The Epic of Gilgamesh
Tablets VIII and IX
Enkidu, . . . your mother is a gazelle,
and . . . your father who created you, a wild ass.
[You were] raised by creatures with tails,
and by the animals of the wilderness, with all its breadth.
Enkidu’s death shatters Gilgamesh. He rips his clothes and tears his hair. He circles Enkidu’s body like an eagle. He paces restlessly like a lioness whose cubs have been killed. In the presence of the city elders, Gilgamesh proclaims his grief. Gilgamesh’s lamentation overflows with images of animals and nature. Everyone mourns, including the creatures of the field and plain, the elders of the city, and the prostitute who domesticated Enkidu. The pathways to the Cedar Forest, the rivers Ulaja and Euphrates, and the farmers and shepherds in their fields all mourn Enkidu’s death. Gilgamesh summons the craftsmen of Uruk, including the metalworkers, stone carvers, goldsmiths, and engravers. As he had promised his dying friend, he commands them to make a statue of Enkidu to honor his deeds and celebrate his fame.
Gilgamesh stays by his friend’s body until a worm crawls out of its nose. Then he casts aside his royal garments with disgust, as if they were filthy, and dons unscraped, hair-covered animal skins. He pours honey into a carnelian bowl, places some butter in a bowl of lapis lazuli, and makes an offering to Shamash. Then Gilgamesh sets off into the wilderness, just as Shamash had told the dying Enkidu he would. He wanders alone, desolate with sorrow, wondering if he must die too. At last he decides to seek out Utnapishtim, who survived the flood that had almost ended life on Earth and subsequently became the only mortal granted everlasting life by the gods. He hopes Utnapishtim can tell him how he too might escape death. Utnapishtim lives in the far-off place where the sun rises, a place where no mortal has ever ventured.
One night in the mountains before going to sleep, Gilgamesh prays to the moon god, Sin, to grant him a vision. In the middle of the night he awakens, surrounded by lions. Drawing his axe from his belt, he attacks them, reveling in the slaughter. After more journeying, he arrives at Mashu, the twin-headed mountain. One peak looks west, toward the setting of the sun, and the other looks east toward its rising. The summits of Mashu brush against heaven itself, and its udders reach down into the underworld. Two monsters, a Scorpion-man and his wife, guard its gates. The male monster tells his wife that the person who dares to come here must be a god. The wife says that two-thirds of him is god, but the rest of him is human.
The male monster asks Gilgamesh who he is and why he’s journeyed through fearful wilderness and braved terrible dangers to come to the mountain that no mortal has ever before visited.
When Gilgamesh tells the monsters about his quest, the Scorpion-man informs him that Utnapishtim lives on the other side of the mountain. To get there, Gilgamesh can use a tunnel that runs through the mountain. Shamash uses it every night when he travels back to the place where he rises in the morning. It would take Gilgamesh twelve double hours to journey through the passage, and the way is completely dark. (The Babylonian hour was sixty minutes, and the day was divided into twelve “double hours.”) No mortal could survive such darkness, and the monsters cannot permit him to try. After they listen to Gilgamesh’s pleas, they relent and tell him to be careful.
Gilgamesh walks through the mountain. He can’t see in front of him or behind him in the total darkness. He walks the first, second, and third double hour in total blackness and struggles for breath in the hot darkness. He walks four, five, and six double hours with the north wind blowing in his face. As the eleventh double hour approaches, the darkness begins to fade. At the end of the twelfth double hour, Gilgamesh emerges from the tunnel into the sweet morning air and the sunlight. He steps into a beautiful garden filled with fruit and foliage the colors of carnelian, rubies, and other jewels. Beyond the garden glitters the sea.
Gilgamesh’s lament for Enkidu beautifully evokes his dead companion’s wild origins as he personifies the meadows and landscape and projects his grief upon them. The form and imagery of these passages are similar to those in much later poems in the modes of pastoral and pastoral elegy, which were important modes of literature from ancient Rome through Shakespeare’s time and beyond. Pastoral literature usually invokes the simple, natural life of shepherds in an idealized way, and pastoral elegies follow this tradition, providing extended descriptions of the deceased’s life, the mourners, the injustice of death itself, and the possibility of life after death. Milton’s “Lycidas,” in which a man drowns during a sea voyage, is an example of a pastoral elegy. The passages also suggest the biblical “Song of Songs.” Ahead of its time, Gilgamesh’s passage through Mashu unfolds in a deliberately archaic style, a self-conscious imitation of ancient Sumerian poetry that is very repetitive.
The scene with the lions is fragmentary, and different translators have treated it in different ways. In some versions, the lions are a dream vision. In others, Gilgamesh attacks them because he is so frustrated that the gods have not sent him a vision. The scene is bizarre and lacks context, but the explosion of nocturnal violence is still deeply suggestive of Gilgamesh’s black mood. Although the poet/editor Sin-Leqi-Unninni’s name means “Moon god, accept my plea,” Gilgamesh mentions the moon god only here in the main body of the epic. Gilgamesh appeals to him again in Tablet XII, where he also refuses to answer.
After Enkidu anointed himself with oil and covered his hairy body with clothes, the shepherds had marveled at his resemblance to Gilgamesh. Now the process is reversed, as Gilgamesh exchanges his royal garments for hairy skins, as though he wants to become his dead friend. Gilgamesh is undone by grief and overwhelmed by dread. Civilization and culture no longer mean anything to him, even though he had once epitomized them. He looks like Enkidu did when he was still a wild man. This second departure from Uruk is much different from the first, when Gilgamesh and Enkidu strode through the seven-bolt gate to confront the demon Humbaba in the forbidden Cedar Forest. They were conquerors then, avid for glory, heavily laden with weapons. When one of them faltered, the other was there to support him. Now Gilgamesh is a humble, solitary seeker. This second, darker quest is a familiar motif in romantic quest tales. Gilgamesh undertook his first quest to earn fame, and now he seeks his soul. His journey to the double-peaked mountain and his long passage through its caverns recapitulate the movement of the entire epic so far. First the hero successfully passes through great perils, then he plunges into a terrible darkness. When Gilgamesh reemerges into the light, into a magical garden, he is experiencing a symbolic rebirth.
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