The Epic of Gilgamesh

Summary and Analysis of Tablet X

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Summary

Siduri, a barmaid, keeps a tavern overlooking the sea. In the distance, she sees Gilgamesh coming toward her. His appearance frightens her. He is wearing animal skins, and his face is weathered. Siduri barricades herself inside the tavern. Gilgamesh pounds on the door and threatens to kick it down. He tells Siduri who he is and Siduri asks him why he looks the way he does if he is indeed the great Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh tells her that he is grieving for the loss of his friend, Enkidu, with whom he slayed the demon Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven. He says that Enkidu has been overtaken by the fate that awaits all humankind—he is turned to clay. Gilgamesh asks Siduri if that is what must happen to him as well.

Siduri opens the tavern door and invites him in, telling him that only the gods live forever. She invites him to clean up and to eat and drink. Gilgamesh instead says he wants to find Utnapishtim and asks Siduri where he can find him. Siduri tells Gilgamesh that Shamash the sun god crosses the sea every day, but no mortal has ever been able to follow him. 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, can cross.

Urshanabi lives on an island somewhere on these waters where he guards the Urnu-snakes and the Stone Things. She urges him to abandon this quest, telling him that immortality was never meant for anyone but the gods. However, Gilgamesh cannot be convinced otherwise. Finally, Siduri gives him directions to the island where Urshanabi lives and tells him that perhaps he will take Gilgamesh across the waters to see Utnapishtim upon seeing Gilgamesh's face. If he refuses, she says, Gilgamesh must abandon this quest.

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, destroying them. He then battles a winged creature but manages to defeat it as well. The sounds of battle garner Urshanabi's attention and he follows them to their source.

Gilgamesh introduces himself to Urshanabi. Urshanabi studies Gilgamesh’s face and questions him about his appearance. Gilgamesh tells him about Enkidu, his grief, his fear of death, and his desire to find Utnapishtim.

Urshanabi says he will take Gilgamesh to Utnapishtim, but that Gilgamesh has made the task much more difficult because he has destroyed the Stone Things and the Urnu-snakes, which propelled and protected his boat. Instead, Urshanabi says, Gilgamesh must go into the forest and fashion hundreds of 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 that his hands do not touch the water. Gilgamesh steers the boat through the Waters of Death. His great strength causes him to break all of the poles. In some translations, the poles disintegrate in the Waters of Death. When the last pole is ruined, he takes off the animal skin he wears and holds it up as a sail.

In the distance, they can see a shore. An old man stands on the shore, watching the boat approach. The old man wonders who the stranger is with Urshanabi. When they get out of the boat, the old man asks Gilgamesh to identify himself. Gilgamesh tells the old man his story as well. The old man asks Gilgamesh why he grieves over mortality—nothing lives forever. He explains that the gods established that humanity would suffer death, and that when the gods give life, they decide the day of death. He says that death is our inescapable destiny, even if we do not know when it will happen.

Analysis

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 winemaking and beer brewing, she is usually considered a manifestation of Ishtar. Her warmth and kindness to Gilgamesh throughout this episode are remarkable considering how Gilgamesh treated Ishtar prior to Enkidu’s death.

Scholars have not been able to determine what the Stone Things and the Urnu-snakes mentioned in this tablet are exactly or why Gilgamesh destroys them. Some translations suggest the Stone Things were actual stones that were used to construct a bridge. Others suggest they were magnetite. The tablets are incomplete on this topic. The Winged creature that Gilgamesh encounters is Utnapishtim in some versions of the story.

Both Siduri and Urshanabi have no idea who Gilgamesh is when they see him, suggesting his appearance is truly repulsive. Even after explaining his story to them, they both independently tell him that his quest is pointless and that he should turn back. When Gilgamesh finally reaches the old man, he tells Gilgamesh that death is inescapable.

As we will learn in the next tablet, the old man is in fact Utnapishtim. Even though Utnapishtim has been granted immortality himself, he advises Gilgamesh against seeking it out. This suggests that Utnapishtim’s experience with immortality has not been completely positive. Immortality itself robs life of urgency and meaning. Utnapishtim will live forever, but this limits his personal ambition greatly. He has no endpoint in his life to fear, but he also has no motivations. There is no deadline.

In a way, death gives meaning to life. Without it, we have little reason to consider how our lives are lived and how we will be remembered. Utnapishtim may also realize that immortality will not allow Gilgamesh to become the king he is meant to be. Utnapishtim has escaped 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 a part of life.