The Epic Of Gilgamish

By: Stephen Langdon

Originally Published in 1917

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In the year 1914 the University Museum acquired by purchase a Babylonian tablet of quite exceptional interest and importance. It measures 6¼ inches by 7 inches and is in a good state of preservation. Obverse and reverse are fully inscribed and only a few lines of the inscription are missing. The place where it was found is not known. It was written in what is called the Neo-Babylonian and Persian period at some time between the sixth century B.C. and the third century B.C. and contains a portion of the great epic of Gilgamish. The importance of this tablet arises from the fact that it contains, with the exception of a few lines, the entire second book of the epic, a book which is missing from the famous fragments in the British Museum. It therefore enables us to restore a lost section of the great poem.

A large tablet with columns of writing, a crack in the midddle
Fig. 8. — The Epic of Gilgamesh. Tablet in the University Museum.
Museum Object Number: B7771

When the British excavators found the great library of Asurbanipal at ancient Nineveh, one of the most important discoveries that came to light was a series of twelve tablets or fragments which in its complete state had contained the most famous epic of the ancient Babylonian world.1 Of these twelve tablets and fragments, certain numbers were missing, and among these was No. II in the series. It is the text of this tablet No. II that is contained on the tablet in the University Museum.

The physical structure of the tablet is that common to epical literature and was first adopted by the Sumerians, the six column form. But there is one new element in the making of this document which I have not seen before. On the left edge near the top and bottom two flat clay knobs have been attached. A similar knob in perfect condition remains on the upper edge near the left side.

I believe that these little clay knobs were attached in order to enable the scribe or a reader to hold the tablet by the left upper corner more easily. These projections are so placed that the left hand enclosing the left upper corner grasps one knob with the forefinger and the other with the thumb. When the tablet is turned over vertically and the lower side is then at the top, according to the Babylonian method of turning tablets, then the lower left corner becomes the top left corner. In that position the knob on the lower left edge served for the thumb and one, now broken away on the lower edge near the left side served for the forefinger.

The epic of Gilgamish was produced about the twenty-second century B.C. and has been generally accorded a high rank in universal literature. In the age when the Babylonian poets created this great poem of pessimism the old Sumerian civilization was passing away. That highly endowed and peace loving race ended its career in a passion for emperor worship and the deification of temporal rulers in whom they saw men divinely sent to restore the golden age, to end sorrow, toil and pain. But events belied their claim and a wave of pessimism overcame the hopes of mankind. The epic of Gilgamish was written with the major motif of showing how not even a demigod who partakes of the nature of mankind can by the most heroic efforts escape the terrors of pain and death. To teach the world this view of life the Babylonian poets chose an ancient, half mythical king of Erech, Gilgamish. Erech is mentioned in Genesis X as the home of Nimrod, and because in Babylonian and Sumerian legend, Gilgamish is invariably connected with the same place, it is generally supposed that Nimrod and Gilgamish are the same. Our chief source for the text has been the copy made by the scribes of Assyria for the library of Asurbanipal in the seventh century B.C. which, as already mentioned, was found at Nineveh and is now in the British Museum.

A seal impression of Enikudu wrestling a lion
Fig. 9. — Enikudu and the Lion. After Ward.

The tablet in the University Museum belongs to a south Babylonian version, probably the one accepted at Erech and differs from the Assyrian text, as we know from those parts wherein the new text is a duplicate of the Assyrian. Including the new tablet in the series we are now able to reconstruct the following outline of the epic.

Book I begins with the line “He that has seen all things . . .” and consequently the Babylonians always referred to the epic as ša nagba imuru, “He that has seen all things.” The poet sings of the vast intelligence of this ancient king Gilgamish, he who saw the mysteries and the hidden things.

“He concerned himself with the wisdom before the Flood.
He took a far journey, painfully. . . .”

He was two-thirds god and one-third human and was the son of a mortal and the mother goddess Ninsun, worshipped at Erech as the local bêlit or lady. He became a hunter and was called the “shepherd of Erech.” Taking advantage of his superhuman powers he ruled cruelly over the people, who appealed to the gods for deliverance. Aruru, the mother goddess, is invoked to create a rival to oppose the cruel king that “They may rival each other and Erech have repose.” And so this goddess, to whom the creation of man from clay was attributed, took clay and fashioned Enkidu the hero, a wild satyr whose body was covered with hair. He represents in our story the pastoral stage of civilization, and from this point in the first book to the end of Book II the principal motif is to show how the rude barbarian of the fields loses his attachment for the chase, the tending of the flocks, and enters civilized society.

“He knew not the peoples nor the land; clothed in a garment like Gira,2
With the gazelles he ate grass.”

He also abused his might, breaking the traps of the hunters and frightening the peaceful shepherds on the plains of Erech. And so a hunter and herdsman of Erech complained to his aged father and sought advice. His father commands him to lure the wild giant by means of a beautiful harlot.

“He will behold her and draw nigh unto her.
His cattle will become estranged from him, they that grew up on his plains.”

The hunter also consults Gilgamish, the king, telling him of the barbarian who came from the mountain afflicting the peaceful plains. Gilgamish gives the same advice, and so the hunter leads a voluptuous harlot a three days’ journey to the hills to a watering place where Enkidu watered his flocks.

Gilgamesh wrestling a bull
Fig. 10. — The Combat of Gilgamesh and the Bull. From a Seal Cylinder. After Ward.

The plot succeeds. Enkidu becomes enamored of the harlot. For seven days he falls to the enticement of the woman who represents the lure of civilization. When he returns to his flock, they know him not and flee as from a stranger.

“He turned back and sat down at the feet of the harlot.
The hierodule looked upon his face.
And as the hierodule speaks his ears hear.
. . . as he spoke unto him even unto Enkidu.
`Thou art beautiful oh Enkidu, even as a god thou art.
Why with the cattle Bost thou wander in the plains?
Come, I will conduct thee into the midst of Erech of the sheepfolds.
Unto the pure temple, dwelling place of Anu and Ishtar,
Where Gilgamish is perfect in strength,
And like a wild ox oppresses the people.'”

Enkidu, abandoned by his flocks, agrees to enter the city with the woman. They arrive at Erech on a festive day. The harlot tells him of the beauty of Gilgamish as they walk toward Erech; she urges him to change his evil ways of life. Here she relates to him the dreams of Gilgamish in which he is forewarned concerning the advent of Enkidu, created to oppose him, but destined to become his companion in heroic adventure. We are now well into the latter part of the first book of the Assyrian version.

The new tablet in the Museum now runs as follows, beginning with the harlot’s recital of the dreams of Gilgamish.

“Gilgamish arose, interpreting dreams and addressing his mother. ‘My mother, during my night I, having become lusty, wandered about, in the midst of omens. And there came out stars in heaven. Like a . . . of heaven he fell upon me. I bore him, but he was too heavy for me. He bore a net but I was not able to bear it. I summoned the land to assemble unto him, that heroes might kiss his feet. He stood up before me and they stood over against me. I lifted him and carried him away unto thee.’

“The mother of Gilgamish, she that knows all things, said unto Gilgamish, ‘Truly oh Gilgamish he is born like thee on the plain. The mountains have reared him. Thou shalt behold him and be distracted. Heroes kiss his feet. Thou shalt spare him. . . . Thou shalt lead him to me.’

“Again he dreamed and saw a second dream and reported it unto his mother. ‘My mother, I have seen another dream. I beheld one like me in the street. In Erech of the wide places he hurled an axe, and they assembled about him. Like another axe seemed his visage. I saw him and was astounded. I loved him as a woman, falling upon him in embrace. I took him and made him my brother.’

“The mother of Gilgamish, she that knows all things, said unto Gilgamish:. . .3 that he may join with thee in endeavor.’ So Gilgamish solved his dream. Enkidu sitting before the hierodule . . . forgot where he was born. Six days and seven nights came forth Enkidu and cohabited with the courtesan. The hierodule opened her mouth, speaking unto Enkidu. ‘I behold thee Enkidu; like a god thou art. Why with the animals wanderest thou on the plain? Come, I will lead thee into the midst of Erech of the wide places, even unto the pure temple, dwelling place of Anu. Oh Enkidu arise! I will conduct thee unto Eanna dwelling place of Anu, where Gilgamish [oppresses] the souls of men (?). And as I . . . thou shalt . . . thyself. Go up thou from the ground unto the place yonder(?) of the shepherd.’

“He heard her speak and accepted her words with favor. The counsel of the woman fell upon his heart. She tore off a garment and clothed him therein. With a second garment she clothed herself. She clasped his hand, guiding him like . . . into the mighty presence of the shepherd, unto the place of the . . . of the sheepfolds. In . . . to shepherd. . . .4 Milk of the cattle he was drinking. Food they placed before him.5 He break bread, gazing and looking. But Enkidu understood not. Bread to eat, beer to drink, he had not been taught. The hierodule opened her mouth and said unto Enkidu. ‘Eat bread oh Enkidu, it is the conformity of life, the condition and the fate of the land.’

“Enkidu ate bread until he was satiated. Beer he drank, seven times (??) His thoughts became unbounded and he shouted loudly. His heart became joyful and his face glowed. He stroked . . . the hair of his head(?). His body with oil he anointed. He became like a man. He attired himself with clothes even as does a husband. He seized his weapon, which overpowers the lion, which fells in the night cruelly. He captured the wild mountain goats. The panther he conquered. Among the great sheep for sacrifice Enkidu was their guard; he a man, a leader, a hero. Unto . . . he elevated. . . .6 He made glad. He lifted up his eyes. He beheld the man and said unto the hierodule. ‘Oh harlot, take away the man. Wherefore did he come to me? I would forget the memory of him.’ The hierodule called unto the man, and came up to him regarding him. She sorrowed and was astonished how his ways were [rude?]. Lo, she opened her mouth, saying unto Enkidu, ‘At home with a family [to dwell?] is the fate of men. Thou shouldest design boundaries(?) for a city. The trencher basket put upon thy head. . . . an abode of comfort. Unto the king of Erech of the wide places reveal, addressing thy speech as unto a husband. Unto Gilgamish king of Erech of the wide places reveal addressing thy speech as unto a husband. He cohabits with the wife decreed for him, even he formerly. But henceforth in the counsel which god has spoken, in work before his presence shall be his fate.’ At the mention of the hero his face became pale . . .7. going . . . and the harlot . . . after him. He entered into the midst of Erech of the wide places. The artisans gathered about him. And as he stood in the street of Erech of the wide places, the people assembled disputing round about him. ‘How is he like become Gilgamish suddenly? In form he is shorter. In . . . he is made powerful. . . Milk of the cattle he drank. Continually in the midst of Erech weapons the heroes consecrated. A project was instituted. Unto the hero whose countenance was turned away, unto Gilgamish like a god he became a companion.

“For Išhara8 a couch was laid. Gilgamish . . . in the night . . . in embrace. They (?) in the street halting at the . . . of Gilgamish. . . . mightily. A road . . . Gilgamish . . . in the plain . . . his hair growing thickly like corn. He came forth into . . . into his presence. They met in the wide park of the land. Enkidu held fast the door with his foot, and permitted not Gilgamish to enter. They grappled with each other goring like oxen. The threshold they destroyed. The wall they demolished. Gilgamish and Enkidu grappled with each other goring like oxen. The threshold they destroyed. The wall they demolished. Gilgamish bowed to the ground at his feet and his javelin reposed. He turned back his breast. After he had turned away his breast, Enkidu unto him spoke, even unto Gilgamish. ‘Even as one distinguished did thy mother bear thee, she the wild cow of the cattle stalls, Nunsunna, whose head she has exalted more than a husband. Royal power over the people Enlil has decreed for thee.'”

This new section of the epic brings the original plan of the story in Book I to its dénouement. Enkidu and Gilgamish strive with each other “that the land might repose.” But a very interesting motif is worked into this book, the story of the conversion of Enkidu to the ways of civilized man, a conversion brought about by the love of woman. Gilgamish is at first shocked by the manners of the satyr, but the woman teaches him the customs of men. Even then Gilgamish cannot overcome his aversion for his newly learned manners, and orders him to be banished. Once more the faithful woman instructs him in the conventions of life. The people are enthusiastic about his heroic presence. Finally he and Gilgamish become reconciled. They dedicate their aims to an adventure.

Impression of a seal
Fig. 11. — Impression of a Seal Cylinder in the University Museum. Maxwell Sommerville Collection.

Here a new motif is worked into the epic, the passion of Gilgamish for the divine Mara. Apparently Enkidu intervenes to save his friend from effeminate influence for a violent conflict arises in which Enkidu strives to prevent Gilgamish from entering his house. Gilgamish is overcome and they are again reconciled.

Enkidu is sometimes represented on seals as a satyr, with hind legs and tail of a bull. Sometimes his headdress .is also decorated with horns of a bull. On one of the seals which illustrate the conflict a nude woman stands beside the struggling heroes. It seems not unreasonable to suppose that this glyptic scene illustrates the effort of Enkidu to rescue his friend from the goddess. In fact the satyr stands between Gilgamish and Mara on the seal. One of the un-placed fragments in the British Museum tells of Enkidu’s own revolt against the effeminate influence of women and he curses the hierodule whose devotion had served him so effectively. And Shamash, the sun god, is astonished at his ingratitude.

“Why oh Enkidu cursest thou the harlot, her the hierodule,
Her that gave thee to eat food that would be acceptable to the gods?
Wine she gave thee to drink, seemly unto kings.”

At the end of Tablet II the heroes proclaim their purpose of making an expedition to the far East where in the cedar forests dwells the terrible Humbaba, probably an ancient king of Elam, traditional foe of Sumer and Akkad. It is probable that Enkidu becomes the advocate of puritanic living in view of this warlike venture. At this point Gilgamish in a dream penetrates the mysteries of the life beyond the grave and Enkidu also sees in a dream the existence of those who dwell in the nether world.

“He led me unto the house of darkness abode of Irkalla.9
Unto the house whence he that enters departs not.
Upon the road whose going returns not.
Unto the house whose occupant is deprived of light.”

Thus in the early part of the epic the terror of death which forms the principal theme of the later part of the story is vividly portrayed.

Before the heroes depart for the conflict with Humbaba the goddess Ninsun laments their departure, weeping before the Sun-god,

“Why hast thou done so for Gilgamish my son, a restless heart placing within him.
Now thou hast touched him and he goes
Upon a far journey to the place of Humbaba.”

Tablet V in the British Museum relates the conflict with Humbaba and the death of their foe. After the battle the beautiful goddess Ishtar is captivated by the beauty of Gilgamish and desires him for her husband. But Gilgamish now like Enkidu has put away the sensual joys of life. He rejects her proposal and taunts her concerning her faithless career. Here follows the episode which most commonly figures upon seals from the earliest Sumerian and Semitic period. Ishtar enraged appeals to her father Anu, the heaven god, who creates a divine bull to slay the offensive Gilgamish. The seal cylinders depict this struggle with the bull sometimes representing Gilgamish in single combat, sometimes both heroes in combat with the bull, or more often as in the fine seal of the Sargonic period in our Museum Gilgamish in combat with the bull and Enkidu with a lion. The latter motif is taken from Book II represented by our new tablet.

Impression of a seal showing a figure and bull
Fig. 12. — Impression of a Seal Cylinder in the University Museum. Maxwell Sommerville Collection.

Such are the principal events and cultural ideas developed in the first six books of the Epic of Gil-garnish or the poem “He who has seen all things.” The remaining books tell of the death of Enkidu, the sorrow of Gilgamish and his search for the plant of life, whereby he might escape from the fate common to all men. The moral of the epic is that there is no escape and that the loss of Paradise which according to the well-known Sumerian epic was ended by the Flood brought about by the sins of mankind was an irretrievable disaster. Disease and death brought upon man by the survivor of the Flood because he had eaten of the “plant of fate” are forever the fate of all men.

That portion of the poem that is written on the tablet in the Museum is important not only because it fills up a gap in the epic but because it reveals one of its principal minor motifs. Man redeemed from barbarism by the love and devotion of woman is the subject of this tablet. It enables us now to understand more clearly the later ideas which the poet includes in his finely conceived work.

S. L.

1 The tablets in the British Museum were published by Professor Paul Haupt, and translated into German by Jensen and into French by Dhorme.
2 A satyr, god of the flocks. The copy used for the text is that by Dr. Paul Haupt.
3 About one line broken away.
4 About two lines broken away. Here Enkidu and the harlot behold Gilgamish at a distance.
5 i.e., Gilgamish.
6 About five lines broken away.
7 About five lines broken away.
8 One of the unmarried mother goddesses, originally patroness of canals and water animals.
9 Queen of the lower world.

Cite This Article

Langdon, Stephen. "The Epic Of Gilgamish." The Museum Journal VIII, no. 1 (March, 1917): 29-38. Accessed April 23, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/journal/550/


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