It will be important to provide my students with some brief geographic and historic background of this epic before reading the chosen excerpts. To this end I would present the following summary, asking them to underline the important information. The book
Foster, Benjamin. The Epic of Gilgamesh: A Norton Critical Edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001is an excellent source for this material.
Gilgamesh is one of the oldest stories in the world recorded in various Sumerian versions. The traditional story was based on a king who ruled during the latter half of the third millennium. It is said that he was fifth in line of the First Dynasty as the ancient King of Uruk whose name is on the Sumerian King List. He was supposed to have reigned for 126 years. The Sumerian city of Uruk was located in Babylonia, an ancient state in the south part of Mesopotamia comprised of the territories of Sumer and Akkad. This geographical area is today located in southern Iraq. Mesopotamia is actually Greek for "between two rivers," the Tigris and the Euphrates. Uruk was closer to the Euphrates. This area underwent rapid changes during this period turning villages into cities with temples, palaces, and diversity of labor. Rulers sought what they needed from near and far, things like gold and lumber for building. Tensions sometimes ran high as conflicts arose between cities and the outlying countryside as the king's wishes were honored.
Without the benefit of written texts, oral storytellers sometimes enhanced the story of the king. Stories were passed on for thousands of years, varying from bard to girot, adapting as they went along. The names of kings, places, and people were added and subtracted to meet the needs and interests of a current audience. Perhaps this was the beginning of "spinning" a story. The story of Gilgamesh does not appear to be part of such an oral tradition. Rather it was thought to be a scholarly endeavor for the more educated people of the time. After a long history of varying versions, the story was finally recorded in a standardized Akkadian version as Sumer was conquered by the Akkadians in the seventh century B.C. It was stored in the famous library of King Assurbanipal who reigned ca.669 B.C to ca.627 B.C. The pieces of the recorded story survived thousands of years. Many of the versions were written on clay tablets then fired. Although many of the tablets were broken over time, the story has been pieced together to form the standard version we have today. Had it been written on papyrus, parchment, leather, or wood it would not have survived. Many of the versions were written using a set of symbols we call
, a script very difficult to learn so that when it was rewritten by scribes it was done with great precision. With Gilgamesh, the accuracy is much more complicated. Since the manuscripts span thousands of years and there are many variants, it becomes very difficult to translate the material. The original author is unknown but the latest and most complete version yet found, composed no later than around 600 B.C., was signed by a Babylonian author and editor who called himself Sin-Leqi-Unninni. Sin-Leqi-Unninni was a scholar living in the second half of the second millennium and member of a distinguished family of Babylonia who wrote the eleven-tablet version. The twelfth tablet was later added as it seem relevant and useful to the story.
Some say that the story is a snapshot of a time and place, but a snapshot freeze that time and space forever. An epic poem such as Gilgamesh is constantly open to interpretation as more information becomes available. There are many snapshots in this poem and all of them bring out comparisons, inconsistencies, and philosophic considerations for the scholar who wishes to learn something of human history. There are several ideas that are central to any examination of this narrative: theme, structure, conventions of language, the gods, the flood, and the nature of the heroes. From these a tremendous discourse will surely follow.
Reading the Text - Benjamin Foster The Epic of Gilgamesh: A Norton Critical Edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001.
Before actually reading the text I would ask my students to answer following questions in their journals: (All bulleted areas are to be answered in their journals)
- What is a hero? What is heroic? What is a villain? What is villainous? How can we determine what is fact and what is fiction?
The poem opens in lines 1-10 (p.3) with our discovery that the narrator has transcribed an oral story into verse as told by Gilgamesh to him. He invites us in the next lines 11-27 to view the great city, its high walls, its masonry work, its great cedar gates, and its lapis lazuli stone craved with Gilgamesh's exploits. "Is not its masonry of kiln-fired brick? . . . One square mile of city, one square mile of gardens. . .Take up and read from the lapis tablet".
- I would ask my students to render a drawing of the city from this description.
We find out in lines 48- 76 (p.4-5) that Gilgamesh is two-thirds god, son of the goddess Ninsun and one-third human, his father being a high priest of Kullab, a mortal. He is essentially spiritual yet not fully divine. He is young, blessed with beauty, famous, super strong, and mistreats his people. Already the author has set in motion a conflict that has no resolution.
- What conflicts might arise as a result of the fact that he is part god and part man?
Upon a plea from the people, Anu, the sky god and chief god of Uruk, creates Enkidu, a wild man who lives in the forest and serves as a counterbalance to Gilgamesh, lines 100-115 (p.6) When Enkidu is discovered, Shamhat, a temple harlot is sent to morally corrupt him.
- What are the similarities/differences between Enkidu and Gilgamesh?
- What is gained and lost as one goes from primitive to civilized?
- Was it a dirty trick to send Shamhat to seduce Enkidu? Why/why not?
- Does this show a weakness in Enkidu or civilization in general?
Immediately after this happens, he loses his strength but in its place he gains understanding and knowledge.
- Is the trade off worth it?
Saddened by his lost, Shamhat offers to bring him to the city to meet Gilgamesh, the only man worthy of his friendship.
Shepherds teach Enkidu the ways of civilization: how to eat, to tend sheep, to speak properly, and how to dress. As Enkidu enters the city he discovers that Gilgamesh has human weakness and after a fierce fight, Enkidu concedes to Gilgamesh's superiority and the two become devoted to each other. lines 95-115 (p.16)
Both soon become lazy, so Gilgamesh proposes that they journey to the great cedar forest to claim the cedar trees. Enkidu knows that Humbaba the Terrible guards the forest so he tries in vain to convince Gilgamesh that they should not go.
- Show photos of Humbaba and have student predict what will happen.
Tablet Four and Five:
They advance toward the forest and meet Humbaba. Gilgamesh becomes somewhat skeptical as is seen in lines 38-40 (p.40). Encouraged by Enkidu, Gilgamesh fights Humbaba and can overtake him but has second thoughts. Enkidu says, "My friend ! Do not listen to what Humbaba [says]" line 76 (p.41). Humbaba realizes he is doomed and begins to curse, but in the end is killed by Gilgamesh. They proceed to cut down the trees, building a gigantic cedar door to travel on down the Euphrates and later bestow it on Enlil as a gift.
Gilgamesh washes and dresses and attracts Ishtar, the goddess of love, whom he rejects because she has left her past loves in ruins. Angered, Ishtar pleads with her father, Anu, to send a bull to destroy Enkidu and Gilgamesh. "Father, Gilgamesh has said outrageous things about me"(p. 48). The bull comes down and tries to destroy the Euphrates. Enkidu restrains the bull while Gilgamesh stabs it. They offer the heart to Shamash, condemn Ishtar, and hang the immense horns in Gilgamesh's bedroom as a trophy. After overcoming Humbaba and the bull, we learn that Enkidu is in the story to die.
The Council of the gods, Anu, Enril, Ea, and Shamash, decided that since the bull and cedar trees were cut down, one of the two heroes must die.
Enkidu falls ill and curses the cedar door when he realizes that it is he who must die. Gilgamesh tries to comfort him saying that death is harder on those left behind. Enkidu continues to curse his circumstance by blaming the hunter and harlot for his predicament. He prays to Shamash asking that a curse be placed upon the hunter and the harlot, the two people he blames for his destiny. Still, he must and does die.
- Why is it that Enkidu must die and not Gilgamesh?
Gilgamesh grieves the loss of Enkidu, lines 1-55 (p.60-61).and commissions a statue be built in his honor.
- Why do we put up statues to honor the dead?
- What does Gilgamesh now realize about himself in Tablet 9?
- What would your friends say about you, if they had to eulogize you?
Grief has overtaken Gilgamesh and his life is left to fall apart. He reverts back to the wild much like Enkidu, failing to bathe or take care of personal hygiene. Suddenly he is also taken with panic as he realizes that he, too, must die. Knowing that Utnapishtim and his wife are the only mortals to be granted eternal life by the gods, he decides to journey to Far-Away, near the mouth of the rivers at the end of the world. Gilgamesh arrives at Mount Mashum and is met by the scorpion monsters, who try to discourage his travels because no one can traverse the tunnel through the mountains in twelve hours. Still they let him pass. He knows that he must race through the tunnel and arrive before the sun rises. He arrives before the sun.
- Have students read lines 82-120 (p.62-63) and write about how the narrator achieves suspense.
Gilgamesh visits the tavern owned by Siduri who is frightened by his ragged appearance. She questions why a King would visit so remote an area. Gilgamesh explains his adventures and loss of Enkidu and asks how he can find Utnapishtim.
- Siduri asks Gilgamesh why he is in such a hurry. Have students find her words of warning. Lines 77-92 (p.75)
- What is Gilgamesh seeking? Why is it impossible for him to be seeking eternal life?
She tells him to find Ur-Shanabi, Utnapishtim's boatman. Gilgamesh, without provocation, just advances toward him and in the process smashes the stone charms which are needed to journey to Utnapishtim. The ferryman tells him that he can not take him there because the stone charms are smashed but he also tells him to cut down several trees in order to use them as punting poles. These poles will guide Gilgamesh through the Waters of Death because if he touches the water, he will die. Upon reaching the other side, Gilgamesh encounters another man who tells Gilgamesh that death is a necessary fact willed by the gods.
Gilgamesh realizes that his anger and violent behavior are no longer necessary. Instead he needs knowledge. He discovers that this ordinary, old man is, in fact, Utnapishtim, the world's wisest man. He wants to know how he alone escaped death and became immortal. Utnapishtim tells him how the Enlil, the god of the living, had sent a great flood because the overpopulated human race was too much for him to deal with. Enki, god of wisdom and water, tried to thwart attempts to reduce the population then warned Utnapishtim about the flood.
- Have students read the flood passage lines 9-180 and ask them to decide if there is a relationship between this story and one they know. A copy of the biblical flood story (Genesis 6:14) would help in this comparison.
Gilgamesh is challenged by Utnapishtim to go without sleep for a week but instantly falls asleep and stays asleep for a week. His wife urges Utnapishtim to have mercy on him after he is shown the loaves of bread as proof of his sleep. Gilgamesh gives up in despair and is told to return home. As he and the ferryman are about to embark on their journey, Utnapishtim's wife asks her husband to intervene. He tells Gilgamesh of a plant which will not give him eternal life but rather youth. Gilgamesh dives for the plant much like pearl divers. When he rises from the water he is on the other side of the ocean where he started. He decides to test the plant back in Uruk on an old man. As he bathes, a snake eats the plant, shedding its skin and rejuvenating itself.
- After reading this section lines 275-322 (p.93-94) ask the students to decide if this story is similar to any that they have heard before.
Now Gilgamesh is without the plant, a shaft, or a boat, so he can not return. He completes his journey home, inviting Ur-Shanabi, the ferryman , to inspect the city walls with its lapis lazuli stones on which Gilgamesh's accounts of his exploits are carved.
- Is there a moral to this story?
- Have is fact and what is fiction?
Finally, students will fill in the traveler board information.