Synopsis of Gilgamesh

As I continue to post selections from my version of the Epic of Gilgamesh, readers probably are growing more curious about the story in its entirety. So I’m following a friend’s suggestion and posting my synopsis of the epic; hope this gives a good idea of the plot!

Synopsis 

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Tablet I: Prologue. Gilgamesh is two-thirds god, only one-third human. He built the walls around Uruk, the city he rules, and restored the proper worship of the gods. He is divinely powerful and handsome, and endured great suffering to bring humanity forgotten wisdom: the story of the Flood.

Story starts. Gilgamesh’s sexual energy oppresses his subjects, the people of Uruk. They complain to Anu, Father Sky, and ask him for help. To absorb his divine energy, Anu decrees a companion for Gilgamesh—Enkidu.  Aruru, Mother Earth, fashions Enkidu and places him in the wilderness. Enkidu grows up among wild animals, and protects them by ripping up the nets that trappers lay for the herds. One of these trappers complains to Gilgamesh, who sends a gorgeous woman, Shamhat, to seduce Enkidu and bring him into Uruk. Shamhat accompanies the trapper and seduces Enkidu.

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Tablet II: Shamhat takes Enkidu into a shepherd’s camp to learn the settled way of life. While at the camp, Enkidu is outraged when he learns of Gilgamesh’s duty to sleep with brides on their wedding night. He vows to go to Uruk and stop this practice; when he arrives at the city, he wrestles with Gilgamesh, who barely wins the match against the newcomer. Enkidu acknowledges Gilgamesh’s authority and the two take vows as partners.

Gilgamesh takes Enkidu to meet his mother, the Goddess Ninsun. Ninsun denounces Enkidu, saying that he has treated Shamhat with disrespect and intends to introduce changes in marriage that will harm Uruk. She ends by saying that unless Enkidu changes his views on marriage and women, he must leave the city.

The next day Gilgamesh and Enkidu discuss ways to circumvent Ninsun and remain together. Gilgamesh hits on the idea of undertaking an expedition to the Cedar Forest to cut down the precious trees. To do this they must kill Huwawa, the ferocious monster who guards the forest. Gilgamesh persuades both Enkidu and Uruk’s Assembly of Men that this expedition will bring great wealth into the city and increase the prestige of men, who are still largely subservient to women and the Goddess Inanna. Gilgamesh believes that once the expedition has succeeded, Ninsun will be forced to bless his love for Enkidu.

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Tablet III: Utu, the Sun God and Gilgamesh’s divine father, tells Gilgamesh that he has blessed the Forest Expedition. The Assembly of Men considers this sufficient protection for the adventure, and consents to Gilgamesh’s plan. But Ninsun is distraught; she understands that the expedition will rouse the anger of the Goddess Inanna, with unknown consequences for her son and Uruk. She prays to Utu the Sun to withdraw his blessing and protect their child; but Utu tells her that the expedition is part of Gilgamesh’s fate and can’t be prevented. He ends by saying that Inanna’s authority in Uruk will not be compromised.

Ninsun reluctantly consents to the adventure, and accepting fate, adopts Enkidu as her son, thereby blessing his union with Gilgamesh. She undertakes rituals to ensure Inanna’s support for the adventure. Gilgamesh instructs the Assembly in how to rule in his absence. He and Enkidu leave Uruk.

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Tablet IV: Gilgamesh and Enkidu cross six mountains on their way to the Cedar Forest. At each mountain Gilgamesh has a dream; initially, the dreams warn of disaster, but Enkidu interprets each positively. Gilgamesh is nonetheless on the edge of turning back when the dreams become more favorable. On the seventh day, they reach the Cedar Mountain.

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Tablet V: The heroes climb the Cedar Mountain and marvel at the forest.

Utu breaks their reverie, telling them that they must attack Huwawa immediately; he is not wearing his full complement of radiant armor and is vulnerable. But Huwawa has heard them enter his territory and attacks them, even though he isn’t fully prepared. The monster’s radiant presence temporarily paralyzes and hinders the heroes, but they struggle free and injure him. Huwawa runs deep into the forest.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu follow, and when they find Huwawa, the monster is wearing all of his deadly haloes. This time his magic paralyzes them completely, and he closes in to kill them. Gilgamesh prays to Utu for deliverance, and the Sun God overcomes Huwawa, binding him in an unbreakable net. Huwawa is now at the heroes’ mercy.

Huwawa pleads for his life, acknowledging Gilgamesh and Utu as his masters and pledging to deliver whatever timber that Gilgamesh wants.

Gilgamesh is moved by the monster’s plea, but Enkidu urges the king to kill him, arguing that if they let Huwawa live, he will turn against them and report their successful incursion to Enlil, the patron of the forest and the most powerful of the gods. Enlil will kill them in revenge; he is stronger than Utu. Gilgamesh can’t find a way around this reasoning, and so he kills Huwawa. The heroes cut down many trees, including the Tree of Heaven, and return with their booty to Uruk.

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Tablet VI: The Goddess Inanna comes naked to Gilgamesh, offers to sleep with him, and tells him that she wants him for her husband, which would make him an immortal god. Gilgamesh replies with contempt, refusing her offer and cataloguing the terrible fates of other lovers she has taken.

Inanna replies, telling him that he is scorning his duty as king and thereby jeopardizing the safety of his people. She explains why each of the lovers he catalogued had failed her, and reminds him that men remain indebted to women because they need the civilizing influence that women provide. Gilgamesh rejects her argument, and the offer of immortality, saying that to do so would compromise the prestige of men.

Inanna goes up to heaven and reports Gilgamesh’s behavior to her father, Anu, Father Sky. He sides with Gilgamesh, and tells her that she should accept the king’s decision. Furious, Inanna threatens to let the dead up from the underworld to eat the living unless she can punish Gilgamesh—she asks for the Bull of Heaven (the constellation Taurus) to be let loose against Uruk. Terrified, Anu consents, and Inanna takes the Bull down to Uruk.

The Bull attacks Uruk, devastating the outlying fields and houses. But Gilgamesh and Enkidu attack the Bull, find its weak spot, and slaughter it. They are received in Uruk as heroes and the city feasts Gilgamesh that night, as Inanna and her votaries mourn over the haunch of the slain bull.

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Tablet VII: The night of the feast, Enkidu dreams that the gods have condemned him to death. He tells Gilgamesh that Enlil has condemned him because they killed Huwawa and the Bull of Heaven. Utu defends Enkidu, but loses the argument when Enlil reminds him that they killed Huwawa in spite of his plea for mercy—Utu is the god of justice and mercy and therefore the heroes broke the code of their champion when they refused the monster’s plea. Enkidu’s dream breaks off at this point, but it seems clear that Utu was forced to consent to his death.

Gilgamesh tries to hold out hope that the gods can be persuaded to change their minds, but Enkidu is certain that his death is near. He curses the Cedar Door, Shamhat, and the trapper, the agents he believes responsible for his death, but Utu reminds him that these people helped him. Enkidu then blesses both of them.

The next night Enkidu dreams that the Angel of Death takes him to the Underworld, and there the Queen of the Dead reads out the Writ of Execution, but says that because Enkidu is Gilgamesh’s beloved, he will enjoy a better condition in the underworld than most mortals. Enkidu reports his dream to Gilgamesh in the morning, and that day falls ill. He lingers for several days, but dies horribly. Gilgamesh begins to mourn.

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Tablet VIII:  Gilgamesh makes a powerful lament for Enkidu. He orders a memorial statue of Enkidu to be crafted and begins preparations for the burial: he selects elaborate and expensive funeral gifts for the gods from the city’s treasury and dedicates each of these to its proper deity in the underworld. Gilgamesh orders the construction of a burglar-proof tomb in the bed of the Euphrates River. When the tomb has been built, he places Enkidu in his sarcophagus and lets the river back into its bed.

That night, still devastated by grief and the fear of death, Gilgamesh leaves Uruk to search for Utnapishtim, the only man to win eternal life. He hopes to learn the secret of immortality from him.

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Tablet IX:  Gilgamesh travels to the edge of the world and finds a pass over the Dividing Mountains into the deathless lands. But while crossing the pass he sees a pair of lions playing in moonlight, and in a fit of ravenous hunger, kills and eats them. The Moon God tells him that in punishment, he must travel the difficult path over the mountains, which lies far to the east.

Gilgamesh travels east and meets the scorpion-guardians, gods who watch over the Path of the Sun through the mountains. Seeing his mortal blood, they initially forbid him passage, but he convinces them that he is more god than man, and so they let him pass.

Racing through the passage, he reaches a garden of jeweled fruit at the entrance to the Immortal Lands. Ravenous once more, he eats fruit from the garden, which restores his strength and vigor. On the far side of the garden lies the shore of the Sea of Death; on the shore Gilgamesh discovers a tavern.

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Tablet X:  Gilgamesh reaches the tavern and its keeper, Siduri, the Goddess of the Temple-as-Tavern. Siduri begs Gilgamesh to become her husband, which would confer eternal life and ease. He refuses; he wishes immortality in the mortal lands, so he can rule and protect his city forever (thus rivaling the power of his mother, Queen Ninsun). Siduri is crushed and at first refuses to speak any more with him, but Gilgamesh persuades her to tell him how to cross the Sea of Death: he must win passage on the boat captained by Urshanabi the Ferryman.

Gilgamesh finds the ferry boat with its crew, but Urshanabi is absent, cutting wood for repairs. The crew disgusts him: they are grotesque monsters, men made of jewels and stones in the same way that the trees of the jeweled garden are, but horrible to look on. Gilgamesh kills them just as Urshanabi returns from his errand. The ferryman is furious, and refuses passage over the waters. Gilgamesh threatens to kill him, and Urshanabi says that he will guide him across, but Gilgamesh must do the work that the crew would have done, a terrible labor. They sail across the Sea and reach Utnapishtim.

Gilgamesh pleads with Utnapishtim for eternal life. Utnapishtim says that the gift is not his to give: only the Assembly of Gods can confer immortality. He advises Gilgamesh to return to Uruk, where his skills and experience are needed to restore the city’s proper worship. Utnapishtim then says that he will tell Gilgamesh a secret that explains the wisdom and necessity of death: the Story of the Flood.

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Tablet XI: Part 1, the Flood.  Utnapishtim says that in ancient times the gods decided to destroy mankind because men had become too powerful. The gods were unable to resist the beauty of mortal women, and so fathered many half-gods on them, people who were almost divine and demanded to be admitted into heaven. The gods were afraid that these mortals would supplant them. Lead by the Goddess Inanna, who was jealous of the beauty of mortal women, they decreed the Flood. Only Enki, the God of Wisdom, and Utu, the God of Justice, dissented. Enki decided to defy the Assembly and save his own son, Utnapishtim.

Enki told Utnapishtim about the imminent catastrophe and instructed him in how to build a ship to save himself, his family, and all land animals. Utnapishtim built the ark and the Flood came, wiping out all life. But the Gods lost control of the Waters: they were powerful enough to start the catastrophe, but not powerful enough to stop it. Specifically, they called to their aid the demons of the underworld, gods who were banished beneath the earth because they refused to obey the Assembly. In revenge, these demons urged the Waters higher, destroying the courts of heaven and forcing the gods to flee to the farthest walls of the world, where they cowered like dogs.

Only Inanna, in her capacity as Goddess of Battle, had the courage to fight these demons. She fought Ushamgallana, the Nine-Headed Worm, and cut off two of his heads. She shrieked out her Battle Cry, which paralyzed the Worm. She moved in for the kill, but Enlil, the God of Storms, attacked her: he did not want to lose his overlordship of the gods to a woman. Enlil held Inanna down until Ushamgallana recovered and raped the Goddess.

The Gods were then helpless, utterly defeated. They would have been killed, if they had not been immortal. The Demons, knowing that they could inflict no further destruction, moved back to the Underworld, taking the Waters with them.

The retreating waters revealed the peaks of seven mountains; the ark landed on one of them, and Utnapishtim released a series of birds, hoping that they will find land; the third bird, a raven, found land, and Utnapishtim burned incense in thanks to the gods. He opened the ark and releases its inmates.

The gods smelled the incense and came down to feed on the offerings. Enlil, however, was outraged: no man was meant to survive the Flood. Enki explained that he has outwitted him and saved mortal life. Enki then cursed Enlil for allowing the Flood, stripping him of overlordship of the gods, which he took for himself. The God of Wisdom then condemned Inanna, saying that in punishment for her role, the children she will bear as a result of her rape will be doomed to live in the Underworld after death. The new mortals, moreover, will not worship the Goddess as they had before. But Enki also commended her courage in fighting against the Worm and said that in reward eventually her prestige will be restored and mortals will gain wisdom and prolong their lives. Finally, Enki took Utnapishtim and his family to live at the Source of Rivers for eternity.

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Tablet XI: Part 2, Envoi.  After hearing the story, Gilgamesh still wants eternal life, so Utnapishtim challenges him to defeat death by staying awake for seven days. Gilgamesh immediately falls asleep, and Utnapishtim devises a way of proving that he has indeed been asleep. When Gilgamesh awakes, he is forced to accept the evidence that he is unworthy of eternal life. But as consolation Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh how to find an underwater plant that restores youth. Gilgamesh starts his journey home, guided by Urshanabi, and retrieves the Plant of Youth Renewed.

Gilgamesh decides not to eat the plant immediately, however; he wants to test it on someone else before eating it. The next day a snake enters their boat and eats the plant, shedding its skin as a result. Gilgamesh breaks down, sobbing out his sense of total defeat. But Urshanabi consoles him, reminding him of his achievements and that he had brought back the story of the Flood.

The pair reach Uruk and the sight of his city restores Gilgamesh’s spirits. He praises Uruk and its place in the world.

© 2011, Eric Quinn

Images: At top: Gilgamesh Holding a Lion; WikiCmns; Public Domain. Earrings: Parthian earrings found at Nineveh; Nickmard Khoey; WikiCmns; CC 2.0 Generic. Map: Sumer During the Uruk Period; John Croft; WikiCmns; Public Domain; Painting: The Great Flood; Michaelango, Sistine Chapel; WikiCmns; Public Domain.

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  1. October 21, 2011 at 12:48 pm

    much work to compose such an interesting article, compliments!

    • October 28, 2011 at 12:49 am

      Frizz: thanks for your encouragement; the article required quite a bit of work both to draft & to get ready for the blog. Hope all is well with you! RT

  2. April 28, 2013 at 8:42 pm

    Hmm it looks like your site ate my first comment (it was super long)
    so I guess I’ll just sum it up what I had written and say, I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog.
    I too am an aspiring blog writer but I’m still new to everything. Do you have any tips for inexperienced blog writers? I’d
    really appreciate it.

    • April 29, 2013 at 9:07 pm

      ba: thanks for your encouragement! here are two tips that seem to work: 1) post often (at least once a day), 2) always include a graphic w/ your post; and 3) give yourself time to discover your voice and message. RT

  3. October 26, 2013 at 12:28 am

    I love this topic – great work. I will re-post it. I wrote a series of blogs on Gilgamesh as a reaction to my discovery of this first epic tale. Keep up the great work – Sal

    http://salstuff.wordpress.com/2012/11/30/the-story-of-the-story/

  4. sydneymorningberyl
    November 12, 2013 at 7:05 am

    Hello, thanks for checking out my blog. I’m rather new to this and haven’t got my WordPress manners sorted out yet… your blog looks really interesting and absolutely enormous – I hope to have more time to read through in the near future 🙂

  1. March 28, 2013 at 5:49 pm
  2. October 26, 2013 at 12:29 am

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