The Epic of Gilgamesh

Tablets XI and XII

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.

Analysis

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.