The Epic of Gilgamesh

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Paraphrase of Tablets 11-12

Reading time: 5 minutes. Word count: 900 words.

That is the story of how Uta-Napishtim survived the flood and became immortal. But what about Gilgamesh's quest? After Uta-Napishtim tells the story of the flood, we return to the reason that Gilgamesh originally came to this place: he was looking for the secret of eternal life. The test that Gilgamesh is given usually strikes a chord with overworked college students: all Gilgamesh has to do is to stay awake for six days and seven nights. Of course, he fails in this quest, and he fails again when given a second chance at immortality. In the end, Gilgamesh confers with Enkidu's ghost who tells him about existence in the land of the dead (this is another parallel with the Homeric hero Odysseus, who also consults with ghosts in the land of the dead).

Gilgamish Tested

When Uta-Napishtim had finished the story of the Deluge, he said to Gilgamish, "Now, as touching thyself; who will gather the gods together for thee, so that thou mayest find the life which thou seekest? Come now, do not lay thyself down to sleep for six days and seven nights." But in spite of this admonition, as soon as Gilgamish had sat down, drowsiness overpowered him and he fell fast asleep.

Uta-Napishtim, seeing that even the mighty hero Gilgamish could not resist falling asleep, with some amusement drew the attention of his wife to the fact, but she felt sorry for the tired man, and suggested that he should take steps to help him to return to his home. In reply Uta-Napishtim told her to bake bread for him, and she did so, but she noted by a mark on the house-wall each day that he slept. On the seventh day, when she took the loaf, Uta-Napishtim touched Gilgamish, and the hero woke up with a start, and admitted that he had been overcome with sleep, and made incapable of movement thereby.

Still vexed with the thought of death and filled with anxiety to escape from it, Gilgamish asked his host what he should do and where he should go to effect his object. By Uta-Napishtim's advice, he made an agreement with Ur-Shanabi the boatman, and prepared to re-cross the sea on his way home. But before he set out on his way Uta-Napishtim told him of the existence of a plant which grew at the bottom of the sea, and apparently led Gilgamish to believe that the possession of it would confer upon him immortality.

Gilgamish and the Plant of Immortality

Thereupon Gilgamish tied heavy stones to his feet, and let himself down into the sea through an opening in the floor of the boat. When he reached the bottom of the sea, he saw the plant and plucked it, and ascended into the boat with it. Showing it to Ur-Shanabi, he told him that it was a most marvellous plant, and that it would enable a man to obtain his heart's desire. Its name was "Shbu issahir amelu," i.e., "The old man becometh young again," and Gilgamish declared that he would "eat of it in order to recover his lost youth," and that he would take it home to his fortified city of Erech.

Misfortune, however, dogged his steps, and the plant never reached Erech, for whilst Gilgamish and Ur-Shanabi were on their way back to Erech they passed a pool the water of which was very cold, and Gilgamish dived into it and took a bath. Whilst there a serpent discovered the whereabouts of the plant through its smell and swallowed it. When Gilgamish saw what had happened he cursed aloud, and sat down and wept, and the tears coursed down his cheeks as he lamented over the waste of his toil, and the vain expenditure of his heart's blood, and his failure to do any good for himself.

Disheartened and weary he struggled on his way with his friend, and at length they arrived at the fortified city of Erech. Then Gilgamish told Ur-Shanabi to jump up on the wall and examine the bricks from the foundations to the battlements, and see if the plans which he had made concerning them had been carried out during his absence.

Gilgamish and the Ghost of Enkidu

The text of the Twelfth Tablet is very defective, but it seems certain that Gilgamish, having failed in his quest for eternal life, could now think of nothing better than to know the worst by calling up the ghost of Enkidu and enquiring of him as to the condition of the dead in the Underworld.

He therefore asked the priests what precautions should be taken in order to prevent a ghost from haunting one, and, being informed of these, he purposely did everything against which he had been warned, so that the ghosts might come about him. This, however, failed to bring Enkidu, so Gilgamish prayed to the god Enlil that he should raise him up, but Enlil made no reply. Next Gilgamish prayed to the Moon-god, but again his prayer was ignored. He then appealed to the god Ea, who, taking pity on him, ordered the warrior-god Nergal to open a hole in the earth.

Out of this the ghost of Enkidu rose "like a wind," and the two friends embraced again. Gilgamish at once began eagerly to question the ghost about the condition of the dead, but Enkidu was loath to answer, for he knew that what he must reveal would only cause his friend dejection. But the last lines of the Tablet tell the lot of those who have died in various circumstances; though some who have been duly buried are in better case, the fate of others who have none to pay them honour is miserable, for they are reduced to feeding upon dregs and scraps of food thrown into the street.

Questions. Make sure you can answer these questions about what you just read:

  • How did Uta-Napishtim test Gilgamish?
  • How did Gilgamish win the plant of immortality? How did he lose it?
  • What did the ghost of Enkidu tell Gilgamish?

Source: The Babylonian Story of the Deluge and the Epic of Gilgamish by E.A. Wallis Budge (1929). Weblink.

Modern Languages / Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Mythology. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:52 PM