The Epic of Gilgamesh
Tablets XI and XII
Study the brickwork, study the fortification;
climb the ancient staircase to the terrace;
study how it is made; from the terrace see
the planted and fallow fields, the ponds and orchards.
Gilgamesh realizes that the old man is Utnapishtim, the very person he has been seeking. So he poses the question that he has traveled so far and suffered so much to ask: How did Utnapishtim, a mortal man, become a god? How had he eluded death? And can Gilgamesh ever hope to do the same?
Utnapishtim, the survivor of the flood that almost wiped out humankind, tells his story. Once upon a time, he says, he was king of Shuruppak, a beautiful, prosperous city on the banks of the Euphrates. Then the gods met in secret council—Anu, the god of the firmament; Ninurta, the god of war and wells; Enlil, the god of earth, wind, and air; Ennugi, the god of irrigation; and Ea, the cleverest of the gods, the god of wisdom and crafts. Enlil ordered a flood to destroy humankind.
Ea had been sworn to secrecy, but he cleverly betrayed the gods’ plans to Utnapishtim. Speaking to the walls of his house, he described the plans, while Utnapishtim heard everything on the other side of the walls. Ea warned him that the gods would be sending a terrible flood. He told him to build a boat of immense dimensions, ten dozen cubits in height (approximately 180 feet) with six decks and one acre of floor space, and load it up with the seed of each living thing and with his family and possessions.
When Utnapishtim asked what he would tell the people of Shuruppak, who would have to help him build it, Ea suggested an artful lie. Tell them, he said, that you are leaving the city because Enlil hates you. Tell them that when you leave, the city will be showered with good fortune, that all manner of bread and wheat will rain down upon it, and that they will have more fish to eat than they can imagine. So Utnapishtim butchered bulls and sheep for the workers and gave them rivers of beer and wine to drink. It was like a festival. In seven days the boat was ready. With great difficulty, they launched it in the Euphrates. After Puzuramurri the caulker had sealed them inside, Utnapishtim gave him his house and everything in it.
When the storm came, the gods clambered up as high as they could go and cringed in terror. Ishtar wept to see her children being destroyed. Eventually, the boat ran aground on a mountain peak. After seven days, Utnapishtim released a dove. When it couldn’t find a dry place to alight, it returned to the boat. Utnapishtim released a swallow. It too returned. Then he released a raven, and it never came back.
Upon reaching shore, Utnapishtim prepared a sacrifice. The gods of heaven were famished and gathered around the altar. Ishtar came down wearing a necklace of lapis lazuli made of beads shaped like flies. She said she would forget neither her necklace nor this calamity—nor would she forgive Enlil, since the flood was his idea and he never discussed it with the other gods. When Enlil arrived to partake of the sacrifice, he saw the boat and lost his temper. He demanded to know how anyone escaped the flood, since he intended it to destroy everyone. After Ninurta named the culprit, Ea himself spoke up. He chastised Enlil for creating the flood and said that if he wanted to punish someone, he should have made the punishment fit the crime. Not everyone deserved to die. He said that plagues, wolves, and famine could be used to kill some people instead of all people at once.
Enlil listened and understood. He took Utnapishtim and his wife by the hands and made them kneel. Then he touched their foreheads and blessed them, turning them into gods. For saving humanity, he granted them eternal life. But they alone deserved that gift.
When Utnapishtim finishes his story, he looks at Gilgamesh with scorn and asks if he really thinks he is worthy of becoming a god and living forever too. He tells Gilgamesh that, as a test, he should try to go a week without sleeping. Gilgamesh accepts the challenge, but when he sits down to begin his test he falls into a deep sleep.
Utnapishtim shows his wife how Gilgamesh sleeps. His wife tells him to wake Gilgamesh and let him return home. Utnapishtim tells her that if Gilgamesh wakes now, he’ll deny that he fell asleep. Utnapishtim tells his wife to bake a piece of bread each day, leave it next to him, and make a mark on the wall. These things will prove to Gilgamesh that he slept.
After seven days, Utnapishtim touches Gilgamesh on the forehead and wakes him. Gilgamesh says he’d been close to falling asleep but denies actually sleeping. Then Utnapishtim shows him the seven pieces of bread and the seven marks on the wall. The first piece is dry as dust, the second only a little moister. The third is soggy and rotten, the fourth moldy, the fifth spotty, and the sixth only a little stale. The seventh is fresh from the oven. Gilgamesh is full of despair that he has not managed to escape the possibility of death. Utnapishtim tells Urshanabi, his boatman, that Urshanabi can never return here. He orders Urshanabi to take Gilgamesh to the washing place so Gilgamesh can clean himself and reveal the beauty he has been hiding. He tells Urshanabi to have Gilgamesh bind up his hair, throw the skin he wears into the sea, and put on a spotless robe so he can return to his city in honor. Gilgamesh washes himself and changes into royal garments. Then he and the boatman board their boat and pole themselves away from shore.
Then Utnapishtim’s wife asks her husband if there is anything he can give Gilgamesh to take back to his land. Gilgamesh poles the little boat back to shore. Utnapishtim says he will tell Gilgamesh one of the gods’ secrets. He tells Gilgamesh about the thorny plant that grows beneath the waves called How-the-Old-Man-Once-Again-Becomes-a-Young-Man. Gilgamesh ties stone weights to his feet and dives into the sea. When he finds the plant he cuts the stones from his feet, and the waters cast him onto shore. He tells the boatman that he will share this plant with the elders of Uruk and then take some himself and be young again too.
But one night, when they stop to camp, Gilgamesh takes a swim in a pool of cool water. A snake smells the plant and steals it. As it slithers away, it sheds its skin. Now the serpent is young again, but Gilgamesh will never be. Heartbroken, Gilgamesh sits beside the pool and weeps.
Urshanabi and Gilgamesh travel on until they reach Uruk. When they arrive, Gilgamesh shows the boatman the city walls. He shows him its brickwork, fields, clay pits, and orchards. He shows him the temple of Ishtar. The main body of the poem ends here.
Tablet XII is a mystical poem, from a much older tradition, that Sin-Leqi-Unninni, for unknown reasons, appended to the epic. It begins when Gilgamesh drops a drum and drumstick through the floor of “the carpenter’s house” into the nether world. Enkidu volunteers to retrieve it. Gilgamesh warns his friend that he must do nothing to call attention to himself in the underworld or the “Cry of the Dead” will seize him. Enkidu disobeys him, doing exactly the opposite of what Gilgamesh advised, and is seized. Ereshkigal, the fearsome Queen of the Underworld, a ghastly mother and lover, exposes her breasts to him and pulls him on top of her.
Gilgamesh goes before the gods and begs for their intercession. None of them will help him except Ea, the god of wisdom. Ea arranges to have Enkidu’s spirit rise up into the world again so he and Gilgamesh can visit. Gilgamesh asks Enkidu what life is like in the underworld, and Enkidu gives a bleak account. He says that vermin devour his body. Gilgamesh asks him how it is for the other dead. Enkidu says that the more sons you have in this world, the better it goes in the other world. The man who has seven sons lives like a god. The dead who are the worst off are those who left no mourners behind.
Tablet XI recounts the gods’ secrets and the story of the deluge, and though the story often parallels the biblical story of Noah, the two are not identical. In the biblical tale, humankind’s wickedness provokes God to send the flood, and God chooses Noah to survive because of his righteousness. In Gilgamesh the gods never give a reason for the flood. In fact, all of them but Enlil claim afterward that they opposed the idea. In one older version of the story, Enlil decides to exterminate humanity because their noise disturbs his sleep. His arbitrary nature appears earlier in the epic as well—he was the god who chose Enkidu to die. Unlike Noah, Utnapishtim owes his survival to Ea’s cleverness, not to any special virtue. When Utnapishtim tells the people they will have a great harvest of bread and wheat, he is making a cruel pun. In Akkadian, the word for “bread” is almost identical to that for “darkness,” and the word for “wheat” is very similar to “misfortune.” The gods regret the flood immediately, since they rely on peoples’ sacrifices for their sustenance. Utnapishtim’s offerings are the first things they have eaten since the flood began. Arbitrary as the gods’ actions seem, the story presents a clear philosophy: even if the gods are capricious and men must die, humankind, nonetheless, is meant to live.
Gilgamesh finally finds the answer to his question about how he can elude death: he can’t. When Ea says that some people should die but not all of them, he means that death is important, but that it should apply only to individuals. People die, but humankind will always endure. The parable of Utnapishtim’s sleeping test illustrates this point. Sleep is a foretaste of death, but it is also a bodily need as fundamental as food. Gilgamesh has a body, so passing the test is impossible, but his humanness means he has much to do in the world. The parable of the magical plant and the serpent foreshadows the biblical tale of Adam, Eve, and the serpent. Just as with the flood story, however, the biblical version has a different moral dimension. After the serpent steals the plant, Gilgamesh knows that death cannot be avoided, a lesson he has perhaps already learned unconsciously, since he thought to share the plant with his community. Since Enkidu died, he has been mired in grief, and his wanting to share the plant shows that he is starting to think about his responsibilities to other people again. Though the serpent doomed Adam and Eve to a life marked by sin, Gilgamesh’s serpent actually frees him in a way. Now he is starting to think like a king.
Gilgamesh’s quest for eternal life poisons the life that he should be living in the here and now. His place is in Uruk, which, if he rules it well, will live on after him and continue to grow in power and beauty. This is what Utnapishtim was implying when he ordered his boatman to take Gilgamesh to the washing place and return him to his city. The baptism acknowledges and honors his mortal body. This hero’s final quest is his journey back home. Some critics read the ending of Gilgamesh as profoundly pessimistic. From a Christian standpoint, it is—there is no heaven, no promise of eternal life, and no divine redemption or grace, all of which make life worth living according to Christianity. Taken on its own terms, the ending is deeply affirmative. Gilgamesh can now see Uruk for the marvel of human ingenuity and labor that it is, a worthy monument to the mortals who built it.
The temple of Ishtar appears again in the poem’s very last verse, which suggests that feminine power resumes its importance as Gilgamesh’s journey comes to an end. Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s troubles began in earnest after they spurned the goddess. Yet after experiencing Siduri’s and Utnapishtim’s wife’s kindness, and after learning about Ishtar’s grief for humanity after the flood, Gilgamesh’s attitude changes. Now that he accepts the fact that earthly life is all there is, the female force, which brings babies into the world and keeps the fire lit in the hearth, once again becomes central. Gilgamesh, one of the world’s great homoerotic love stories, ends with the hero’s return to the “house of Ishtar,” where a woman rules.
Tablet XII parallels the main poem. It contains many obscurities, such as the carpenter’s house, the ownership of which scholars cannot determine, and the drum and drumstick, which possibly have shamanistic significance. In this tablet, Enkidu brings his undoing upon himself by deliberately provoking the denizens of the underworld, much as he provoked Ishtar after wrestling with the Bull of Heaven. Ea is the only god who agrees to intercede for Gilgamesh, and we know from Utnapishtim’s story that Ea is a steadfast friend of humanity. Though Enkidu doesn’t have any good news to report from the underworld, he does say that the richer life is in this world, and the more man leaves behind in the way of children, reputation, and friends, the easier death will be.
Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!