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A prelude introduces us to the hero. Gilgamesh’s mother was the Lady Wildcow Ninsun, a minor goddess noted for her wisdom, and Lugulbanda was his father. Gilgamesh built the great city of Uruk and surrounded it with magnificent, intricately constructed outer and inner walls. He erected beautiful temples for Anu, the god of the heavens, and for Anu’s daughter Ishtar, the goddess of war and love. He laid out orchards and ponds and irrigated fields. A dauntless explorer, Gilgamesh opened passes through the mountains and dug wells in the wilderness. He traveled to the ends of the Earth and beyond, where he met Utnapishtim, the sole survivor of the great flood that almost ended the world. When he returned from his travels he wrote everything down on a tablet of lapis lazuli and locked it in a copper chest.
As the story begins, Gilgamesh is terrifying and all-powerful. He sacrifices warriors whenever he feels like fighting, rapes his nobles’ wives, takes whatever he wants from his people, and tramples anyone who gets in his way. The old men of Uruk complain, saying that a king is supposed to protect his subjects like a shepherd, not harass them like a wild ox. The gods listen. They tell Aruru, the goddess of creation, that since she made Gilgamesh, she must now make someone strong enough to stand up to him.
Aruru takes some clay, moistens it with her spit, and forms another man, named Enkidu. Shunning the cultivated lands and the cities, he lives in the wilderness with the animals. His most prominent physical feature is his hairiness. One day a hunter sees him at a watering hole. Terrified, the hunter rushes back to his house to tell his father he has seen a giant man, the most powerful in the land. The hunter says the man has unset his traps and filled in his pits, and that now he cannot be a hunter.
The hunter’s father tells him he should go to Uruk and ask Gilgamesh to lend him a temple prostitute, whose greater power will suffice to conquer Enkidu. The hunter follows his father’s advice and soon travels back to the wilderness with the prostitute. They wait by the watering hole for three days.
When Enkidu finally appears, the hunter tells the prostitute to lie down on a blanket and show Enkidu her breasts. Enkidu comes to her and they copulate for six days and seven nights. When Enkidu’s lust is finally sated, he returns to the animals, but they no longer regard him as their kin. They run away from him.
Enkidu tries to pursue the animals, but he has become weaker and can no longer gallop as he did before. His mind has awakened. Troubled and confused, he goes back to the prostitute, who consoles him by telling him about the pleasures and wonders he will find in the city of Uruk. She tells him about music, food, festivals, and the strong, terrible king, Gilgamesh. As soon as Enkidu hears about Gilgamesh, he realizes how lonely he is. He longs to meet him and challenge him to a contest of strength.
The prostitute tells Enkidu that Gilgamesh is stronger than he is and that he could not hope to prevail over him, but also that Gilgamesh longs for a friend. In fact, Gilgamesh has already had two dreams about Enkidu. In the first dream, a meteor lands in a field outside Uruk. Gilgamesh is drawn to the rock as if it were a woman. After lifting it with great effort, he carries it to his mother, Ninsun. In the second dream, Gilgamesh finds an axe lying in the street. Throngs of people surround it, overcome with admiration. Gilgamesh too loves the axe, as much as if it were his wife. He carries it to his mother and lays it at her feet. Ninsun tells him that both the rock and the axe represent the man he will soon contend with—the man who will become his most trusted companion and counselor, the friend who has the power to save him.
The narrator introduces Gilgamesh in the past tense—the high walls of the city he built are already ancient. At the same time he suggests that the story is in Gilgamesh’s own words, and that the legendary king himself wrote it down. Gilgamesh’s story commemorates historical people and deeds, and at the same time, Gilgamesh’s passage through heroism, grief, and wisdom is a perpetual, universal process. The story of Gilgamesh is both timeless and immediate.
Read more about the background of The Epic of Gilgamesh.
Though Gilgamesh’s mother Ninsun plays a fairly significant role in the early parts of the story, we learn very little about his father. The Sin-Leqi-Unninni version of Gilgamesh says his father is Ninsun’s husband, Lugulbanda, but it’s not clear if Lugulbanda is actually Gilgamesh’s biological father. Some versions of the poem declare that Gilgamesh’s father is a priest, while others call him a “fool.” Like Gilgamesh, Lugulbanda was a genuine historical figure. He precedes Gilgamesh on Uruk’s king list by two, and he would have more likely been his grandfather, considering the lengths of the recorded reigns. Like Gilgamesh, people worshipped him as a god after his death.
Though Gilgamesh is legendary, the poet hastens to inform us that he was not always exemplary. An equal was required to counter and control his awesome power. Gilgamesh was more god than mortal, and the narrator suggests that his equal, Enkidu, is a singular force of nature. He is hairy, he grazes with the animals, and he lacks the power of speech. Enkidu anticipates the hairy Esau of the Bible and possibly Ishmael, “the wild ass” of a man. He enables the animals to escape human dominance, which threatens the balance of the world. When Enkidu must depart from his life in nature and come into civilization, his redemption is through a woman. He confronts the strong power of a woman’s sexuality, which tames him. Ishtar is Uruk’s resident god, and the prostitutes in her service epitomize the values of that highly sophisticated urban culture.
Read an in-depth analysis of Enkidu.
Enkidu’s story repeats the story of humankind, the passage from mere animal existence to self-awareness and culture. His fall from nature foreshadows another biblical motif: Adam and Eve’s fall from innocence in Eden when they become aware of their sexuality. Female sexuality is the force that makes domesticity and civilized life possible, and Ishtar, the goddess of love, fertility, and war, plays a huge role in Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s stories. As the epic continues, however, sexual love does not necessarily figure in to the ultimate human relationship. In Gilgamesh, the love that exists between evenly matched comrades is even more important. Equilibrium, balance, and moderation are essential virtues. Gilgamesh is part god and part mortal, and these different aspects are in constant contention. The very qualities that make him so awesome—his strength and beauty—also make him monstrous, until they achieve balance. Enkidu’s wildness, likewise, must come into harmony with his humanity. He requires an equally developed spirit to control his powerful body. Enkidu’s domestication is a prerequisite for Gilgamesh’s moral education.
Read more about the theme of love as a motivating force.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Epic of Gilgamesh!