Home > 3. My Poetry & Translations, 4. Gilgamesh > Signs & Seals–Another Offering from Gilgamesh

Signs & Seals–Another Offering from Gilgamesh

Here is another piece of Gilgamesh, this time from the opening of tablet III, one of the most intense moments in a story full of intense moments. Gilgamesh shares his decision to go to the Cedar Mountain with his father, the Sun God Utu. In fact, this section is taken not from the Standard Version of the Epic, compiled late in the second millenium B.C., but from the much older Sumerian text–about a thousand years older. What we have here is one of the first expressions of the fear of death. & without further ado, here it is:


i. River


Gilgamesh looked over the city wall,

beheld the shining river in its courses.

A flaw appeared on the glittering surface,

a speck that grew until it was a man,

a corpse that glided by, stiff and bloated,

its eyes like mud, its jaw wrenched wide.


“O Utu,” he said, “I also will fail,

dissolve in the stream of time, drift dead and ruined.

My mind refuses hope; my heart is sick.

Who can distend his legs, touch the sky?

Who can swell up his body, embrace the mountain?

Which one of us can live the life of gods?


“No longer do men endure a thousand years.

Each day, each hour, lament echoes through

the streets: rich and poor, great and humble

alike wail in anguish for those the terrible

angel has fastened on, torn and gutted,

butchered with its bloody beak and claws.


“I cannot accept this vicious punishment.

I must achieve a better fate: at least

to win a place among the exalted dead.

To eat the cake and leaf of eternal tribute,

I will climb the mountain and enter the forest.

I will cut my name in the face of earth and heaven.”


At these words, the Sun stopped in his path,

overcome with remorse, his blood’s rebuke.

How this child of chance hung between the worlds!

The god devised a solution, an end to misery:

a proclamation to secure the reach of men,

silence Heaven’s endless complaint. Utu spoke:


“The son of the Sun has slipped,

fallen from his fearless flight.

Death deepens his dreams!

He stumbles, shames his spirit,

forgetting his god-like flesh—

no doom, no dust, no despair await.


“Men moon about and mistake

their time for a terror and a trap.

Heaven does not harrow the heart—

a mirror and a maze, it motions

all things to tender trust.

Who heeds the host on high?


“Uruk will rise, risk

its glory on your grand gamble.

Bring your brothers a blessing,

a royal right and reasoning.

Go, grapple the god-monster;

bait the brute, batter him!


“And still I see you uncertain,

flush with newfound fortune,

passionless, unexalted in act.

So, to sharpen your spite,

force your fierceness, I offer

an axe, an excellent master.”


As the people watched from the streets below,

the Sun-God leaned down and placed a shining axe

into the mortal king’s up-stretched fingers.

Gilgamesh stood elated, in the weapon’s aura,

and yet dazed, blinded by its flawless light.

The light scattered, and the king came round.


Caressing the axe’s markings, its serpentine edge,

Gilgamesh foresaw a culmination to the journey:

“Father, this blade will cut the Tree of Heaven,

shape and flatter cedar for your temple door!”

“So it will,” Utu replied. “Hear me, all men:

this is my child—his name shall live forever!”


Text and Image: Gilgamesh; Copyright 2012, the Rag Tree.


  1. Sharon Sieben
    May 18, 2012 at 7:26 pm

    food for thought…to say the least. Thanks.

  2. May 19, 2012 at 9:04 pm


    • May 21, 2012 at 5:42 pm

      No doubt on that score. Thx for stopping by! RT

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