4      The Epic of Gilgamesh



The Mesopotamians were also the creators of the first great work of literature, called the Epic of Gilgamesh, written around 1800 BC. The story begins with the boyish adventures of King Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu. The narrative changes in tone halfway through, when Enkidu dies, filling Gilgamesh with grief and causing him to grapple with his own mortality. Out of desperation, he journeys to the Garden of the Gods for answers, where he learns of the Great Flood, a story that was later incorporated into the Old Testament. When his journey ends unsuccessfully, he finally learns to accept his fate as a mortal man.


Gilgamesh and Enkidu

King Gilgamesh might have been a real king, as he is sometimes mentioned alongside known historical kings, yet his life had already turned into legend in the early days. The Sumerian King List, for instance, claimed he ruled for 126 years and that his father was a “lillu,” a phantom. In a number of short stories from 2100 BC he was already killing monsters and was considered partly divine. Two of these stories, Bilgames and Huwawa and Bilgames and the Bull of Heaven, later became major chunks of the Epic of Gilgamesh. In The Death of Gilgamesh we learn that although Gilgamesh was the son of a goddess, he was fated to die as a mortal man. However, he would obtain a special position in the underworld as chief of the shades, sitting in judgment over the dead.

Two major versions of the Epic of Gilgamesh exist. The oldest is called the Old Babylonian Version and dates to about the 18th century BC and starts with the line “Surpassing all other kings.” Only a part of this version has been reconstructed using various damaged tablets. The second version, called the Standard Babylonian Version, probably dates from the 13th-11th centuries BC and was written by the scribe-priest Sinleqiunnini. It starts with the words “He who saw the deep,” referring to Enki’s domain. Interestingly, during the time span between these versions the Mesopotamians had managed to verbalize their subjective experience to a greater extent. While the earlier story is told in terms of actions alone, in the newer version, we get a peek into the minds of the characters as well. For instance, we now read that “sorrow” resides “in the heart” of Gilgamesh and some characters even have an internal dialogue (for example, the character Siduri is described as “talking to herself […] taking counsel in her own heart.” [24] [29])

Now let’s look at the epic itself. The Standard Babylonian Version starts with the following memorable lines:

He who saw the deep, the country’s foundation. He who was wise in all matters! This was the man to whom all things were known. This was the king who knew the countries of the world. He was wise, he saw mysteries and knew secret things, and he brought us a tale of the days before the flood. He went on a long journey, was weary, worn-out with labor, returning, he rested and engraved on a stone the whole story. [31]

In the epic, Gilgamesh is described as the son of the half-god Lugalbanda and the goddess Ninsun, which made him “two-thirds god and one-third man.” His divine nature made him a supernaturally strong and handsome man, with a great deal of “kuzbu,” or sexual charisma. As king of Uruk, the most modern city during his lifetime, he kept his people safe and embarked on an ambitious building program, which included building the city walls and the temple of Anu. The text is filled with pride for the tremendous architectural achievements of the city. We read:

In Uruk he built walls, a great rampart, and the temple of blessed E-anna for the god of the firmament Anu, and for Ishtar the goddess of love. Look at it still today: the outer wall where the cornice runs, it shines with the brilliance of copper; and the inner wall, it has no equal. Touch the threshold, it is ancient. Approach the temple, the dwelling of Ishtar, our lady of love and war, the like of which no latter-day king, no man alive can equal. Climb upon the wall of Uruk; walk along it, I say; regard the foundation terrace and examine the masonry: is it not burnt brick and good? The seven sages [the Apkallu] laid its foundations.


Gilgamesh also had a weakness: his love for women. He was supposed to be the “shepherd to his people,” but instead, “his lust left no virgin to her lover, neither the warrior’s daughter nor the wife of the noble”. On top of this, he exhausted the men, perhaps through tests of strength or through forced labor on his building projects (the tablet is damaged at this point in the story). The problem eventually became unbearable for his subjects, who prayed to the gods for help. They asked the god Aruru to create a being that could rival him in strength:

You made him, O Aruru; now create his equal; let it be as like him as his own reflection, his second self; stormy heart for stormy heart. Let them contend together and leave Uruk in quiet.

The goddess accepted the request and created an image in her mind made from the “stuff of Anu, the god of heaven.” She then created a creature out of clay, named Enkidu, and “let it fall in the wilderness.” Enkidu had a rough, strong build, was covered with hair, and knew nothing of mankind or of cultivated land. He “ate grass in the hills with the gazelle and lurked with wild beasts at the water-holes,” was “reared on the milk of wild animals,” and regularly saved his animal friends from traps set by the hunters of Uruk. He was, in many ways, the complete opposite of the sophisticated Gilgamesh.

One day, a hunter spotted Enkidu in the woods. Back home, he said to his father:

Father, there is a man, unlike any other, who comes down from the hills. He is the strongest in the world, he is like an immortal from heaven. [...] I am afraid and dare not go near him. He fills in the pits which I dig and tears up my traps set for the game. He helps the beasts to escape and now they slip through my fingers.

The father advised his son to go to Uruk and ask Gilgamesh to send Enkidu a prostitute from the temple of love.

Let her femininity overpower this man. When next, he comes down to drink at the well, she will be there, stripped naked. And when he sees her beckoning, he will embrace her and then the wild beasts will reject him.

And so it happened. A prostitute named Shamhat taught Enkidu “the woman’s art.” They slept together for six days and seven nights. Afterward, Enkidu went back to the wild beasts, but now the animals rejected him:

Then, when the gazelle saw him, they bolted away. When the wild creatures saw him they fled. Enkidu would have followed, but his body was bound as though with a cord, his knees gave way when he started to run, his swiftness was gone. […] Enkidu was grown weak, for wisdom was in him, and the thoughts of man were in his heart.

So he returned and sat down at the woman’s feet, and listened intently to what she said. “You are wise, Enkidu, and now you have become like a god. Why do you want to run wild with the beasts in the hills? Come with me. I will take you to strong-walled Uruk, to the blessed temple of Ishtar and of Anu. There Gilgamesh lives, who is very strong, and like a wild bull he lords it over men.” Enkidu was pleased, for he longed for a comrade who would truly understand his heart.

In the meantime, Gilgamesh was plagued by strange dreams. In one of them, he saw a star made from the “stuff of Anu” fall from heaven. Gilgamesh tried to lift it, but it was too heavy. The goddess Ninsun told Gilgamesh that the star represented a strong, wild man made from the “stuff of Anu” and that Gilgamesh would love him.

On their way to Uruk, Shamhat and Enkidu slept in the house of a shepherd, where he had his first bread and wine. He also put on clothing. He had become a man. Approaching the city, he met a man from Uruk, who told him of an upcoming marriage and Gilgamesh’s plan to sleep with the bride before her husband could. This angered Enkidu:

I will go to the place where Gilgamesh lords it over the people, I will challenge him boldly, and I will cry aloud in Uruk, “I have come to change the old order, for I am the strongest here.”

When the people of Uruk saw him, they immediately knew that Gilgamesh had finally met his match. At night, when the bride was waiting for the bridegroom, Gilgamesh attempted to sneak into the house, but Enkidu blocked his way. They immediately grabbed each other, holding each other like bulls. We read:

They shattered the doorposts and the walls shook. Gilgamesh bent his knee with his foot planted on the ground, and with a turn, Enkidu was thrown on the ground. Then, immediately, his fury died.

Enkidu was impressed by Gilgamesh’s strength. They “embraced and their friendship was sealed.”


Humbaba, the monster of the cedar forest

It didn’t take long before Enkidu felt depressed by the inactivity of city life. It made him feel weak. With his eyes full of tears, he explained this to Gilgamesh, who took his friend’s troubles seriously and proposed to go on an adventure to “make a name for themselves”:

We will go to the cedar forest and destroy the evil; for in the forest lives Humbaba whose name is “Hugeness,” a ferocious giant.

Enkidu resisted, for he knew the forest and its dangers:

Enlil has appointed Humbaba to guard [the forest]. When he roars it is like the torrent of the storm, his breath is like fire, and his jaws are death itself. [...] What man would willingly walk into that country and explore its depths? I tell you, weakness overpowers whoever goes near him. It is not an equal struggle when one fights with Humbaba. He is a great warrior [...]. The watchman of the forest never sleeps.

Gilgamesh, however, was not afraid. He claimed that even dying in a fight with the mighty Humbaba would be heroic. People would say, “Gilgamesh has fallen in fight with ferocious Humbaba.” Enkidu still protested and convinced Gilgamesh to at least visit the sun god Shamash for advice before leaving. To Shamash, Gilgamesh said:

“Because I have not established my name stamped on brick as my destiny decreed, I will go to the country where the cedar is cut. I will set up my name where the names of famous men are written; and where no man’s name is written I will raise a monument to the gods.” The tears ran down his face and he said, “Alas, it is a long journey that I must take to the Land of Humbaba. If this enterprise is not to be accomplished, why did you move me, Shamash, with the restless desire to perform it? How can I succeed if you will not support me? If I die in that country I will die without regrets, but if I return I will make a glorious offering of gifts and of praise to Shamash.”

Shamash was moved by his speech and promised his support.

He appointed strong allies for Gilgamesh: the north wind, the whirlwind, the stone and the icy wind, the tempest and the scorching wind.

Gilgamesh also met with his counselors. Like Enkidu, they tried to persuade him not to go, yet he could not be convinced. He did follow their advice to let Enkidu lead the way since he knew the forest and had seen Humbaba in battle. They took on great weapons and went on their way.

After a long journey, they reached the cedar forest. Gilgamesh seized his ax and felled a cedar. When Humbaba heard the noise, he was enraged. He cried out: “Who is this that has violated my woods and cut down my cedar?” He came out from his strong house of cedar and approached them. When Enkidu saw the creature in the distance, he was terrified and wanted to go home. Gilgamesh responded:

Sacrifice is not yet for me, the boat of the dead shall not go down [...] If your heart is fearful, throw away fear; if there is terror in it, throw away terror. Take your ax in your hand and attack. He who leaves the fight unfinished is not at peace.

 Fig. 88 – The sun god Shamash sitting behind the sun disk (9th century BC) (Prioryman, CC BY-SA 3.0; British Museum)

The monster accused Enkidu of betrayal for siding with the city man and vowed to disembowel Gilgamesh and feed his flesh to the birds. When he approached, the mountains quaked, and the sky turned black. Then Gilgamesh called Shamash for help:

O glorious Shamash, I have followed the road you commanded, but now if you send no support, how shall I escape?

Shamash heard his prayer and summoned the winds. They gripped Humbaba until he was unable to move. The monster begged for mercy:

Gilgamesh, let me speak. I have never known a mother nor a father who reared me. I was born of the mountain, he reared me, and Enlil made me the keeper of this forest. Let me go free, Gilgamesh, and I will be your servant, you shall be my lord. All the trees of the forest that I tended on the mountain shall be yours. I will cut them down and build you a palace.

Enkidu, however, did not believe him and warned Gilgamesh to kill him quickly before the god Enlil found out what they were up to. Gilgamesh agreed and struck Humbaba with a thrust of his sword to the neck, and Enkidu struck a second blow. With the third blow, Gilgamesh cut off his head.

Now the mountains were moved and all the hills, for the guardian of the forest was killed.


Fig. 89 – A clay imprint of a cylinder seal, depicting Gilgamesh and Enkidu killing Humbaba. Above their heads, we see the Pleiades star system (7 stars) and the moon. (British Museum, own work)

The two heroes cut down many cedars from the sacred grove, including one giant tree that Enkidu vowed to fashion into a gate for the temple of Enlil to make up for killing his guardian.

Enlil, however, was not pleased. When he saw the head of Humbaba, he was enraged and cursed the two heroes. Gilgamesh and Enkidu, however, did not notice this, being far too busy celebrating their victory. They built a raft and returned home along the Euphrates, together with the giant tree and the head of Humbaba.


Ishtar and the Bull from Heaven

When Gilgamesh returned to Uruk, he washed out his long locks, cleaned his weapons, and put on his royal robes. When he put on his crown, the goddess Ishtar (Inanna in Sumerian) lifted her eyes and looked at his beauty. “Come to me Gilgamesh, and be my bridegroom,” she said. She promised him many things: “Kings, rulers, and princes will bow down before you.” Gilgamesh, however, had no interest. He reminded her of how badly she had treated her previous lover, Dumuzi. When Ishtar heard this, she fell into a bitter rage and went up to the high heaven to her father Anu to complain. Her father responded with reason, claiming that Gilgamesh was right about her past behavior. However, Ishtar persisted:

Father, give me the Bull of Heaven to destroy Gilgamesh. [If you refuse, I will] break in the doors of hell and smash the bolts. [...] I shall bring up the dead to eat food like the living and the hosts of dead will outnumber the living.


Fig. 90 – A relief depicting a female goddess, possibly Ishtar (c. 19th century BC) (BabelStone; British Museum)

Fig. 91 – One of two 5.5-meter-high statues, possibly depicting Gilgamesh (8th century BC) (S. P. Dinkgreve, worldhistorybook.com; Louvre)

Hearing this, Anu felt obliged to hand over the bull, which she immediately unleashed on Uruk:

With his first snort, cracks opened in the earth, and a hundred young men fell down to death. With his second snort, cracks opened and two hundred fell down to death. With his third snort, cracks opened, Enkidu doubled over but instantly recovered, he dodged aside and leaped on the Bull and seized it by the horns. The Bull of Heaven foamed in his face [...]. Enkidu cried to Gilgamesh, “my friend, we boasted that we would leave enduring names behind us. Now thrust in your sword between the nape and the horns.” So, Gilgamesh followed the Bull, he seized the thick of its tail, he thrust the sword between the nape and the horns and slew the Bull. When they had killed the Bull of Heaven, they cut out its heart and gave it to Shamash, and the brothers rested.

Ishtar cursed Gilgamesh for killing the bull, but the two heroes were not intimidated. Enkidu tore out the bull’s right thigh and tossed it in her face. Gilgamesh then called upon the smiths to plate the immense horns of the bull with lapis lazuli. He then carried the horns into his palace, hung them on a wall, and celebrated their victory.

Fig. 92 - A clay imprint of a cylinder seal depicting Gilgamesh and Enkidu killing the Bull of Heaven (Schoyen Collection; own work)


The death of Enkidu

But things were about to go terribly wrong. Enkidu had a terrifying dream in which he witnessed a meeting of the gods. Anu told Enlil:

Because they have killed the Bull of Heaven, and because they have killed Humbaba who guarded the Cedar Mountain, one of the two must die.

Enlil chose Enkidu, for he had killed his monster Humbaba. Shamash protested, but the other gods had already made up their minds. Enkidu, in tears, told Gilgamesh about his dream:

O my brother, so dear as you are to me, brother, yet they will take me from you. [...] Never again will I see my dear brother with my eyes.

Not long after, Enkidu became ill. His suffering made him curse the gate that he had made from the “towering cedar tree”:

If I had known that this was all the good that would come of it, I would have raised the ax and split you into little pieces and set up here a gate of twigs instead.

Then he was plagued by another terrifying dream:

The heavens roared, and the earth rumbled back an answer; between them stood I before an awful being, the somber-faced man-bird; he had directed on me his purpose. His was a demonic face, his foot was a lion’s foot, his hand was an eagle’s talon. He fell on me and his claws were in my hair, he held me fast and I smothered; then, he transformed me so that my arms became wings covered with feathers. He turned his stare towards me, and he led me away to the palace of Irkalla, the Queen of Darkness, to the house from which none who enters ever returns, down the road from which there is no coming back.

He continued:

There is the house whose people sit in darkness; dust is their food and clay their meat. They are clothed like birds with wings for covering, they see no light, they sit in darkness. I entered the house of dust and I saw the kings of the earth, their crowns put away forever; rulers and princes, all those who once wore kingly crowns and ruled the world in the days of old. And there was Ereshkigal the Queen of the Underworld; and Befit-Sheri squatted in front of her, she who is the recorder of the gods and keeps the book of death. She held a tablet from which she read. She raised her head, she saw me and spoke: ‘Who has brought this one here?’ Then I awoke [in terror].”

When Gilgamesh heard about the dream, he cried. He prayed to the gods to spare his friend, but Enkidu’s suffering only increased. For twelve days, his condition worsened. Enkidu said to Gilgamesh:

My friend, the great goddess cursed me and I must die in shame. I shall not die like a man fallen in battle. I feared to fall, but happy is the man who falls in the battle, for I must die in shame.

The next day, Enkidu died. Overcome by grief, Gilgamesh said:

“What is this sleep which holds you now? You are lost in the dark and cannot hear me.” [...] He touched his heart but it did not beat, nor did he lift his eyes again. [...] He began to rage like a lion, like a lioness robbed of her whelps. He paced round the bed and he tore out his hair. He dragged off his splendid robes and flung them down as though they were abominations.

Gilgamesh could not accept what had happened and would not give up Enkidu for burial. He wept for seven days and seven nights, “until the worms fastened on Enkidu.” Only then did he decide to arrange Enkidu’s funeral. He also ordered the coppersmiths, goldsmiths, and stoneworkers to build him a statue.


Gilgamesh’s journey to the Garden of the Gods

Gilgamesh could find no closure. Feeling restless, he left Uruk in tears and began to wander in the wilderness. In his bitterness, he cried:

How can I rest? How can I be at peace? Despair is in my heart. What my brother is now, that shall I be when I am dead.

His fear of death convinced him to go on a quest to find Utanapishtim (meaning “I found my life”) and his wife, who were the only humans granted immortality by the gods. Gilgamesh wanted the same:

Because I am afraid of death, I will go as best I can to find Utnapishtim, whom they call the Faraway, for he has entered the assembly of the gods.

After a long journey, Gilgamesh came to Mashu, a great twin-peak mountain at the end of the world that served as the gateway for the setting sun as it descends into the underworld. The gate was guarded by two scorpion men. When Gilgamesh approached, they recognized his divine nature. One of the scorpion men asked:

“Why have you come so great a journey; for what have you traveled so far, crossing the dangerous waters; tell me the reason for your coming?” Gilgamesh answered, “For Enkidu; I loved him dearly, together we endured all kinds of hardships; on his account I have come, for the common lot of man has taken him. I have wept for him day and night, I would not give up his body for burial, I thought my friend would come back because of my weeping. Since he went, my life is nothing; that is why I have traveled here in search of Utnapishtim, [...] for men say he has entered the assembly of the gods, and has found everlasting life: I have a desire to question him, concerning the living and the dead.”

One of the scorpion men responded:

No man has done what you have asked, no mortal man has gone into the mountain; the length of it is twelve leagues of darkness; in it there is no light, only darkness.

Gilgamesh could not be convinced to change his mind, and finally, the scorpion men led him through to the path of the sun god. He had to be quick, having to finish his journey before the sun caught up with him. After a tough journey through the darkness, he arrived just in time in the Garden of the Gods, a paradise full of jewel-laden trees.[1]

Fig. 93 – The Seal of Adda. These figures are all gods, as recognized by their horns. In the bottom middle, we see the sun god Shamash cutting his way through two mountain peaks in order to rise at dawn. We see sun rays coming from his shoulder. Enki, the god of wisdom and the subterranean waters, can be found on the right and has water and fish flowing from his shoulders. The goddess Ishtar can be found on the left mountain. The weapons from her shoulders show her warlike character (c. 2300 BC) (Nic McPhee; CC BY-SA 2.0; British Museum)

After walking for a while, Gilgamesh met a woman named Siduri, who lived on the shore of a great sea. When Gilgamesh told her his story, she responded:

You will never find that life for which you are looking. When the gods created man, they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping. As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man.

But for Gilgamesh, this was not enough:

How can I be silent, how can I rest, when Enkidu whom I love is dust, and I too shall die and be laid in the earth. You live by the sea-shore and look into the heart of it; young woman, tell me now, which is the way to Utnapishtim?

Utanapishtim, it turned out, lived on an island far away at sea. Siduri told him that only the sun god Shamash was able to cross this sea on his daily rounds. She finally admitted there was one other possibility. The ferryman of Utnapishtim, Urshanabi, could also help him cross. Urshanabi explained to Gilgamesh that the sea was made of the waters of death and could not be touched. He then told Gilgamesh to cut down trees to make a boat, cover it with bitumen, and create 120 large wooden poles. They used these poles to thrust themselves forward. Due to the nature of the water, each pole could be used only once. After using up all 120 poles and employing his clothing as a sail, they finally reached the island.

Fig. 94 – A clay imprint of a cylinder seal, depicting the sun god Shamash (with sun rays coming off his shoulders) sailing across the ocean of the Underworld (Oriental Institute in Chicago; own work)


The Flood Tablet

Gilgamesh then asked Utanapishtim:

You who have entered the assembly of the gods, I wish to question you concerning the living and the dead, how shall I find the life for which I am searching? […] Tell me truly, how was it that you came to enter the company of the gods and to possess everlasting life?

Utnapishtim responded:

I will reveal to you a mystery, I will tell you a secret of the gods.

He told of a time when the people had multiplied so much and were so noisy that the gods could not tolerate them anymore. As a result, Enlil convinced the other gods to exterminate mankind. The god Enki, however, did not agree and warned Utanapishtim in a dream. What followed was the story that became the source material for the account of Noah’s Ark from the Old Testament. Enki said:

Tear down your house, I say, and build a boat. [...] then take up into the boat the seed of all living creatures.

It took him seven days to build the boat:

I loaded into it all that I had of gold and of living things, my family, my kin, the beast of the field both wild and tame, and all the craftsmen.

[When the evening came], the rider of the storm sent down the rain. I looked out at the weather and it was terrible, so I too boarded the boat and battened her down. […] For six days and six nights, the winds blew, torrent and tempest and flood overwhelmed the world, tempest and flood raged together like warring hosts.

Fig. 95 – The Flood Tablet (BabelStone, CC0 1.0; British Museum)

Even the gods were terrified of the flood and fled to the highest heaven. It didn’t take long for them to regret their decision and they began to weep. But luckily, Utanapishtim had survived:

When the seventh day dawned, the storm from the south subsided, the sea grew calm, and the flood was stilled; I looked at the face of the world and there was silence, all mankind was turned to clay. The surface of the sea stretched as flat as a roof-top. [...] I released a dove and let her go. She flew away, but finding no resting-place she returned. Then, I released a swallow, and she flew away, but finding no resting-place, she returned. I released a raven, she saw that the waters had retreated, she ate, she flew around, she cawed, and she did not come back.

Utanapishtim reasoned that the bird must have found land, which meant that the water was retreating. Upon reaching land, he then made a sacrifice to the gods. They smelled its sweet fragrance and “gathered like flies over the sacrifice.” The gods now realized how much they needed mankind for their sacrifices. When Enlil arrived and saw the survivors, he became angry. Enki responded by condemning Enlil for instigating the flood. Finally, Enlil gave in and awarded Utnapishtim and his wife with eternal life:

Then. Enlil went up into the boat, he took me by the hand and my wife and made us enter the boat and kneel down on either side, he standing between us. He touched our foreheads to bless us saying, “In time past Utnapishtim was a mortal man. Henceforth, he and his wife shall live in the distance at the mouth of the rivers.” Thus, it was that the gods took me and placed me here to live in the distance.

For reasons still unclear, stories of a world-destroying flood have been found across the world (including Greece, India, China, Scandinavia, Ireland, North America, South America, Africa, Australia, and of course we have the Biblical account). Many hypotheses for these similarities have been proposed over the years. Perhaps since floods are a common part of human experience, these stories developed independently. Others have hypothesized that the Flood Myth might actually be an old memory from the end of the last Ice Age, when large ice sheets melted, causing a rise in sea level of about 125 meters. In what is likely just a remarkable coincidence, Plato (c. 428–348 BC) wrote that the legendary civilization called Atlantis was submerged beneath the sea 9000 years before the life of the famous Athenian politician Solon (c. 630–560 BC), who had heard this story during his stay in Egypt. Stunningly, this date coincides quite closely with the end of the last Ice Age about 11,700 years ago. [32]


The return home

Gilgamesh had listened intently to Utanapishtim but still did not know how to gain immortality himself. Utanapishtim asked him:

Who will assemble to the gods for you, so that you too may find that life for which you are searching?

Gilgamesh, however, could not accept this fate. In response, Utanapishtim decided to put him to the test. He told him to stay awake for six days and seven nights. Gilgamesh accepted the challenge, but he quickly fell asleep. When he woke up, he realized his weakness:

What shall I do, O Utnapishtim, where shall I go? Already the thief in the night has hold of my limbs, death inhabits my room; wherever my foot rests, there I find death.

Gilgamesh finally gave in and decided to leave, but just before he left, Utanapishtim’s wife convinced her husband to help Gilgamesh out. He responded:

I shall reveal a secret thing. It is a mystery of the gods that I am telling you. There is a plant that grows under the water, it has a prickle like a thorn, like a rose; it will wound your hands, but if you succeed in taking it, then your hands will hold that which restores his lost youth to a man.

The plant grew in the Absu, a sweet-water sea under the earth. Gilgamesh opened a gate to the Absu, tied heavy stones to his feet, and let them drag him down to the bottom, where the plant grew. He then cut the heavy stones from his feet and returned to the surface. To Urshanabi, he said:

I will take it to Uruk of the strong walls; there, I will give it to the old men to eat […] and at last I shall eat it myself and have back all my lost youth.

On his journey home, Gilgamesh and Urshanabi stopped to bathe in a well, but then something unexpected happened:

Deep in the pool there was lying a serpent, and the serpent sensed the sweetness of the flower. It rose out of the water and snatched it away, and immediately it shed its skin.

Gilgamesh wept and said:

O Urshanabi, was it for this that I toiled with my hands. [...] For myself I have gained nothing; not I, but the beast of the earth has joy of it now.

Back in Uruk, Gilgamesh showed Urshanabi his city, which filled him with pride:

Urshanabi, climb up on to the wall of Uruk, inspect its foundation terrace, and examine well the brickwork; see if it is not of burnt bricks; and did not the seven wise men lay these foundations? One-third of the whole is city, one third is garden, and one third is field, with the precinct of the goddess Ishtar. These parts and the precinct are all Uruk.

He then realized the futility of his longing for immortality. Mankind should instead find happiness in its accomplishments on earth and in the possibility of being remembered by future generations. This is all we mortal men can hope for. We read:

This too was the work of Gilgamesh, the king, who knew the countries of the world. He was wise, he saw mysteries, and knew secret things, he brought us a tale of the days before the flood. He went a long journey, was weary, worn out with labor, and returning, engraved on a stone the whole story.

The destiny was fulfilled which the father of the gods, Enlil of the mountain, had decreed for Gilgamesh: “In the underworld the darkness will show him a light; of mankind, all that are known, none will leave a monument for generations to come to compare with his. The heroes, the wise men, like the new moon have their waxing and waning. Men will say, ‘Who has ever ruled with might and with power like him?’ As in the dark month, the month of shadows, so without him there is no light. O Gilgamesh, this was the meaning of your dream. You were given the kingship, such was your destiny; everlasting life was not your destiny. Because of this, do not be sad at heart, do not be grieved or oppressed; he has given you power to bind and to loose, to be the darkness and the light of mankind. He has given unexampled supremacy over the people, victory in battle from which no fugitive returns, in forays and assaults from which there is no going back. But do not abuse this power, deal justly with your servants in the palace, deal justly before the face of the Sun.”

The epic ends with a description of Gilgamesh’s death. We read, “the king has laid himself down and will not rise again,” and the people lamented and made offerings to the gods.

Gilgamesh, the son of Ninsun, lies in the tomb. [...] In those days the lord Gilgamesh departed, the son of Ninsun, the king, peerless, without an equal among men [...]. O Gilgamesh, [...] great is thy praise.