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A Summary of the Epic of Gilgamesh

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The Epic of Gilgamesh: A Summary


The Epic of Gilgamesh is a moving tale of the friendship between Gilgamesh, the demigod king of Uruk, and the wild man Enkidu. Accepting ones own mortality is the overarching theme of the epic as Gilgamesh and Enkidu find their highest purpose in the pursuit of eternal life.

The epic begins with Gilgamesh terrorizing the people of Uruk. They call out to the sky god Anu for help. In response Anu tells the goddess of creation, Aruru, to make an equal for Gilgamesh. Thus Aruru created Enkidu, a brute with the strength of dozens of wild animals. After being seduced by a harlot from the temple of love in Uruk, Enkidu loses his strength and wildness yet gains wisdom and understanding. The harlot offers to take him into Uruk where Gilgamesh lives, the only man worthy of Enkidu's friendship. After a brief brawl the two become devoted friends.

The newfound friends gradually weaken and grow lazy living in the city, so Gilgamesh proposes a great adventure that entails cutting down a great cedar forest to build a great monument to the gods. However to accomplish this they must kill the Guardian of the Cedar Forest, the great demon, Humbaba the Terrible. Enkidu, along with the elders of the city, have serious reservations about such an undertaking but in the end Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill the terrible demon.

As Gilgamesh cleans himself and his blood stained weapons, Ishtar, the goddess of love and beauty, takes notice of his beauty and offers to become his wife. Gilgamesh refuses with insults, listing all her mortal lovers and recounting the dire fates they all met with at her hands. Ishtar is enraged at the rebuff. She returns to heaven and begs her father, Anu, to let her have the Bull of Heaven to wreak vengeance on Gilgamesh and his city. Anu reluctantly gives in, and the Bull of Heaven is sent down to terrorize the people of Uruk. Gilgamesh and Enkidu, work together to slay the mighty bull. That following night Enkidu dreams that the chief gods met in a council and had decided that someone should be punished for the killing of Humbaba and the Bull of the Heavens. That someone is he. Enkidu commends himself to Gilgamesh, and after suffering terribly for twelve days, he finally dies.

After Enkidu's death, Gilgamesh comes to the realization that one day he too will succumb to the same fate as his friend. He sets out to find Utnapishtim the only mortal that the gods have granted eternal life in attempt to find the secret of immortality. After a long perilous journey through the land of darkness, through the garden of the gods, and across the waters of death, Gilgamesh arrives a shore where Utnapishtim lives. Gilgamesh recounts the story of Enkidu's death to Utnapishtim and how he came to his shore. He asks Utnapishtim to tell him the secret of eternal life. Utnapishtim advises Gilgamesh that death is a necessary fact because it is the will of the gods. Gilgamesh pursues the issue further until Utnapishtim recounts how he received immortality and reveals the greatest secret hidden from humans. At the end of his story, which is famously similar to Noah's flood in the book of Genesis, Utnapishtim offers Gilgamesh a chance at immortality. If Gilgamesh can stay awake for six days and seven nights, he, too, will become immortal. Gilgamesh accepts these conditions and sits down on the shore; the instant he sits down he falls asleep. When Gilgamesh awakes, he deigns that he had fallen asleep. Utnapishtim points to the loaves of bread that his wife laid at his side to count the number of days he slept. Utnapishtim's wife convinces the old man to have mercy on him; he offers Gilgamesh in place of immortality a secret plant that will make Gilgamesh young again. The plant is at the bottom of the ocean surrounding the shore. Gilgamesh ties stones to his feet, sinks to the bottom, and plucks the magic plant. But he doesn't use it because he does not trust it. He decides to take it back to Uruk and test it out on an old man first to make sure it work. On his way back, Gilgamesh stops at a well of cool water to drink. There hiding deep in the pool was a snake. When the snake sensed the sweetness of the flower, it rose up out of the water and snatched the plant away causing the snake to slough its skin.

There are a lot of similar themes to this epic as to some of the other mythological stories I have read in the past. I found this particular observation oddly strange because this tale was written thousands of years before many other similar tales. I think this is why this story of Gilgamesh has endured for so long. All in all it was a good read. However, it can be a little confusing at times. I especially like the part where Gilgamesh refuses Istar's advances. The imagery was quite amusing!

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