As for you, Gilgamesh, let your belly be full, Make merry day and night. Of each day make a feast of rejoicing. Day and night dance and play! Let your garments be sparkling fresh, Your head be washed; bathe in water. Pay heed to a little one that holds on to your hand, Let a spouse delight in your bosom. See Important Quotations Explained
Siduri, the veiled barmaid, keeps a tavern by the edge of the sea. Gazing along the shore, she sees a man coming toward her. He is wearing animal skins, and his face is wind-bitten and battered. He looks like he has been traveling for a long time. Concerned that he might be dangerous, Siduri closes and bars her door against him. The traveler pounds on the door and threatens to smash it down. He says he is Gilgamesh, and Siduri asks him why he looks like a tramp and a criminal. Gilgamesh says that he is grieving for his companion who helped to fight the lions and the wolves and slay the demon Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven. He says that Enkidu has been overtaken by the fate that awaits all humankind—he’s turned to clay. Gilgamesh asks Siduri if that is what will happen to him.
Siduri unlocks her door and tells Gilgamesh that only the gods live forever. She invites him into her tavern to clean himself up, change his clothes, and eat and drink his fill. But Gilgamesh no longer cares for earthly pleasures and refuses to be distracted from his mission. He asks her how to find Utnapishtim.
Siduri tells Gilgamesh that Shamash the sun god crosses the sea every day, but from the beginning of time, no mortal has ever been able to follow him, because the sea is too stormy and treacherous. Siduri says that even if he miraculously survived the crossing, he would then face the poisonous Waters of Death, which only Urshanabi, Utnapishtim’s boatman, knows how to navigate. She tells him that Urshanabi lives deep in the forest, where he guards the Urnu-snakes and the Stone Things. When Siduri sees that she cannot sway Gilgamesh from his purpose, she gives him directions to Urshanabi’s house and tells him to ask Urshanabi to take him to Utnapishtim. She instructs Gilgamesh to return to her if Urshanabi refuses.
Gilgamesh sets off to find Urshanabi. When he arrives near the place where the Urnu-snakes and the Stone Things reside, he attacks them with his axe and dagger. Then he introduces himself to Urshanabi. Urshanabi studies Gilgamesh’s face and asks him why he looks like a tramp. He observes that Gilgamesh’s face is worn and weathered and that sorrow rests in his belly. Gilgamesh tells him about Enkidu, his grief, his fear, and his implacable determination to go to Utnapishtim.
Urshanabi says he will take Gilgamesh to Utnapishtim, but that Gilgamesh has made the journey immeasurably more difficult because he smashed the Stone Things and the Urnu-snakes, which propelled and protected his boat. Urshanabi orders Gilgamesh to go back into the forest and cut sixty poles, and then another sixty poles. (In some versions of the story, Gilgamesh must cut as many as 300 poles.) Each pole must be exactly sixty cubits in length (approximately ninety feet). Urshanabi instructs him to fit the poles with rings and cover them with pitch, and then they will attempt the voyage.
Gilgamesh cuts the poles, and they sail off together across the perilous sea. In three days they sail as far as an ordinary boat would have sailed in two months. When they arrive at the Waters of Death, the boatman tells Gilgamesh to use the punting poles but to be sure his hands don’t touch the water. Gilgamesh poles the boat through the Waters of Death. His great strength causes him to break all one hundred and twenty poles. When the last pole is ruined, he takes off the skin he wears and holds it up as a sail.
An old man stands on the shore, watching the boat approach. The old man wonders what happened to the Stone Things and who the stranger is standing next to Urshanabi. When they get out of the boat, the old man asks Gilgamesh to identify himself. Gilgamesh tells him what he told Siduri and Urshanabi—about his grief for Enkidu, his fear that the same fate awaits him, and his desperation to avoid it if possible. The old man asks Gilgamesh why he grieves about mortality—nothing lives forever. The old man says the gods established that men would suffer death, and that when the gods give life, they also decide the day of death. He says that death is our certain destiny, even if we don’t know when it will happen.
Siduri the veiled barmaid is a traditional figure in Mesopotamian mythology and poetry, and in the Hurrian language her name means “young woman.” The goddess of wine-making and beer brewing, she is usually considered a manifestation of Ishtar. Her warmth and kindness to Gilgamesh throughout this episode are notable, since he treated Ishtar with such contempt in Uruk.
Read an in-depth analysis of Siduri.
Scholars have failed to explain what the Stone Things or the Urnu-snakes are or why Gilgamesh destroys them. A fragmentary verse suggests that Gilgamesh also attacked a winged creature, who might have been Urshanabi himself. A later fragment of verse suggests that those Stone Things were magical images of some sort, and some scholars have speculated that they were lodestones, a type of mineral that possesses polarity. The tablets are frustratingly incomplete on this matter, and no other versions to flesh them out have been found yet. Thousands of clay tablets recovered from Mesopotamian digs over the years are still awaiting translation, and thousands more remain beneath the ground. The Italian Assyriologist Giovanni Pettinato recently discovered and translated a never-before-seen account of Gilgamesh’s death. Perhaps someone will discover a solution to the mystery of the Urnu-snakes and the Stone Things too.
Read more about the role of the snake and how it compares and contrasts with the Bible.
None of the three characters Gilgamesh meets in this tablet recognize him when they see him, and they all give him the same advice, which emphasizes that he should stop his quest for immortality. Each of them takes note of Gilgamesh’s unkempt appearance, listens patiently as he describes his terror of death, and reminds him that death is certain and life is all we have. Even Utnapishtim, who is himself immortal, advises Gilgamesh against pursuing his search for immortality, which suggests that Utnapishtim, in all his knowledge, has an idea about the value of life that Gilgamesh has not yet discovered. Utnapishtim has foiled death, but he will not help Gilgamesh to do the same. Utnapishtim says that Gilgamesh inherited his father’s mortality and, like everything else in the mortal world, he is subject to death. Gilgamesh must continue to live as a mortal and accept death as part of life’s natural and inevitable cycle.
Read an in-depth analysis of Utnapishtim.