The Epic of Gilgamesh Summary and Analysis

Tablet I

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Summary

The story begins with a prologue introducing us to the main character, Gilgamesh, the Priest-King of Uruk. Gilgamesh’s mother is Ninsun, sometimes referred to as the Lady Wildcow Ninsun. She was a goddess, endowing Gilgamesh with a semi-divine nature. Lugulbanda, a priest, was his father. Gilgamesh constructed the great city of Uruk along the Euphrates River in Mesopotamia, and surrounded it intricately decorated walls. He also built a temple for the goddess Ishtar, the goddess of love, and her father Anu, the father of the gods. Gilgamesh is credited with opening passages through the mountains. He traveled to the Nether World and beyond it, where he met Utnapishtim, the sole survivor of the great flood that almost ended the world, the one who had been given immortality. When he returned to Uruk, he wrote everything down on a tablet of lapis lazuli and locked it in a copper chest.

As the story begins, Gilgamesh is a tyrannical leader who shows little regard for his people. He takes what he wants from them and works them to death constructing the walls of Uruk. He sleeps with brides on their wedding night, before their husbands. It is said that no one can resist his power. The old men of Uruk complain and appeal to the gods for help. The gods hear their cries and instruct Aruru, the goddess of creation, to make someone strong enough to act as a counterforce to Gilgamesh.

Aruru takes some clay, moistens it with her spit, and forms another man, named Enkidu. Enkidu resides in the wilderness with the animals, knowing nothing of the civilized world. He lives as one of the animals, running with them and eating what they eat. One day a trapper sees Enkidu at a watering hole. His appearance is frightening as he is huge and covered in hair. The trapper suspects that Enkidu is the one who has been un-setting his traps and filling the pits he uses to catch animals. The trapper returns home and tells his father he has seen a frightening wild man.

The trapper’s father advises him to go to Uruk and ask Gilgamesh to lend him a prostitute from the temple of Ishtar to tame Enkidu. After doing so, the trapper returns with Shamhat, the prostitute, and they wait by the watering hole for three days.

When Enkidu does appear again, the trapper tells Shamhat to lie down on a blanket and show Enkidu her breasts and her body. Enkidu is enchanted by Shamhat and lies upon her and they copulate for six days and seven nights. After Enkidu is finally satisfied, he leaves Shamhat and attempts to returns to the animals, but they no longer regard him as one of them and run away from him.

Enkidu finds he has become weaker and can no longer run with the animals as he did before. His mind has been awakened. Troubled by this new self-awareness, he asks Shamhat for help. She tells him about life in Uruk and its king, Gilgamesh. As Enkidu hears more about Gilgamesh from Shamhat, he begins to feel a need for a companion and decides he wants to meet Gilgamesh.

Meanwhile, Gilgamesh has two dreams that trouble him. 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, he carries it to his mother, Ninsun. In the second dream, Gilgamesh finds an axe lying in the street. A crowd of people stands around it, admiring it. Gilgamesh is also drawn to the axe, as if it were his wife. He carries it to his mother and lays it at her feet. He tells Ninsun of these dreams. She interprets them to mean that he will soon meet a man, a man who will become his friend and greatest companion.

Analysis

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.

Though Gilgamesh’s mother Ninsun plays a 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 is 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.

Although Gilgamesh is a king and his story has become legend, the author also includes examples of Gilgamesh’s tyrannical behavior. He has no equal, and no one can stand up to him. Gilgamesh’s lineage establishes him as one-third mortal and two-thirds a god. Therefore, it is appropriate that the people of Uruk appeal to the gods for help.

Enkidu is described as terrifying in appearance, covered in hair and living with the animals. He is also huge and very strong, characteristics that otherwise are only attributed to Gilgamesh. Enkidu is the untamed wild itself. As Gilgamesh represents civilization and the dominion of man over all, Enkidu is the natural counterweight. It is also notable that despite his great strength, Enkidu is helpless in the face of a woman’s sexuality. Shamhat’s power civilizes and tames Enkidu to prepare him for his journey to Uruk and ultimately to Gilgamesh. This speaks to a different view of a prostitute in Gilgamesh’s time. Rather than being seen as a criminal act, Shamhat’s role is revered, even sacred. It is possible that a woman’s sexuality was seen as a necessity to tame a man and make him suitable for civilized life, supporting a family, or raising children. Shamhat’s taming of Enkidu also foreshadows Enkidu’s role in taming Gilgamesh. Shamhat awakens Enkidu. Similarly, Enkidu must awaken Gilgamesh.

Many scholars have seen Biblical parallels in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Enkidu has been compared to Esau and Ishmael, who both exhibited animal-like characteristics, but his story also reflects the civilizing of humankind. As a species, we have moved from a more primal, animal-like existence to one of culture. We educate ourselves and gain insight into our world and ourselves. The biblical motif of Adam and Eve also mirrors Enkidu’s story. Their fall from innocence is a result of becoming aware of their sexuality. After that, they are cast out of Eden and must find their own way in the world, just as Enkidu does.

Though sexuality is presented as an important transformational force, the theme of platonic friendship and love ultimately is the more profound one in the story. Some scholars have seen homoerotic qualities in Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s relationship, and others feel there is no direct evidence of this in the text. Their relationship is based on a very close friendship and it is this type of relationship that the story presents as the most vital. Enkidu and Gilgamesh balance each other and help each other find inner harmony.