The Epic of Gilgamesh

Summary and Analysis of Tablet XI

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Summary

Gilgamesh soon realizes that the old man he has been speaking to is in fact Utnapishtim. He is surprised that Utnapishtim appears as just another man, whereas Gilgamesh had expected to face a terrible demon. Gilgamesh asks Utnapishtim to explain how it came to be that he was allowed to live as an immortal, and how Gilgamesh can do the same.

Utnapishtim explains that long ago he was once the king of city called Shuruppak, a city that was situated on the Euphrates. The gods Anu, Enlil, Ninerta, Ea, and Ennugi met in council and decided to bring a flood to destroy the city. Ea whispers to Utnapishtim through his house walls to abandon his belongings and instead build a boat. Ea gave him dimensions for this boat. It would have six decks and be of an enormous size, about 180 feet high. On this boat, Ea said, Utnapishtim should bring his family and the seed of every species.

Utnapishtim asked Ea what he should tell the people of Shuruppak, since he needs help to construct the boat, and people would naturally have questions as to his intent. Ea told Utnapishtim to tell the people that he must leave the city because Enlil is angry with him and that he must find a new home and a new divine protector. Ea says to tell the people that he will be Utnapishtim’s patron and that Utnapishtim will travel to Apsu, the abyss. Ea also instructed Utnapishtim to tell the people of Shuruppak that a flood of bounty and good fortune would greet the city upon Utnapishtim’s departure. Food and drink would be plentiful with more than enough bread and fish for everyone.

The people of Shuruppak, young and old, came out to help with the construction of the boat. Each day Utnapishtim would sacrifice a bull or lamb and beer and wine were in great supply for a great feast. Each day ended with a festival-like celebration. In just seven days, the boat was complete. Utnapishtim loaded all his belongings on to the vessel and after some difficulty was able to cast off.

Storm clouds gathered as Utnapishtim set the boat adrift. Utnapishtim shields himself inside the boat with the help of Puzuramurri, the caulker. He gives the caulker his home as thanks and settles in while the storm rages outside. Utnapishtim describes a terrible storm that lasts for seven days. The storm is so thick that the gods cannot even see the earth from the heavens. Ishtar cries out in anguish over the loss of humanity.

When the storm finally subsides, Utnapishtim looked out but saw nothing moving. There were no signs of life anywhere but he sees something in the distance that may be an island. He tries to steer the boat in that direction but finds that the boat is caught on the peak of Mount Nisir. After being stuck there for seven days Utnapishtim releases a dove into the air to see if it can find a place to land. It returns to the boat. Utnapishtim next frees a swallow into the air but it too returns to the boat. Finally, Utnapishtim releases a raven and the bird does not return this time. After that, Utnapishtim released all the birds.

Upon reaching shore, Utnapishtim prepares a sacrifice and offers libations to the gods. The gods descend and gather around the altar. Ishtar tells Utnapishtim that she will never forget the flood and its terrible price. She says that Enlil is forbidden from attending this ceremony. Enlil does appear, however, and upon seeing the boat and Utnapishtim becomes enraged, demanding to know how one man was able to survive. Ninurta tells Enlil that Ea has the answer.

Ea reprimands Enlil for inflicting a punishment on all of humanity for what one man may have done to upset him. Ea states that the punishment does not fit the crime. Ea says that he did not tell Utnapishtim of the gods’ plan, but that Utnapishtim guessed it and acted wisely. Ea suggest a reward is in order for Utnapishtim. Enlil then took Utnapishtim and his wife aboard the boat and made them kneel before him. He touches their foreheads and decrees that their mortality has ended and that they are admitted into the company of the gods, to live forever. He tells them they will now journey to the Faraway, a place beyond the world of mortals, where all the rivers originate, and reside there.

Utnapishtim then asks Gilgamesh what he has done that would require the gods to convene and grant him immortality. He challenges Gilgamesh to stay awake for six days and seven nights. Gilgamesh accepts and seats himself, ready to take the test. As soon as he does, an ocean mist comes over him from the shore and he falls asleep. Utnapishtim remarks to his wife that the hero who seeks eternal life now sleeps. She asks him to wake Gilgamesh and tell him to return to his home. Instead, Utnapishtim tells her to bake a loaf of bread each day and lay it next to Gilgamesh for each day that he sleeps, as proof that he has been asleep. She also marks the wall to record each day. Gilgamesh sleeps for seven days and when he awakes finds seven loaves of bread by his head but denies having slept at all. Utnapishtim directs his attention to the loaves of bread. The first is crusty and stale, while the most recent is fresh. Gilgamesh is demoralized again and asks Utnapishtim what he should do.

Utnapishtim tells Urshanabi the boatman that he is now forbidden from this shore. He must never return. Instead, he says, he tells Urshanabi to take Gilgamesh to bathe and dress himself appropriately before accompanying him back to the city of Uruk. As Gilgamesh and Urshanabi begin their journey back, Utnapishtim’s wife implores her husband to give Gilgamesh something to take back with him, considering the long journey he has made to get there. Utnapishtim agrees and tells Gilgamesh of a magic plant called How-the-Old-Man-Once-Again-Becomes-A-Young-Man that will restore Gilgamesh to his youth. Utnapishtim says this plant can be found at the bottom of the sea.

Gilgamesh ties heavy stones to his feet and descends into the waters. He locates the plant and pulls it out. He cuts the stones from his feet and surfaces with the plant. He tells Urshanabi that he will take the plant to the elders of Uruk and use its rejuvenating powers on them. Then he will partake and once again be strongest and youngest.

The two men begin their journey to Uruk. On their way, they come across a spring and Gilgamesh decides to bathe in its waters. He leaves the magic plant on shore where a serpent comes by and takes the plant, shedding its skin as it does so. When Gilgamesh returns from bathing, he is heartbroken to find that the plant is missing. He cries to Urshanabi that his efforts have been in vain.

Finally, the two men continue and reach Uruk. As they enter the city, Gilgamesh shows Urshanabi the walls of the city and the temple of Ishtar. He shows him the fields and orchards. He speaks with pride of Uruk, the city of Gilgamesh.

Analysis

There is an obvious parallel between Utnapishtim’s story and the account of the flood in the Bible. It should be noted that some scholars also believe that an editor added the flood story, based on the Epic of Atrahasis, to Tablet XI. In both Utnapishtim’s story and the Bible account, a large boat is constructed and filled with all the living beings on earth. In both stories, the boat comes to rest or is caught on a mountain peak. However, God chose Noah because of Noah’s exemplary righteousness. The rest of humanity is punished in the Bible for behaving wickedly. In Utnapishtim’s story, the gods give no reason for the flood. The decision appears to be arbitrary. In some older versions of the story, Enlil complains that humanity is too noisy and prevents him from sleeping. This appears to be a character trait of Enlil as he also decides that Enkidu must be the one to die, also without a concrete reason. Utnapishtim also does not ask the gods why the flood is coming.

Following the flood, all the gods display regret over their actions except for Enlil, who is angry that anyone has survived. He is quickly reprimanded by Ea. Ea’s cleverness is on show in this tablet, as it is he who gives Utnapishtim knowledge of the flood to come and instructs him to build a boat, complete with the dimensions necessary. Ea even provides Utnapishtim with an excuse in case anyone asks why the boat is being built. Linguistic scholars have noted that when Utnapishtim tells the people of Shuruppak that they will enjoy a great harvest of wheat and bread, he uses a pun that almost serves as a clue. The word for “bread” in Akkadian is very similar to the word for “darkness” and the word or “wheat” very similar to the word for “misfortune.”

Utnapishtim’s story illustrates that humanity perseveres. Even if each of us is to meet our own end eventually, the human cycle of life continues indefinitely. Although Enlil is initially upset that Utnapishtim has survived, the other gods are thankful that humanity has not been destroyed. For this, Enlil rewards Utnapishtim and his wife with the gift of immortality. This suggests a relationship between humankind and the gods that was mutually beneficial. Without the devotion of their human subjects, the gods of ancient Mesopotamia seemed to be without power. Some translations of the story state that the gods descend on Utnapishtim’s sacrifice offering not having eaten for days because no offerings had been made to them. The people, in turn, rely on the gods for assistance and protection. Both need the other to survive and prosper.

Gilgamesh now has to understand that death is a necessity, another part of life. Utnapishtim challenges Gilgamesh to stay awake for six days and seven nights (some translations state that he simply says for seven days). This challenge illustrates Utnapishtim’s point poetically. Sleep is similar to death: a prostate body could be a sleeping person or one who is dead. It is metaphorically close to death, but also a necessary part of life. Utnapishtim’s analogy is that one cannot live without sleep, just as one cannot live without death. However, Utnapishtim knows he will need proof to demonstrate that Gilgamesh has failed the test. When Gilgamesh sees the loaves of bread left out for him, he is distraught.

After obtaining the magic plant, Gilgamesh tells Urshanabi that he wants to take it to the elders of Uruk to restore their youth. This signals a change in Gilgamesh. It is the first time he mentions doing something for the benefit of others. While his motives are still selfish, to restore his own youth, he does not mean to keep the plant to himself. He may be able to save others from death and reduce the suffering of others around him.

The serpent that steals the plant as Gilgamesh bathes again conjures up a Biblical allegory, but there is a difference. The serpent in the Bible uses forbidden fruit to tempt Eve, eventually leading to Adam and Eve’s ejection from Eden. The serpent in Gilgamesh’s story steals the plant from Gilgamesh, who now has no choice but to face his fate. Rather than presenting a challenge to Gilgamesh, the serpent’s actions allow Gilgamesh to free himself of his attachment to immortality. His transformation is almost complete. The serpent sheds its skin as it takes the plant, attaining its own youth. This shedding may also reflect Gilgamesh’s need to shed his old ways and become a better king.

Upon returning to Uruk Gilgamesh looks upon the city with new eyes. He sees the city walls and its temples and realizes that it is his home, a testament to humanity, but also to him if he can rule it well. Most translations of the epic mention the temple of Ishtar specifically, suggesting that Gilgamesh has made peace with the goddess after his previous transgressions. It also suggests that the story is emphasizing the importance of women in human society. Two women, Siduri and Utnapishtim’s wife, take pity on Gilgamesh when he is at his lowest and offer their kindness as he tries to come to terms with his predicament. Women give birth to and nurture the young, allowing the all-important cycle of life to renew.