Key Excerpts from The Epic of Gilgamesh
TEOG itself, not just a part of it, is a wonderful example of the way religion effected the literature of the time. Throughout the story, the gods play definitive roles. In fact, Gilgamesh himself is two-thirds god. What follow here are a few excerpts from the summary of Gilgamesh, in which good examples of religion and politics are present.
Excerpt 1, Tablet 1:
The account begins: Gilgamesh, two-thirds god and one-third human, is the greatest king on earth and the strongest super-human that ever existed; however, he is young and oppresses his people harshly. The people call out to the sky-god Anu, the chief god of the city, to help them. In response, Anu creates a wild man, Enkidu, out in the harsh and wild forests surrounding Gilgamesh's lands. This brute, Enkidu, has the strength of dozens of wild animals; he is to serve as the subhuman rival to the superhuman Gilgamesh.
In this excerpt, the people of Uruk are calling out to the sky-god, Anu, the first god the story mentions, and the guardian of Uruk.
Excerpt 2, Tablet 1:
Gilgamesh meanwhile has two dreams; in the first a meteorite falls to earth which is so great that Gilgamesh can neither lift it nor turn it. The people gather and celebrate around the meteorite, and Gilgamesh embraces it as he would a wife, but his mother, the goddess Rimat-Ninsun, forces him to compete with the meteorite. In the second, Gilgamesh dreams that an axe appears at his door, so great that he can neither lift it nor turn it. The people gather and celebrate around the axe, and Gilgamesh embraces it as he would a wife, but his mother, again, forces him to compete with the axe. Gilgamesh asks his mother what these dreams might mean; she tells him a man of great force and strength will come into Uruk. Gilgamesh will embrace this man as he would a wife, and this man will help Gilgamesh perform great deeds.
This time, Gilgamesh's goddess mother, Rimat-Ninsun, is influencing the literature.
Excerpt 3, Tablet 2:
Both Enkidu and Gilgamesh gradually weaken and grow lazy living in the city, so Gilgamesh proposes a great adventure: they are to journey to the great Cedar Forest in southern Iran and cut down all the cedar trees. To do this, they will need to kill the Guardian of the Cedar Forest, the great demon, Humbaba the Terrible. Enkidu knows about Humbaba from his days running wild in the forest; he tries in vain to convince Gilgamesh not to undertake this folly.
For the first time, rather than seeing gods in the literature, we're introduced to Humbaba, a demon.
Excerpt 4, Tablet 2:
Enkidu then enters the city of Uruk during a great celebration. Gilgamesh, as the king, claims the right to have sexual intercourse first with every new bride on the day of her wedding; as Enkidu enters the city, Gilgamesh is about to claim that right.
In this excerpt is a brief description of a political influence. That is, the king's right to have intercourse with a new bride on the day of her wedding. This is similar to the rights of nobles and kings in some other cultures.
Excerpt 5, Tablet 3:
Gilgamesh's mother laments her son's fate in a prayer to the sun-god, Shamash, asking that god why he put a restless heart in the breast of her son. Shamash promises her that he will watch out for Gilgamesh's life.
This time Shamash, the sun-god, is taking a critical role in the story, that of protecting the life of Gilgamesh in his battle with Humbaba.
Excerpt 6, Tablet 4:
Tablet four tells the story of the journey to the cedar forest. On each day of the six day journey, Gilgamesh prays to Shamash; in response to these prayers, Shamash sends Gilgamesh oracular dreams during the night. These dreams are all ominous: The first is not preserved. In the second, Gilgamesh dreams that he wrestles a great bull that splits the ground with his breath. Enkidu interprets the dream for Gilgamesh; the dream means that Shamash, the bull, will protect Gilgamesh.
Again, Shamash influences the plot of the tale, this time by sending Gilgamesh a series of rather ominous dreams.
Excerpt 7, Tablet 4:
At the entrance to the Cedar Forest, Gilgamesh begins to quake with fear; he prays to Shamash, reminding him that he had promised Ninsun that he would be safe. Shamash calls down from heaven, ordering him to enter the forest because Humbaba is not wearing all his armor. The demon Humbaba wears seven coats of armor, but now he is only wearing one so he is particularly vulnerable.
Shamash directly tells Gilgamesh how to act here. Also, we get some details about Humbaba.
Excerpt 8, Tablet 5:
Gilgamesh and Enkidu enter the gloriously beautiful Cedar Forest and begin to cut down the trees. Hearing the sound, Humbaba comes roaring up to them and warns them off. Enkidu shouts at Humbaba that the two of them are much stronger than the demon, but Humbaba, who knows Gilgamesh is a king, taunts the king for taking orders from a nobody like Enkidu. Turning his face into a hideous mask, Humbaba begins to threaten the pair, and Gilgamesh runs and hides. Enkidu shouts at Gilgamesh, inspiring him with courage, and Gilgamesh appears from hiding and the two begin their epic battle with Humbaba. Shamash intrudes on the battle, helping the pair, and Humbaba is defeated. On his knees, with Gilgamesh's sword at his throat, Humbaba begs for his life and offers Gilgamesh all the tress in the forest and his eternal servitude. While Gilgamesh is thinking this over, Enkidu intervenes, telling Gilgamesh to kill Humbaba before any of the gods arrive and stop him from doing so.
Firstly, we see the battle of Gilgamesh and Enkidu against the demon, Humbaba. Shamash directly intercedes, helping the pair defeat him. Also, when Gilgamesh is deciding wether or not to let Humbaba live, Enkidu tells him to kill him, before any of the gods stop him from doing so. Both the helping of Shamash and Enkidu's warning show that the Mesopotamians believed that at any time, the gods might intervene in any affairs.
Excerpt 9, Tablet 6:
After these events, Gilgamesh, his fame widespread and his frame resplendent in his wealthy clothes, attracts the sexual attention of the goddess Ishtar, who comes to Gilgamesh and offers to become his lover. Gilgamesh refuses with insults, listing all the mortal lovers that Ishtar has had and recounting the dire fates they all met with at her hands. Deeply insulted, Ishtar returns to heaven and begs her father, the sky-god Anu, to let her have the Bull of Heaven to wreak vengeance on Gilgamesh and his city:
Now the daughter of Anu, Ishtar, comes into the story, and wants Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh declines, and she is deeply insulted.
Father, let me have the Bull of Heaven
To kill Gilgamesh and his city.
For if you do not grant me the Bull of Heaven,
I will pull down the Gates of Hell itself,
Crush the doorposts and flatten the door,
And I will let the dead leave
And let the dead roam the earth
And they shall eat the living.
The dead will overwhelm all the living!
Anu reluctantly gives in, and the Bull of Heaven is sent down into Uruk.
This part is strange, since Anu is the protector of Uruk, and yet allows his daughter to attempt to destroy it.
Each time the bull breathes, its breath is so powerful that enormous abysses are opened up in the earth and hundreds of people fall through to their deaths. Working together again, Gilgamesh and Enkidu slay the mighty bull. Ishtar is enraged, but Enkidu begins to insult her, saying that she is next, that he and Gilgamesh will kill her next, and he rips one of the thighs off the bull and hurls it into her face.
Excerpt 10 and 11, Tablet 7:
Enkidu falls ill after having a set of ominous dreams; he finds out from the priests that he has been singled out for vengeance by the gods. The Chief Gods have met and have decided that someone should be punished for the killing of Humbaba and the killing of the Bull of Heaven, so of the two heroes, they decide Enkidu should pay the penalty.
The will of the gods is presented into the story as the Chief Gods meet to decide who to punish for the slaying of Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven.
Enkidu then blesses the harlot and the trapper. In a dream, a great demon comes to take Enkidu and drags him to Hell, a House of Dust where all the dead end up; as he is dying, he describes Hell:
The house where the dead dwell in total darkness,
Where they drink dirt and eat stone,
Where they wear feathers like birds,
Where no light ever invades their everlasting darkness,
Where the door and the lock of Hell is coated with thick dust.
When I entered the House of Dust,
On every side the crowns of kings were heaped,
On every side the voices of the kings who wore those crowns,
Who now only served food to the gods Anu and Enlil,
Candy, meat, and water poured from skins.
I saw sitting in this House of Dust a priest and a servant,
I also saw a priest of purification and a priest of ecstasy,
I saw all the priests of the great gods.
There sat Etana and Sumukan,
There sat Ereshkigal, the queen of Hell,
Beletseri, the scribe of Hell, sitting before her.
Beletseri held a tablet and read it to Ereshkigal.
She slowly raised her head when she noticed me
She pointed at me:
"Who has sent this man?"
Here is one of the most important religious influences in Gilgamesh, Enkidu's description of hell.
Excerpts 12 and 13, Tablet 11:
He asks Utnapishtim how he received immortality, and Utnapishtim tells him the great secret hidden from humans: In the time before the Flood, there was a city, Shuruppak, on the banks of the Euphrates. There, the counsel of the gods held a secret meeting; they all resolved to destroy the world in a great flood.
This is similar to the Genesis flood account. After this, the flood starts:
The gods shook like beaten dogs, hiding in the far corners
Ishtar screamed and wailed:
"The days of old have turned to stone:
We have decided evil things in our Assembly!
Why did we decide those evil things in our Assembly?
Why did we decide to destroy our people?
We have only just now created our beloved humans;
We now destroy them in the sea!"
All the gods wept and wailed along with her,
All the gods sat trembling, and wept.
This excerpt further shows that the Sumerians believed their gods did many things that normal humans do, since they mourn their decision to destroy the humans.
Back to Mesopotamia