The fullest existing text of the Gilgamesh epic is on 12 unfinished Akkadian-language tablets discovered in the library of Assyrian monarch Ashurbanipal (reigned 668–627 BCE) at Nineveh in the mid-19th century by Turkish Assyriologist Hormuzd Rassam. Various fragments discovered elsewhere in Mesopotamia and Anatolia have partially filled the gaps in the tablets. In addition, five short Sumerian poems entitled “Gilgamesh and Huwawa,” “Gilgamesh and the Bull of Heaven,” “Gilgamesh and Agga of Kish,” “Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Netherworld,” and “The Death of Gilgamesh” have been discovered on tablets written during the first part of the 2nd millennium BCE.
The Ninevite version of the epic opens with a prologue in praise of Gilgamesh, the great builder and warrior, knower of all things on land and sea, who is both divine and part human. To counter Gilgamesh’s ostensibly harsh reign, the deity Anu creates Enkidu, a wild man who lives among animals at first. Enkidu, on the other hand, is quickly inducted into city life and journeys to Uruk, where Gilgamesh awaits him. Tablet II depicts a battle of strength between the two men, with Gilgamesh emerging victorious; Enkidu becomes Gilgamesh’s buddy and companion (in Sumerian literature, the servant). The two men set out against Huwawa (Humbaba), the divinely assigned keeper of a lonely cedar grove, in Tablets III–V, but the rest of the battle is lost in the surviving parts. In Tablet VI, Gilgamesh, who has returned to Uruk, rejects Ishtar’s marriage proposal and subsequently kills the divine bull that she sends to slaughter him with Enkidu’s help. Enkidu’s description of a dream in which the gods Anu, Ea, and Shamash determine that Enkidu shall die for killing the bull opens Tablet VII. Enkidu then becomes unwell and has nightmares about the “home of dust” that is waiting for him. Tablet VIII recounts Gilgamesh’s mourning for his companion and Enkidu’s state funeral. Gilgamesh then embarks on a perilous expedition (Tablets IX and X) in quest of Utnapishtim, a Babylonian Flood survivor, in order to learn from him how to avoid death. Gilgamesh is given the narrative of the Flood and shown where to find a plant that can restore youth when he eventually arrives at Utnapishtim (Tablet XI). However, after Gilgamesh retrieves the plant, a serpent seizes it and eats it, and Gilgamesh returns to Uruk, still mortal. Tablet XII, an appendix to the epic, describes the loss of pukku and mikku (possibly “drum” and “drumstick”), which Ishtar had given to Gilgamesh. The epic concludes with the reappearance of Enkidu’s spirit, who promises to retrieve the artifacts before giving a bleak report about the underworld.
Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, two-thirds god and one-third human, gifted by the gods with power, courage, and beauty, and the strongest and greatest ruler who ever existed, is introduced. Uruk, the great city, is highly acclaimed for its splendor and for its fortified brick walls.
The people of Uruk, on the other hand, are dissatisfied, claiming that Gilgamesh is too severe and that he exploits his position by sleeping with their women. Aruru, the goddess of creation, creates Enkidu, a powerful wild-man who rivals Gilgamesh in strength. He leads a normal existence among the wild creatures, but he quickly becomes a nuisance to the local shepherds and trappers, jostling the animals at the watering hole. Gilgamesh sends a temple prostitute, Shamhat, to seduce and tame Enkidu at the request of a trapper, and after six days and seven nights with the harlot, he is no longer a wild beast who lives with animals. The harlot ultimately persuades him to come to the city after he learns the ways of mankind and is despised by the animals he used to dwell with. Meanwhile, Gilgamesh has some weird dreams, which his mother, Ninsun, interprets as a sign that a powerful ally will arrive.
Enkidu, now civilized, embarks on a journey to Uruk with his consort, where he learns to assist local shepherds and trappers in their labor. When Gilgamesh arrives at a wedding party to sleep with the bride, as is his tradition, he is met by the great Enkidu, who opposes Gilgamesh’s ego, his treatment of women, and the desecration of marriage’s sacred connections. Gilgamesh beats Enkidu after a terrible battle, but breaks off and saves his life. He also starts to pay attention to what Enkidu says and learns the values of mercy and humility, as well as courage and dignity. Gilgamesh and Enkidu have both changed for the better as a result of their newfound relationship, and they have a lot to learn from one another. They grow to see one other as brothers and become inseparable over time.
Gilgamesh plans to journey to the sacred Cedar Forest to cut several huge trees and kill the guardian, the demon Humbaba, years later, tired with the placid existence in Uruk and wants to earn an everlasting name for himself. Enkidu objects to the proposal, claiming that the Cedar Forest is the sacred domain of the gods and not for mortals, but neither Enkidu nor the Uruk council of elders can persuade Gilgamesh to reconsider. Gilgamesh’s mother is likewise unhappy with the quest, but she eventually gives in and asks the sun-god Shamash for help. Enkidu is also given some guidance by her, and she adopts him as her second son.
Gilgamesh has some frightening dreams on the route to the Cedar Woodland, but Enkidu manages to explain them away as auspicious omens each time, and he encourages and urges Gilgamesh on when he gets scared again once he reaches the forest. Finally, the two heroes come face to face with Humbaba, the demon-ogre keeper of the sacred trees, and a massive battle ensues. Gilgamesh offers the monster his own sisters as wives and concubines in order to entice it to give up his seven layers of armour, and Humbaba is eventually vanquished with the help of the sun-god Shamash’s winds. The monster begs Gilgamesh for his life, and despite Enkidu’s practical advise to kill the beast, Gilgamesh initially pities the creature. After that, Humbaba curses them both, and Gilgamesh puts an end to it. Enkidu utilizes a giant cedar tree that the two heroes cut down to build a massive door for the gods, which he floats down the river.
Later, the goddess Ishtar (goddess of love and battle and daughter of the sky-god Anu) makes sexual attempts toward Gilgamesh, but he rejects her because of her former lovers’ maltreatment. Ishtar, who has been offended, demands that her father send the “Bull of Heaven” to revenge Gilgamesh’s rejection, threatening to revive the dead if he refuses. The beast delivers a tremendous drought and plague to the land, but Gilgamesh and Enkidu destroy the beast and present its heart to Shamash, hurling the bull’s hindquarters in the face of the enraged Ishtar, this time without divine assistance.
The city of Uruk rejoices at the tremendous triumph, but Enkidu has a nightmare in which the gods decide to punish him for slaying the Bull of Heaven and Humbaba. He condemns the gods for the gateway he built for them, as well as the trapper he met, the harlot he loved, and the day he became human. When Shamash speaks from heaven and shows out how unjust Enkidu is, he regrets his curses. He also mentions that if Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh will be reduced to a shadow of his former self. Nonetheless, the curse takes hold, and Enkidu gets increasingly ill day by day. He relates his descent into the terrifying black Underworld (the “House of Dust”), where the deceased wear feathers and eat mud as they die.
Gilgamesh is devastated by Enkidu’s death and makes offerings to the gods in the hopes of being allowed to wander in the Underworld alongside Enkidu. He commands the inhabitants of Uruk to mourn Enkidu, from the lowest farmer to the highest temple priests, and to erect Enkidu statues. Gilgamesh is so distraught about Enkidu’s death that he refuses to leave his side or allow his body to be buried until six days and seven nights after his death, when maggots start to fall off his body.
Gilgamesh is determined to avoid Enkidu’s fate and sets out on a risky voyage to meet Utnapishtim and his wife, the only people who survived the Great Flood and were granted immortality by the gods, in the hopes of learning the secret of eternal life. Gilgamesh goes far to the east in quest of the immortal Utnapishtim and his wife, who now live in a magnificent country in another planet called Dilmun, crossing huge rivers, oceans, and mountain passes, grappling and slaughtering monstrous mountain lions, bears, and other monsters.
He eventually arrives at the twin peaks of Mount Mashu at the far end of the earth, where the sun rises from the other realm, whose gate is guarded by two terrifying scorpion-like creatures. They let Gilgamesh go after he persuades them of his divinity and desperation, and he goes for twelve leagues into the black tunnel that the sun passes through every night. The landscape beyond the tunnel is a dazzling fantasy full with trees with jewel-like leaves.
The first person Gilgamesh sees there is the winemaker Siduri, who mistook him for a murderer due to his dishevelled look and tried to persuade him to abandon his journey. However, she eventually sends him to Urshanabi, a ferryman who must assist him in crossing the sea to the island where Utnapishtim lives, navigating the Waters of Death, where even the tiniest touch results in instant death.
When he encounters Urshanabi, however, he appears to be accompanied by a group of stone-giants, whom Gilgamesh swiftly kills since he believes they are hostile. He relates his narrative to the ferryman and pleads for his assistance, but Urshanabi reveals that he has just damaged the sacred stones that allow the ferry boat to safely cross the Waters of Death. The only way they can cross now is if Gilgamesh chops down 120 trees and fashions them into punting poles, so they can cross the seas each time with a fresh pole and his tunic as a sail.
When they arrive on the island of Dilmun, Utnapishtim notices another person in the boat and asks Gilgamesh who he is. Gilgamesh tells him his narrative and asks for assistance, but Utnapishtim chastises him because he understands that fighting the fate of people is fruitless and undermines life’s delight. Gilgamesh questions Utnapishtim about the differences between their two situations, and Utnapishtim informs him about how he survived the great flood.
The god Enlil, according to Utnapishtim, delivered a big storm and flood to the globe in order to annihilate all of people for the noise and turmoil they caused. Utnapishtim was forewarned by the deity Ea, who advised him to build a ship and load it with his possessions, family, and the seeds of all living things. But for Utnapishtim and his boat, the rains arrived as prophesied, and the entire world was submerged in water, killing everything except Utnapishtim and his boat. The boat came to a halt on the crest of Nisir Mountain, where they waited for the waters to recede before releasing a dove, a swallow, and finally a raven to check for dry land. Utnapishtim then offered sacrifices and libations to the gods, and while Enlil was enraged that someone had escaped his flood, Ea persuaded him to make peace. So Enlil honored Utnapishtim and his wife, bestowing eternal life upon them and transporting them to the kingdom of the gods on the island of Dilmun.
Despite his doubts about why the gods should accord Gilgamesh the same honor as himself, the flood hero, Utnapishtim reluctantly agrees to grant Gilgamesh immortality. But first, he challenges Gilgamesh to stay up for six days and seven nights, but Gilgamesh falls asleep almost immediately after Utnapishtim completes his speech. When Utnapishtim awakens after seven days of sleep, he mocks his failure and exiles him to Uruk, along with the ferryman Urshanabi.
However, as they leave, Utnapishtim’s wife begs him to have mercy on Gilgamesh because of his long journey, and so he informs Gilgamesh about a plant that grows at the bottom of the ocean that can restore his youth. Gilgamesh acquires the plant by attaching stones to his feet, allowing him to walk on the seabed. He intends to utilize the flower to revitalize the city of Uruk’s elderly men before using it himself. Unfortunately, when bathing, he leaves the plant on the shore of a lake, where it is grabbed by a serpent, who loses its old skin and is thus reborn. Gilgamesh laments his failure at both attempts at immortality, and he returns despondently to the huge walls of his own city of Uruk.
Gilgamesh dies eventually, and the people of Uruk lament his death, knowing that they will never see another like him.
The twelfth tablet appears to be unrelated to the others, and it offers an alternate mythology from when Enkidu was still alive in the saga. Gilgamesh laments to Enkidu that he has lost several items gifted to him by the goddess Ishtar, which he believes have fallen into the Underworld. Enkidu promises to bring them back for him, and Gilgamesh enthusiastically instructs Enkidu on what he must and must not do in the Underworld in order to be certain of returning.
Enkidu, on the other hand, instantly disregards all of this counsel and performs everything he was warned against, leading in his imprisonment in the Underworld. Gilgamesh prays to the gods to return his companion, and despite the fact that Enlil and Suen do not respond, Ea and Shamash decide to assist. Enkidu leaps out of a hole in the ground created by Shamash (whether as a ghost or in reality is not clear). Gilgamesh interrogates Enkidu about his experiences in the Underworld.