The Epic of Gilgamesh
Enkidu awakens from a chilling nightmare. In the dream, the gods were angry with him and Gilgamesh and met to decide their fate. Great Anu, Ishtar’s father and the god of the firmament, decreed that they must punish someone for killing Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven and for felling the tallest cedar tree. Only one of the companions, however, must die. Enlil, Humbaba’s master and the god of earth, wind, and air, said that Enkidu should be the one to die. Shamash, the sun god, defended Enkidu. He said that Enkidu and Gilgamesh were only doing what he told them to do when they went to the Cedar Forest. Enlil became angry that Shamash took their side and accused Shamash of being their comrade, not a god.
The dream proves true when Enkidu falls ill. Overcome with self-pity, he curses the cedar gate that he and Gilgamesh brought back from the forbidden forest. He says he would have chopped the gate to pieces if he’d known his fate, and that he’d rather be forgotten forever than doomed to die like this. Gilgamesh is distraught. He tells Enkidu that he has gone before the gods himself to plead his case, but that Enlil was adamant. Gilgamesh promises his friend that he will build him an even greater monument than the cedar gate. He will erect an enormous statue of Enkidu, made entirely of gold.
Enkidu cries out to Shamash. He curses the hunter who first spotted him at the watering hole and says he hopes his hunting pits are filled in and his traps are unset. Weeping, he curses the temple prostitute too, who seduced him away from the animals. Shamash answers him from afar. He asks why Enkidu curses the harlot, since if it hadn’t been for her, Enkidu would have never tasted the rich foods of the palace, never worn beautiful clothes, and never known Gilgamesh’s friendship. Shamash tells Enkidu that when he dies, Gilgamesh will wander the earth, undone by grief. Enkidu finds comfort in Shamash’s words. He retracts his curse and supersedes it with a blessing for the prostitute: May her patrons be generous and rich.
The next morning, lying in his sickbed, Enkidu tells Gilgamesh about another terrible dream. In the dream, he was all alone on a dark plain, and a man with a lion’s head and an eagle’s talons seized him. They fought furiously, but the man overpowered him and changed him into a birdlike creature. Then he dragged him down to the underworld. There he saw kings, gods, and priests, all of them dressed in feathers. He saw King Etana, whom Ishtar had once chosen to be King of Kish, and Samuqan, the god of cattle. All of them were living in darkness. Dirt was their food and drink. Queen Ereshkigal, the ruler of the underworld, sat on her throne, and Belit-Seri, the scribe of the gods, whose tablet tells everyone’s fate, knelt before her. Enkidu says the queen looked at them and asked who led them there. Enkidu tells the appalled Gilgamesh that he would have been blessed if he’d died in battle, because those who die in battle are “glorious.” He suffers for twelve more days then dies.
The first half of Sin-Leqi-Unninni’s version of The Epic of Gilgamesh revels in the friends’ raw physicality as they sate themselves with pleasure and test themselves with heroic tasks. In this pivotal tablet, the exact halfway point of the epic, they must struggle against that same physicality. No matter how strong, bold, or beautiful they are, a place awaits them in the underworld.
The adolescent exuberance and celebration of Tablet VI comes to an abrupt halt as the two heroes face the stark horror of an agonizing, wasting death, unredeemed by battlefield heroics. The gods have spoken, and their verdict seems arbitrary: Enkidu must die. In a later tablet, Gilgamesh learns that the gods once set out to eliminate all life on Earth for no discernable reason at all. Enkidu curses the hunter and the prostitute, who connived together to lure him from the wilderness. He believes that if he had stayed with the animals and continued to live like an animal, he wouldn’t have brought doom upon himself. Without self-knowledge, he wouldn’t be able to feel the exquisite anguish that the prospect of dying is causing him. Enlil accused Shamash of acting more like a human being than a deity, and the comfort the sun god offers Enkidu is indeed humanistic. The god tells him that love, glory, and the pleasures of a cultivated life are important, as are being loved while alive and mourned when dead. This consolation offers a strange kind of comfort, since he is essentially saying that the recompense for losing the life he cherished is the life he cherished.
Enkidu’s curses are more than mere figures of speech. In ancient Mesopotamia, the culture considered curses an especially potent sort of magic that could alter fate. For this reason, Enkidu offers an alternative blessing for the prostitute, instead of simply withdrawing his curse. The curse and the blessing alike must stand. Enkidu’s dream about the underworld anticipates the journey upon which the heartbroken Gilgamesh will soon embark. Enkidu’s observation of King Etana among the dead is significant, as recovered fragments of the ancient Sumerian “Myth of Etana” describe that king’s futile quest to find a magical plant to cure his wife’s barrenness. At one point in the story, an eagle carries him up to heaven, but he falls back to earth. This of course anticipates Gilgamesh’s later misadventure with another magical plant.
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