The Gilgamesh Epic of the Creation was written in ancient times, circa the Great Flood. Both the Eden story and the Flood Story have clear counterparts in the Gilgamesh epic, whose restless hero also has his parallel in Odysseus of the Iliad, even as Gilgamesh fated friendship with Enkidu can be compared between Achilles and Patroclus.
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Gilgamesh’ father, was an earlier King of Uruk; his mother, the goddess Rimat Ninsun, “Lady Wild Cow.” Gilgamesh is two-thirds god and one-third human. He is depicted as being supreme, lordly in appearance, a hero, and like a wild bull. He is a leader-trusted, mighty and the protector of his people.
The dramatic action and dialogue of the Gilgamesh Epic of Creation can be compared to epic writing fro the Babylonian Creation Epic and the Homeric epics which treat human conflicts against a background of divine violence. The introduction of Enkidu into the epic of Gilgamesh was for the purpose of taming Gilgamesh who, conscious of his power, was taking advantage of the people of Uruk. The valiant Enkidu, a human counterpart of Gilgamesh, served as some kind of check-and-balance, so that as a team, both were successful in battle and Uruk would find peace.
Gilgamesh, together with Enkidu were able to subdue their enemies; namely, Humbaba, and the Bull of Heaven. After both were slain, Enkidu became ill and died. After his death, Gilgamesh traveled the world over, seeking eternal life. Utanapishkin the faraway, gave him the answer – a plant like boxthorn. If his hands reached for it and pricked himself with its thorn, Gilgamesh would become young again and return to his homeland with honor.
Before Gilgamesh could avail of the plant, a snake carried it off and our hero wept, realizing that he was unworthy of immortality until he accomplished good deeds for others. The story of Gilgamesh continued to live on in oral tradition and his awesome adventures remind us of Sindbad the Sailor in A Thousand and One Nights.
Friendship – A Positive Influence on the Life of a God-Man
The Gilgamesh Epic was first recorded a thousand years before the Hebrews or the Greeks learned how to write. The story of Gilgamesh circulated through Asia Minor and the Near East during the centuries in which the epics of Homer and the legends of the Genesis were developed. The Flood story and the Eden story have clear parallels in Gilgamesh whose restless hero can be compared to Ulysses even as his fated friendship with Enkidu can be related to that of Achilles and Patroclus. The story of Gilgamesh continued to live on in oral tradition in his own region and his adventures are echoed in The Thousand and One Nights as Sindbad the Sailor.
In this long poem about Gilgamesh, the hero is described as being:
“Supreme over other kings, lordly in appearance,
he is the hero, born of Uruk, the goring wild bull,
He walks out in front, the leader,
And walks at the rear, trusted by his companions
Mighty net, protector of his people,
Raging flood-wave who destroys even walls of stone.”
(The Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet I)
Gilgamesh is said to be the son of Lugalbanda, an earlier king of Uruk and of the august cow, Rimat-Ninsun. The story goes on to narrate his various exploits; namely, that he opened mountain passes, dug wells on the flank of the mountain, crossed the ocean to the rising sun and who restored the sanctuaries that the Flood had destroyed.
As to his person- two thirds of him is god, one-third, human. The Great Goddess designed the model for his body and made him kingly. He is beautiful, handsomest of men. Like a wild bull, he makes himself mighty, head raised above others. There is no rival who can raise his weapon against him. His fellows stand at the alert, attentive to his orders. However, since he was the most powerful among his people, he took advantage of them and the men of Uruk became anxious:
“Gilgamesh does not leave a son to his father;
Is Gilgamesh the shepherd of Uruk-Haven….
Bold, eminent, knowing, wise?
Gilgamesh does not leave a girl to her betrothed!
The daughter of the warrior, the bride of the young man”
(The Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet I)
The gods kept bearing their complaints, so they implored Anu, the Lord of Uruk to act. Aru listened to their complaints and called out to Aruru that since it was she who create Gilgamesh, she was to create his counterpart, equal to his stormy heart – a match to each other so Uruk might find peace.
Aruru created within herself the counterpart of Anu. She washed her hands, pinched off some clay and threw it into the wilderness where she created Enkidu who is described in detail thus:
“…born of Silence, endowed with strength by Ninwita.
His whole body was shaggy with hair,
He had a full head of hair like a woman,
His locks billowed in profusion like Ashnan,
He knew neither people nor settled living
But wore a garment like Sumukan,
He ate grasses like the gazelles,
And jostled at the watering hole with the animals,
As with animals, his thirst was slaved with water.”
(The Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet I)
Gilgamesh and Enkidu both had strange dreams. Rimt Ninsun interpreted his dream to him; while Shamhat, the harlot did the same for Enkidu.
The dreams of both pre-ordained that Gilgamesh would soon meet Enkidu who would become for him a friend and adviser. The harlot taught Enkidu the ways of humans such as eating bread for food and drinking beer. He learned to bathe (splash his body with water) and to rub his body with oil. He did all these and turned into a human. Shamhat then brought him to the hut of the shepherds. They gathered bout him and marveled how the youth resembled Gilgamesh and was as strong.
The shepherds plied him with food and drink, but instead of eating and drinking, he scattered the wolves and chased away the lions. His new friends the herders could now lie down in peace for Enkidu was their watchman. Among the shepherds, Enkidu learned of a vicious practice of Gilgamesh from a man invited to a wedding. Gilgamesh would have intercourse with the “destined wife”, he first, the husband afterward.
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Hearing this, Enkidu’s face flushed with anger. He and Shamhat went to the marital chamber and blocked its chamber and would not allow Gilgamesh to be brought in. They grappled and attacked each other. As Gilgamesh bent his knees, with his other foot on the gorund, his anger abated nd he turned his chest away. Apparently, Enkidu chided him for his unseemly behavior, unbefitting that of a king, for they later kissed each other and became friends. Gilgamesh now had a friend in Enkidu to remind him to behave like the king he was, and not like an animal. Even before the two met, Enkidu has already started to aid Gilgamesh in fulfilling his duty of being a protector of his people by driving away the wolves and lions so that the shepherds could live in peace.
Enkidu then resolves to go and challenge Gilgamesh to cut down the Cedar tree at the edge of the Cedar Forest far away. In order to protect the Cedar Forest Enlil, the Great Counselor assigned Humbaba as a terror to human beings. Gilgamesh was warned that Humbaba’s roar was a flood; his mouth was fire and his breath was death. He could ear 100 leagues away any rustling in his forest and whoever went down into his forest would be struck by paralysis.
Enkidu expresses sorrow at the decrease of his strength once he has left the wilderness, but in doing so, he bolsters the courage of both Gilgamesh who resolves to take up the challenge, saying: “I will go in front of you and your mouth will call out: Go closer, do not be afraid!/ Should I fall, I will have established my fame/ … you were born and raised in the wilderness,/ a lion leaped up on you, so you have experienced it all.” Hand in hand, they went over to the forge and discussed the weapons they needed with the craftsmen.
The two set out for the Cedar Forest and walked for a month and a half. In all that time, the two shared companionship, dangers and whatever work the journey entailed. At night Enkidu prepared a sleeping place for Gilgamesh and covered him (a violent wind passed through so he attached a coverig)
Both men were up against odds in Humbaba. He had seven coats of armor and his face kept changing. In the end Gilgamesh and Enkidu vanquished Humbaba.
The two allies were then able to chop down the towering Cedar Tree to make into a door 72 cubits high and 24 cubits wide.
Another enemy of Gilgamesh was the Princess Ishtar who wished to make him her husband, but he turned her down for she had had many lovers and she ruined their lives. When Gilgamesh rejects the goddess, he is standing up for humanity and decency; other wise he would be making a mistake of his own life and that of Enkidu. In her desperation, Ishtar called out to her father to release the Bull of Heaven to destroy Gilgamesh. When the Bull was set free, it caused the death of many young men of Uruk. Gilgamesh aided by Enkidu killed the Bull of Heaven. Enkidu subsequently fell ill and finally died.
Before Enkidu passed away, Gilgamesh honored him, saying,
“May the elders of the broad city of Uruk-Haven mourn you
May the peoples who gave their blessing after us mourn you.
May the men of the mountains and hills mourn you.
May the men of Uruk Haven whom we saw in our battle when we killed the Bull of Heaven mourn you
May the farmer who extols your name in his sweat work, mourn you
May the people of the broad city, who exalted your name, mourn you
Hear me, O Elders of Uruk, hear me, o men!
I mourn for Enkidu, my friend…”
(The Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet 8)
When Gilgamesh realized that his friend was already gone, he sheared off his curls and heaped them on the ground. He ripped off his finery, casting it away as an abomination and issued a call to the land – to the gem carver to fashion statue of Enkidu whom he loved as a brother.
After Enkidu’s death, Gilgamesh traveled the world over, seeking eternal life. Utanapishkin, the faraway provided the answer – a plant like boxthorn to prick Gilgamesh. If his hands reached the plant, he would become young again and return to his homeland with honor. Unfortunately, a snake carried it off. Gilgamesh wept, realizing that he was unworthy of immortality until he accomplished more good deeds for others.
At this point, it would be understandable and easy to say that the story ends on a note of despair, in keeping with the theme – the fragility of human life. However, this would only detract from the significance of the tale itself which is all about the power and greatness of brotherly love. Enkidu was created primarily to aid Gilgamesh to achieve greatness.
After all the experience he gained with Enkidu, Gilgamesh was better prepared to fight more battles for people, especially his own. He had already won their loyalty and respect, thanks to Enkidu. There would still be enough time to do good deeds before his end came in order to merit eternal life. One should not lose sight of the fact that he was powerful. He was more God than man. Many lesser mortals have accomplished more in their respective lifetimes.
The Gilgamesh story continued to live on in oral tradition and his adventures have echoes in The Thousand and One Nights in such characters as Sindbad. Since the formerly lost epic has been recovered, its haunting images, its moving dialogues, and its engrossing drama make it once again – compelling reading today.
The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Longman Anthology Of World Literature: Volume A – The Ancient World.