidu. The latter half of IX and all of X detail how Gilgamesh hears of Utanapishtim, a man who was allowed to become immortal, and then goes in search of.

Tablet XI opens with Gilgamesh speaking to Utanapishtim, an immortal man who survived the great flood sent by the deities. It's a fascinating read - but some other timer perhaps. For now, please take a few minutes to watch the video and get a sense of the content of Tablet XI.