The Epic of Gilgamesh

Tablets VIII and IX

Summary Tablets VIII and IX

Analysis

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.