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The Epic of Gilgamesh

The Epic of Gilgamesh Summary


Here you will find a The Epic of Gilgamesh summary (Anonymous's book).
We begin with a summary of the entire book, and then you can read each individual chapter's summary by visiting the links on the "Chapters" section.

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Last Updated: Monday 1 Jan, 2024

The Epic of Gilgamesh Summary Overview

The tale begins with the introduction of Gilgamesh, the ruler of Uruk, a demigod of incredible beauty, strength and intellect. Despite his divine attributes, he starts his reign as a tyrant, exploiting his subjects with forced labor for his grand architectural feats, and abusing his power over women. The cries of his people reach the gods, who create the wild man Enkidu, a reflection of Gilgamesh's might, to challenge him. Enkidu, having been civilized by a temple prostitute, hears of Gilgamesh's tyranny and confronts him. Their fight ends with Gilgamesh as victor, and the two form a strong friendship, embarking on quests together. Their first adventure involves stealing trees from a forbidden forest guarded by the demon Humbaba, a servant of Enlil, the god of earth, wind, and air. They manage to slay the beast with the aid of the sun god, Shamash. After their triumph, they draw the wrath of the love goddess Ishtar, who Gilgamesh rejects. In retribution, she sends the Bull of Heaven to induce seven years of famine. The friends successfully kill the bull, but at a cost. The gods decree that for their transgression, Enkidu must die, leaving Gilgamesh mourning his friend and grappling with the reality of his own mortality. Stricken with grief and fear of death, Gilgamesh embarks on a journey to find Utnapishtim, a man granted eternal life after surviving a great flood. After overcoming various obstacles, he reaches Utnapishtim who shares his story and challenges Gilgamesh to stay awake for a week to attain immortality. Gilgamesh fails at this task but learns of a plant that restores youth. On his return journey, the plant is stolen by a snake, leaving him to accept his mortality. Though he returns empty-handed, he gains a new perspective, realizing that his city, his legacy, is a form of immortality within itself.

tablet 1

Gilgamesh, the protagonist, is a hero born of Lady Wildcow Ninsun, a minor goddess, and Lugulbanda. He constructs the grand city of Uruk with impressive outer and inner walls and beautiful temples dedicated to Anu and his daughter Ishtar. He also establishes orchards, ponds, and irrigated fields. As a fearless adventurer, Gilgamesh explores beyond the Earth, meeting Utnapishtim, the sole survivor of a catastrophic flood. He documents his experiences on a lapis lazuli tablet kept in a copper chest. However, Gilgamesh is also a tyrant. He randomly kills warriors, abuses his nobles' wives, and oppresses his subjects. The elders of Uruk protest his actions, stating a king should protect his people, not torment them. The gods respond to their pleas and command Aruru, the creator goddess, to create someone who can oppose Gilgamesh. Aruru forms Enkidu from spit-moistened clay. Enkidu is a wild man who dwells with animals in the wilderness, notable for his hirsuteness. A hunter witnessing Enkidu at a watering hole is terrified and reports back to his father about a giant, powerful man disrupting his hunting. His father advises him to request a temple prostitute from Gilgamesh to subdue Enkidu. Following his father's advice, the hunter brings the prostitute to the wilderness, and they wait by the watering hole. When Enkidu appears, the prostitute seduces him, and they engage in sexual activities for six days and seven nights. Afterward, Enkidu attempts to return to the animals, but they reject him. His strength has diminished, and he now possesses consciousness. Distraught and perplexed, he confides in the prostitute, who tells him about the marvels of Uruk and its formidable king, Gilgamesh. Enkidu is intrigued and yearns to meet and challenge Gilgamesh. The prostitute informs him that Gilgamesh yearns for a friend. Gilgamesh has already dreamt of Enkidu twice. In the first dream, he is drawn to a meteor, and in the second, he finds an admired axe on the street. Both times, he presents these finds to his mother, Ninsun, who interprets them as symbols of the man he will soon meet and befriend. This man will be his closest ally and advisor, possessing the power to save him.

tablet 2

The temple courtesan shares her clothing with Enkidu, marking the first time he's worn clothes. She guides him towards Uruk. On their journey, they pause at a shepherds’ camp where Enkidu's size and strength leave the shepherds in awe. They serve him cooked food and beer, which he initially fails to identify as edibles due to his lack of familiarity. Encouraged by the woman, he eats and drinks heartily, bursting into song. He bathes, anoints himself with oil, and dresses in new clothes. He also protects the shepherds' flock from predators. A man arrives in camp with a fancy platter and declares he's heading to a wedding in Uruk. He shares that King Gilgamesh will bed the bride before her husband. This infuriates Enkidu who decides to challenge the king. The people of Uruk are astonished by Enkidu’s arrival, recognizing his match to Gilgamesh’s splendor. Enkidu blocks Gilgamesh from entering the bride's chamber, initiating an intense fight that rocks the city. Gilgamesh overpowers Enkidu, leading to a heartfelt truce. They make amends, with Enkidu acknowledging Gilgamesh's rule and Gilgamesh declaring friendship with his former foe. The king's mother endorses their comradeship. The newly-formed friends seek an adventure and plan to confront the monstrous Humbaba, guardian of the distant Cedar Forest appointed by the god, Enlil. Despite Enkidu's warnings about Humbaba's invincibility, Gilgamesh is keen to fight him. They visit the armor makers and get new weapons, preparing to face their destiny together.

tablet 3 - 4

Gilgamesh announces to the residents of Uruk his intent to conquer Humbaba’s sacred forest and fell the cedar trees under his care. He seeks their approval and assures his return by the new year’s celebrations, expecting praises from all. The city's elders are shocked, advising their ruler of his underestimation of Humbaba’s might. They emphasize Humbaba's incredible hearing and battle prowess, encouraging Gilgamesh to rely not just on his strength, but also on Enkidu's knowledge of the wilderness. The older men suggest Gilgamesh seek the aid of the sun god Shamash and remember his protective father, Lugulbanda. The duo then visits the grand temple Egalmah to seek the blessing of Ninsun, Gilgamesh’s mother and goddess. Gilgamesh reveals his plan to not only steal the best trees but also slay Humbaba. Distressed, Ninsun retreats, cleanses herself, wears priestly clothes, and appeals to Shamash for answers and protection of her son. She formally adopts Enkidu as her son and places a holy pendant around Enkidu’s neck, signifying their brotherhood. An intimate ritual involving sex workers commences. Finally, after performing religious rites, sacrifices, giving speeches, and listening to further warnings, the now fully equipped heroes depart Uruk through its seven-bolt gate. They walk non-stop for twenty leagues, covering 150 leagues within three days—a journey that would typically take a common man three weeks. They dig a well, offer a tribute to Shamash, and proceed. They keep each other’s morale high during their journey, with each reassuring the other of their strength and readiness for the upcoming battle. Upon reaching the forest, they pause, contemplating their next move.

tablet 5

Gilgamesh and Enkidu stand before the gigantic forest, amazed at the towering cedar trees. They follow paths created by the giant Humbaba's steps towards a mountain in the distance, believed to be the throne of Ishtar and other gods. That night, Gilgamesh offers flour to the sun god, Shamash, praying for a favorable dream. They build a wind shelter, huddle for warmth, and fall asleep. In the middle of the night, Gilgamesh experiences a dream. Awakening in fear, he shares his dream with Enkidu. They were in a gorge when a mountain fell on them. Enkidu interprets this dream positively, stating the mountain symbolizes Humbaba, whom they will defeat. They continue their journey. Days later, Gilgamesh makes another offering to Shamash. They embrace for warmth and sleep. At midnight, Gilgamesh wakes up and shares another dream – a wild bull attacking him and a man offering him water. Enkidu interprets this dream as a blessing from Shamash and identifies the man offering water as Gilgamesh’s father, Lugulbanda. The companions travel hundreds of leagues, dig a well, and make another offering to Shamash. After a rainstorm, they fall asleep, and Gilgamesh has a third dream. He dreams of an earthquake, thunder, lightning, and fire falling from the sky. Enkidu assures him that the dream is favorable. Still frightened, Gilgamesh prays to Shamash for protection. Shamash explains they are feeling the effects of Humbaba's garments, urging them to attack before Humbaba puts on all seven of his terror-spreading garments. Finally, they reach the gods' mountain, chop down trees, and hear Humbaba roaring. A chaotic battle ensues. During the battle, Gilgamesh prays to Shamash, who unleashes thirteen storms against Humbaba. Gilgamesh defeats Humbaba, who pleads for mercy, offering to serve Gilgamesh. Although Gilgamesh contemplates sparing Humbaba, Enkidu encourages him to kill the monster swiftly. Humbaba warns them of a curse if they kill him, the servant of the god Enlil, but Enkidu urges Gilgamesh to kill the demon quickly before Enlil can intervene. By killing Humbaba and taking his cedars, they secure their fame. Gilgamesh builds a new city gate from the tallest tree as a monument to their adventure. They cut down more trees, build a raft, and float back to Uruk with the gate and Humbaba’s head.

tablet 6

Upon his victorious return to Uruk, Gilgamesh cleanses himself of battle dirt, dresses in clean clothing, tidies his hair and crowns himself. His magnificent appearance sparks lust in Ishtar, the goddess of love and war. She proposes marriage to him, offering wealth, a cedar house and a luxurious chariot. However, Gilgamesh rejects her, stating she has all she needs as a goddess and her love is fickle. He reminds her of her past lovers who suffered due to her whims. Angered, Ishtar approaches her parents, Anu and Antum, demanding the Bull of Heaven to kill Gilgamesh. Anu initially hesitates due to the bull's capability of causing seven years of famine, but Ishtar convinces him otherwise. The bull is unleashed and the city of Uruk shakes. Each time the bull bellows, the earth opens up, swallowing hundreds of men. Enkidu and Gilgamesh team up to fight the bull, eventually killing it. They offer its heart to the sun god, Shamash. Ishtar is furious and curses the duo from the city walls. Enkidu retaliates by throwing a piece of the bull at her, threatening to do the same to her. They celebrate their victory, with Gilgamesh showing off the bull’s lapis lazuli-coated horns and hanging them in his palace as trophies. They clean themselves in the Euphrates, parading through Uruk, basking in glory. Enkidu later wakes from a dream and questions why the gods are convening.

tablet 7

Enkidu wakes up from a frightening dream where the deities are debating their punishment for killing Humbaba, the Bull of Heaven, and cutting the tallest cedar tree. They decide that one of the two friends must pay with their life, and Enlil, the god of earth, wind, and air, chooses Enkidu. Shamash, the sun god, tries to defend him, but Enlil accuses him of siding with the mortals. Enkidu then falls ill, which confirms the dream. He curses the cedar gate that he brought back with Gilgamesh from the forest, saying that he would have preferred to be forgotten than to die in this way. Gilgamesh, stricken with grief, promises to build a grand monument for Enkidu. In his despair, Enkidu curses the hunter who found him and the temple prostitute who lured him away from the animals. Shamash, however, reminds him of all the loving experiences he's had, including his friendship with Gilgamesh. This soothes Enkidu, and he sends a blessing to the prostitute. In his sickness, Enkidu shares another disturbing dream with Gilgamesh. He was in a dark plain, transformed into a bird by a man with a lion's head and eagle's talons who dragged him to the underworld. He tells Gilgamesh about the dreary life in the underworld, presided over by Queen Ereshkigal and scribe Belit-Seri, who records everyone’s destiny. Enkidu laments that it would have been better to die in battle, as that would be glorified. Enkidu's suffering continues for twelve more days before he passes away.

tablet 8 - 9

Gilgamesh is devastated by his friend Enkidu's demise, expressing his sorrow loudly in front of the city's senior members. He mourns together with everyone, including nature and the city's inhabitants. He calls upon the city’s artisans to construct a statue of Enkidu, commemorating his valiant actions and fame. He stays with his friend's body until a worm appears, then discards his royal clothes and dresses in animal skins. He makes a tribute to the deity Shamash and then ventures into the wilderness alone, consumed by grief and fear of his own mortality. His aim is to find Utnapishtim, the sole mortal granted immortality, living in a remote place where the sun rises. Before sleeping in the mountains, Gilgamesh prays to the moon god for a vision. He awakens to find himself surrounded by lions and fights them off. After more travel, he reaches a lofty mountain guarded by two monstrous beings, a Scorpion-man and his female counterpart. They believe he must be a god due to his boldness in coming here. Upon hearing Gilgamesh’s mission, the Scorpion-man reveals that Utnapishtim resides beyond the mountain and gives directions to a tunnel that reaches there. They warn him about the total darkness inside the tunnel and the length of the journey, but allow him to proceed after hearing his pleas. Gilgamesh walks through the pitch-black tunnel, struggling to breathe and enduring the harsh wind. As he nears the end of the journey, the darkness fades and he finally emerges into the daylight. He finds himself in a garden of jewel-colored fruits and foliage, with a sparkling sea in the distance.

tablet 10

Siduri, a barmaid, notices a weary, ragged man approach her seaside tavern. Fearful, she bars her door, but the man introduces himself as Gilgamesh and tells his tale of woe for his late friend, Enkidu. Sympathetic, Siduri invites him in but warns him that only gods are immortal. He insists on finding Utnapishtim, seeking the secret of eternal life. Siduri explains the perilous journey across the sea and through the Waters of Death, only navigable by Utnapishtim’s boatman, Urshanabi. She advises him to seek Urshanabi's help and provides the directions. Gilgamesh heads off, undeterred by the dangers. Upon reaching the snake and stone-guarded forest, Gilgamesh attacks them before meeting Urshanabi. He requests Urshanabi's help, expressing his grief and fears. Urshanabi agrees, but warns him that his violence has complicated their voyage. He instructs Gilgamesh to prepare sixty poles, each ninety feet long, covered in pitch for their journey. After three days at sea, they reach the Waters of Death. Despite breaking all the poles, Gilgamesh successfully navigates through using his skin as a sail. An old man on the shore questions Gilgamesh's identity and his motives. Once again, Gilgamesh shares his quest to avoid death. The old man reminds him that mortality is inevitable, the gods dictate the time of death for everyone.

tablet 11 - 12

Gilgamesh encounters Utnapishtim, the very individual he set out to find, who became a god and escaped death. He questions how he can achieve the same. Utnapishtim reveals his tale of surviving a catastrophic flood, intended to exterminate humanity. He was once the ruler of Shuruppak, a prosperous city along the Euphrates, when the gods conspired to obliterate humankind. Despite his sworn secrecy, Ea, the wisest god, divulged this plan to Utnapishtim. Ea instructed Utnapishtim to construct a gigantic boat and fill it with living creatures, his family, and belongings. He was tasked to deceive his people about his departure, promising them prosperity. After seven days of festivity-like work, the boat was completed and launched on the Euphrates. As the storm struck, the gods panicked, witnessing their creation's destruction. Utnapishtim's boat eventually rested on a mountain peak. He sent out birds to verify if the land had dried but only the raven didn't return. Upon reaching land, Utnapishtim offered sacrifice to the gods. Enlil, the instigator of the flood, was furious that someone escaped his plan but was reprimanded by Ea for his harsh punishment. Acknowledging his fault, Enlil blessed Utnapishtim and his wife with divinity and eternal life for their service to humanity. Utnapishtim then challenges Gilgamesh to stay awake for a week to prove his worthiness of immortality. However, Gilgamesh falls asleep immediately. To demonstrate this to Gilgamesh, Utnapishtim instructs his wife to bake a loaf of bread every day and mark the wall. Upon waking after seven days, Gilgamesh denies sleeping until confronted with the seven loaves and wall marks. Utnapishtim then sends him away with Urshanabi, his boatman, after cleaning and dressing him appropriately. On his wife's prompts, Utnapishtim shares with Gilgamesh the secret of a rejuvenating plant under the sea. Gilgamesh retrieves it, planning to share it with his city elders. However, a snake steals it while he bathes, leaving Gilgamesh despondent. Upon reaching Uruk, Gilgamesh proudly displays his city's grandeur to Urshanabi, culminating the main poem. An appended Tablet XII, a mystical poem from an older tradition, narrates an episode of Gilgamesh dropping a drum into the underworld. Enkidu fetches it but disobeys Gilgamesh's warnings and is seized by the underworld's queen, Ereshkigal. Gilgamesh's plea to the gods for Enkidu's return is only answered by Ea. Enkidu returns briefly, giving a grim portrayal of the underworld. He emphasizes the importance of leaving behind mourners, with those having seven sons living like gods and the forgotten dead being the worst off.

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