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The original, squashed down to read in about 30 minutes
(Southern Mesopotamia, c2,100BCE)
Here is the oldest written story still known. The real King Gilgamesh lived about 2,600BCE and was a leader of one of the first great human civilisations, at one of the first cities; Uruk, the ancient city of Babylonia, from which the modern name Iraq derives.
Several versions of this story have been discovered. This abridgement is based on the 1855 translation by George Smith of the clay tablets discovered in the library of Nineveh. The many missing portions are marked [...]. Abridged by: GH
Of He who has seen all things, I will make known. Of the One who has done all things, I will tell. Anu-of-the-Sky granted him knowledge. He saw the Secrets, discovered the Hidden, and brought knowledge of time before the Flood. He returned to us from afar, and carved on stone the tale of his toils. He built walls for Uruk-Haven. See the walls of true-fired brick- did not the Seven Sages lay out its plan? One league for a city, one league for gardens, one league for courts of stone. Find the copper tablet box, loose its lock of bronze, take the tablet of lapis lazuli, and read-
Gilgamesh the King. Gilgamesh the mighty, son of the noble cow, Rimat-Ninsun. Gilgamesh the fine. Part god, part man. Gilgamesh the beautiful. Mighty as a bull, no man dare raise weapon against him. Gilgamesh the herdsman of his people! Gilgamesh leaves not the bride to her lover, Gilgamesh leaves not the girl to her mother, Gilgamesh takes the daughter even from the warrior!
And the people feared, and they prayed to Anu-the-Protector-of-the-Sky, and Anu told Aruru-the-Creator; "You created mankind! Create a match for Gilgamesh, that Uruk may find peace!" And Aruru cleaned her hands, and threw clay into the silent wilderness. And made Enkidu, the wild man, he of the shaggy hair. Enkidu ate grass with the gazelles, and jostled at the watering-hole with the animals.
A noble trapper came to the watering-hole and saw the strange man from the mountains, mighty as a meteorite that falls from the gods! The trapper's father spoke: "In Uruk lives Gilgamesh, strongest of the strong, mightier yet than the meteorite of Anu. Go! Tell Gilgamesh of this man. He will give you the harlot Shamhat, she can overcome the strong."
He made the journey, "Go, trapper, bring the harlot, Shamhat", said Gilgamesh, "and when the animals drink at the watering-hole have her put off her robe."
They travelled three days to the place, and the trapper and the harlot sat down. Then Enkidu, who eats grasses with the gazelles, came to drink with the beasts and Shamhat released her robe. Enkidu saw her, saying "Spread out your robe so that we might lie together" and his lust groaned over her. For six days and seven nights did Enkidu stay uplifted by her charms. And understanding arrived, and wisdom came in him.
She said: "Enkidu, come you into Uruk-Haven, where Gilgamesh the wise struts over the people, where the folk dress in finery, where every day is a festival, where they play the lyre and drum and the harlots laugh and stand prettily. Enkidu, you do not know how to live!"
Gilgamesh, called to his mother: "I dreamed of a falling star, like the meteorite of Anu. I tried to lift it, but it was too mighty for me" The mother of Gilgamesh, the wise, all-knowing, Rimat-Ninsun, the wise, all-knowing, said to Gilgamesh: "The stone is a man. A man you will love and embrace as a wife, a mighty man, strong as the meteorite. A comrade who saves his friend."
Gilgamesh spoke to his mother saying: "By Enlil, the Great Counsellor, so may it be! may I have a friend and adviser, a friend and adviser may I have!"
[...] The harlot spoke to Enkidu, saying: "Eat bread, Enkidu, drink beer, it is our way." Enkidu ate, and drank beer- seven jugs! His face glowed, he sang with joy! He washed his shaggy body, rubbed himself with oil, and became human. He put on clothing, took up a weapon, and became a warrior. He routed the wolves, he chased the lions. With Enkidu as their guard, the herders could rest. [...]
Enkidu said; "Young man, why do you hurry?" "I go to a wedding, for me awaits a feast of delights, for Gilgamesh the King awaits the girl behind the veil, for Gilgamesh takes the wife before her husband. This is his holy destiny since the severing of his cord. This is his custom." Enkidu, flushed with anger, and walked away [...]
The young man is at the house, the marriage bed is ready, and Gilgamesh is ready to take what he has power to take. Enkidu stands before the bridal chamber, Enkidu stands before Gilgamesh. They grappled with each other at the door, they wrestle each other in the street. The doorposts tremble and the walls shake. [...]
Gilgamesh bent his knees, his anger fell away. Enkidu said to Gilgamesh: "Your mother bore you for kingship." [...]
They kissed each other and became friends. The mother of Gilgamesh, the wise, all-knowing, Rimat-Ninsun, the wise, all-knowing, said to Gilgamesh: "Enkidu has no father, no mother, his shaggy hair no one cuts. He was born alone in the wilderness." Enkidu sat and wept, his eyes filled with tears, his arms felt limp. They took each other by the hand, [...] and [...] their hands like [...] Enkidu made a declaration to Gilgamesh. [...]
"To protect the Great Cedar Forest Enlil made Humbaba, whose roar is flood, whose mouth is fire, whose breath is death! He can hear a rustling leaf 100 leagues away, who would go into his forest!"
Gilgamesh spoke to Enkidu: "I will do go- and I will cut down the Great Cedar. I will establish fame for eternity! Come, my friend, to the forge; a hatchet, a sword, and armour of one good talent weight."
Gilgamesh spoke to the men of Uruk: "I go to make my fame, grant me blessings! By the new year ceremonies, I will return!" The Counsellors of Uruk spoke; "Young Gilgamesh, your heart carries you off, who among even the Great Igigi Gods can confront Humbaba?"
"Let Enkidu go ahead, let his body urge him back to the wives, Enkidu! We trust our King to you!"
Gilgamesh and Enkidu together went to the Egalmah Temple, saying, "Mother Ninsun, Great Queen, wise, all-knowing, Intercede with Shamash for us". Ninsun washed herself with the purity plant, donned her jewels, donned her sash, donned her crown, sprinkled water onto the ground, went up to the roof and set incense in front of Shamash, spoke the ritual words. She laid a pendant on Enkidu's neck. [...] Gilgamesh [...] an offering of cuttings [...] sons of the king [...]
At twenty leagues they broke for food, At thirty leagues they stopped for rest. Fifty leagues in a day, for one month and a half.
They dug a well facing Shamash-Of-The-Setting-Sun, and Gilgamesh climbed a mountain peak to offer flour, saying: "Mountain, bring me a dream from Shamash."
Gilgamesh slept, and woke afeared and calling; "My friend, did you touch me? Did a god pass by? Why are my muscles weak?" Enkidu, my friend, the dream has come- the mountain fell upon us, I fought a wild bull, I drank water from a waterskin."
"Your dream is good my friend, we will capture Humbaba, we will throw his corpse into the wasteland." [...] 'A slippery path is not feared by two people who help each other. ' 'A three-ply rope cannot be cut. ' "Take my hand, my friend, We will go together to the Cedar Forest. Heed not death, do not lose heart!"
They stood at the forest's edge, they saw the Cedar Mountain, the dwelling of the Gods, the throne of Imini. Enkidu spoke to Humbaba: "A slippery path is not feared by two people who help each other. A three-ply rope cannot be cut."
Humbaba spoke to Gilgamesh, saying: "Gilgamesh, why have you come? Give advice, Enkidu?, you son-of-a-fish, who does not even know his own father!"
Enkidu spoke to Gilgamesh, saying: "Why, my friend, do you whine and hide? Comfort, my friend [...] One hour [...] strike hard [...] flood [...] whip. They whirled around in circles as the mountains of Hermon and Lebanon split.
And then Shamash raised against Humbaba mighty tempests- Southwind, Northwind, Whistling Wind, Piercing Wind, Blizzard, Wind of Simurru, Demon Wind, Ice Wind, Sandstorm- thirteen winds against Humbaba's face.
Humbaba begged "Gilgamesh, offspring of Rimat-Nlnsun [...] Gilgamesh, let me go, I will be your servant. I have fine Myrtle wood for your palace!"
[...] Enkidu addressed Gilgamesh: "Grind him, kill him, Humbaba, Guardian of the Forest! Destroy him before the gods be filled with rage. But you sit there like a shepherd, while Enlil is in Nippur, Shamash is in Sippar!" [...] his friend [...] by his side [...] pulled out his insides including his tongue.
Enkidu addressed Gilgamesh: "My friend, we have cut down the towering cedar whose top scrapes the sky. Make from it a door 72 cubits high, 24 cubits wide, one cubit thick, its doorposts of a single piece. Let the Euphrates carry it to Nippur. They tied together a raft [...] Enkidu steered [...] While Gilgamesh held the head of Humbaba.
Gilgamesh returned and placed his crown on his head, and Princess Ishtar raised her eyes; "Gilgamesh, be you my husband and you will have a chariot of lapis lazuli and gold, a house of fragrant cedar. Our doorpost will kiss your feet. All will worship you! Your she-goats will bear triplets, your ewes twins"
Gilgamesh addressed Princess Ishtar saying: "If I married you, I will have a half-door that keeps out no wind, an elephant who devours its own skin, a shoe that bites its owner's feet! You loved the colourful 'Little Shepherd' bird, yet you broke his wing. You loved the 'Mighty Lion', yet you dug for him seven pits. You loved the 'Stallion', yet gave him the whip. You loved Ishullanu, your father's date gardener, you said 'Here is my vulva.'"
Then Ishtar called in a rage to the heavens, "Father Anu, Gilgamesh has insulted me!" Send the Bull of Heaven, to kill Gilgamesh. Or else I will smash the doorposts of the Netherworld, and let the dead go up to eat the living!"
"If you demand the Bull of Heaven from me, There will be seven years of empty husks for Uruk."
Ishtar led the Bull of Heaven down to the earth. At Uruk it snorted, and a pit opened up, and one hundred, two hundred, men of Uruk fell in.
Enkidu seized the Bull of Heaven by its horns, saying to Gilgamesh: "My friend, be bold [...] I will rip out [...] I grasp the Bull [...] thrust your sword." Gilgamesh, like an expert butcher, in its neck he thrust his sword. They killed the Bull of Heaven, they ripped out its heart and presented it to Shamash, bowing humbly.
Ishtar stood upon the wall of Uruk-Haven, saying, "Woe unto Gilgamesh who slandered me and killed the Bull of Heaven!" The men of Uruk gathered, saying, "Gilgamesh is the bravest of men, boldest of males! Ishtar delights no one." Gilgamesh held a celebration in his palace. Enkidu slept and dreamed, and revealed his dream to his friend.
"In my dream the Gods Anu, Enlil, and Shamash held council, saying; 'They killed the Bull of Heaven, they slew Humbaba, they pulled up the Cedar. One of them must die!' Enlil said: 'Let Enkidu die, Gilgamesh must not die!' "
Enkidu grew sick. Enkidu lay with sickness. His tears flowing like canals, Gilgamesh said: "O brother, dear brother, why are they absolving me?"
Enkidu said to Gilgamesh, his friend: "So now must I become a ghost, to sit with the dead, to see my dear brother nevermore!" Enkidu raised his eyes, [...] Spoke to the door as if it were human: "Idiot wooden door! I fashioned you, yet this is all your gratitude."
Gilgamesh listened, and his tears flowed, saying: "Friend, why do you utter such foolishness? I will appeal to your god. I will call on Enlil, the Father of Gods. I will fashion a statue of you, of gold without measure". At the first gleam of the sun his tears poured forth. "Hear me, O Shamash, on behalf of my precious life, may the trapper not get enough to feed himself. The harlot Shamhat I curse with a Great Curse; May you not be able to love your own child; May dregs of beer stain your beautiful lap; May a drunk soil your festival robe with vomit; May you never acquire anything of bright alabaster; May a crossroad be your home, a wasteland your bed; May owls nest in your walls; May you have no parties!"
Enkidu's bowels shuddered, Lying alone, he spoke as he felt, to his friend: "Listen, my friend, to my dream. I stood between heaven and earth, an a man of dark visage- a face like the Anzu, with paws of a lion, talons of an eagle- dragged me by my hair down to the House of Darkness, the dwelling of Irkalla-Queen-of-the-Netherworld, to the house of no return, to the house where they dwell without light, where dirt is their drink, clay is their food, where their garments are the feathers of fowl, where they dwell in darkness and dust.
In the House of Dust that I entered, everywhere royal crowns in heaps, and everywhere the bearers of crowns, once rulers of lands, served sweetmeats to Anu and Enlil. There sat the high priest and acolyte, the purification priest and ecstatic, the anointed priests of the Great Gods. There sat Etana and Sumukan. There sat Ereshkigal-Queen-of-the-Netherworld, and Beletseri-Scribe-of-the-Netherworld knelt before her, she raised her head. [...]
Enkidu lies down a first day, a second day a tenth, [...] grew ever worse. Enkidu called out to Gilgamesh, "My friend hates me [...] My friend who saved me in battle has abandoned me!" [...]
At his noises Gilgamesh [...] Like a dove he moaned [...] "May he not be held, in death [...] I will mourn him [...] I at his side [...] "
As day began to dawn Gilgamesh addressed his friend: "May the road to the Cedar Forest mourn you. May the Elders of Uruk-Haven mourn you. May the men of the mountains mourn you. May the bear, the hyena, panther, tiger, lion, stag, ibex and the creatures of the plains mourn you. May the holy River Ulaja, along whose banks we grandly used to stroll, mourn you. May the pure Euphrates, from which we drank, mourn you. May the herder, who made butter and light beer for you, mourn you. May the harlot, who caressed you with oils, mourn you. May the brothers mourn over you like sisters; may the lamentation priests shave their heads for you."
"Hear me, O elders of Uruk, hear me, O men! Enkidu, my friend, the swift mule, fleet wild ass of the mountain, panther of the wilderness, we joined together and went to the mountain, we killed the Bull of Heaven, we overwhelmed Humbaba of the Cedar Forest, what now is this sleep which has seized you? You have turned dark and do not hear me!"
But Enkidu's eyes do not move. Gilgamesh touched his heart, it beat no longer. He covered his friend's face like a bride, swooping over him like an eagle, like a lioness deprived of her cubs
Gilgamesh shears off his curls, tears off his finery, and calls to the land: "You, blacksmith! You, lapidary! You, coppersmith! You, goldsmith! You, jeweler! Create 'My Friend', fashion a statue of him. His chest of lapis lazuli, his skin of gold." [...] I [...] carnelian [...] to my friend. [...] your dagger
A carnelian bowl he filled with honey. A lapis lazuli bowl he filled with butter. And displayed it before Shamash. [...]
Gilgamesh cried bitterly, "I am too to die like Enkidu? Deep sadness penetrates my core, I fear my death. I will set out to the land of Utnapishtim son of Ubartutu." [...]
Then he reached Mount Mashu, which daily guards the rising and setting of the sun. Scorpion-beings watch its gate, the sight of them is death. The male scorpion-being called to his female: "He who comes to us, his body is the flesh of gods!" "Gilgamesh, why have you travelled so far, over treacherous rivers?" [...]
"I come to find my ancestor Utanapishtim, the man who joined the assembly of the Gods, and was given eternal life. Now! Open the Gate
The scorpion-being spoke to Gilgamesh, saying: "Go on, Gilgamesh, fear not! The Mashu mountains I give to you" [...]
Two leagues he travelled, dense was the darkness, light there was none. Nine leagues he travelled, the North Wind licked his face, dense was the darkness, light there was none.
Twelve leagues he travelled and it grew bright. Before him, the garden of bejewelled shrubs, their leaves of lapis lazuli. [...] cedar [...] agate [...] of the sea [...] lapis lazuli [...] like thorns and briars [...] carnelian [...] rubies hematite [...] like [...] emeralds [...] of the sea [...] Gilgamesh [...] walking [...] raised his eyes and saw [...]
By the seashore lives the veiled tavern-keeper Siduri, hers the golden fermenting vat. Gilgamesh wanders, his body is the flesh of gods! But sadness is within him.
The tavern-keeper saw him, bolted her door, locked her lock. Gilgamesh spoke, "Tavern-keeper, let me in, or I will break your door, smash your lock! I am Gilgamesh, I killed Humbaba of the Cedar Forest, I killed the Bull of Heaven."
The tavern-keeper spoke: "If you are Gilgamesh, Why is your heart wretched, your face haggard! Why is there such sadness deep within you?" "Should not I be so? Enkidu, my friend, swift mule of the mountain, panther of the wilderness, Enkidu, whom I love deeply, who went through every hardship with me, the fate of mankind has overtaken him.
Six days and seven nights I mourned over him, and would not allow him to be buried until a maggot fell out of his nose. I was terrified by his appearance, I learned to fear death. Tavern-keeper, what is the way to Utanapishtim?"
The tavern-keeper spoke to Gilgamesh: "The way to the Waters of Death is treacherous, go to Urshanabi, the ferryman, he has 'The Stone Things', cross with him, if you can, or turn back."
Urshanabi spoke to Gilgamesh: "Why is your heart wretched, your face haggard! Why is there such sadness deep within you?" "Should not I be so? Enkidu, my friend, swift mule of the mountain, panther of the wilderness, Enkidu, whom I love deeply, who went through every hardship with me, the fate of mankind has overtaken him."
"Now, Urshanabi! What is the way to Utanapishtim? Urshanabi spoke to Gilgamesh: "It is your hands, Gilgamesh, that prevent the crossing! You have smashed 'The Stone Things', pulled out their cords. Gilgamesh, take your axe, go into the woods, cut down 300 punting poles each 60 cubits long." And Gilgamesh cut 300 punting poles each 60 cubits long.
They took to the boat and travelled three days, as far as a month's journey, and come at the Waters of Death. Urshanabi said to Gilgamesh: "Your hand must not pass over these Waters of Death, take a pole to press us on, then cast each pole away."
Utnapishtim was gazing off into the distance, The one who is coming is not a man of mine, [...] I keep looking but not [...] I keep looking but not [...]
Utnapishtim said to Gilgamesh: "Why is your heart wretched, your face haggard! Why is there such sadness deep within you?" "Should not I be so? Enkidu, my friend, swift mule of the mountain, panther of the wilderness, Enkidu, whom I love deeply, who went through every hardship with me, the fate of mankind has overtaken him. Six days and seven nights I mourned over him, And would not allow him to be buried, Until a maggot fell out of his nose. My friend whom I love has turned to clay"
Utnapishtim spoke to Gilgamesh: "Have you ever [...] Gilgamesh [...] the fool [...] [...] beer dregs instead of butter, [...] the temple of the holy gods [...] mankind [...] his fate. Your life is toil without cease, for what? Mankind is snapped off like a reed in a canebreak, To the fine youth and to the lovely girl [...] Death. No one can know Death, see the face of Death, hear the voice of Death.
Utnapishtim spoke to Gilgamesh: "I will reveal to you a secret of the gods: at Shuruppak, beside the Euphrates was a city old, with gods inside it. And the hearts of the Great Gods moved them to inflict the Great Flood. Father Anu uttered the oath of secrecy, Valiant Enlil was their Adviser, Ninurta their Chamberlain, Ennugi their Minister of Canals."
"Prince Ea told their talk to the reed house: 'Reed house, reed house! Wall, wall! Man of Shuruppak, son of Ubartutu: tear down the house and build a boat! Abandon wealth and make all living beings go into the boat. Its length must be that of its width. Roof it over like the Apsu.' "
"I will do it. But what shall I say to the city, the people, the Elders!"
"Ea spoke: 'Say to them: Enlil spurns me, I cannot reside in your city, nor set foot on Enlil's earth. I will go down to the Apsu to live with Prince Ea, and upon you he will rain down abundance of fowl and fishes. In the morning he will shower down loaves of bread, And in the evening a rain of wheat!'"
The carpenter brought his adze, the reed worker his flattening stone, the child to carry the pitch, the weak to bring as they can. On the fifth day I laid out her hull. One field in area, walls of height each 10 times 12 cubits. I laid out six decks, each of nine compartments. I plugged it well against the water. Saw to the punting poles and laid in what was necessary. Three times 3,600 measures of pitch came from the kiln. I gave the workmen ale, oil, and wine, as if it were river water, so they could make a party like the New Year's Festival. The boat was finished by sunset. The launching was very difficult.
Whatever I had, I loaded on it: my gold and silver, I loaded on; my beasts, I loaded on; my kith and kin, I led into it. All the beasts and animals of the field, and the craftsmen, I had go up.
The time arrived, and loaves showered down, then a rain of wheat. Dawn began to glow and a black cloud came. Forth went Ninurta-Lord-of-The-Earth and made the dikes overflow. The Anunnaki lifted up the torches, setting the land ablaze.
The South Wind blew, and the mountain sank. No one could see his fellow. The gods themselves cowered like dogs by the walls. Ishtar shrieked like a woman in childbirth. Six days and seven nights came the wind and flood, then the sea fell calm.
I looked around, and all the human beings had become clay! I opened a window, I saw daylight, I fell to my knees and wept. I looked across the sea, and saw a land at twelve leagues off.
On Mount Nimush the boat rested. A second day, a third and fourth. A fifth, a sixth, and on the seventh, I sent forth a dove. But she found no rest for her foot, and circled back to me. I sent forth a swallow. But she found no rest for her foot, and circled back to me. I sent forth a raven. And the raven found dried earth, and circled not back.
Then I let out all that was in the boat, and sacrificed a sheep and incense by the mountain-ziggurat. Seven and seven holy vessels of reeds, of cedar, and myrtle. The gods smelled the savor, and gathered like flies.
Great Enlil came, he saw the boat, Was filled with rage at the Igigi gods: 'Where did a living being escape? No man was to survive the annihilation!'
Enlil went up inside the boat and grasped my hand and had my wife kneel by me. He touched our foreheads and he blessed us: 'Let Utnapishtim and his wife become immortal like us, like gods! Let them reside far away, at the Mouth of the Rivers.'
Now Gilgamesh, who will convene the gods on your behalf, to find the life eternal that you seek? Begin! You must not sleep for six days and seven nights." But as he sat down, sleep, like a fog, blew upon him.
The wife of Utanapishtim, baked day loaves and placed them by his head, The second stale, the third moist, the fourth turned white, The fifth mouldy, the sixth still fresh. The seventh- and suddenly he awoke.
Gilgamesh said to Utanapishtim: "As sleep began to pour over me you touched me and alerted me!" Utnapishtim spoke to Gilgamesh: "Look, Gilgamesh, count your day loaves!" Gilgamesh said to Utnapishtim the Faraway: "O woe! What shall I do, where shall I go! The Snatcher has taken hold of my flesh, I must return home empty-handed!"
Take him, let him wash, cast away his animal skins into the sea, soothe his body with oil, put on his royal robes! The wife of Utnapishtim said: "What can we give Gilgamesh that he may go home with honour?" Utnapishtim spoke: "Gilgamesh, I will disclose to you a hidden thing, there is a plant [...] like a boxthorn, whose thorns will prick like a rose. If you take that plant you will become young again."
So Gilgamesh fastened stones to his feet, to dive down to Apsu the Ocean of the Netherworld. He took the plant, though it pricked his hand, he cut away the stones, and returned to the shore.
Gilgamesh said: "This is a plant against decay, I will bring it to Uruk-Haven, have an old man eat it. The plant is called 'Old-Becomes-Young.' Then I will eat it and return to the condition of my youth."
At twenty leagues they broke for food, at thirty leagues they stopped for the night. By a spring Gilgamesh went to bathe. There a serpent smelled the fragrance, and silently came and took the plant. And going back, it threw off its old casing, and became new.
And Gilgamesh wept tears, "O ferryman! For whom have my arms laboured? For whom has my heart's blood roiled? Who now will remember me?"
At twenty leagues they broke for food, at thirty leagues they stopped for the night. They came in to Uruk-Haven. Gilgamesh said to Urshanabi the ferryman: "Go up, Urshanabi, onto the wall of Uruk and walk around.
See the walls of true-fired brick. Did not the Seven Sages lay out its plan? One league for a city, One league for gardens, One league for courts of stone."
● Copyright © 2014 Glyn Hughes.
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