The Epic of Gilgamesh

Summary and Analysis of Tablet VI and Tablet VII

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Summary

Upon his return to Uruk Gilgamesh bathes his body and dons a clean robe and cloak, and anoints himself with oil. His appearance is so attractive that Ishtar, the goddess of love and war, is overcome with lust. She pleads with Gilgamesh to be her husband. She promises him vast riches if he impregnates her. She tells him they will live together in a house made of cedar, and that she will give him a lapis lazuli chariot with golden wheels.

Gilgamesh pointedly refuses her advances. He says he has nothing to offer her, since, as a goddess, she has everything she could ever want. He tells her he knows of the fate of her other human lovers, and is aware of how fickle her love can be. Gilgamesh recounts the story of Tammuz, the shepherd, who was a captive in the underworld and is mourned in festivals every year. Another shepherd she loved became a bird with broken wings, unable to fly. A goat-herder who loved her was turned into a wolf. When her father’s gardener, Ishullanu, rejected her advances, she turned him into a frog. Gilgamesh asks why he should expect to be treated any better.

Ishtar is furious. She goes to her father, Anu, and mother, Antum, and demands that they let her use the Bull of Heaven to punish Gilgamesh. Her father refuses, stating that what Gilgamesh said was true. Ishtar is only further enraged. She threatens to free the dead from the underworld so they can feast on the living. Anu warns her that the bull will also bring a famine. Ishtar assures him that she has made provisions for the people and the flocks of Uruk, and he gives in.

Ishtar unleashes the Bull of Heaven. The city of Uruk trembles as, bellowing and snorting, it comes down from the sky. A crack opens up in the earth, and one hundred men fall into it and die. Again the bull bellows and again the ground cracks open. One hundred more men are swallowed up. The third time this happens, Enkidu attacks the bull. The bull slobbers all over him and whips him with its tail, coated in excrement. Enkidu grabs it by its horns and wrestles with it. He calls out to Gilgamesh, who joins him, and they fight the bull together. At last, Enkidu seizes its filthy tail and holds the monster still so that Gilgamesh can thrust his sword between its shoulders and kill it. The heroes then cut out its heart and offer it as a sacrifice to Shamash the sun god.

Ishtar appears on the walls of the city and curses the two friends. Enkidu picks up one of the bull’s bloody haunches and hurls it at her. He threatens that if she were closer, he would do the same to her. While Ishtar and her followers, the temple prostitutes, mourn the bull, Gilgamesh gathers his craftsmen and shows them how beautifully the gods had made the creature, how thickly its horns were coated with lapis lazuli. Gilgamesh removes the horns and fills them with oil, which he offers in sacrifice to his father, Lugulbanda. Then he hangs them on the wall of his palace as a trophy.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu again bathe and wash the bull’s blood from their bodies in the Euphrates. That night, Enkidu has a dream that the gods are meeting in council. He awakens suddenly and asks Gilgamesh why the gods would do this.

Tablet VII introduces more details regarding Enkidu's dream. In it, the gods are angry with him and Gilgamesh and they meet to decide what should be done with them. Anu, Ishtar’s father, decrees that someone must be punished for killing Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven. Only one of the companions, however, must die. Enlil, Humbaba’s master and the god of earth, wind, and air, feels that Enkidu should be the one to die. Shamash, the sun god, defends the heroes, saying that he had influenced their actions in the Cedar Forest. Enlil is angered and accuses Shamash of taking their side and behaving like a mortal instead of a god. Therefore, it is decided that Enkidu must die.

Soon thereafter, Enkidu becomes ill, proving the dream true. Burdened with regret, Enkidu curses Shamhat for civilizing him. He curses the cedar gate that he and Gilgamesh brought back from the Cedar Forest. He states that he would have cut it to pieces with an axe if he had known this would happen. Gilgamesh promises his friend that he will build him an even greater monument than the cedar gate. He will erect an enormous statue of Enkidu, made entirely of gold.

Enkidu curses the trapper who first spotted him at the watering hole and says he hopes his hunting pits are filled in and his traps are unset. Shamash, hearing Enkidu’s cries, finally answers. He asks why Enkidu curses the harlot, since if it had not been for her, Enkidu would have never tasted the rich foods of the palace, never worn beautiful clothes, and never known Gilgamesh’s friendship. Shamash tells Enkidu that when he dies, Gilgamesh will wander the earth, undone by grief. Enkidu is comforted by Shamash’s words and retracts his curse, offering a blessing instead for Shamhat.

The next morning, lying on his deathbed, Enkidu tells Gilgamesh of another terrible dream. In the dream, he was all alone on a dark plain, and a man with a lion’s head and an eagle’s talons seized him. He fought this creature, but it overpowered him and changed him into a birdlike creature. Then he was dragged down to the underworld. There he saw kings, gods, and priests, all of them dressed in feathers. All of them were living in total darkness. They ate dirt instead of food. Queen Ereshkigal, the ruler of the underworld, sat on her throne, and Belit-Seri, the scribe of the gods, whose tablet tells everyone’s fate, knelt before her. Enkidu says the queen looked at them and asked who led them there. Enkidu tells Gilgamesh that he would have been blessed if he had died in battle, because those who die in battle die a glorious death. Enkidu’s condition slowly worsens and he suffers for twelve days before he dies.

Analysis

Tablet VI reveals a great deal about the importance of Ishtar, the goddess of love, and her mortal lovers. In response to Ishtar’s advances, Gilgamesh explains he knows all about her past human lovers who became animals—a shepherd who was changed into a broken-winged bird, a goat herder who became a wolf, a gardener who became a frog. In particular, Gilgamesh mentions Tammuz, a mortal shepherd who becomes a god after his relationship with Ishtar. After his death, he goes to the underworld. Reasons for his death vary from translation to translation, but Ishtar is generally at fault in most traditions.

Gilgamesh’s rejection of Ishtar is infuriating to her but also embarrassing. He states aloud the truth about her reputation. Ishtar appears to be more insulted by the revelation of this information than she is by Gilgamesh’s initial rejection. When Anu, her father, comments that everything Gilgamesh asserted is true, Ishtar’s reaction betrays her feelings. She is, after all, the goddess of love. To have her divine reputation questioned in this manner is extremely insulting but also threatening.

Gilgamesh’s list of Ishtar’s ex-lovers suggests that Ishtar knows little of love, and perhaps that she should not be worshipped as she currently is. This is no small matter considering that Uruk holds a temple for Ishtar at its very center. Gilgamesh is taking a grave risk by speaking this way to Ishtar. He is challenging the authority of the gods and questioning their very place in a power structure he has heretofore helped to maintain.

The Bull of Heaven is sometimes also called Gugalanna. Gugulanna was the first husband of Ereshkigal, the Goddess of the Netherworld. Ishtar’s emotionally charged decision to use the Bull of Heaven to punish Gilgamesh is met with skepticism by Anu, her father. He agrees with Gilgamesh’s assessment of Ishtar’s reputation, further enraging her. She counters with a serious threat: to release the dead into the land of the living. Anu relents but is concerned about the destruction the Bull will bring. Ishtar tells him she has made provisions to see the people through a period of drought. The distinction that the responsible party should be punished, rather than innocent bystanders, for his insults is revisited in Utnapishtim’s story of the flood in a later tablet. Although Anu and Ishtar are engaged in a heated conversation, both are aware of their responsibilities as gods and the power that they can wield.

After Gilgamesh and Enkidu defeat the Bull of Heaven, Ishtar curses them from the walls of the city. Enkidu tears of a haunch of the Bull and throws it at her, telling her he would do the same to her if he could. This compounds their insult against Ishtar and more directly implicates Enkidu’s involvement. Gilgamesh takes the Bull’s horns to the craftsmen of Uruk. They marvel at how they were made and at how beautiful they are. He hangs them as a trophy for his chambers. His pride over his accomplishments can be interpreted as a certain lack of respect towards the divine. The Bull of Heaven is a divine instrument, but Gilgamesh slays it and dismantles the body. Both heroes seem to have forgotten their place.

Enkidu and Gilgamesh return to bathe in the Euphrates after their victory. The people of Uruk celebrate their conquests and Gilgamesh boasts that he and Enkidu are best. This final bit of hubris is soon met with a foreboding dream that Enkidu has. In it the gods are meeting together in council. Enkidu awakens and asks Gilgamesh why they would be doing this. Enkidu seems to have suddenly realized the possibility of severe repercussions for their actions. It is notable that Gilgamesh, who has had many dreams of events to come, does not dream of this event. His ignorance on this matter foreshadows how shaken he will be by Enkidu’s death. It is also the first dream that either hero has that is not metaphorical in nature. As Tablet VII will show, the gods do actually convene to discuss the actions of the two heroes.

The decision by the gods to punish Enkidu introduces another theme in the epic: the gods can and will act without explanation or reason. Some translations state that Gilgamesh’s semi-divine nature is a factor in their decision to spare him and select Enkidu for death. This theme is visited again when Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh of the Flood brought upon humanity without explanation. The irony of this behavior is that the gods punish the heroes for their behavior while rarely justifying their own. Ishtar becomes jealous and vengeful and releases the Bull of Heaven. Her target is Gilgamesh but hundreds die before Enkidu is able to subdue the Bull, yet there are no repercussions for Ishtar’s decisions and she does not exhibit remorse for the men that died. The gods answer only to one another, not to another higher being, so their power is largely unchecked.

Enkidu curses his predicament by blaming Shamhat and the trapper. Because of them, he contends, he was removed from the wilderness where he was content and put on a path leading to his eventual downfall. The knowledge he has gained through his civilization has augmented his suffering rather than helped subdue it. It is possible that the authors were using this as an analogy about what was then modern urban life. The life of animals may have appeared to be far less complex and more easily enjoyed. It also again reflects the Biblical metaphor of Eden. Had humanity been able to stay in Eden, none of us would have to know suffering.

Shamash hears Enkidu’s cries and comforts him by reminding Enkidu that if not for Shamhat and the trapper, Enkidu would not have tasted the best that civilization has to offer. He would also never have met his friend Gilgamesh. He tells Enkidu, essentially, that he is beloved by Gilgamesh and that when he passes away Gilgamesh will be full of sorrow. Although Enkidu’s demise is still imminent, he is comforted by Shamash’s words. He realizes that he has enjoyed some of the most important things in life, namely love and friendship. He recants his curse and offers a blessing instead for Shamhat. This suggests that curses and blessings carried great weight in the ancient Mesopotamian world. Such words were not invoked lightly, and, if uttered, were believed to have consequences. Finally, having attained some sense of peace, Enkidu passes away, leaving Gilgamesh alone. The lesson now imparted to Gilgamesh is that despite his great strength and reputation, death is inescapable.