The Epic of Gilgamesh Summary and Analysis

Tablet XII

Buy Study Guide


A twelfth tablet exists that is not part of the main body of the epic and is not included in some translations and versions. Sin-Leqi-Unnini added the tablet to the poem, but it is unclear why. It does not correspond to the rest of the poem and contradicts some of the events outlined in it.

Gilgamesh drops a drumstick through a hole in the floor of a carpenter’s home and it falls into the Nether World. Enkidu, who is still alive in this tablet, offers to venture down and retrieve it. Gilgamesh warns Enkidu that if he goes to the Nether World he must not do anything to attract the attention of anyone, or the dead will overtake him. Enkidu enters the Nether World but does not heed any of Gilgamesh’s advice, doing exactly the opposite. Ereshkigal, the Queen of the Nether World, seizes him with the Cry of the Dead. Some translations suggest that Ereshkigal exposes her breasts and forces Enkidu to make love to her.

Gilgamesh grieves the loss of Enkidu and approaches Enlil for aid. Enlil refuses and Gilgamesh makes his way to Sin, the moon god for help. Sin ignores his cries for help. Finally, Gilgamesh goes to Ea for help. Ea intercedes and allows Enkidu’s spirit to rise up and escape the Nether World. Gilgamesh inquires about the Nether World. Enkidu tells him that it is terrible and that if he tells Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh will sit down and weep. Gilgamesh implores Enkidu to tell him anyway. Enkidu says that vermin eat at his body. Gilgamesh sits down and weeps.

After a while, Gilgamesh inquires about the fate of different people: the man with no children, the man with one son, the man with six sons, the man who died in battle, and a man who left no one behind to remember him. Enkidu tells him the fate of each, explaining that the man with no sons is miserable, the man with six sons is happy, and that the man who left no one behind eats garbage. No dog would eat what he eats.


As in the main story, Enkidu finds himself in the Nether World by upsetting mystical forces. Instead of angering Ishtar, he pays no attention to Gilgamesh’s warning, and he is taken by the Cry of the Dead. The carpenter’s home and drumstick in the beginning of this tablet do not have a clear interpretation. It is not explained why the heroes are there or what significance the drum takes. The fact that the use of these objects opens a hole into the Nether World suggests that the drum could have been used in a ceremony to speak to the dead as one would in a séance or shamanistic tradition.

Once Enkidu is taken by the Cry of the Dead, it is again Ea that helps him and Gilgamesh. This allows Gilgamesh to learn about the fate of those in the Nether World and imparts the same core lesson to him as the main body of the epic. Enkidu’s tale about those he has seen in the Nether World emphasizes the importance of relationships in the living world. Those who leave a family behind fare far better than those who have no one to remember them. They feed on garbage and are regarded as lower than dogs. Enkidu’s example does not speak of individuals who have attained happiness through great wealth.