Hi there, Phoenix Down Radio listeners! Last episode, we discussed the lore behind our favorite multi-armed weapon collector, Gre- er, Gilgamesh. A lot of his history and design comes from the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh. During the show, I presented a VERY simplified form of one of the versions of his tale. In this Lore-brarian Extra, I’ll get a bit more into the weeds with a more complete version of the story. It’s long, so get comfy!

The first thing to point out is that there are a LOT of different versions of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Some of the earlier versions were pretty much a bunch of poems that were mashed together into a single story.  Many of those tablets didn’t survive to the present, so what we even have of those mishmashes is fragmented and incomplete. Many more tablets are still buried and have yet to be recovered, so our understanding of this story may change with future discoveries!

The version that I’ll be retelling here is a simplified form of one of the more complete versions, taken mostly from tablets carved around 3000 years ago with some details filled in from much older tablets. Without further ado, let’s get to it!

Tablet 1: Enkidu Comes Forth

Gilgamesh, creator and two-thirds-divine king of the ancient city of Uruk, is an oppressive ruler.  He abuses the people of his city, exhausting the men with forced labor on city projects and cutting them down to sate his own battlelust.  The women undergo the “droit du seigneur”, the right of a ruler to be the first to sleep with a bride on her wedding night (essentially being raped).  The people call out to the gods for succor, and the gods respond by creating a man from clay who could be Gilgamesh’s equal and have enough strength to stop him.  This man is Enkidu, a wild man covered in hair who lives among the animals.

Enkidu creates problems of his own, destroying the traps of the local hunters and ruining their livelihoods.  Eventually, Enkidu is captured and brought to the temple prostitute Shamhat.  She makes love to him nonstop for a full week, beginning the first step in his taming.  Meanwhile, Gilgamesh begins to have dreams about the arrival of a new companion.

Tablet 2: Friendship in Defeat

Enkidu is brought to the camp of the local shepherds, where he is further civilized by eating human foods.  He becomes the night watchman of the flocks.  Eventually, he hears about Gilgamesh’s abuse of his people from a passing traveler and becomes enraged.  Enkidu travels to Uruk, intercepting Gilgamesh as the king makes his way to a bridal chamber.  The two have a fierce battle, eventually ending in Gilgamesh’s victory.  Enkidu acknowledges Gilgamesh’s strength, and the two become friends.

Gilgamesh proposes that the two go on a journey to gain fame and reknown, traveling to the Cedar Forest to destroy the demigod Humbaba.  Enkidu warns him against this, as does Uruk’s council of elders, but Gilgamesh will not be deterred.

Tablet 3: Making Preparations

Seeing that Gilgamesh means to set out for the Cedar Forest, the council of elders give him advice for the journey.  Gilgamesh visits his mother, the goddess Ninsun; she in turn seeks out the blessing of the sun god Shamash for her son’s adventure.  Ninsun also adopts Enkidu as her son.  Gilgamesh gives instructions for how Uruk is to be ruled in his absence, indicating that despite his faults, he does care about the welfare of his city.

Tablet 4: Dark Omens on the Road

Gilgamesh and Enkidu set off on their journey towards the Cedar Forest.  As they make their way, every few days they climb a mountain and perform a dream ritual to gain foreknowledge of the challenges they will face.  Gilgamesh has terrifying dreams of falling mountains, raging storms, wild bulls, and a great bird that breathes fire.  All of these dreams bear resemblance to descriptions of Humbaba, presaging a difficult and terrifying battle.

Enkidu denies that the images seen in Gilgamesh’s dreams are Humbaba, claiming that the dreams are good omens against all evidence.  He cheers on Gilgamesh and works to keep his spirits up.  As the two near the Cedar Forest, each encourages the other to not be afraid.

Tablet 5: The Great Battle of Cedar Forest

Enkidu and Gilgamesh enter the forest and encounter its ogre-like guardian, Humbaba.  Humbaba accuses Enkidu of having betrayed his wild origins and threatens to destroy both of the travelers.  A great battle commences, turning the sky black and causing the earth to quake from its fury.  The sun god Shamash gives the aid that was requested by sending winds to bind Humbaba, and the guardian is captured.

Humbaba begs for his life, offering to make Gilgamesh the king of the Cedar Forest and to serve as his slave.  Enkidu senses that Humbaba is lying, and the ogre curses the both of them as Gilgamesh delivers the killing blow.  Enkidu and Gilgamesh then cut down trees to make a raft for the journey back to Uruk, and the two return to the city on the river Euphrates with the head of Humbaba and a giant tree to be made into a great temple gate.

Tablet 6: The Bull of Heaven Comes to Uruk

Gilgamesh and Enkidu arrive at Uruk and wash themselves of the filth of battle and travel.  Once clean, Gilgamesh is so handsome as to attract the attentions of Ishtar, goddess of love and war.  Gilgamesh refuses Ishtar, knowing the fate of the goddess’ human lovers once her attentions have waned.  An enraged Ishtar goes to her father, the king of the gods Anu, and demands that he allow her to use the Bull of Heaven Gugalanna to avenge Gilgamesh’s insult to her.  Anu is hesistant, but gives in when Ishtar threatens to raise the dead until they outnumber and destroy the living.

Ishtar brings Gugalanna to Uruk, where the bull causes widespread devastation.  He lowers the river and dries up the marshes, and opens up pits that swallow hundreds.  Enkidu and Gilgamesh work together to slay the bull (this time without any divine assistance), and offer up its heart to sun god Shamash.  Ishtar shouts curses at the two, but is driven off when Enkidu throws one of the bull’s bloody haunches at her.  The city celebrates its salvation, but Enkidu is visited by troubling dreams portending future doom.

Tablet 7: Enkidu’s Dark Fate

In Enkidu’s dreams, the gods sit in judgement over him and Gilgamesh.  Their crimes are numerous: slaying the guardian of the Cedar Forest, cutting down its greatest tree, insulting the goddess Ishtar, and destroying the Bull of Heaven.  The gods decree that one of the two must die.  Shamash tries to defend Enkidu, but it is no use; the wild man is marked for death.

A distraught Enkidu curses everything that has brought him to this point: the great temple door fashioned from the giant cedar, and the trapper and prostitute who brought him out of the wild.  Shamash comforts Enkidu, reminding him of the joys he was able to experience by becoming civilized and promising him that Gilgamesh will deeply mourn Enkidu’s passing.  Enkidu takes comfort in this and blesses the prostitute Shamhat.

After this, Enkidu has another dream in which he is dragged down into the Underworld and is forced to wear bird feathers and dine on dirt.  He laments that he could not meet a glorious end in battle, and over the course of the next twelve days slowly sickens and dies.

Tablet 8: The Grief of Gilgamesh

Enkidu’s death fills Gilgamesh with a deep and profound grief.  He tears his clothes and rips at his hair, and demands that all things in creation join him in mourning his lost friend.  He calls the craftsmen of Uruk to create a great statue to honor Enkidu, and spends freely from his treasury to provide grave gifts that will guarantee Enkidu’s safety and comfort in the afterlife.

After this, Gilgamesh casts aside his royal garments and dons animal hides.  He abandons the comforts of royal life and sets out through the city gates into the wilderness, wracked with sadness for the loss of his friend and fearful of his own mortality.

Tablet 9: The Tunnel Under the World

Gilgamesh learns of Utnapishtim, a man who survived the great flood that nearly ended all life on earth and was subsequently granted immortality by the gods.  He decides to seek out this man and learn the secrets of eternal life.  Along the way, he encounters a pride of lions and kills them, taking their skins as clothing.

Eventually, Gilgamesh arrives at the great twin-peaked mountain Mashu.  He finds a tunnel through the mountain guarded by two scorpion-men.  The tunnel is the “Road of the Sun” used by Shamash to travel each night between where the sun sets and where it rises.   Although no mortal could survive the day’s journey through the tunnel in complete darkness, the two monsters recognize Gilgamesh’s semi-divine nature and eventually allow him to enter the tunnel.  Gilgamesh makes the perilous journey and emerges into a beautiful garden of trees with fruit that glitters like jewels.

Tablet 10: A Perilous Crossing

Continuing on his journey, Gilgamesh meets the alewife Siduri.  She is frightened by his wild appearance, but invites him into her tavern to clean himself and relax from his journey.  Gilgamesh refuses to be distracted from his mission, so Siduri tells him of the path that Shamash follows across a stormy and treacherous sea and the poisonous Waters of Death.  She directs him to Urshanabi, Shamash’s boatman who lives deep in the forest.  When Gilgamesh reaches Urshanabi’s house, his rage and grief reach a fever pitch and he destroys the stone giants and snakes that live with the boatman.

Urshanabi agrees to help Gilgamesh but informs him that the wild king has destroyed the creatures that propelled and protected his boat from the Waters of Death, making the trip far more perilous.  Gilgamesh is sent into the forest to cut giant trees and fashion them into massive punting poles (in some versions, he must prepare 300 of these poles.)  As the two men make the crossing, Gilgamesh uses the poles to propel the boat but ends up destroying all of them with his massive strength, eventually resorting to using one of the skins he wears as a sail.

On the far shore, Gilgamesh meets Utnapishtim.  Gilgamesh explains to the immortal about his grief for Enkidu and fear of his own death.  Utnapishtim reprimands him, saying that when the gods grant life they also set the day of death.  No living creature can avoid this fate.

Tablet 11: The Secret of Immortality

Gilgamesh asks Utnapishtim how he was able to become immortal.  Utnapishtim in turn recounts his story: he too was once a king of a great city.  When the god of earth, wind, and air, Enlil, decided to send a great flood and destroy the world, the god of wisdom and crafts Ea warned Utnapishtim and told him to build a boat loaded with the seeds of all living things as well as his family and possessions.  A great storm came which lasted for six days and six nights, and Ishtar wept at the destruction of humanity. Eventually, the boat lodged on a mountain, and Utnapishtim sent out birds to see if the floodwaters had receded.  When the birds failed to return, the ark was opened and its inhabitants returned to the world.  Utnapishtim prepared a sacrifice for the gods, and the delicious smell encouraged the famished gods to appear around his altar.

Ishtar was overjoyed to see that some had survived the flood, and swore that she would never forget the calamity or forgive Enlil for sending a flood without the approval of the other gods.  When Enlil arrived he was enraged to see that there were survivors, but he was reprimanded by Ishtar as well as by Ea.  Ea said that rather than a flood, Enlil should have sent other calamities that would have only punished the undeserving.  Chastened, Enlil blessed Utnapishtim and his wife with eternal life for saving humanity.

As he finishes his story, Utnapishtim asks Gilgamesh if he really thinks that he is worthy of becoming a god.  As a test, Utnapishtim challenges Gilgamesh to overcome sleep by going a week without sleeping.  Gilgamesh agrees to this, but soon falls into a deep sleep.  Utnapishtim shows his wife the sleeping Gilgamesh, and asks her to bake a piece of bread each day that Gilgamesh falls asleep and leave it next to him, and to make a mark on the wall.  By doing this, Gilgamesh will not be able to deny that he fell asleep.  After seven days have passed, Gilgamesh denies falling asleep, but is horrified to see seven pieces of bread ranging from stale to freshly baked and seven marks on the wall.  Utnapishtim instructs Urshanabi to clean and clothe Gilgamesh in royal robes and return him to Uruk.

As the king and boatman leave, Utnapishtim’s wife asks her husband to give a parting gift.  The immortal tells Gilgamesh of a plant at the bottom of the sea that can rejuvenate an old man into a young man.  Gilgamesh ties stones to his feet and dives into the sea, and finds the plant.  He plants to share it with the elders of Uruk in addition to enjoying its effects himself.  But one night on the return trip to Uruk, a snake steals and eats the plant.  The snake becomes young, shedding its elderly skin as it leaves.  Gilgamesh weeps, having lost even this small chance to avoid death.

When Gilgamesh and Urshanabi reach Uruk, Gilgamesh shows him the city’s great walls, its orchards and fields, its brickwork and clay pits, and its mighty temple to Ishtar.  He takes pride in the enduring work that he was able to construct.

Tablet 12: Enkidu in the Underworld(?)

Note: This tablet seems to be a translation of a much earlier poem that was added onto the main story.  It is not consistent with the narrative set out in the other tablets, and it is unclear why the author of the previous 11 tablets included it.

Gilgamesh drops some of his possessions which fall into the Underworld.  Enkidu volunteers to retrieve the items, and Gilgamesh cautions him about how to behave in the Underworld in order to avoid being trapped there.  Enkidu disobeys him, and is seized by the Underworld’s inhabitants and trapped by Ereshgikal, Queen of the Undeworld.  Gilgamesh begs the other gods for help, but all of them ignore him save for one (variously, the god of wisdom Ea or the god of the sun Shamash.)  Enkidu’s spirit rises up into the world of the living and speaks with Gilgamesh about the underworld.  The picture Enkidu paints is bleak, but he tells Gilgamesh that there is some hope – those who leave behind many sons live like kings and gods in the afterlife.

Lore-brarian Notes

Whew!  That was quite a mouthful there.  It helps to think of this as the equivalent of a modern television series, something that might be told in bits and pieces over a period of weeks or months.  A good storyteller might elaborate on the splendor of the temples of Uruk, or really fill out the journey through the Road of the Sun with descriptions of unseen dangers in the dark that Gilgamesh faced.

Although this story contains many fantastical elements, historians agree that there was an actual king named Gilgamesh who ruled the Sumerian city-state of Uruk somewhere around 2700 BCE.  He likely was the man responsible for raising its walls, and he was praised long after his death as a great warrior and builder who was wise and possessed good judgment.  Although many stories about Gilgamesh were told in the ancient Middle East, his fame ended when the Persians conquered Assyria and destroyed Nineveh.  Over 2000 years later, an English traveler excavated thousands of clay tablets from the ruins of Nineveh’s library; their translation led to the rediscovery of Gilgamesh in the modern era.

Uruk’s ruins have been found in southern Iraq, and in the early 2000s a team of archaeologists reported discovering a buried structure that might be Gilgamesh’s tomb.  Unfortunately, the 2003 invasion of Iraq has put a stop to excavations for the foreseeable future.  Still, there is hope that in the future we might be able to further explore the ruins of Uruk and to discover tablets that tell further tales of Gilgamesh.

There is debate as to the nature of the relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu.  Some translations seem to suggest that the two shared a physical connection, and the language used to describe the relationship includes terms that could have been euphemisms with homoerotic implications.  When considering this question, it is important to remember that the concept of a “gay” identity (as well as that of a “straight” identity) is a fairly modern one.  For many cultures throughout history, the question of whether someone was gay or straight (or something else) was meaningless; as long as offspring were being created at some point, people generally did not care to delve deeper into the question, and did not make one’s choice of companions into an identity-defining characteristic.  Certainly, Gilgamesh and Enkidu had a relationship such that it would be reasonable to think that they were lovers.  It would also be reasonable to think that they were something more akin to brothers.  The best counsel I can give is to keep an open mind to both sets of possibilities.

Astute readers might notice that there are a lot of similarities with various stories from Judeo-Christian traditions.  The most obvious one is Utnapishtim’s tale of the Great Flood, which is remarkably similar to the tale of Noah and the Flood from the Old Testament.  Somewhat less obviously, Enkidu was created from dust by the gods and was a wild man who lived among the animals until he was civilized by a woman who offered him food and carnal pleasures, a tale with many parallels to Adam and the Garden of Eden.  These types of shared stories often suggest that the cultures involved share a common root and diverged over time.  Another possibility is that both cultures have their own stories about some major event; for instance, a major flood that, while not necessarily destroying all of humanity worldwide, did create widescale devastation.  Finding the truth of these matters can be incredibly difficult, especially given the tendency of the millennia to grind away at what few facts we have available.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this Lore-brarian extra!

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