Gilgamesh and Enkidu

Page 12 of The Mythic Roots of Western Culture’s Alienation from Nature. Adams and Belasco. Tapestry Institute Occasional Papers, Volume 1, Number 3. July, 2015. Outline / List of Headings available here.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu

Gilgamesh is 2/3 god and 1/3 human, a leader and the hero, born of Uruk, the goring wild bull. . . Mighty net, protector of his people” (51) Before the story opens, he builds the city of Uruk out of bricks fired with wondrous new technology. But, to the anguish of Uruk’s citizens, Gilgamesh is also an arrogant oppressor. No young man or woman is safe from impressed labor and sexual demands. He rages through the city like a powerful wild bull on a rampage that no one can stop. So the people call on the gods for help, specifically something that will balance their king’s manic energy. In response, the gods create Enkidu.

Enkidu is created directly from clay, in the wilderness, 1/3 god and 2/3 human. He is “offspring of the mountains, who eats grasses with the gazelles, came to drink at the watering hole with the animals, with the wild beasts he slaked his thirst with water. . . a primitive, a savage fellow from the depths of the wilderness!” A trapper finds that someone has been releasing all the animals he’s caught in pits and snares, and so discovers the presence of Enkidu. Coming face to face with him at a watering hole, he’s frightened and goes for help. A plan is hatched to have a woman go to the watering hole, seduce Enkidu, and thereby tame him: “his animals, who grew up in his wilderness, will be alien to him.” The plan works. After Enkidu spends several days with the woman from Uruk and then tries to return to his animal friends, “the gazelles saw Enkidu and darted off, the wild animals distanced themselves from his body.” (52) So Enkidu leaves the wilderness forever and travels to Uruk.

In Uruk, Enkidu learns that Gilgamesh plans to claim first night rights on a local bride and decides he cannot let such injustice happen. He fights Gilgamesh over the matter and their combat shivers the city to its foundations but generates mutual respect and admiration for one another’s strength and character. They become the closest of friends and embark on adventures together.

Their first adventure is a journey to a Cedar Forest sacred to a major god, Enlil. To protect this forest, Enlil has posted a fierce guard named Humbaba, a monster whose “roar is a Flood, his mouth is Fire, and his breath is Death!” “A terror to human beings,” Humbaba literally paralyzes intruders with fear. But Gilgamesh tells Enkidu, “I will establish my fame for eternity” by going to the Cedar Forest, killing Humbaba, and cutting down the largest tree there. The Elders of Uruk beg him not to go, but Gilgamesh is adamant. “I want to make myself more mighty,” he tells them (53).

Gilgamesh and Humbaba have a tremendous battle that literally splits open the ground and raises tempests of the Thirteen Winds. Finally Humbaba begs for his life, offering to serve Gilgamesh if he is released unharmed, saying “As many trees as you command me I will cut down for you.” But Gilgamesh cuts off his head. Then he and Enkidu “cut down the towering Cedar whose top scrapes the sky.” They make a giant city or temple door out of its wood and a raft for themselves, then float everything down the Euphrates River to the walled city of Nippur, Enkidu steering and Gilgamesh carrying Humbaba’s severed head (54). Their destination is intriguing: Nippur happens to be the location of Enlil’s temple (55). So the story ends with Gilgamesh not only cutting down the mightiest and most sacred tree in Enlil’s sacred forest, and killing the guard he’d set there to protect it, but then traveling to Enlil’s temple to deliberately flaunt the spoils in his face.

In his second adventure, Gilgamesh kills a bull sacred to a different god, Anu. Anu has given the bull to his daughter, the goddess Ishtar. After Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill the sacred bull, Enkidu cuts off its hindquarters and flings them into Ishtar’s face with insults (56). Although Gilgamesh and Enkidu celebrate their victory with friends, this time they pay a price for their actions: the gods Enlil, Anu, and Shamash strike Enkidu with a fatal illness from which he painfully dies (57), though they spare Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh is inconsolable, and only part of it has to do with losing his friend (58).

Over his friend, Enkidu, Gilgamesh cried bitterly, roaming the wilderness.
“I am going to die!–am I not like Enkidu?!
Deep sadness penetrates my core,
I fear death, and now roam the wilderness–“

In Gilgamesh’s third and final journey he must travel alone since Enkidu has died. This time he’s in search of something he can use to restore life to the dead. After pushing through strange territories and crossing the Sea of Death to the Underworld on a frail punt, Gilgamesh finds Utanapishtim the Faraway, who once lived in the walled city of Shuruppak on the banks of the Euphrates. He tells Gilgamesh about a cataclysmic flood that killed everyone in his homeland many years ago, and of the great ship he built on the advice of the god Ea to save himself and his family from death. After a long visit, Utanapishtim finally gives Gilgamesh the information he’s come all this way to get:

I will disclose to you a thing that is hidden, Gilgamesh . . .
There is a plant. . . like a boxthorn,
whose thorns will prick your hand like a rose.
If your hands reach that plant you will become a young man again.

With heroic effort, Gilgamesh gets hold of this thorny plant and heads back to Uruk bearing his prize. But when nearly home, he stops to bathe and so does not notice that a snake has been attracted by the plant’s fragrance. The snake takes the plant and thereby gains the ability to shed its skin. “At that point Gilgamesh sat down, weeping, his tears streaming over the side of his nose.” (59) Devastated, the hero-king returns to Uruk empty-handed. The story ends abruptly with Gilgamesh showing the walls of Uruk to the ferryman who’s given him a ride to the city, pointing out the technology that permitted manufacture of its bricks and returning the story to the very place it began (60).

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References, Notes, and Credits
Gilgamesh and Enkidu

51. The Epic of Gilgamesh, Op. cit., Tablet I.

52. Ibid

53. The Epic of Gilgamesh, Op. cit., Tablet II. Gilgamesh’s explanation that he wants to make a name for himself by killing Humbaba and cutting down the Cedar is, of course, classic Hero language from the Hero’s Journey Myth. But the Cedar Forest and its resident monster (remember the dragons and ogres Gawain encountered) are elements of the Dark Forest, Fiery Desert Myth. This shows us that the story motif combining Hero’s Journey and Dark Forest, Fiery Desert Myths — as seen in contemporary stories like Lawrence of Arabia — is at least 4000 years old.

54. Ibid, Tablet V.

55. Adam Stone, ‘Enlil/Ellil (god)’, Ancient Mesopotamian Gods and Goddesses, Oracc and the UK Higher Education Academy, 2013 [] Accessed July 8, 2015.

56. The Epic of Gilgamesh, Op. cit., Tablet VI.

57. Ibid, Tablets VII and VIII. and

58. Ibid, Tablet VIII.

59. Ibid, Tablet XI.

60. Ibid, Tablet XI.