“The Epic of Gilgamesh” is an ancient Mesopotamian poem, often regarded as the earliest surviving great work of literature. It dates back to the Third Dynasty of Ur (circa 2100 BC). Written in cuneiform script on clay tablets, it has been pieced together over the last century and a half from disparate fragments discovered in various parts of the Middle East. Here’s a detailed recounting of the story, followed by some notable parallels to the Bible.
Part 1: The Coming of Enkidu
The epic begins by introducing Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk, who is two-thirds god and one-third man. He’s a powerful ruler but also a tyrant, causing his people to cry out to the gods for relief. The gods respond by creating a wild man named Enkidu who grows up among the animals in the wilderness. A hunter, distraught by Enkidu interfering with his traps, seeks help from Gilgamesh. The king sends a temple prostitute, Shamhat, who seduces Enkidu and teaches him the ways of civilization. After spending several days with Shamhat, the animals shun Enkidu because he has been humanized. Shamhat takes Enkidu to a shepherds’ camp where he learns about human customs, such as eating cooked food and drinking wine. Enkidu learns about Gilgamesh and his tyrannical rule and decides to challenge him. They meet in Uruk and engage in a fierce battle, but Gilgamesh eventually bests Enkidu. Despite their initial clash, they become close friends.
Part 2: The Forest Journey
Gilgamesh proposes an adventure: to journey to the Cedar Forest and slay the monster Humbaba, who is appointed by the god Enlil to guard the forest. Despite warnings from both Enkidu and the city elders, Gilgamesh is determined. The two heroes undertake the journey, reach the Cedar Forest, and confront Humbaba. They manage to defeat him with the assistance of Shamash, the sun god. Humbaba pleads for mercy, but Gilgamesh and Enkidu decapitate him. They cut down many cedar trees, including a massive one intended to make a gate for the temple of Enlil. They then return to Uruk with the spoils.
Part 3: Ishtar and Gilgamesh, and the Death of Enkidu
Ishtar, the goddess of love and war, is smitten by Gilgamesh’s bravery and offers him to be her consort. Gilgamesh spurns her, citing the tragic fates of her previous lovers. In her fury, Ishtar requests her father, Anu, to release the Bull of Heaven to punish Gilgamesh. Anu reluctantly agrees. The Bull of Heaven descends upon Uruk, causing widespread devastation. Gilgamesh and Enkidu manage to kill the Bull, further incensing Ishtar. Enkidu has a dream in which the gods decide that he must die for the slaying of the Bull of Heaven and Humbaba. Enkidu falls ill and suffers intensely for twelve days before finally dying.
Part 4: The Search for Immortality
Gilgamesh is distraught by Enkidu’s death. Fearing his own mortality, he sets out on a quest to gain immortality. His journey takes him to the ends of the Earth, where he meets Utnapishtim, a man who was granted immortality by the gods after surviving a great flood. Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh about the great flood, how he was instructed by the god Ea to build a boat to save his family and all kinds of animals. After the flood, the gods regretted their decision and granted Utnapishtim and his wife immortality. Utnapishtim then tells Gilgamesh that he can attain immortality if he can stay awake for six days and seven nights. However, Gilgamesh falls asleep. When he awakes, he is distraught at his failure. Utnapishtim’s wife urges her husband to offer Gilgamesh another chance at immortality. Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh of a plant at the bottom of the ocean that restores youth. Gilgamesh dives deep and retrieves the plant. But on his way back to Uruk, while he rests, a serpent steals the plant, shedding its skin as it departs, demonstrating the plant’s restorative properties.
Part 5: The Return and Death of Gilgamesh
Realizing he has lost his chance at immortality, Gilgamesh is disheartened. However, he takes solace in the magnificent city of Uruk, which he helped build and govern. The story concludes with Gilgamesh’s death and the mourning of his subjects who remembered him as a great hero and a wise king.
Parallels to the Bible
The Epic of Gilgamesh, despite predating the Bible by centuries, shares some intriguing parallels with it. Most notably, the story of Utnapishtim and the great flood mirrors the biblical account of Noah’s Ark in Genesis. The snake in Gilgamesh that steals the plant of immortality also parallels the serpent in the Garden of Eden story that tempts Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. Scholars continue to explore these connections, which highlight the shared narratives and themes across different ancient cultures.