The earliest Sumerian versions of “The Epic of Gilgamesh” date from as early as the Third Dynasty of Ur (2150 – 2000 BCE), and are written in Sumerian cuneiform script, one of the earliest known forms of written expression. It relates ancient folklore, tales and myths and it is believed that there were many different smaller stories and myths that over time grew together into one complete work. The earliest Akkadian versions (Akkadian is a later, unrelated, Mesopotamian language, which also used the cuneiform writing system) are dated to the early 2nd millennium.
The story begins with the introduction of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, two-thirds god and one-third human, blessed by the gods with strength, courage and beauty, and the strongest and greatest king who ever existed. The great city of Uruk is also praised for its glory and its strong brick walls.
However, the people of Uruk are not happy, and complain that Gilgamesh is too harsh and abuses his power by sleeping with their women. The goddess of creation, Aruru, creates a mighty wild-man named Enkidu, a rival in strength to Gilgamesh. He lives a natural life with the wild animals, but he soon starts bothering the shepherds and trappers of the area and jostles the animals at the watering hole. At the request of a trapper, Gilgamesh sends a temple prostitute, Shamhat, to seduce and tame Enkidu and, after six days and seven nights with the harlot, he is no longer just a wild beast who lives with animals. He soon learns the ways of men and is shunned by the animals he used to live with, and the harlot eventually persuades him to come to live in the city. Meanwhile, Gilgamesh has some strange dreams, which his mother, Ninsun, explains as an indication that a mighty friend will come to him.
The newly-civilized Enkidu leaves the wilderness with his consort for the city of Uruk, where he learns to help the local shepherds and trappers in their work. One day, when Gilgamesh himself comes to a wedding party to sleep with the bride, as is his custom, he finds his way blocked by the mighty Enkidu, who opposes Gilgamesh‘s ego, his treatment of women and the defamation of the sacred bonds of marriage. Enkidu and Gilgamesh fight each other and, after a mighty battle, Gilgamesh defeats Enkidu, but breaks off from the fight and spares his life. He also begins to heed what Enkidu has said, and to learn the virtues of mercy and humility, along with courage and nobility. Both Gilgamesh and Enkidu are transformed for the better through their new-found friendship and have many lessons to learn from each other. In time, they begin to see each other as brothers and become inseparable.
Years later, bored with the peaceful life in Uruk and wanting to make an everlasting name for himself, Gilgamesh proposes to travel to the sacred Cedar Forest to cut some great trees and kill the guardian, the demon Humbaba. Enkidu objects to the plan as the Cedar Forest is the sacred realm of the gods and not meant for mortals, but neither Enkidu not the council of elders of Uruk can convince Gilgamesh not to go. Gilgamesh’s mother also complains about the quest, but eventually gives in and asks the sun-god Shamash for his support. She also gives Enkidu some advice and adopts him as her second son.
On the way to the Cedar Forest, Gilgamesh has some bad dreams, but each time Enkidu manages to explain away the dreams as good omens, and he encourages and urges Gilgamesh on when he becomes afraid again on reaching the forest. Finally, the two heroes confront Humbaba, the demon-ogre guardian of the sacred trees, and a great battle commences. Gilgamesh offers the monster his own sisters as wives and concubines in order to distract it into giving away his seven layers of armour, and finally, with the help of the winds sent by the sun-god Shamash, Humbaba is defeated. The monster begs Gilgamesh for his life, and Gilgamesh at first pities the creature, despite Enkidu’s practical advice to kill the beast. Humbaba then curses them both, and Gilgamesh finally puts an end to it. The two heroes cut down a huge cedar tree, and Enkidu uses it to make a massive door for the gods, which he floats down the river.
Some time later, the goddess Ishtar (goddess of love and war, and daughter of the sky-god Anu) makes sexual advances to Gilgamesh, but he rejects her, because of her mistreatment of her previous lovers. The offended Ishtar insists that her father send the “Bull of Heaven” to avenge Gilgamesh’s rejection, threatening to raise the dead if he will not comply. The beast brings with it a great drought and plague of the land, but Gilgamesh and Enkidu, this time without divine help, slay the beast and offer its heart to Shamash, throwing the bull’s hindquarters in the face of the outraged Ishtar.
The city of Uruk celebrates the great victory, but Enkidu has a bad dream in which the gods decide to punish Enkidu himself for the killing of the Bull of Heaven and Humbaba. He curses the door he made for the gods, and he curses the trapper he met, the harlot he loved and the very day that he became human. However, he regrets his curses when Shamash speaks from heaven and points out how unfair Enkidu is being. He also points out that Gilgamesh will become but a shadow of his former self if Enkidu were to die. Nevertheless, the curse takes hold and day after day Enkidu becomes more and more ill. As he dies, he describes his descent into the horrific dark Underworld (the “House of Dust”), where the dead wear feathers like birds and eat clay.
Gilgamesh is devasted by Enkidu’s death and offers gifts to the gods, in the hope that he might be allowed to walk beside Enkidu in the Underworld. He orders the people of Uruk, from the lowest farmer to the highest temple priests, to also mourn Enkidu, and orders statues of Enkidu to be built. Gilgamesh is so full of grief and sorrow over his friend that he refuses to leave Enkidu‘s side, or allow his corpse to be buried, until six days and seven nights after his death when maggots begin to fall from his body.
Gilgamesh is determined to avoid Enkidu‘s fate and decides to make the perilous journey to visit Utnapishtim and his wife, the only humans to have survived the Great Flood and who were granted immortality by the gods, in the hope of discovering the secret of everlasting life. The ageless Utnapishtim and his wife now reside in a beautiful country in another world, Dilmun, and Gilgamesh travels far to the east in search of them, crossing great rivers and oceans and mountain passes, and grappling and slaying monstrous mountain lions, bears and other beasts.
Eventually, he comes to the twin peaks of Mount Mashu at the end of the earth, from where the sun rises from the other world, the gate of which is guarded by two terrible scorpion-beings. They allow Gilgamesh to proceed when he convinces them of his divinity and his desperation, and he travels for twelve leagues through the dark tunnel where the sun travels every night. The world at the end of the tunnel is a bright wonderland, full of trees with leaves of jewels.
The first person Gilgamesh meets there is the wine-maker Siduri, who initially believes he is a murderer from his dishevelled appearance and attempts to dissuade him from his quest. But eventually she sends him to Urshanabi, the ferryman who must help him cross the sea to the island where Utnapishtim lives, navigating the Waters of Death, of which the slightest touch means instant death.
When he meets Urshanabi, though, he appears to be surrounded by a company of stone-giants, which Gilgamesh promptly kills, thinking them to be hostile. He tells the ferryman his story and asks for his help, but Urshanabi explains that he has just destroyed the sacred stones which allow the ferry boat to safely cross the Waters of Death. The only way they can now cross is if Gilgamesh cuts 120 trees and fashions them into punting poles, so that they can cross the waters by using a new pole each time and by using his garment as a sail.
Finally, they reach the island of Dilmun and, when Utnapishtim sees that there is someone else in the boat, he asks Gilgamesh who he is. Gilgamesh tells him his story and asks for help, but Utnapishtim reprimands him because he knows that fighting the fate of humans is futile and ruins the joy in life. Gilgamesh demands of Utnapishtim in what way their two situations differ and Utnapishtim tells him the story of how he survived the great flood.
Utnapishtim recounts how a great storm and flood was brought to the world by the god Enlil, who wanted to destroy all of mankind for the noise and confusion they brought to the world. But the god Ea forewarned Utnapishtim, advising him to build a ship in readiness and to load onto it his treasures, his family and the seeds of all living things. The rains came as promised and the whole world was covered with water, killing everything except Utnapishtim and his boat. The boat came to rest on the tip of the mountain of Nisir, where they waited for the waters to subside, releasing first a dove, then a swallow and then a raven to check for dry land. Utnapishtim then made sacrifices and libations to the gods and, although Enlil was angry that someone had survived his flood, Ea advised him to make his peace. So, Enlil blessed Utnapishtim and his wife and granted them everlasting life, and took them to live in the land of the gods on the island of Dilmun.
However, despite his reservations about why the gods should give him the same honour as himself, the hero of the flood, Utnapishtim does reluctantly decide to offer Gilgamesh a chance for immortality. First, though, he challenges Gilgamesh to stay awake for six days and seven nights, but Gilgamesh falls asleep almost before Utnapishtim finishes speaking. When he awakes after seven days of sleep, Utnapishtim ridicules his failure and sends him back to Uruk, along with the ferryman Urshanabi in exile.
As they leave, though, Utnapishtim’s wife asks her husband to have mercy on Gilgamesh for his long journey, and so he tells Gilgamesh of a plant that grows at the very bottom of the ocean that will make him young again. Gilgamesh obtains the plant by binding stones to his feet to allow him to walk on the bottom of the sea. He plans to use the flower to rejuvenate the old men of the city of Uruk and then to use it himself. Unfortunately, he places the plant on the shore of a lake while he bathes, and it is stolen by a serpent, which loses its old skin and is thus reborn. Gilgamesh weeps at having failed at both opportunities to obtain immortality, and he disconsolately returns to the massive walls of his own city of Uruk.
In time, Gilgamesh too dies, and the people of Uruk mourn his passing, knowing that they will never see his like again.
The twelfth tablet is apparently unconnected with previous ones, and tells an alternative legend from earlier in the story, when Enkidu is still alive. Gilgamesh complains to Enkidu that he has lost some objects given to him by the goddess Ishtar when they fell in the Underworld. Enkidu offers to bring them back for him, and the delighted Gilgamesh tells Enkidu what he must, and must not, do in the Underworld in order to be sure of coming back.
When Enkidu sets off, however, he promptly forgets all this advice, and does everything he was told not to do, resulting in his being trapped in the Underworld. Gilgamesh prays to the gods to return his friend and, although Enlil and Suen do not even bother to reply, Ea and Shamash decide to help. Shamash cracks a hole in the earth and Enkidu jumps out of it (whether as a ghost or in reality is not clear). Gilgamesh questions Enkidu about what he has seen in the Underworld.