The Epic of Gilgamesh Part 3

This is part three of my notes on the Epic of Gilgamesh.  Part one can be found here and part two, here.


Tablet VIII

Enkidu is dead, and Gilgamesh is devastated.  He laments him, ripping his hair and clothes.  He commissions a statue for him, immortalizing him in the only way he can.  He also takes responsibility for providing for Enkidu in the underworld.  He sets aside gold and slaughtered animals to give as gifts to important people in the underworld, people who can help Enkidu upon his arrival:  the netherworld’s queen, its shepherd, courier, housekeeper, and meat carver, and also its blame bearer.

Tablet IX

Gilgamesh is a changed man.  This boastful warrior, upon witnessing the death of his beloved friend, has grown afraid of death.   Now, feeling desperate, he decides to begin a quest to find Atrahasis (the Mesopotamian Noah, who was granted eternal life by the gods after the flood – see a synopsis of the story and my thoughts here) and ask him how he too can live eternally.  Now that he has experienced death, Gilgamesh’s sole purpose in life is to figure out how he can escape it.

His journey first leads him to the Twin Peaks: the mountains the sun passes between as it sets, and which is guarded by scorpion monsters.   The Mesopotamians believed that when the sun set, it traveled through a tunnel to the other side of the world, and if you were fast enough to make it through the tunnel before the sun came back around the world and caught up with you, you would find yourself at the ends of the earth.  This is where Atrahasis lives (the only person, along with his wife, who was awarded this privilege).

At first, the scorpion monster won’t let Gilgamesh pass through the tunnel.  But the scorpion monster’s wife intervenes.  There is a gap in the text, and when the text resumes the monster has allowed him passage.  He has only 12 hours to get through the tunnel before the sun catches up to him.  He races through the dark tunnel heroically and comes out ahead of the sun.  When he comes out, he is in a beautiful grove of trees – the trees of the gods.

Tablet X

There is a tavern here at the end of the earth, and a woman named Siduri is its keeper.  Gilgamesh approaches her and frightens her terribly.  I should mention here that after Enkidu died and Gilgamesh set off on his journey, he left civilization behind him in every sense of the word.  He has arrived here at the tavern clothed in lion skins and looking like a wild beast. When Siduri sees him, she immediately bars the door.  Gilgamesh, confused, asks he why she has shut him out and threatens to strike down her door.  In return, she asks him why he looks the way he does.  He explains himself and tells her about the death of his friend.  “I would not give him up for burial, until a worm fell out of his nose.”  Gross.

Siduri responds to Gilgamesh’s sad tale by telling him that he will not find the eternal life he is seeking.  Then she gives him some solid Mesopotamian advice on the meaning of life:  death is established by the gods for man, and only the gods may live eternally.  Man’s work is to delight in his days, play and dance, be clean, and love his mate and his children.

Gilgamesh, having no interest in her advice, brushes it aside and asks her to tell him the way to Atrahasis.  He discovers that Atrahasis lives across the sea, and no one can cross it except Samash alone, and the sun.  Midway across the sea lie the waters of death, which are impassible.  Well, not completely impassible, because Ur-Shanabi, Atrahasis’ boatman, has the Stone Charms.  Perhaps Gilgamesh can cross with him.

With new hope, Gilgamesh leaves the tavern, finds Ur-Shanabi, and attacks him.  The Stone Charms end up smashed and thrown into the sea.  Ooops.

After the attack, the two men have a chat.  Ur-Shanabi says he can’t take Gilgamesh to see Atrahasis because the Stone Charms have been smashed.  Then he thinks up another way to cross.  He tells Gilgamesh to go into the forest and cut poles.  After one hundred and twenty poles have been gathered, the two men set off on the boat, using the poles to push the boat across the waters of death.  After all of the poles are gone, Gilgamesh removes his clothing and uses it as a sail (I am reminded of September in the book The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, whose dress becomes a sail that brings her to The Bottom of the World, and have to wonder if Ms. Valente was alluding to this epic).

With their makeshift sail, they make it across and Gilgamesh meets Atrahasis, who asks him to explain his haggardly appearance.  He explains himself and in return receives a lecture:  Gilgamesh’s journey was nothing but foolishness and will only hasten the end of his days.  Nothing man does is forever; there is something, living, then suddenly there is nothing.  The gods establish life and death, and they do not reveal the time of death.

My thoughts:

The major theme I recognize in this part of the story is an attempt to answer the question:  What is man’s true purpose?

Gilgamesh’s appearance provides a partial answer for us.  The farther away from the city he gets, the more uncivilized his appearance becomes.  Everyone he runs into is shocked by the way he looks.  He is described as wild, beast-like, unclean, haggard.  There is a major theme of humanity being connected with city life.  The farther away from the city you are, the less human you become. Man’s rightful place is in the city, and his highest purpose is to become civilized.

The tavern-keeper and Atrahasis both give Gilgamesh advice that gives us some insight into Mesopotamian beliefs.  Man should delight in his days, play and dance, be clean, love his wife and children.  A clear line is drawn between the gods and man, and any attempt to cross the line is foolishness.  Man should focus on the here and now, and leave the big stuff to the gods.  The birth of major philosophy would have to wait for the Greeks.

On another note, I am struck by the ancient practice of supporting the dead.  Not only did the Mesopotamians have to appease the gods, they also had to provide for their dead ancestors.  If gifts aren’t offered to those in charge of the afterworld on behalf of your relations, their eternity will be the bleakest possible version of the Mesopotamian version of Hades (which under the best circumstances is bad enough).  It seems such a huge burden to carry.

I’m going to try to wrap up this book in the next post.

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