Episode 3: He Who Saw the Deep

The Epic of Gilgamesh, composed 3,000-5,000 years ago, and first translated in the 1860s and 70s, was one of the greatest literary discoveries of all time.

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The Epic of Gilgamesh

Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 3: He Who Saw the Deep. This show covers the most famous piece of writing from ancient Mesopotamia, the Epic of Gilgamesh. If you haven’t read the Epic of Gilgamesh before, you are in for a treat. For 2,700 years, the story of Gilgamesh, the mythical king of Uruk, circulated in the ancient world. Variations were written in multiple languages, young scribes copied central episodes in the narrative in order to learn how to write, and in the land between the rivers a hundred generations heard and read the mythical king’s story and found something that spoke to them. Episodes and poetry of Gilgamesh can be found in the Books of Genesis and Ecclesiastes, and upon its discovery in 1853 and first English translation by George Smith in 1872, the world looked on in awe. Physical copies of a story older than Islam, older than Christianity, older than Buddhism, older than the Old Testament patriarch Abraham, had been found in what was then the Ottoman Empire. It was one of the most important discoveries in literary history. When George Smith first began to read one of the central tablets of the incredible story, a contemporary wrote, “Setting the tablet on the table, he jumped up and rushed about the room in a great state of excitement, and, to the astonishment of those present, began to undress himself!”1 And I can promise you, that if it doesn’t actually make you want to publicly disrobe, the Epic of Gilgamesh is still going to knock your socks off.

British Museum Flood Tablet epic of gilgamesh

The famous flood tablet telling the story of the Epic of Gilgamesh in which Gilgamesh meets Uta-Napishti. A particularly important chunk of Neo-Assyrian stone, both due to its preservation as well as its unmistakable analog story of the Biblical Flood.

It would have been nice if the whole epic had been found in one place, preserved intact like the Pyramid Texts carved on the walls of the tombs at Saqqara in Egypt. But the story exists in dozens of different cuneiform tablets, found scattered around Mesopotamia and Anatolia, and the tablets themselves are frequently broken, chipped, scarred, and otherwise time worn. The epic’s translators, both in the nineteenth century and today, have had to cobble together thousands of years of fragments, fill in missing gaps, and conjecture about obscure languages that no one has spoken for thousands of years. Nonetheless, we currently have readable, cohesive versions that bring the ancient story to light.

In this episode, I’ll quote from the Andrew George translation that was published in 1999 by Penguin. I’ve owned it for a while, and it’s one of those books that is almost too good to be true. Between two paperback covers is the combined work of generations of diligent Assyriologists, their journeys and archaeological digs, thousands of hours of talented translation, together with the epic itself, a story so exciting, so larger than life, so strange, and so essentially human at the same time. Again, it’s the Andrew George translation, published by Penguin Classics.

It’s tempting for me to tell you about the chronology of the different Gilgamesh fragments up front – that this one was discovered in Hattusas in present day Turkey, that one in the library of Ashurbanipal in modern day Iraq, etc. Instead, I’ll keep it simple. Most of what you’re about to hear was compiled from earlier sources by a single scribe between 1300 and 1000 BCE. The historical Gilgamesh is thought to have lived around 2800 BCE. His story was written first in Sumerian, and then Akkadian cuneiform, a medium which fell fully out of use around 100 BCE.

One of the names that the Epic of Gilgamesh was once known by was sha naqba imuru. It’s Akkadian, and what it means is “He who saw the deep,” the title of this episode, and the very first line of the standard translation of the Epic of Gilgamesh. The “he” in question is the valiant Gilgamesh, protagonist of the story. But what is this “deep” that he sees, and why is it so important that it belongs in the very first line? Let’s open up the book, and find out. [music]

Gilgamesh Meets Enkidu

Gilgamesh was the king of Uruk, a city near the end of the Euphrates. He was a wise king, who’d fortified great walls around his city to ensure its longevity. Even before his greatest adventures, he’d opened passes, dug wells, and he liked to stand on the ramparts of his city and look out at the brickwork, the date groves, the herds of sheep, and the vast temple to the goddess Ishtar its town center.

Epic of Gilgamesh uruk period cylinder seal

An Uruk period (c. 3200 BCE) cylinder seal impression of a king and priest feeding a herd of animals. The Epic of Gilgamesh‘s audience would have been used to art like this.

His mother was the goddess Ninsun, and he was two thirds god. With thick hair and beard, “his beauty was consummate, by earthly standards he was most handsome.”1. In some ways, he had brought about Uruk’s most prosperous times – indeed he may have kept the neighboring city state of Kish from dominating his own city. And yet while no one doubted his strength or magnificence, Gilgamesh was a tyrant. He lorded his might over the men of Uruk. Far worse, he insisted that when women were married, they came to his bed first, before going to those of their husbands. It was this latter offense that led the young women of the town to pray to the great god Anu to bring them some reprieve from the lusts of the despotic warrior king.

The great god Anu was displeased at Gilgamesh’s conduct, and summoned the mother goddess who had made mankind. “You. . .created mankind,” said Anu. “[N]ow fashion what Anu has thought of!” Anu would not intervene directly. He decided that he would instead see to the creation of a being that would humble Gilgamesh – the other main character of the epic, a man named Enkidu. At the god Anu’s bidding, the mother goddess fashioned Enkidu out of clay. “In the wild she created Enkidu, the hero, / offspring of silence, knit strong. . . / All his body is matted with hair, / he bears long tresses like those of a woman: / the hair of his head grows thickly as barley, / he knows not a people, nor even a country, / Coated in hair like the god of the animals, with the gazelles he grazes on grasses” (5).

Enkidu and Lion from Epic of Gilgamesh

A figure, perhaps Enkidu, fighting a wild beast, from the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Primal and wild, Enkidu roamed the uplands, until a trapper glimpsed him. The trapper had noticed that his snares and pits were coming up empty, and he realized that the wild man Enkidu had been the one setting everything free. When the trapper told his father so, the wise old man came up with a solution. The trapper would go to the city of Uruk and fetch a harlot named Shamhat, and she would seduce the wild man Enkidu. The trapper and his father, together with Gilgamesh himself, theorized that once Enkidu had had sex with a woman, he would be spurned by the wild animals who were his companions, and he would lose some of his noble savagery and power.

The harlot Shamhat accompanied the trapper to Enkidu’s grazing lands. “That is he, Shamhat!” exclaimed the trapper. “Uncradle your bosom, bare your sex, let him take in your charms!. . .Spread your clothing so he may lie on you, do for the man the work of a woman!” (7). Then follows a 4,000 year old sex scene. [4,000 year old sex scene ditty]

Now, I thought about narrating this whole scene – it’s quite long, and it lasts, actually, for a week, and it’s pretty graphic. But in the interests of being as family friendly as possible, we’ll just say that it was a. . .prolonged coital marathon, and afterwards, Enkidu was a changed man. His beloved gazelles would no longer run with him. He was no longer the innocent child of the uplands, but instead something else. Nonetheless, Shamhat took to him, and she invited him back to Uruk to meet Gilgamesh. On the way there, Shamhat told Enkidu about some dreams Gilgamesh had been having, dreams evidently widely known to the citizens of Uruk.

In the first dream, a rock fell from the sky, and Gilgamesh began to lavish worshipful attention onto it. In the second dream, a great ax had been found in the town square, and Gilgamesh began cherishing it in a similar fashion. Gilgamesh’s mother had told him that both the rock and the ax were symbols of a great new friend who would come to him. “[T]he axe you saw,” she said, “is a friend, / like a wife you’ll love him, caress and embrace him, / and I. . .shall make him your equal” (11).

After Shamhat told Enkidu about how Gilgamesh was excited to meet him, the harlot and wild man paused in their journey to Uruk to have some more sex.

Later, on the way into Uruk, Enkidu and his lady friend Shamhat stopped by a shepherds’ camp, where the men admired the noble outlander and were surprised that he had never had bread and ale. Enkidu’s crash course on the niceties of civilization continued, as he devoured the bread and drained seven goblets of ale. He was groomed by a barber, given clothing, and anointed, and then he made the final leg of the journey to Uruk.

Once there, Enkidu learned that Gilgamesh was going to a wedding. A local explained the situation to Enkidu. Gilgamesh, the local said, “will couple with the wife-to-be, / he first of all, the bridegroom after” (15). While this was the accepted custom in Uruk, it displeased Enkidu greatly. With fury, Enkidu went to meet the king of Uruk.

The wedding had already been completed, and Gilgamesh was escorting the new bride to his bedchamber. Crowds had assembled to watch Gilgamesh take the young woman through the threshold where she would lose her virginity, as all girls did, to the king. Only, someone was standing in front of the door of the ceremonial bedchamber, and blocking the entry with his foot. Enkidu stood there, and regarded the monarch with disgust. Here the Andrew George translation really brings the ancient epic to life. “They seized each other at the door of the wedding house, / in the street they joined [in] combat, in the Square of the Land. / The door-jambs shook, the wall did shudder, / The door-jambs shook, the wall did shudder” (16).

After a ferocious clash, Gilgamesh broke off the fight. The combatants eyed one another. Perhaps it was the prophetic dreams one man had had and the other had heard about, but their feelings of enmity and ire turned to mutual admiration. Gilgamesh’s mother reminded him that poor Enkidu had no relatives, and no brother, and Gilgamesh resolved to be that brother. With this, “They kissed each other and formed a friendship” (17).

And what do all friends do in ancient epics? They go into battle together. [music]

The Battle with Humbaba

A monster was known to the citizens of Uruk, a beast called Humbaba. When Gilgamesh suggested to Enkidu that the two men face the monster in combat, even the dauntless Enkidu was skeptical. “I knew him, my friend, in the uplands,” he said. “Humbaba, his voice is the Deluge, / his speech is fire, and his breath is death” (18). After a great deal of debate, in which Gilgamesh told his friend to have courage, the warriors armed themselves to the teeth, and set out to the cedar forest where Humbaba dwelt.

Their journey was long and as they went westward, Gilgamesh had a number of strange dreams. Gilgamesh first dreamt that a giant mountain was falling on him, but Enkidu told him the mountain would fall on Humbaba instead. The next night Gilgamesh had an even more frightening dream that a mountain fell on him, and in the midst of a terrible brightness, a strange man came to him. The following night Gilgamesh dreamt that “The day grew still, darkness came forth, there was a flash of lightning, fire broke out. / [The flames] flared up, death rained down. / . . .and the [flames] of fire went out, / [where] it had fallen turned into cinders” (33). But Enkidu told Gilgamesh that these were good omens, and that the man Gilgamesh had dreamt about was his father, a god.

In a fourth dream, Gilgamesh saw a powerful thunderbird that could breathe fire, and a man who conquered it. Enkidu told him that the man was Shamash, the sun god and protector of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh’s fifth and final dream involved a life and death struggle with a wild bull, but, Enkidu assured him, the wild bull was not the monster Humbaba. Instead, the bull was the god Shamash, who would aid them.

As they drew closer, Gilgamesh’s worry grew, and Enkidu comforted his tearful friend. Then they heard the howl of the monster. “Humbaba, was [thundering] like the God of the Storm” (38). The men trembled, their arms growing abruptly stiff, their knees quavering. This time, it was Gilgamesh who rallied their courage. “Take my hand, friend,” he said, “and we shall go [on] together, / [let] your thoughts dwell on combat! / Forget death and [seek] life!” (38). And soon thereafter, they reached the domain of the great monster.

The cedar forest was vast, and a tall mountain rose in its midst. Thorns and vines tangled in the shade of the profuse canopies. The heroes entered and soon came face to face with the monster. Humbaba demanded to know why they’d come into his forest. He cursed Enkidu for bringing Gilgamesh there, and he resolved, “I will slit the throat and gullet of Gilgamesh, / I will feed his flesh to the locust bird, ravening eagle and vulture” (41). Gilgamesh wanted to flee, but Enkidu counseled for swift and brutal action.

Syrian relief epic of gilgamesh enkidu humbaba

A basalt relief from the Neo-Hittite period of Syria (900s BCE) of two warriors fighting a monster – possibly the Epic of Gilgamesh‘s scene of Gilgamesh and Enkidu fighting Humbaba.

Gilgamesh and his companion attacked. The battle was quick and decisive, and Shamash aided the warriors by assaulting the monster with thirteen winds. When it was over Humbaba pleaded for his life, but Gilgamesh killed him. Rain began falling, and the warriors tore off the monster’s tusks and head, and blood filled the ravines. [music]

The Heroes Face Ishtar and the Bull of Heaven

The two men returned to Uruk, triumphant, at the summit of their strength. In fact, Gilgamesh in particular, once he’d washed his hair, changed from his traveling clothes, and adorned himself in his magnificent crown, was a wonderful sight to behold, and the goddess Ishtar noticed. She asked Gilgamesh to be her husband, making lavish promises about the prosperity he would enjoy. He would have a chariot of lapis lazuli, and nobles would bow before him. Nobles would bring him tributes, and his house would smell sweet with cedar. The goddess Ishtar even assured him that “Your goats shall bear triplets, your ewes shall bear twins, / your donkey when laden shall outpace any mule” (48).

Now, if someone promised you that your goats would bear triplets if you married them, how could you possibly resist? Just imagine all those goats. But Gilgamesh was not convinced. He knew that Ishtar had a bit of a history with men. Ishtar, whom we met as Inanna in the first episode, was, if you’ll recall, the goddess of sex and violence, and Gilgamesh reminded her that while her husbands had enjoyed the former, they had also suffered from the latter.

epic of gilgamesh bull of heaven victory carving

Gilgamesh emerges victorious in his battle with the Bull of Heaven in a climactic scene from the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Ishtar did not take the rejection well. She went to speak to her father, Anu. She wanted revenge – specifically, she wanted to use a creature called the Bull of Heaven to smash Uruk, and its sexually unavailable monarch. Anu refused at first, but Ishtar was persistent, and eventually she was allowed to let the Bull of Heaven loose on the kingdom of Gilgamesh.

Initially, the monster dried up rivers and croplands, and opened up great pits into which scores of men fell and perished. Gilgamesh and Enkidu, however, weren’t about to take this sitting down. They met the bull at the pits and engaged it in battle. While Enkidu seized the bull from behind by the tail and stepped on its rear leg, Gilgamesh attacked from the front and dealt the creature a killing blow. The Bull perished, and Enkidu was so angry at Ishtar that he hurled a chunk of the dead creature at her. Gilgamesh cut off one of its horns, and hung it in his bedchamber.

The Gods Turn Against Enkidu

As the fame of Gilgamesh and Enkidu grew, and their accomplishments increased in proportion, the gods began to worry. In fact, the great Anu, who had first counseled for the creation of Enkidu, decided that one of the two heroes needed to die. Although there was debate, in the end, the gods decided that Enkidu had to perish.

Quickly, Enkidu’s health began to decline. He lamented that he would never again see his brother Gilgamesh, and that he would instead join the ranks of the dead. He remonstrated to the gods, and cursed the trapper and the harlot Shamhat, who had brought him from the innocence of living in the wilderness to the complexities and debauchery of civilization. But his curses and complaints were of no avail. His decline continued, and he had a terrible dream.

Enkidu dreamt that a huge man, with hands like lion’s paws or eagle talons seized him, easily overpowering him. The man crushed and battered him, and then turned him into a dove. “He bound my arms like the wings of a bird,” recalled Enkidu, “to lead me captive to the house of darkness. . .to the house which none who enters ever leaves, / on the path that allows no journey back, / to the house whose residents are deprived of light, / where soil is their sustenance and clay their food, / where they are clad like birds in coats of feathers, / and see no light, but dwell in darkness” (61). There, in the abyss, Enkidu had a vision of the queen of the Netherworld, and the vision of his death horrified him.

His end, when it came, was tragic. For eleven days, he declined, and in his final moments, with Gilgamesh at his bedside, Enkidu had a few last remarks. “[My god] has taken against me, my friend,” he said. “[I do not die] like one who [falls in the midst of battle]. . .[I do not fall] in [combat, and shall make not my name]” (62). With that, Gilgamesh’s brother and dearest friend, created by the gods to rival him, was killed by the gods for being too strong.

Being such an influential citizen of Uruk, Enkidu’s funeral was elaborate, and even more elaborate were Gilgamesh’s lamentations. The hero tearfully recalled all of the adventures he had with his departed friend, and hoped that everyone Enkidu had ever known, and all the places he’d ever been, would remember him. “May [boxwood,] cypress and cedar mourn you,” said Gilgamesh, “. . .May the sacred river Ulay mourn you, along whose banks we walked in our vigor!/ May the pure Euphrates mourn you, / whose water we poured in libation from skins!” (63).

To commemorate the fallen warrior, Gilgamesh commissioned a statue of him, and the statue was given extensive detail. Several pages of the epic describe the statue’s gold, ivory, carnelian, and iron components, and its flute, chair, clasp, bracelet, dagger, quiver, staff and other components. But even Gilgamesh’s commemorative efforts – his prayers to many gods to try and ensure that Enkidu would be well received in the underworld – could not change the fact that his dearest friend was gone. Thereafter, Gilgamesh would be a changed man.

The Journey to Uta-napishti

Gilgamesh left Uruk and wandered in the wilds. He was newly conscious of his mortality. Everything frightened him, including a pack of lions. Yet after sleeping deeply he woke up and saw the moonlight and felt a new strength. He attacked the lions, ate them, and dressed himself in their skins. His wanderings began to distract him from his grief. “Gilgamesh [dug] wells that never existed before, / [he] drank the water, as he chased the winds” (71). Gilgamesh’s patron god warned him that the warrior’s efforts to escape the trappings of mortality would be futile, but Gilgamesh ignored him.

The hero travelled and travelled, and eventually he reached the twin mountains of Mashu, whose roots stretched down into the underworld, and whose peaks supported the heavens themselves. A foreboding figure approached and barred the path. The creature, half man and half scorpion, stood in Gilgamesh’s path and warned him against going any further. Gilgamesh told the creature his plans.

Gilgamesh said he was going to find Uta-napishti. Uta-napishti lived at the edge of the earth, and he was unique amidst humanity. When long ago the gods had caused the earth to be flooded, and almost every living thing perished, Uta-napishti alone survived the cataclysm. Uta-napishti might be able to impart onto Gilgamesh the secrets of immortality. The scorpion man heard this and understood it, and merely advised Gilgamesh to be careful during his journey under the great mountains.

In the intense darkness beneath the mountains, Gilgamesh traveled for hours and hours. The gloom was so complete that it would have been impossible to turn back. Deep into his journey, he felt a howling wind in the blackness, but he pressed onward, and finally, as dawn broke, he emerged into an extraordinary garden. There stood a tree made out carnelian, another made of pure lapis lazuli. Strange bushes grew with vials along their stems in the place of thorns, and coral, agate and hematite gleamed in the morning light.

Through the perilous passage beneath the mountains, beyond the gemstone encrusted garden, at the seashore on the edge of the world where Gilgamesh now walked, he found. . .a tavern. Yeah. There was a – uh – bar – at the edge of the world. The tavern keeper saw Gilgamesh, soiled and haggard from all of his journeying. Now this tavern keeper wasn’t just an eccentric entrepreneur who’d chosen a poor location for her business. She was a sagely old goddess, and eventually she let the traveler in.

Seeing Gilgamesh’s sunken cheeks and haunted eyes, she asked what had happened to him. He told her his story – of his accomplishments, his love for his best friend, and Enkidu’s tragic death. How, he asked, could he merely accept the same fate? There had to be more to existence than living and dying and having one’s deeds forgotten by time. That was why he was going to find Uta-napishti.

The tavern keeper told him that nothing could cross the ocean except for the sun. A frightening place existed in the mid ocean called the Waters of Death. If you touched them, you’d – uh – you’d die. Fitting name. But then she recalled – a ferryman lived down the shore. He might be able to help Gilgamesh, although she couldn’t say for sure. And by the way, the tavern keeper added, the ferryman had with him a fierce contingent of men made out of stone. These stone men would have to be dealt with.

Gilgamesh wasted no time. He sought out the ferryman and made short work of the stone men. Then he spoke with the ferryman himself. After explaining that he sought immortal life, Gilgamesh told the ferryman that he needed help crossing the ocean. The ferryman chided Gilgamesh for dispatching all the stone men, who normally crewed the ferry. Gilgamesh ended up having to cut wood to make new punts for the boat, and the two men pushed out to sea. For three days they journeyed, and they managed to traverse the treacherous Waters of Death. At last, Gilgamesh reached the distant land and met Uta-napishti.

Gilgamesh told the immortal his story, repeating the tale of Enkidu’s demise, and his own grief and subsequent wanderings. He demanded to know the secret of eternal life. Uta-napishti said there is none, and that it would not be Gilgamesh’s privilege to enjoy. Uta-napishti’s speech to Gilgamesh is a particularly famous part of the Epic of Gilgamesh, and I’ll quote some of the Andrew George translation of it. The immortal Uta-napishti said,
[Enkidu indeed] they took to his doom.
[But you,] you toiled away, and what did you achieve?
You exhaust yourself with ceaseless toil,
you fill your sinews with sorrow.

bringing forward the end of your days.
Man is snapped off like a reed in a canebrake!
The comely young man, the pretty young woman –
all [too soon in] their [prime] Death abducts them!

. . .Ever do we build our households,
ever do we make our nests,
ever do brothers divide their inheritance,
ever do feuds arise in the land.

Ever the river has risen and brought us the flood,
the mayfly floating on the water.
On the face of the sun its countenance gazes,
then all of a sudden nothing is there. (86-7)

The Bittersweet Journey Home

Understandably, Gilgamesh was not happy about Uta-napishti’s disappointing counsel. Gilgamesh demanded to know how Uta-napishti himself had achieved mortal life, and lengthily, Uta-napishti told the hero about the great flood that had ravaged the earth, and how he’d been granted immortality after surviving it. Gilgamesh was unmoved. He had fought Humbaba, and the Bull of Heaven, and he had won. Why shouldn’t immortality be his, too?

Uta-napishti told the hero to try and stay awake for six days and seven nights. He said that if Gilgamesh could do this, then Gilgamesh would experience what immortality was like. Gilgamesh tried, but he fell asleep immediately, and, exhausted from his long journeying, slept for a week. When he awoke, Uta-napishti showed him a week’s worth of bread loaves, some of which had hardened and become moldy while the hero slept, as proof that the hero couldn’t stay awake.

It was a complete failure. Gilgamesh was disgusted with himself. Uta-napishti told the ferryman to leave, and not come back. But first, Uta-napishti told the ferryman to at least bathe Gilgamesh and give him a change of clothes, so that the king could return to his city, reconciled to his fate. Yet Uta-napishti perhaps realized that he had been too harsh with the hero. Gilgamesh, after all, had made an epic journey to find him. And so Uta-napishti told the king of a plant that grew in the deep ocean that could restore one’s youth.

On the way back from the land of Uta-napishti, Gilgamesh dove deep into the ocean, and found it. Elated, Gilgamesh told the ferryman that he would take the plant back to Uruk, and sample it, and be again as he was in his youth. Though he’d nearly given up, he would, after all, have his immortality. Only, it was not to be so. As they made their way back to Uruk, Gilgamesh was bathing in the cool water. A snake caught the scent of the plant, emerged, seized the plant, and vanished.

Still with the ferryman, Gilgamesh sank down and wept. “[For whom],” he asked, “toiled my arms so hard, / for whom ran dry the blood of my heart?” (99). He would never find the plant’s source on the sea floor again. The ocean was too vast. Even the eleventh hour solution to his desperate quest for eternal life had proved utterly futile.

Vorderasiatisches Museum Berlin 040

A wall found at Uruk, from the Inanna-Ishtar temple, c. 1400 BCE, at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.

Yet in the midst of his despair Gilgamesh knew that he was getting close to home. He and his companion travelled and ate their bread at regular intervals, and in due time the hero saw his home town. He had lost his best friend, and had held immortality in his fingertips and lost it, but still – Uruk stood before him, broad and beautiful, the city that he had made, and that had made him.

The standard version of the epic ends where it began – high on the walls of Uruk. Gilgamesh invited the ferryman to gaze out onto the city with him. “[C]limb Uruk’s wall, and walk back and forth! / Survey its foundations, examine the brickwork! / Were its bricks not fired in an oven? / Did the Seven Sages not lay its foundations? / A square mile is city, a square mile date grove, a square mile its / clay-pit, half a square mile the temple of Ishtar: / three square miles and a half is Uruk’s expanse” (99). Recollecting not what he wanted, but what he actually had, Gilgamesh began to make peace with his mortality. [music]

Bilgames and the Sumerian Fragments of the Epic

There are a lot of other fragments of Gilgamesh. Minor variants of many parts of the story exist, found all over Iraq, and in Turkey, Syria, and Palestine. In older versions of the story, written in Sumerian, Gilgamesh is called Bilgames. In one, Bilgames councils the city of Uruk not to bow under the yoke of the neighboring city of Kish, but instead to go to war with them. Another is an extended account of the battle with Humbaba. Additionally, a variant of the fight with the bull of heaven exists, in which Ishtar complains even more lengthily to her father about being turned down by Gilgamesh.

Burney Relief Babylon -1800-1750

The “Queen of the Night” relief, showing either Ereshkigal, the Sumerian goddess of the underworld, or her sister Inanna. The Sumerian version of the Epic of Gilgamesh shows Enkidu going down into the underworld.

Two fragments in Sumerian are of particular interest, and I just want you to know they’re out there. Both of them are about death. One, called “In those days, in those far-off days,” is about Enkidu going to the underworld and then coming back and telling Gilgamesh about it. It’s a good source for us to learn what Sumerians believed about the afterlife. Essentially, Sumerians saw a subterranean realm where the dead prospered or did without according to certain actions they took in life. Of particular interest to Sumerians, evidently, was fertility and the production of offspring, because the more children a man has, the more he gets to eat in the afterlife from his children’s sacrificial offerings to him. Further, unfortunate people who die young are allowed to prosper in the Sumerian underworld, while those who do not honor their parents are made to suffer from thirst. Yet if we look for the moral logic of the Christian afterlife in the Sumerian underworld, it’s just not quite there. You can suffer for not honoring your parents, or not consummating your marriage, but you can also suffer badly just because you fell off of a roof, or were drowned at sea, or were eaten by a lion. The idea that falling off of a roof can make you go to suffer in the afterlife for all eternity was so bizarre to me that I wrote little song about it that I’ll play at the end of this show. Anyway, so, the first major Sumerian fragment of Gilgamesh is about Enkidu dying and telling Gilgamesh all about the underworld.

The second Sumerian fragment of particular interest is called “The Death of Bilgames.” This poem reiterates themes and scenes we’ve already heard – death is inescapable, the netherworld gobbles up youths and the elderly, kings and paupers, saints and evildoers alike, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. At the time of Bilgames’s actual death, after a bit of tears and hand-wringing, the Euphrates is diverted so that his grave can be dug in the bed of the Euphrates, and, when the river returns to its course, no one can ever loot the treasures buried within. It’s a neat idea. The tombs of Biblical Daniel, Alaric the Visigoth, Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan were all, according to legend, built in a similar fashion. That’s a lot of river diverting.

Anyway, in the story of the death of Bilgames, we’re confronted with a rather ugly practice of early antiquity. When the hero Bilgames died, his wives, his child, his minstrel, steward, barber, attendants, and servants were all murdered so that they could accompany him to the afterlife. Bilgames and his people were all buried in an impenetrable stone tomb. We’ll talk more about the practice of what’s called “retainer burial” when we get to the Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt, but suffice it to say that this practice declined over the course of the 2000s BCE in both Mesopotamia and the lands of the Nile. During the next millennium, we have less and less archaeological evidence of it, and that may be why the later Babylonian version, compiled around 1200, concludes with Gilgamesh standing proudly on his city walls. It’s certainly the ending I prefer. Whichever ending you choose, now you know the Epic of Gilgamesh. Let’s talk about some of the things that have struck readers scholars about Gilgamesh’s story since it reemerged into world literature about a hundred and fifty years ago. [music]

Literary Tropes and the Historical Background of the Epic of Gilgamesh

Very quickly in the Epic of Gilgamesh, after we meet our flawed hero, the second main character is created by the Gods, initially to rival him. But why does Gilgamesh need a rival? With his egotism, his bullying of the young warriors of Uruk, and what we can only call institutionalized rape of the brides of the city, Gilgamesh is the figurehead of the civilized world, with all of its decadence and excesses. World literature often depicts city life as dirty and immoral – a whole shelf of books talk about this dichotomy, not the least of which is Raymond Williams’ The Country and the City, and these books discuss way that the city has traditionally been depicted as wicked, and the countryside as pure and innocent. Early in the Epic of Gilgamesh, this divide is personified in the characters of Gilgamesh, lord of the city, and Enkidu, the motherless child of nature, who runs with the gazelles. A thousand years before clever Jacob and hairy Esau, there were Gilgamesh and Enkidu.

Enkidu is a wild man, free of monarchy and creed, living on the land, and as pure as the grass and wind. He is the first figure we have in world literature of a being living uncorrupted in a state of nature, older than even Adam and Eve. From the pastorals of Theocritus and Virgil to the philosophical writings of Rousseau to the poetry of Wordsworth, the notion of man prospering in an earlier, simpler, cleaner phase of civilization has consistently been a source of fascination to us as readers and writers. If you try even just a little bit, you can imagine a Babylonian youth, in scribal school at Nippur 3,500 years ago, practicing cuneiform by copying the passages about Enkidu, and imagining throwing down his own stylus, clay tablet, and all the trappings of Mesopotamian civilization, and then roaming free along the riverside, waking and sleeping as he pleased, just like Enkidu does at the beginning of the epic. The idea is as appealing now as it was then.

But Enkidu’s ingenuous and rambling days draw to an end, don’t they? Just as poor Eve’s curiosity ends the first humans’ tenure in a natural paradise in the Book of Genesis, Enkidu’s freewheeling years end after he has sex with the harlot Shamhat. The narrator explains,
The gazelles saw Enkidu, they started to run,
    the beasts of the field shied away from his presence.
Enkidu had defiled his body so pure,
    his legs stood still, though his herd was in motion.
Enkidu was weakened, could not run as before,
    but now he had reason, and wide understanding.
He came back and sat at the feet of the harlot. (8)

This is one of those moments in ancient literature that sounds really familiar. Women corrupt men, leading them to acquire forbidden knowledge. Knowledge and experience are corrosive forces that sap the vigors of youthful innocence. Enkidu was pure, but he tasted the fruits of carnal delight, and then, following bread, ale, and friendship with the king of Uruk, he was struck down with illness. The story of a fall of innocence is a common one in literature, but a particular strain of it is the corrosion of youth from the country by the vice and complexities of the city. In the story of the Tower of Babel, and just after it the tales of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Book of Genesis carry with them the sense that large congregations of people lead one another astray, and that people are at their best and purest living in the countryside.

So the next thing I want to talk about is male friendship and cameraderie in the epic. The friendship of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, of warriors who travel together, fight together, and depend on one another for their very lives is common in ancient literature. We’ll see far more of it in the Illiad and Odyssey in upcoming episodes. What a college English teacher would do might be to invite some analysis of the romantic dimensions of the friendship. Were they just really good buddies, or were all the kissing, embracing, and demonstrative words of affection, and Gilgamesh’s chilly rejection of the goddess Ishtar evidence that the two handsome heroes had what we would call a homosexual relationship? There is plenty of evidence on both sides, and I think at this point it’s well known that our schema for sexual orientation doesn’t fit well with what actually went on in Ancient Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, and other bygone civilizations.

So rather than falling into an anachronistic discussion of the characters’ sexuality, let’s see if we can make something else out of their relationship. I want to give you some history first. In the mid 1400s BCE, the great warrior pharaoh Thutmose III led a military campaign into Mittani, a kingdom in the north part of Mesopotamia. The pharaoh’s conquest of the Mittanites seemed to inspire other ancient kingdoms, including Babylon, Hatti, Assyria, and Minoa to offer lavish gifts to the juggernaut of imperial Egypt at its height. While warfare was never off the table, the kings of these nations, after the reign of the next pharaoh Amenhotep II, began to increasingly find diplomacy, and the peace and trade networks that it fostered, to be mutually beneficial. In what we call the Late Bronze Age, which stretched from 1600 to about 1150 BCE, international diplomacy began to come widely into use. And it was carried out through gift giving and the interchange of eloquent, emotionally demonstrative correspondences between leaders – correspondences on the clay tablet that was the sturdy little hero of our first episode.


The Treaty of Kadesh in the Istanbul Museum of Archaeology. This 1258 BCE document officialized peaceful relations between the Hittites and Egyptians, sixteen years after they’d fought to a draw. A copy of this treaty is on the wall of the NYC United Nations Headquarters.

Let’s look at one of those demonstrative letters. This one was written by the Pharaoh Amenhotep III to the king of Mittani during this period. The Mittanite king’s letter begins, “Say to. . . [Amenhotep III], Great King, king of Egypt, my brother, whom I love and who love me: Thus Tushratta, Great King, the king of Mittani, your brother, your father-in-law, and one who loves you.”3 The language of the letter is typical of Near Eastern diplomacy during the Late Bronze Age. Another treaty – this one between King Ramses II and the king of the Hittites – saw each king proclaiming, “He is my brother, and I am his brother. He is at peace with me, and I am at peace with him forever. And we will create our brotherhood and our peace, and they will be better than the former brotherhood and peace of Egypt with Hatti.”4 This text is from the Treaty of Kadesh, written in the 1250s, and a copy of it hangs in the UN headquarters in New York City. It’s one of the first major peace treaties we know about, and those who literally set it in stone must have known what an important, wonderful thing it was, just as we still do, today.

Egyptian scribes learned cuneiform during this period so that they could communicate with the lords of the east, and the surviving documents that we have from the period show a language of diplomacy that was warm, kind, and deeply optimistic, even if it is largely for the sake of political theater. So when we see the initial clash between Gilgamesh and Enkidu, and their subsequent rapprochement and comradeship, perhaps we’re also seeing a microcosmic story of bullheaded ancient civilizations slowly learning that there are often more advantages to amicable partnerships than wars. In the Epic of Gilgamesh and other ancient epics, the scene of kings and strongmen meeting, befriending one another, and bestowing compliments and gifts on one another is a common one. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief. You can imagine warriors on both sides thinking, “Oh, you mean we don’t have to kill each other. Okay. Let’s have some beers, then.”

There’s just one more element of Gilgamesh’s story I want to discuss, and that is the hero himself. The Babylonian name for the epic was “He who saw the deep,” and I want to talk about what was meant by that depth. In the early part of the epic, there are basically two sides to Gilgamesh. Initially, he is an egomaniacal tyrant, villainously ruling by force. Then, the sheer spectacle of his power begins to take over the narrative. He matches Enkidu in combat. He defeats the monster Humbaba. He spurns a goddess, and kills the Bull of Heaven, saving his city in the process. He may not be lovable, but we know that when he’s onstage, we’re going to enjoy some jaw dropping action. Yet the death of his friend changes the hero profoundly. After Enkidu’s death, Gilgamesh becomes obsessed with his own.

This, of course, is the “deep” that Gilgamesh sees. Because he is a king, and has legendary accomplishments under his belt, he is in an unusually keen position to see the futility of his existence. Several times, he asks “What have I achieved with all my toil?” (85). He knows that nothing on earth will satisfy him, because he’s done everything a person can do. The Mesopotamians did not believe in heaven, and their afterlife was a murky place with dusty, cracked floors where punishments and rewards were dispensed crookedly at best, and you could suffer for eternity for falling off of a roof. Gilgamesh knows that his time on earth is what he has, and, like Faust or Victor Frankenstein, he pushes relentlessly forward to break the rules. Late in the epic, Gilgamesh is neither villain nor hero, but a sort of everyman figure whose quest for immortality is a mirror for human experience. Before the belief in a cosmic order, and divine judgment, and heaven and hell, the Mesopotamians who sang, wrote, and copied the Epic of Gilgamesh were trying to make sense of life on earth.

And their answer wasn’t all tragedy. Gilgamesh bravely looked into the deep, and strove tirelessly, but in the end he returned home and stood on his city walls. He could not live forever, but he could come home. I think it’s a little bit difficult for us to understand what city walls must have meant to the early urbanites of the ancient world. They were the ultimate civic institution, the thing that offered shade and defense, the collective reference point, the structure that you could climb and rise above everyday life and know that you were a part of something. They withstood sieges, and they bore the scars of war, of floods and fires, but still, they stood, profound and simultaneously familiar. When Gilgamesh invites his companion to “Survey [Uruk’s] foundations, examine the brickwork! / Were its bricks not fired in an oven?” – when he asks this, he invites the man to see something far beyond mere bricks. Though Gilgamesh has passed under mountains and over the ocean in the search for immortality and failed, in that final moment he looks at what he has achieved, sees that he could have done little more, and he feels peace. [music]

Moving on to Ancient Egypt

Next time, we’re going to go west, through the north of Saudi Arabia, through Jordan and Israel, over the Sinai peninsula, through the Nile Delta, and south all the way to the modern city of Luxor, which was once called Thebes. There, we’re going to find a strange, thousand page volume, central to Ancient Egyptian thought, called The Book of the Dead. The Mesopotamian flood story, and the way they described the world being created, probably had some influence on the Book of Genesis. But it was the religion of Bronze Age Egypt, washing together with Greek cult religions, Persian Zoroastrianism, and other ancient theologies during the Hellenistic period that laid the groundwork for Christianity and Islam. Over the course of the 1000s BCE, a belief began to proliferate in Ancient Egypt that when every individual died, his heart was weighed by the gods. If he had acted in a certain way – a way that was harmonious with the universal order that Egyptians called the ma’at, then he was allowed to go on to the Seket-hetepet, or the “Field of Reeds,” a gentle place ruled over by the god Osiris. If an Egyptian had not acted in concert with the forces of order, he would be devoured by a monster called the Am-met.

As you can imagine, this belief – the belief in divine judgment after death – has become rather popular. Billions of us believe it today. In this program, while reading the first Sumerian fragment of the Epic of Gilgamesh, we learned about the Sumerian underworld – that dingy place where one incurs privations and punishments for seemingly bizarre reasons. In the Homeric poems, and in almost all of the Hebrew Bible, excepting a few visions of resurrection in the Prophetic Books, the underworld is the end, and everyone goes there, regardless of their conduct on earth. Whether Hades, or Sheol, or the Akkadian Irkalla or the Sumerian Kur, up until the fifth century BCE or so, most of the Mediterranean and Ancient Near East did not believe in posthumous salvation. The texts of ancient Greece, ancient Israel, and Mesopotamia up to this period describe the afterlife as a dingy cellar where everyone goes, no matter who they are, or what they have done.

Over the course of the early Iron Age, however, particularly as the conquests of Alexander the Great, which concluded in 323 BCE, put various remote regions of Eurasia in dialogue with one another, people began to talk more and more about gods who watched over them, specifically, and monitored their conduct. In the Aegean world Dionysian cult proliferated after the fifth century BCE, alongside Orphic and Pythagorean cults. From Anatolia, the cult of Cybele spread all over the Greco-Roman world, and from Egypt, the cult of Isis did the same. One of the things these religions had in common was an emphasis on personal relationships with deities, and the possibility of a blessed afterlife, provided that one’s actions on earth were up to a certain standard. As Alexander butchered and enslaved civilizations all the way to India in the 330s and 320s, and in the centuries after his death, as his successors made the Eastern Mediterranean into a long string of wars and mass enslavements, the belief that one could have control over her afterlife, at least, was a great consolation to many otherwise powerless men and women. It eventually blossomed into Christianity during the first and second centuries CE, but the idea of Divine Judgment has roots that stretch all the way back to the Middle Bronze Age.

So next time, we’re going to look at the real Book of the Dead, a massive anthology of spells, incantations and tales generally engineered to safeguard one’s passage into a blessed afterlife and make sure that her heart is weighed favorably by the gods. A lot of the pantheons of the Bronze Age fertile crescent seem interchangeable with one another – swap out a thunder god here, and a sun god here, and you have some very similar religions. But from the beginning, Ancient Egypt was slightly different – different because of its strange, multipart conception of selfhood, its geographical isolation, and its persistent preoccupation with what happens to us after we die. Try a quiz on this episode at literatureandhistory.com to make sure you remember the names of events of the Epic of Gilgamesh. If you want to hear a short song, I’ll play one for you in a minute, and if not, thanks so much for being curious about ancient Mesopotamian literature, and listening to this show, and I’ll see you next time.

Still here? Alright, well, as I said I was reading the lengthy description of the Sumerian underworld – one that dates back to the late 2,000s BCE.5 In this underworld, some people are happy, and others suffer. A man who has had five sons appears “Like a man with a team of four donkeys [and] his heart rejoices” (187). A man with seven sons is also quite happy – we learn that “Among the junior deities he sites on a throne and listens to the proceedings” (188). Others, however, aren’t doing so well. A eunuch, for instance, “Like a useless. . .stick he is propped in a corner” (188). A man who has been eaten by a lion is crying for all eternity. And strangest of all – to me – a man who has fallen off a roof is described as having a very grim fate. “They cannot repair his bones,” the epic tells us, “He twitches like an ox as the maggots consume him” (189). That seemed particularly harsh to me, and so I wrote this short tune, which is called “Don’t Fall Off the Roof.” Hope it’s amusing, and Osiris, Isis, Anubis, Thoth, and Amun-Ra and I will see you next time, for a show on the Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead.


1.^ Quoted in Greenblatt, Stephen. The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve. W.W. Norton, 2017, p. 83.

2.^ Anonymous. The Epic of Gilgamesh. Translated by Andrew George. New York: Penguin Classics, 1999, p. 3. Further references noted parenthetically.

3.^ Podany, Amanda H. The Ancient Near East: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014, p. 88.

4.^ Ibid, p. 91.

5.^ Andrew George notes that the tablet “clearly alludes to the situation that obtained in Sumer in the late third millenium BC, when the state ruled by the Third Dynasty of Ur collapsed under the pressure of Amorite incursions and Elamite invasion” (177).