By W. T. S. Thackara
The Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the oldest and most moving stories rooted in the ancient wisdom-tradition of mankind. Recited for nearly three millennia, it was virtually lost for another two with the advent of Christianity. Modern generations came to know about Gilgamesh only after the first cuneiform fragments of his story were excavated in 1853 at Nineveh from the library of the last great Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal, who reigned in the 7th century bce. Almost twenty years elapsed, however, before the clay tablets were deciphered by George Smith at the British Museum. On December 3, 1872, he announced to the newly-formed Society of Biblical Archaeology that he had “discovered among the Assyrian tablets . . . an account of the Flood” in one of the story’s later episodes. This stirred up considerable interest and, before long, more fragments of Gilgamesh were unearthed, both at Nineveh and in the ruins of other ancient cities.
After more than one hundred fifty years of archaeology and patient scholarship, the general consensus is that the 7th-century tablets, written in the Semitic Akkadian language, are a copy of a 12-tablet “Standard Version” dating back to about 1200 bce, composed by a Babylonian priest named Sin-leqi-unninni. This version in turn is a conflation and revision of earlier Babylonian traditions, themselves rooted in a number of Sumerian stories circulating centuries earlier in the third millennium. Since neither the Sumerians nor Babylonians wrote history in the modern sense, exact dating is difficult, nor do we know with certainty when and where the epic version actually originated. However, like the Jewish Talmuds, the Babylonian versions may well represent attempts to preserve, integrate, and expand upon oral Sumerian traditions that were in danger of being lost as its culture and language were dying out.
Gilgamesh Tablet XI fragment (British Museum)
From the Sumerian King List and other sources, we do know there was an historical Gilgamesh — in Sumerian spelled Bilgames, conjectured to mean “the (divine) old one is youthful”: a name likely given at an initiation or coronation rite, symbolic of spiritual rebirth and divine kingship.* He is believed to have reigned sometime between 3000 and 2500 bce in the city-state of Uruk near the Euphrates in what is now southern Iraq. According to the Babylonian epic, Gilgamesh himself inscribed his story on a stone tablet. It had widespread and long-lasting appeal, for versions have been found all over the Mesopotamian region, as far north in Asia Minor as the Hittite capital of Hattusha (Bogazkoy) and west to Megiddo in ancient Palestine. This is fortunate because modern translations of Gilgamesh have literally been pieced together from widely-scattered fragments. About two-thirds of the Standard Version have been recovered in addition to texts in Sumerian, Old Babylonian, Hittite, and other languages or dialects.
*Similar in concept is the name of Chinese sage Lao-Tzu (Laozi), interpreted as both “Old Master” and “Old Boy,” probably derived from his legendary birth as an old man. Variant Sumerian spellings of Bilgamesh also yield meanings such as “the forebear (was) a hero” and “the offspring (is) a hero.”
Nevertheless, while story details often differ, Gilgamesh reflects much of the Sumerian world view as well as that of the Babylonians and Assyrians, who first conquered the Sumerians and then assimilated their culture. Like all epics, Gilgamesh contains both historical and mythic elements in all its versions, and thus is meant to be interpreted at several levels. In addition to its very human themes of friendship, courage, the problem of death, and the meaning of life, it is also an initiatory tale about the quest for enlightenment, the revelation of divine mysteries, the duality of man, and the evolutionary unfoldment of his spiritual nature. Implicit in the narrative are the cosmology and other metaphysical doctrines of the ancient sanctuaries. Even the physical composition of the Babylonian recension discloses an intentional number symbolism: 12 tablets, each containing roughly 300 lines divided into 6 columns. More importantly, Gilgamesh is meant to be read as an extended metaphor, a spiritual biography as much about ourselves as about the Sumerian hero-king. Calling across nearly 5,000 years, it is a potent reminder of the timelessness and relevance of the ancient spiritual path.
Gilgamesh is a human story and it begins with his beginnings, not with the story of cosmic genesis, which nevertheless underpins the tale. Although no Sumerian theogony or creation account has yet been found, one has been provisionally reconstructed.* Briefly, the gods and goddesses unfold from the nameless divine mystery as follows: in the beginning there was An (Babylonian Anu), first-born of the primeval sea, i.e., the “waters” of Space. He is forefather of the gods and ruler of the heaven beyond the heavens. Like the Greek Ouranos he was united to Earth (Ki) and begot Enlil, Lord of Air, the breath and word and “spirit of the heart of Anu.” Enlil begot the Moon, Nanna (Babylonian Sin), and Nanna in turn begot two of the most important deities in Gilgamesh: Utu (Shamash), the Sun, omniscient god of Justice; and Inanna (Ishtar-Venus), Queen of Heaven, goddess of Love and Strife. Other major characters include Enki (Ea), another “son of Anu,” Lord of Earth and the watery Deep (Apsu), also Lord of Wisdom and a co-creator and benefactor of humanity; and Aruru (“germ-loosener”), sister of Enlil and goddess of creation (“lady of the silence”).
*Interestingly, a principal source is the prologue to the Sumerian story, “Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Netherworld,” part of which comprises Tablet XII of the Babylonian Standard Version.
In ancient Mesopotamian thought, the divine world was intimately linked with humanity, individually through one’s inner god and outwardly through its kings — preeminently Gilgamesh, who “surpassed all rulers.” The Sumerian King List records eight divine kings who had reigned for a period of 241,200 years after “the kingship was lowered from heaven.” Then the Flood swept over the five cities of their rulership. After the Flood the kingship was once again lowered from heaven, first in Kish, then in Uruk where our hero reigned as its fifth sovereign.
The following abridgment and interpretation of Gilgamesh is an introduction to the epic and to the stories embedded within its words, allegories, and narrative structure. As its prologue suggests, we are invited to search its inner content — to “read out” the truths concealed within the myth. Like most modern renderings, what follows is based on the 12-tablet Babylonian recension supplemented by the older traditions. To preserve the atmosphere, the wording follows the terse but richly symbolic texts as closely as possible.*
*Where story details differ, preference is often given to the more poetic Old Babylonian and Sumerian sources. Text in brackets gives conjectured or likely meanings of indecipherable or unknown words .
The present abridgment (revised 2010) is adapted from renderings by Stephanie Dalley, John Gardner and John Maier, Andrew R. George, Alexander Heidel, Maureen G. Kovacs, and N. K. Sandars, to whom I am indebted (see bibliography). Special mention must be given to Andrew George’s encyclopedic 2-volume work, The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic (2003) which provides the Akkadian texts, translation, and extensive commentary.
He Who Saw the Deep
Gilgamesh was the one who saw the Abyss. Surpassing all kings, he scoured the world searching for life. He was wise and knew everything; Gilgamesh, who saw secret things, opened the hidden place(s) and carried back a message from the time before the Flood. He traveled the road, he was weary, worn out with labor, and, returning, engraved the story of his toils on stone. He had built the wall of Uruk and the sacred Eanna temple, the holy storehouse. “Inspect the wall, touch the ancient threshold, draw near to the Eanna, find the cedar tablet-box, release its bronze clasp, open the lid of its secret contents, lift out the lapis tablet and read out the hardships that Gilgamesh underwent.”
When the gods created Gilgamesh, the Great Goddess (Aruru) designed the image of his body; Nudimmud, the “Man-fashioner” (Enki), perfected his form; heavenly Shamash, god of the Sun, endowed him with manliness, while Adad, god of the Storm, granted him courage. Offspring of Lugalbanda and the goddess Ninsun, his strength was perfection, his splendor awesome: eleven cubits his height, nine spans the breadth of his chest. “Two-thirds of him was divine, one-third human” — Gilgamesh is essentially spiritual, but not yet fully divinized.*
*In theosophic terms “two-thirds divine, one-third human” fits well with the higher triad of the sevenfold human constitution: atman (divine essence), buddhi (awakened wisdom), and manas (human mind). By one reckoning, these correspond with (1) Shamash, the Sun as the manifested descendant of Anu, (2) Gilgamesh’s “all wise” goddess-mother Ninsun, and (3) his semi-divine but mortal father, “shining Lugalbanda” (“young king,” posthumously depicted as Gilgamesh’s inner or personal god). His titanic form — later called the “flesh of the gods” — likely refers to his inner spiritual form and stature. See footnote at the end of this section regarding the creation of mankind.
We first meet mighty Gilgamesh as Uruk’s young and unruly king, known chiefly for having built the city’s protective wall. It was made of oven-fired brick resting on foundations laid by the seven antediluvian sages who had taught humanity the arts of civilization. Secured by its seven (or 7-bolted) gates, Uruk is described as triform, comprised of (1) the city proper, (2) the orchards, and (3) the clay pits — corresponding to spirit, soul, and body — and its sacred precinct, the Eanna temple of Anu and Ishtar. Cities of divine kingship, moreover, were conceptualized by the ancient Mesopotamians as earthly reflections of preexisting heavenly models inhabited and ruled by the gods. The cosmos is a polity: As above, so below.
Child and hero of Uruk, Gilgamesh was famous, powerful, taking the forefront as a leader should, still walking in the rear bearing his brothers’ trust. Yet no one could withstand the passionate strength of their young protector. The men of Uruk fumed in their houses: “Gilgamesh leaves no son to his father; his lust leaves no bride to her groom; yet he is the shepherd of the city, strong, handsome, and wise.” The great god Anu heard their lament and called to the mother of creation: “You, Aruru, who created humanity, create now a second image of Gilgamesh: may the image be equal to the impetuosity of his heart. Let the two of them strive with one another, that Uruk may have peace.”
Gilgamesh, 8th Century bce, Palace of Sargon II, Khorsabad
Hearing this, Aruru formed an image of Anu in her heart. She washed her hands, pinched off clay, and threw it into the wilderness. Valiant Enkidu she created, offspring of silence, made strong by warrior god Ninurta. His whole body was thickly covered with hair, his head covered with the long hair of a woman. He knew neither people nor a homeland; he was clothed in the clothing of Sumuqan, the god of cattle and beasts. He ran with the gazelles on the grass; with the wild animals he drank at the waterholes. This was primordial man — “man-as-he-was-in-the-beginning” — representing the earliest human races before mind and self-consciousness were awakened.
One day a stalker, a hunter, met Enkidu face to face at a waterhole. Benumbed with fear, the trapper retreated to his house and spoke to his father about the powerful man in the hills who fills up the pits, tears out the traps, and allows the beasts to slip through his hands. The father counseled his son to go to Gilgamesh in Uruk. “Ask him to give you a temple courtesan (an embodiment of Ishtar), so that the wild man may be subdued by a woman’s power. When next he comes down to drink at the wells he will embrace her, and then the wild beasts will reject him.” And so it came to pass — six days and seven nights, joined with Shamhat. When sated by her charms, Enkidu set his face toward his animals; but they scattered, wheeling away. Enkidu tried to run after them, but his knees failed. He grew weak; he could not run as before, “yet he now had knowledge and wider mind.”
Enkidu turned to Shamhat. She spoke; and as she spoke, he heard (with awareness and understanding): “You have become beautiful, like a god, Enkidu. Let me therefore lead you to the heart of Uruk, to the temple of Anu and Ishtar, where Gilgamesh is.” Enkidu agreed, though he boasted that he would cry out in Uruk that he alone is powerful; that he is the one who changes fates. Shamhat cautioned him that Gilgamesh is the stronger; he is “the joy-woe man, . . . ceaselessly active day and night.”
And so she advised Enkidu to make himself “an enemy to his anger,” to temper his arrogance: “For the god of Justice, Shamash the Sun, loves Gilgamesh; Anu, Enlil, and Enki have widened his mind, so that even before you come from the mountain, Gilgamesh will have seen you in dreams.”
Gilgamesh had two such dreams, first of a shooting star (“a lump of Anu”) which fell on him — so heavy he could not lift nor move it. The land of Uruk encompassed it. The people thronged about it, and Gilgamesh embraced it like a wife. In the second dream Gilgamesh saw an axe fall over the assembly of Uruk, and he hugged it as if it were his wife, too. Puzzled as to their meaning, he went to his mother, the wise goddess Ninsun, who “untied the dreams.” She told him that both the star of heaven and the axe were his companion who was coming. “This companion is powerful, has awesome strength, and is able to save a friend.”
Back in the mountain wilderness, just as Ninsun enlightened Gilgamesh, the courtesan does the same for Enkidu. “When I look at you, you have become like a god. Why do you yearn to run wild again with the beasts in the hills? Get up from the ground, up from the bed of a shepherd.” The advice of the woman came into Enkidu’s heart. Shamhat divided her clothing and covered him, and kept the other part for herself (an allusion to the separation of the sexes). She brought him to a shepherds’ camp, leading him like a god. They gathered about him, and said “how like in build he is to Gilgamesh, tall as a battlement.” There she taught him to eat bread, which he had not known. He drank ale, seven jugs, which made his mind loose and his heart light (intoxicated by material life). He washed his hairy body with water and anointed himself with oil. Enkidu had become a man. He put on a garment and appeared like a warrior (mutu, also meaning “bridegroom”). He seized weapons and fought off wolves and lions. Shepherds could now lie down, for Enkidu would guard them — a man now awake.
Just as Uruk is the earthly reflection of its heavenly archetype, Enkidu, called Gilgamesh’s “equal” or second self, is portrayed here as a reverse image or physical counterpart of Gilgamesh: the human-animal vehicle of spirit, soul, and higher mind (with recurring parallels throughout the story). Enkidu’s name is conventionally translated “lord of the pleasant place,” but also implies a special relation with Enki, Lord of Earth and Wisdom, yielding meanings such as “Enki’s creation” and, more esoterically, “Enki’s knee, loins, etc.”* Note also Enkidu’s transformation and evolution from an asexual, unself-conscious protohuman formed in the image of Anu to hermaphrodite (“joined with the courtesan”), followed by separation, final physicalization, anointing, and the awakening of understanding or self-conscious mind through “love” — in the Platonic sense of eros (cf. Diotima’s speech, Symposium §202-4).
*The spelling of Enkidu’s name in the late Babylonian version, composed at a time when speculative etymologies were in vogue, “uses a sign, gag, with a phonetic value not normal in this period, dù” (George, BGE 1:140, 452). The Sumerian word gag means “bone, hinge, joint, knee; also peg, nail, or spike.” As a metaphor “knee” (and kneeling) figures prominently in the story as in other Mesopotamian literature.
The story resumes with a traveler on his way to Uruk who informs Enkidu of Gilgamesh’s lustful ways: there is to be a wedding and the king will take “first rights” — he goes first, the husband after. Enkidu’s face grew pale with anger and he hastened to the holy city. There the people gathered about him, saying like the shepherds, “He looks just like Gilgamesh — but he is shorter, and stronger of bone. Surely he is the appointed rival!”
In Uruk a bridal bed was made. The bride waited for the bridegroom, but in the night Gilgamesh got up and came to the house. Enkidu blocked the way. He put out his foot and prevented Gilgamesh from entering the house. They grappled, holding each other like bulls. They broke the door posts and the walls shook. Gilgamesh bent his knee and planted his foot in the ground. The fury suddenly died and Enkidu addressed Gilgamesh: “There is not another like you in the world . . . Enlil has given you the kingship, for your head is elevated above all other men.” Enkidu and Gilgamesh embraced and their friendship was sealed.
The language of Gilgamesh, from his prophetic dreams (“I loved Enkidu and embraced him as a wife”) to the bridal bed in Uruk — Enkidu’s in retrospect — clearly refers to a “sacred marriage”: the spiritual union or blending of the inner and outer man. None of the extant material names a victor, but the Old Babylonian story given above suggests that the strife or wrestling of these battling twins is brought to an abrupt end by mutual recognition: Gilgamesh “bent his knee” (to Enkidu’s stature) and “planted his foot in the ground.” Both phrases are apparent wordplays on Enkidu’s name, indicating a successful or “victorious” bonding and assimilation. Enkidu’s subsequent acknowledgment and friendly embrace with Gilgamesh confirm their acceptance of the relationship.*
*Some interpreters have read a sexual liaison into this metaphysical symbolism. Perhaps to clarify its meaning, the story almost immediately depicts their bond as chaste. Jeffrey Tigay comments that “to this day, one can see young Arab men in the near East walking with interlocked fingers without any implication of homosexuality” (Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic, p. 184). In contrast to their earlier romps, both Gilgamesh and Enkidu are subsequently depicted as increasingly ascetic. For further commentary on spiritual “twinship” see “Know Thyself: Man in Evolution,” Sunrise, April/May 2004.
Up to this point the story has been prologue and anthropogenesis — an allegory about the creation and evolution of mankind, and of a fully human individual. From here on the two go as one, faithful to each other until death. In the Sumerian stories Enkidu is almost always the servant or slave of Gilgamesh; in the Old Babylonian version, he is counselor, companion, and friend; and in the Standard Version Gilgamesh’s mother adopts Enkidu, who thus becomes his younger “brother.” Viewed as a single composite character, Gilgamesh-Enkidu thus represents the conjoining of heaven and earth, of spirit, soul(s), and body, in a full sevenfold partnership* necessary for one to succeed in the hero’s quest.
*This is an interpretation based on the text’s symbolism: Gilgamesh is two parts divine, one part human. It follows that Enkidu, as his “reflection,” is one part human, two parts animal; the synthesizing principle which unites them (the text suggests Anu) is the implied seventh — seven being one of the most frequently recurring numbers in the story, and in universal symbolism.
The creation of Enkidu, moreover, has close parallels with the creation of humanity in the Atrahasis Epic in which the grumbling Igigi gods, oppressed by the seven Annunaki, call for help. Enki directs Nintu (Aruru) to mix clay with the flesh and blood of a slain god: the Igigi “rebel” Geshtu-e, “the god who had intelligence,” from whom mankind receives his “ghost” (astral form and mind) so as not to forget their divine origin. From this mixture of heaven and earth, Enki and Nintu create seven human couples to populate the earth with laborers for the gods. (Cf. Tigay, pp. 194-5).
Once Gilgamesh has “fallen” in with his earthly companion, Enkidu, we see a more human side of both. As one the oldest recorded versions of the Fall motif, both of angels and men, the story is perhaps closer to the original wisdom-doctrine than our customary interpretations. Absent is the sense of evil imputed by later theologians. There seems to be instead a beneficent necessity to this mixing of high and low, of spiritual and physical elements — for we must not forget what the wise goddess Ninsun, mother of Gilgamesh, said of Enkidu: “This is a strong companion, able to save a friend.”
Humbaba and the Cedar Forest
As the story resumes, Enkidu bemoans the effects of being citified (i.e., “civilized”). “Friend,” he said to Gilgamesh, “a cry chokes my throat, my arms are slack, and my strength has turned to weakness.” Perhaps wishing to save his friend in turn, Gilgamesh proposes that they journey to the Cedar Forest to conquer its guardian, the ferocious god-giant Humbaba,* cloaked or armored with his seven terrifying auras. Enkidu hesitates; he had known Humbaba in the uplands and feared they would be no equal match: “His roar is the Flood, his mouth is fire, and his breath is death. Why do you wish to do this thing?”
*Huwawa in the Sumerian and Old Babylonian versions.
Gilgamesh’s motives are mixed: besides stirring his friend out of the doldrums, killing Humbaba would drive evil out of the land. But his more immediate interest — prompted by Enkidu’s fear of death — gradually centers on another goal. “Who, my friend, can ascend to the heavens? Only the gods dwell forever in the sunlight with Shamash. As for humans, their days are numbered, their achievements are but a puff of wind.” Even though threatening mortal danger, Humbaba is nevertheless an agent of Enlil, by whose word (or “through the opening of his mouth”) the heavens are entered. Toward the Land of the Living Gilgamesh therefore set his mind, determined to raise a name for himself. Heroic exploits, he believes, will be remembered and confer a kind of immortality. “Let me start work and chop down the cedar! A name that is eternal I will establish forever!”
Like Enkidu, the counselors of Uruk try to dissuade the would-be hero: “Gilgamesh, you are young, your courage carries you too far, you cannot know what this enterprise means. Humbaba’s face is strange; no one can stand against his weapons. Whoever ventures into his forest will be seized by weakness. To keep the cedars safe, Enlil made his destiny to be the terror of the people.” Gilgamesh is undeterred by their advice or by Enkidu’s repeated pleas.
At this point the story reveals a deeper motive which Gilgamesh feels but cannot fully comprehend, for he lacks the maturity and perception to recognize its source. Woven into the Standard Version is a rich thread of astronomical symbolism which here connects Gilgamesh’s journey with the twelve-day New Year festival of the Spring Equinox (Akitu), implying initiatory significance. This is confirmed when his mother Ninsun, sorrowed by his intentions, prays to Shamash (man’s solar and solarizing principle). Why did he give Gilgamesh such a restless heart? “Now you push him to go on a long journey to the place of Humbaba, to face a battle he cannot know about, and travel a road he cannot know. . . . May your consort commend him to the watchmen of the night.” The city elders bless him likewise:
“May Shamash open for you the paths that are shut, may he ready the road for your footsteps! May he ready the mountain for your feet, may each night [he] bring you a thing you will be glad of! May Lugalbanda assist you in your victory; attain your desire like a little child! In Huwawa’s river, for which you are aiming, wash your feet!” (Old Babylonian Version, OB III.259-67, tr. George)
After receiving their counsel and prayers, Gilgamesh and Enkidu set off (with seven warriors and fifty unmarried men in the Sumerian version) on an arduous journey to Enlil’s forest where they seek to destroy its seven-terrored guardian and to fell the Great Cedar. Enkidu leads the way, for he knows the “well-traveled road” to the forest, knows Humbaba’s tricks, and is experienced in battles. He is to protect Gilgamesh and help bring him safely through.
Humbaba, c. 7th century BC, (British Museum)
After twenty beru* they broke bread; after thirty more they pitched camp. Every three days they covered the equivalent of a 45-day march. The exact length of the journey is not known, but is likely to have been six days, a mountain range being crossed each night before arriving at the seventh: the Cedar Mountain.† After each day’s journey they dug a well before the setting sun, then Gilgamesh climbed a mountain to secure a dream, a favorable message from Shamash.
*Beru is an interval which can indicate a unit of (1) distance, commonly about 10.8 kilometers, (2) time, 120 minutes (a “double-hour” or 1⁄12 day) but variable, or (3) arc, usually 30° or 1⁄12 of a circle.
†In the Sumerian poem, six mountain ranges are crossed until the Cedar Tree is found on the seventh. The six days/seven nights formula, moreover, is repeated several times in the Babylonian version.
Five dreams are preserved, at least partially.* In the first, Gilgamesh stood in a deep mountain gorge, and the mountain fell down on him. A bravely optimistic Enkidu attempts to interpret the dream: “Your dream is good. The mountain is Humbaba. Now, surely, we will seize and kill him, and throw his body down on the plain.” In the second, the mountain fell and struck Gilgamesh, taking hold of his feet. Then came a blazing light and in it was someone whose grace and beauty were greater than the beauty of this world. He pulled Gilgamesh out from under the mountain, gave him water to drink. He comforted him and set his feet on the ground.
*The number and sequence here follows George, The Epic of Gilgamesh (1999), pp. 30-5, which incorporates recent discoveries and scholarship.
The third and fourth dreams also seemed propitious. The fifth, however, was both hopeful and foreboding: Gilgamesh took hold of a bull from the wild who raised dust deep into the sky with its bellows. He sank to his knees and, similar to the second dream but more fully explained, was extricated by Shamash and given water by his inner god, the “old man who begot and respects you” — the divine Lugalbanda (note the variant two-part divine, one-part human combination).
As Gilgamesh and Enkidu approached the forest, their trepidation grew. Shamash sent a message from the sky: “Humbaba has removed six of his seven cloaks. Hurry, do not let him hide in the forest thickets.” Humbaba thundered like the god of the storm. Enkidu’s arms became stiff with fear. Gilgamesh reassured him: “Have we not crossed all the mountains? Are you not experienced in combat? Touch [my heart], you will not fear death. Take my hand, let us go on together. Do not let the combat diminish your courage; forget death. One cannot stand alone. When two go together each will shield himself and save his companion.” Arriving at the forest gate they fell silent and came to a halt. They saw the height of the Great Cedar. Where Humbaba walked, a path was made. The road was good. Enkidu acknowledged the encouragement of Gilgamesh with a mirrored wisdom of his own: “A slippery path is not feared by two people who help each other. . . . A three-ply towrope cannot be cut.”*
*First used in the original Sumerian story, this symbol of strength in union was incorporated by the author of Ecclesiastes (4:9-12). Compare also the “sacred triple cord” of the Brahman sannyasin, the Masonic “cable-tow” of brotherhood, and more particularly the Hindu sutratman or “thread-self” — man’s immortal lifeline connecting him with his inner divinity. For an interpretive essay on this universal symbol, see “Saved by a Three-ply Towrope,” Sunrise, April/May 1989.
Much of Tablet V here is undecipherable or missing; but earlier versions relate that Gilgamesh and Enkidu began felling trees, provoking Humbaba to rage. A battle ensued and, with the assistance of Shamash, Humbaba was defeated. He wept and pled for his life, promising Gilgamesh to become his servant, to cut down as much wood as would be necessary for his palace. Gilgamesh would have taken pity but for Enkidu, who was not beguiled by Humbaba’s tricks and deceit. In one version of the Sumerian story, Enkidu compares Humbaba, if he were released, to a “captive warrior given freedom, a captive priestess returned to the cloister, a captive priest returned to his wig [pretentious dress and empty rituals]; he will confuse the mountain road for you.” This overtly hints at what Humbaba (“whose face often changes”) represents, and more subtly foreshadows what lies ahead for Gilgamesh — the “mountain road” — a theme brought to climactic development in the later tablets of the Babylonian version, as will be seen in Part III.
Even though divine consequences will surely follow, Enkidu urged Gilgamesh to lay the axe to Humbaba’s neck. Humbaba uttered an ominous curse against Enkidu: “May he not live the longer of the two.” Enkidu shouted to Gilgamesh to pay these words no heed. “Do not listen to Humbaba!” They cut off his head; trees were felled, including the Great Cedar whose crown scraped the sky. From its timber a door was made — 72 cubits high, 24 cubits wide, 1 cubit thick — for Enlil’s temple in Nippur. Gilgamesh and Enkidu: their names will now be remembered by posterity, and by the gods.
Ishtar and the Bull of Heaven
Returning to Uruk in the flush of victory, Gilgamesh washed his matted hair, cast aside his dirty things, and dressed himself in his royal robes. When he put on his crown, great Ishtar lifted her eyes and beheld his manly beauty. “Be my lover and husband,” she entreated him, offering him wealth, fame, and unrivaled power if he would but pledge himself to her. Gilgamesh was not so easily tempted. What could he, still part mortal, offer in return to the Queen of Heaven? Just what did she need and how well would it actually go with them? “You’re a cooking fire,” he said to her warmly,
. . . that dies in the cold.
A loose door that keeps out neither wind nor storm.
. . .
A battering ram that shatters in the land of the enemy
A shoe that bites the owner’s foot.
What bridegroom of yours endured forever?
What brave warrior of yours ever went up [to the heavens]?
He then recited a litany of lovers Ishtar had wronged, from Dumuzi to Ishullanu, her father’s gardener whom she turned into a dwarf or frog. Ishtar flew up to heaven in a rage and complained bitterly to Anu: “Father, Gilgamesh insulted me!” “Come, now,” said Anu, “did you not provoke him? He merely recounted your bad faith and your curses.” The words fell on deaf ears. Ishtar demanded she be given the Bull of Heaven* to destroy Gilgamesh, or else she would smash the gates of the Netherworld: the dead would rise and devour the living. Anu capitulated and placed the bull’s nose rope in Ishtar’s hands, who promptly drove it down to Uruk.
*The constellation Taurus as a symbol of astrological fate (karma). This episode with Ishtar embeds initiatory themes of baptism and temptation: Gilgamesh washes, casts aside his old “habits,” and dresses himself in royal robes and crown (divine kingship). His purification and renewal immediately attracts Ishtar, who attempts to seduce and destroy him.
The Bull of Heaven likewise indicates a messianic theme. During the 4th and 3rd millennia bce, the sun rose in the neighborhood of Taurus at the spring equinox. That the Sumerian priest-initiates were aware of the sun’s precession through the zodiacal constellations (a cycle of approximately 25,800 years) is suggested by the Sumerian King List. After the Flood, the kingship was lowered from heaven and dwelt in Kish for 24,510 years, when it was moved to Uruk; 2,044 years then elapsed (almost exactly 1⁄12 of 24,510) until the beginning of Gilgamesh’s 126-year reign. In modern theosophical literature a one-twelfth part of the precessional Great Year is called a messianic cycle. Judaism is accordingly linked with the ram (Aries); Christianity with the fish (Pisces).
Like the Hindu avatar Krishna who revealed the “ancient, imperishable secret doctrines which had been lost through long lapse of time” (Bhagavad-Gita 4:1-3), Gilgamesh revealed divine wisdom lost in the Flood. After his death, Gilgamesh — who “surpassed all other kings” — is divinized as Lord of the Netherworld and linked with the “annually” dying and rising god Dumuzi; also with the Sun-god Shamash, alongside whom he judges the dead.
When the Bull landed on earth, it snorted so powerfully a hole opened up swallowing one hundred men. A second snort — two hundred men swallowed up. A third snort and a hole opened before Enkidu, who then seized the bull by its thick tail, crying out to Gilgamesh, “Friend, we have made ourselves a great name. How shall we overthrow him?” Like a matador, mighty Gilgamesh thrust his knife in one swift blow to its neck, just behind the horns. Crashing down, the bull heaved a mighty sigh. Gilgamesh and Enkidu tore out its heart and set it before Shamash.
Ishtar cursed Gilgamesh; he had slandered her and conquered the Bull of Heaven. When Enkidu heard her curses, he tore out the bull’s thigh and threw it in her face. Ishtar propped up the thigh and, together with her temple courtesans, set up a great lamentation. Meanwhile Gilgamesh claimed the horns, the symbol of mastery and wisdom, and hung them in the bedroom of his rulership. Gilgamesh and Enkidu washed their hands in the Euphrates; they embraced, and rode triumphantly through the streets of Uruk. Gilgamesh, the finest of men; [Enkidu?,] the boldest among fellows.
Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Cylinder seal from Ur, 3rd millennium bce, height 1-1/2 inches.
Thus ends the sixth tablet, the midpoint of the twelve-tablet story and an important junction marking the transition from the temptations and trials of this world to the greater mysteries of death and rebirth.
The main themes of Humbaba, the Cedar Forest, and the Bull of Heaven were skillfully synthesized in the later Greek story of Theseus and the Minotaur, an allegory about the conquest and mastery of one’s animal nature in the labyrinthian “forest” of incarnated life. To prevent the periodic sacrifice of seven youths and seven maidens (representing the bipolar principles of our sevenfold nature), Theseus entered the winding underworld darkness which leads inevitably to the hungry minotaur who would devour him (note the winding features of Humbaba’s mask, the “fortress of the intestines,” representing our insatiable appetitive nature). His release from the Labyrinth was ensured by a clew of thread, symbol of divine wisdom and guidance, supplied by King Minos’ daughter, Ariadne, whom he subsequently married. King (spirit), daughter (wisdom), hero (human soul): saved by yet another version of the “three-ply towrope.”
The Death of Enkidu
Tablet VII begins with Enkidu speaking to Gilgamesh the next morning. A Hittite paraphrase supplies 26 missing lines: “Hear the dream I had last night. The great gods were in council and Anu said to Enlil, ‘Because they have slain the Bull of Heaven, and Humbaba, too, for that reason one of them must die. The one who stripped the mountain of its cedars must die.’ But Enlil said, ‘Enkidu must die; Gilgamesh shall not die.’ Shamash rejoined that it was by Enlil’s command that the Bull and Humbaba were killed. ‘So why should innocent Enkidu die?’ ‘Because,’ said Enlil, ‘you, Shamash, went down to them daily.’ ” Having recounted the dream, Enkidu then lay down sick before Gilgamesh.
“Oh my brother, my dear brother!” he cried, tears streaming. “From my brother they take me. I shall sit among the dead. Must I never again see my brother with my eyes?”*
*The text of this poignant lament follows R. Stefanini’s reading of the Hittite fragments. J. Friedrich and others have attributed it, with variant wording, to Gilgamesh.
In his fever, Enkidu at first became angry: what ingratitude for the sake of a door! His lips buzzed like flies. He cursed both the trapper who had tricked him, and the temple courtesan who had widened his mind and brought him to Uruk. If it hadn’t been for them, he thought, this undignified way of dying would never have come to pass. Because of them he had been drawn prematurely to his fate, and denied the same attainments of Gilgamesh his friend. Shamash heard Enkidu, and spoke to him from heaven, reminding him of the benefits he had derived from the courtesan and Gilgamesh: had he not enjoyed the food of the gods, the drink of kings, fine clothes, honor, position, and — to be valued above all — Gilgamesh’s beloved friendship? With these words Enkidu’s angry heart grew still. Twelve days he lay dying, at the beginning of which he was beset by a disturbing vision of the Netherworld, its purgative mansions, its denizens, and the judgments read out from the Tablet (of Destinies). As he slowly slipped away, Gilgamesh wept.
“He was the axe at my side, the dagger in my belt, the shield in front of me, my festive garment, my splendid attire. An evil has risen up and robbed me. . . . Now what is this sleep that has taken hold of you. You’ve become dark. You cannot hear me . . . And he — he does not lift his head. I touched his heart, it does not beat.”
Gilgamesh covered his friend’s face like a bride’s. Like an eagle he circled over him. Like a lioness whose whelps are lost he paced back and forth. Gilgamesh tore out rolls of his hair. He threw down his fine clothes like things unclean. Then he issued a call through the land: “Artisans, create an image of my friend! Of lapis lazuli are his eyebrows, his chest of gold . . .”
Gilgamesh wept for Enkidu; he roamed the wilderness. Then a despairing thought entered his mind, stopping him suddenly: “Me — will I too not die like Enkidu? Sorrow has come into my belly. I fear death!” Then from despair to determination, he felt the desire for knowledge swell in his heart: “I will seize the road*; quickly I will go to the house of Utanapishtim, the Faraway One, son of the great king Ubar-tutu. I approach the entrance of the mountain at night. I see lions and am terrified. I lift my head to the moon god. To the [lamp] of the gods my prayers ascend: . . . Preserve me!”
*Allak, literally, the wheel-hub or rim. Interpreted astronomically, the wheel symbolizes the “road” or orbit of the celestial firmament, and is a reference to Gilgamesh’s impending initiatory journey. The underlying motif of the allegories presented thus far concerns a fundamental objective of the Mysteries: before the secret of life may be known, the initiant must shed his lower nature which “entombs” his divine essence — i.e., his physical/Enkidu self must “die” (temporarily), so that his spiritual self may know and be known by the god within. Note here also the discarnate soul’s perspective of its deceased companion and what follows (“like an eagle he soared over him,” etc.): just as its body has died, will it (the soul) die too? For a concise overview of initiatory patterns and symbols of the Mystery tradition, see Grace F. Knoche, The Mystery Schools, Theosophical University Press; online at http://www.theosociety.org.
Searching for Utanapishtim
Grieving for his lost companion Enkidu, Gilgamesh seized the road in search of knowledge. He entered the wilderness, crossed uncrossable mountains, and traveled the seas — all without sleep to calm his face. He battled wild beasts, covered himself with their skins, and ate their flesh. Shamash, god of the Sun, grew worried and bent down to Gilgamesh: “Where are you wandering? The life that you seek you will never find.” Gilgamesh answered, “When I enter the netherworld, will rest be scarce? . . . Let my eyes see the sun and be saturated with light! When may the dead see the rays of the sun?”
He arrived at length at Mount Mashu which guards the coming and going of Shamash. Its twin peaks reached the vault of Heaven, its feet touched the Netherworld below. Guarding its gate were the two Scorpion-people, whose terror is awesome and whose glance is death. When they saw Gilgamesh approach, the Scorpion-man called to his woman: “The one who comes to us, his body is the flesh of the gods.” The woman said, “(Only) two-thirds of him is god, one-third is human.” The Scorpion-man then called to Gilgamesh: “Why have you undertaken this long journey, whose crossings are perilous?”
Shamash (the Sun) between Mashu’s Twin Peaks, Akkadian, 3rd millennium bce (British Museum).
Gilgamesh replied, “I have come to seek Utanapishtim* my forefather, who stands in the assembly of the gods and has found eternal life. Death and life I wish to know.”
*Also spelled Utnapishtim and Uta-napishti, Babylonian for “He has found life”; in Sumerian literature he is known as Ziusudra (“Life of long days”) and called “Preserver of the Seed of Mankind.” The Babylonian priest Berossus (3rd century bce) transcribed his name into Greek as Xisuthros or Sisithros.
“Never has a mortal man done that,” said the Scorpion-man. “No one has traveled the remote path of the mountain, for it takes twelve double-hours* to reach its center; thick is its darkness and there is no light.” Gilgamesh was not dissuaded and convinced them that the gate be opened. The Scorpion-man spoke to King Gilgamesh, flesh of the gods: “Go safely, then; for you the gate is open.”
*Beru, “variable interval” — in this context, of time.
Gilgamesh entered the mountain; he took the Road of the Sun, the night road followed by Shamash (the “hidden road of the sunrise” in the Old Babylonian version). When he had gone one double-hour, thick was the darkness; there was no light, he could see neither behind him nor ahead of him. Even after seven double-hours, there was darkness still. At eight double-hours, he was hurrying. At nine, the north wind bit into his face. Ten, “the [rising] was near.” Eleven, he came out before the sunrise. At twelve double-hours there was brilliance. Before him was a garden planted with trees of the gods, fruited with carnelians, lapis lazuli, and other radiant gems — a delight to behold.*
*See Plato, Phaedo §110ff and Revelation 21:10-22:5 for similar descriptions of the “true” or heavenly earth.
Shiduri and Urshanabi
As Gilgamesh walked about, she raised her eyes and saw him — Shiduri, the tavern-keeper, who dwells at the edge of the sea and gives refreshing drink to the spiritually thirsty. Because of his wild appearance and aggressiveness, she barred her gate. From her roof she called out: “Let me learn of your journey.” He told her of his adventures with Enkidu, their friendship, and Enkidu’s death. Six days and seven nights he had wept for his friend, who had turned to clay. He feared death. Shall he also lie down, never to rise again? Now he searched for Utanapishtim to learn the secret of life. But Shiduri — like those before her — tried to dissuade Gilgamesh from continuing on, reminding him that when the gods created mankind, they allotted death to it, retaining life in their own keeping.
“Be therefore happy with the pleasures given to man,” she said. “Let your belly be full. Make every day a day of rejoicing. Dance and play every night. Let your raiment be clean. Let your wife rejoice in your breast, and cherish the little one holding your hand” (Old Babylonian, Sippar iii.1-14).
Again Gilgamesh would not be deterred. He had traveled a long, wearying journey in search of knowledge. What, he asked, is the way on from there? Shiduri said that never had there been a crossing of the sea; none went but Shamash. Painful is the crossing, troublesome the road, and the Waters of Death block its passage. But there at the shore, she pointed out, lives Urshanabi,* ferryman to Utanapishtim. “With him are the Stone Things as he strips a young cedar in the forest. If it is possible, cross with him, or else retrace your steps.”
*Urshanabi’s name implies a number symbolism, for it means “Priest (or Servant) of 2/3rds.” He is the son-in-law of Enki (numerical value 40, 2/3rds of Anu’s 60). The name accordingly denotes his role as priest/servant to Gilgamesh, who is 2/3rds divine.
For reasons unexplained (the tablets are fragmented), Gilgamesh raised his weapons and attacked the Stone Things, smashing them in his fury. Urshanabi had tried to prevent this, but Gilgamesh seized him. Urshanabi looked him in the eye, asked his name, and questioned why he looked so terrible. Gilgamesh repeated his woeful tale, then in turn demanded to know the road to Utanapishtim, the Faraway One. Urshanabi explained that Gilgamesh’s own hands prevented his crossing, for he had smashed the Stone Things and dropped them in the river. “The Stone Things enable my crossing, for I must not touch the Waters of Death.” Despite much speculation, the Stone Things remain a mystery. The tablets add here that they “would seal[?] the boat, who did not fear[?] the Waters of Death” (George, 2003). The Hittite version offers an additional clue by having Urshanabi call them “those two stone images which always carried me across.”
Nevertheless, Urshanabi wished to help, and sent Gilgamesh to the forest to cut punting poles (300 in the Old Babylonian version, each 60 cubits in length). The 45-day voyage to the Waters of Death was completed in three. Once there, the poles were used to punt the boat so that Gilgamesh, too, would not touch the lethal waters. When the last pole was gone, they hung their clothing from Gilgamesh’s outstretched arms to sail the remaining distance. As they approached the shore, Utanapishtim saw that the Stone Things were smashed and that a stranger was on board. He asked Gilgamesh why he looked so wasted and desolate, and Gilgamesh once again recounted his tale of grief and weariness.
Instead of offering comforting words, the Faraway One jolted him by going straight to the point. “Why do you [chase] sorrow, Gilgamesh, you who have been made of the flesh of the gods and man? . . . No one can see the face or hear the voice of Death. Do we build a house forever? Do we seal a contract for all time? Do brothers divide their inheritance forever? Does hostility last forever between enemies? Does the river always rise higher, bringing on floods? The dragonfly floating on the water, gazing upon the face of the Sun — suddenly, all is emptiness! The sleeping[?] and the dead, how alike they are! An image of Death cannot be depicted, even though man is [imprisoned by it]. The great gods established Death and Life, but the days of death they do not disclose.”
“But you, Utanapishtim,” said Gilgamesh, “your features are no different than mine. I am like you. How is it that you stand in the assembly of the gods and have obtained eternal life?”
Utanapishtim replied: “I will tell you a secret of the gods, Gilgamesh, I will reveal to you a mystery. Shortly after the Flood had been decreed for mankind by the great gods, Enki — without breaking oath — advised me to tear down my house and build a boat, to abandon possessions and save life. Into the vessel was to go the seed of all living creatures.”*
*A similar story is found in ancient India, where Vishnu tells Vaivasvata Manu: “Seven rain clouds will bring destruction. The turbulent oceans will merge together into a single sea. They will turn the entire triple world into one vast sheet of water. Then you must take the seeds of life from everywhere and load them into the boat of the Vedas.” (Matsya Purana 2.8-10).
Enki gave Utanapishtim instruction on the boat’s dimensions and construction. It was to measure 10 rods (120 cubits) on a side, six decks dividing it into seven levels, all measured to a height of 10 rods, with nine compartments inside. On the sixth(?) day it was completed. The boat was launched with difficulty, until two-thirds was submerged. Then after everything had been loaded in, including all the craftsmen, the deluge came. Raging storms reached to the heavens, turning all that was light into darkness. As in a battle no man could see his fellow. Even the gods, terror-stricken by the tempest, fled to the heaven of Anu, cowering like dogs. Ishtar cried out like a woman in travail; Belet-ili (Aruru) lamented that the olden time had turned to clay, because she had spoken evil in the assembly of the gods.
Six days and seven nights the winds blew. At sunrise on the seventh day they subsided and the storm ceased. Utanapishtim opened a vent and light fell on his face. Water was everywhere. All was silence. All mankind had turned to clay. On the submerged peak of Mt. Nimush the ship ran aground. After another seven days, he sent a dove forth, but it found no perch. He sent out a swallow; it returned too. Then a raven, and this one saw the waters receding. Utanapishtim went forth from the boat; he offered a sacrifice to the four directions; he strewed incense on the peak (ziggurat) and poured a libation — seven goblets and seven — to attract the gods. But Enlil was furious: all mankind was to have been destroyed. Who had revealed the secret? Enki reproved Enlil for causing the Flood, then explained how in a vision given to Utanapishtim the secret had been discovered. His fate must be decided by Enlil, who then declared that Utanapishtim and his wife shall become like gods. The gods took them to the faraway land, to dwell at the Mouth of Rivers — sacred rivers symbolic of the continuous stream of divine wisdom flowing into human life.
The Flood story, adapted from the independently-composed Atrahasis Epic,* was evidently inserted into the Babylonian Standard Version as an expansion of Utanapishtim’s lessons about the impermanence and periodicity of manifested existence. Furthermore, not only does it explain Utanapishtim’s role as forefather, protector, and preserver, it tacitly asserts the possibility of man’s immortality, forming a natural bridge to the next sequence of events.
*Atrahasis, “Surpassingly wise,” is an epithet of Utanapishtim as the survivor of the Flood. For a comparison of the Sumerian, Babylonian, and Hebrew accounts of the Flood, see Heidel, The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels, pp. 102-19, 224-69.
Utanapishtim asked Gilgamesh, “Who will convene the gods, so that you may find the life you are seeking? Come, you must not sleep for six days and seven nights.” Try as he would, Gilgamesh could not withstand the onslaught of sleep and almost immediately succumbed to it. He was awakened by Utanapishtim on the seventh day, only to learn that he had failed in his objective. Gilgamesh had achieved much, but conscious immortality was beyond his capacity to sustain; for there were life-lessons still to be mastered. “What can I do, where can I go? A thief has stolen my flesh. Death lives in the house where my bed is; wherever I set my feet, Death is.” Return to Uruk he must, to “suffer” again the “death,” and rebirth, of imbodied life.
That Gilgamesh’s journey is an allegory from the Mysteries may be seen more clearly in light of the following excerpt, written over a millennium later by Plutarch (as quoted by Themistius):
If the belief in immortality is of remote antiquity, how can the dread of death be the oldest of all fears? . . .
. . . [When the soul dies] it has an experience like that of men who are undergoing initiation into great mysteries; and so the verbs teleutan (die) and teleisthai (be initiated), and the actions they denote, have a similarity. In the beginning there is straying and wandering, the weariness of running this way and that, and nervous journeys through darkness that reach no goal, and then immediately before the consummation every possible terror, shivering and trembling and sweating and amazement. But after this a marvelous light meets the wanderer, and open country and meadow lands welcome him; and in that place there are voices and dancing and the solemn majesty of sacred music and holy visions. And amidst these, he walks at large in new freedom, now perfect and fully initiated, celebrating the sacred rites, a garland upon his head, and converses with pure and holy men; . . . — “De Anima,” Moralia xv.177-8 (Loeb)
Though not yet “perfected,” Gilgamesh had nevertheless earned the garland of a lesser degree, for the text here alludes again to the basic initiatory themes of baptism and rebirth (spiritual and physical). Utanapishtim directs Urshanabi to ferry Gilgamesh to the place of washing, to throw off his old hides and let the sea carry them away, that his fair body may be seen. “Let the band around his head be replaced with a new one. Let him be clad with a royal robe worthy of him. Until he finishes his journey to the city, may his garment not be stained, but may it still be quite new.”
As they punted their boat away, Utanapishtim’s wife reminded her husband that Gilgamesh was weary and needed help to return to Uruk. So Utanapishtim revealed to Gilgamesh another secret of the gods. Under the sea there is a wondrous plant, like a flower with thorns, that will return a man to his youth. Gilgamesh then opened the conduit, tied stones to his feet, plunged into the deep (Apsu), and retrieved the plant. “In Uruk I shall test it on an old man. Its name shall be ‘Old Man Grown Young’ [parallel to Gilgamesh’s Sumerian name]. I will then eat it that I may return to my youth.”
After twenty double-hours they broke off a morsel. After thirty, they stopped for the night. While Gilgamesh bathed in a pool, a serpent smelled the plant’s fragrance. It came up from the water and snatched the plant, sloughing off its skin (renewing itself) as it returned to the water. Seeing that the plant of rejuvenation had disappeared, Gilgamesh sat down and wept. For whom was the blood of his heart spent? “I have not won any good for myself; for the earth-lion I have obtained the boon. . . . Let us withdraw, Urshanabi, and leave the boat on the shore.” Perhaps a glimmer here of realization; the story makes a point about self-forgetfulness still to be learned — and about readiness: that full enlightenment is the work of lifetimes.
Another day’s journey and they arrived at Uruk, whereupon Gilgamesh picked up the thread of his past. “Go up, Urshanabi, onto the wall of Uruk. Inspect the base; view the brickwork. Is not the very core made of oven-fired brick? Did not the seven sages lay down the plan of its foundations? In Uruk, the house of Ishtar, one part is city, one part orchards, and one part clay pits. Three parts and the Ishtar temple [Eanna], Uruk’s wall encloses.” And spirit, soul, and body again make up Gilgamesh who, chastened but wiser from his experience, now resumes his life’s work, symbolized by the guardian wall of Uruk which ever protects our humanity.
Ziggurat in the Eanna Sector at Uruk (Andre Parrot, Sumer)
Thus concludes the eleventh tablet and the main part of the story. Tablet XII is a partial translation of the Sumerian story “Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Netherworld.” Because the episode appears to be out of sequence (Enkidu is alive), many commentators have called it an appendix. While this assessment has merit, the story’s content and placement suggests deliberate symbolic intent: twelve was numerically and philosophically important to the Babylonians as it marked the end of a cycle and the prelude to the next. Consistent with the theme of reimbodiment, Enkidu is once again reunited with Gilgamesh, though he soon descends alone into the Netherworld to retrieve two objects belonging to Gilgamesh which had fallen there. The subject of the underworld (which can also stand as a metaphor for our world) relates directly to Enkidu’s death vision at the beginning of Tablet VII, the exact midpoint of the 12-tablet version. Furthermore, Tablet XII contains only about half the lines of the others and ends abruptly, no text missing, nothing said about the last days of Gilgamesh, story incomplete. A Sumerian-language poem of uncertain origin, “The Death of Gilgamesh,” seems to have been intentionally omitted from the 12-tablet version, possibly because its stress on the permanence of death was philosophically inconsistent with the epic’s more hopeful outlook. The twelfth tablet suggests instead — albeit between the lines — that we have not heard the final chapter, but have reached only another turning point in the cycle of life.
Regardless of the imperfections of texts, translations, and interpretations, the resurrection of Gilgamesh from the rubble of the past is an impressive witness to the timelessness and universality of our spiritual and human heritage. Like Buddhist terma texts intentionally buried for the benefit of later generations, Gilgamesh has been recovered at a propitious time. For whatever progress we may have achieved (or failed to accomplish) in these several millennia since it was first inscribed, his story is a powerful reminder of a single sacred truth about who we are: companions, friends, and brothers all of us, traveling the road of life together on a heroic quest that is — in its essence — one part human, two parts divine.
The following two books by Andrew R. George integrate the more recent discoveries and additions to our knowledge of Gilgamesh:
The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Introduction, Critical Edition, and Cuneiform Texts, 2 vols., Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2003
The Epic of Gilgamesh: A New Translation, Barnes and Noble, New York, 1999. Includes the Sumerian and Old Babylonian texts.
Other helpful translations and/or renderings:
Dalley, Stephanie, Myths from Mesopotamia, Creation, The Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1989
Gardner, John, and John Maier, Gilgamesh: The Version of Sin-leqi-Unninni, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1984
Heidel, Alexander, The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1949
Kovacs, Maureen Gallery, The Epic of Gilgamesh, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1989
Sandars, N. K., The Epic of Gilgamesh, Penguin Books, Baltimore, revised, 1972
Temple, Robert, He Who Saw Everything: A Verse Version of the Epic of Gilgamesh, Rider, London, 1991
Damrosch, David, The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh, Henry Holt and Co., New York, 2006
Fiore, Silvestro, Voices from the Clay: The Development of Assyro-Babylonian Literature, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1965
Jacobsen, Thorkild, The Sumerian King List, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1939
— — , The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1976
Knoche, Grace F., The Mystery Schools, Theosophical University Press, Pasadena, 1999
Kramer, S. N., History Begins at Sumer, Thames & Hudson, London, 1958
— — , Sumerian Mythology, Revised Edition, Harper Torchbooks, New York, 1961
Tigay, Jeffrey H., The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1982; reprint, Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, Wauconda, IL, 2002.
On the Web:
Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature (ETCSL) http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/
From Sunrise magazine, October 1999–February 2000; copyright © 1999 Theosophical University Press. Revised October 2010