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|Epic of Gilgamesh
Summary by Michael McGoodwin, prepared 2001, revised 2006
Acknowledgement: This work has been summarized using The Epic of Gilgamesh, Penguin Classics 2000, translated from the original cuneiform by Andrew George. Quotations are for the most part taken from that work, as are paraphrases of his commentary. Some text drawn from a webpage by Richard Hooker (no longer available on the Web) and other Web sources are indicated in context. In 2006, I also read the new adaptation of Gilgamesh prepared by Stephen Mitchell (who does not read cuneiform or Akkadian, and therefore relied on the literal translations of others). While the Mitchell work is intended to be quite readable, it takes considerable liberties and poetic license with the source materials, and in general I prefer the more scholarly style and transparent presentation of the comprehensive Penguin edition.
Overall Impression: This is a primitive but interesting work of historical importance because of its very early position in world literature.
Notes Per Andrew George and various Web sources: The Gilgamesh epic is ostensibly about an actual Sumerian king Bilgamesh/Bilgames/Gilgamesh of Uruk/Erech in Sumer (SE Mesopotamia) who is said to have reigned c. 2750 BCE as the 5th ruler of the first dynasty of Uruk. He became a cult figure of worship during the Old Akkadian Empire c. 2350 BCE (somewhat analogous to King Arthur) and presumably there were oral versions of the poems in Sumerian and Akkadian predating the written ones.
Sumerian versions: There are 5 extant separate poems written in Sumerian cuneiform and lacking common themes but providing episodes about "Bilgames" (i.e., Gilgamesh). These include Bilgames and the Netherworld, which begins "In those days, in those far-off days..." as well as Bilgames and Akka, Bilgames and Huwawa, Bilgames and the Bull of Heaven, and The Death of Bilgames.
The oldest known copies of these Sumerian versions were written down as royal court entertainment c. 2100 in the reign of the Third dynasty of Ur and King Shulgi. This was during a "Sumerian renaissance" following the Old Akkadian Empire and occurred long after the invention of writing in cuneiform (the first Sumerian writing dates to c. 3000 BCE, the first recorded literature c. 2600 BCE). Many copies in Sumerian were created later in the Old Babylonian kingdom c. 1800 by Babylonian scribes at Ur and Nippur. Copying Gilgamesh in Sumerian in fact was a common scribal exercise in Old Babylonia (e.g., in the reign of King Hammurapi). A separate poem in Sumerian about Atramhasis, "When the gods were man", once mistakenly thought to be part of Gilgamesh, provides the basis for the Deluge tale incorporated into the Babylonian version of Gilgamesh. Compared to Akkadian, Sumerian was an older and linguistically unrelated language which was spoken in southern Mesopotamia. It arose by 3100 BCE and had its classical period from 2600 - 2300 BCE. Old Akkadian (which flourished c. 2800-2500 BCE) coexisted with Classical Sumerian. Sumerian had predominated in the urban south, whereas Akkadian initially predominated in the north. But by 1800 BCE, Sumerian had died out as a spoken language, though it retained prestige as a written literary language of learning (similar to the later literary roles of Greek and Latin).
Old Babylonian version: The fragmentary version of Gilgamesh in Old Babylonian (a dialect of Akkadian) beginning "Surpassing all other kings" dates to c. 1700 and shows there was already an integrated epic by then. Akkadian (i.e., Babylonian-Assyrian) is a family of Semitic dialects initially favored in the more provincial north of Mesopotamia, but eventually becoming the lingua franca of all of Mesopotamia. Dialects of Akkadian included Old Akkadian 2500 - 1950 BCE; Old Babylonian 1950 - 1530 BCE; Old Assyrian 1950 - 1750 BCE; Middle Babylonian 1530 - 1000 BCE; Middle Assyrian 1500 - 1000 BCE; New Babylonian 1000 - 625 BCE; New Assyrian 1000 - 600 BCE; and Late Babylonian 625 BCE to 0 (data taken from John Heise's Akkadian language).
Standard version: The standard version of Gilgamesh in Babylonia and Assyria is called "He who saw the Deep", and was compiled and given its final form by Sin-liqe-uninni c. 1200 BCE. It is written in a dialect of Akkadian termed Middle Babylonian (also called Standard Babylonian). It is a damaged masterpiece full of holes and missing parts and uncertain words and phrases. The author (George) fills in some of the missing text from other copies from various earlier times and even from other languages (e.g., a Hittite version). There are 11 "tablets" in the "Series of Gilgamesh" totaling originally c. 3000 lines. What was once thought to be tablet 12 is actually a line-by-line translation into Akkadian of the last 1/2 of the Sumerian-language Bilgames poem "Bilgames and the Netherworld."
The great royal libraries contributing cuneiform manuscripts included that of Ashurbanipal (who reigned 668 - 627 BCE during part of the Neo-Assyrian empire era) in Nineveh in Assyria. This library contained tablets written in the reign of the Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser I (1115 - 1077). Nineveh was sacked by the Medians and Neo-Babylonians in 612 BCE, destroying many of these tablets. By the era of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, spoken Akkadian began to die out in favor of Aramaic and other languages.
Themes of Gilgamesh include the fear of death, human longing for life and eternal renown, the path to wisdom, learning to face reality and growing up, youth versus age, life and death, the proper duties of kingship, man's responsibilities to his family, the benefits of civilization over savagery, the rewards of friendship, the nobility of heroic enterprise, the vanity of the hero's quest and the folly of the pursuit of immortality, the tale of the Deluge/Flood, and the gloomy realm of the dead. This is more a story about a human and the human condition than a mythology of the gods.
Gilgamesh (pron. "gil-GA-mesh"; Sumerian: Bilgames) is semi-divine but nonetheless mortal. The Babylonians believed that humans existed to serve the gods.
The principle deities involved in Gilgamesh are as follows [information partly taken from www.pantheon.org, and mixing the Sumerian and Babylonian pantheons somewhat; "~" signifies differing versions exist]:
Other human and divine figures include:
The Annunaki (Sumerian: Anunna) were the gods [mostly] of the Netherworld taken together; the Igigi were the gods [mostly] of the heavens.
"In Babylonian myths, Tiamat [primitive chaos] is a huge, bloated female dragon that personifies the saltwater ocean, the water of Chaos. She is also the primordial mother of all that exists, including the gods themselves. Her consort is Apsu, the personification of the freshwater abyss that lies beneath the Earth. From their union, saltwater with freshwater, the first pair of gods were born. They are Lachmu [Lahmu] and Lachamu [Lahamu] > parents of Ansar [Anshar] and Kisar [Kishar] > parents of Anu and Ea." [modified from www.pantheon.org]
The story begins as if by a narrator of a later era. Gilgamesh had all knowledge and wisdom, he was "he who saw the Deep" [Deep=nagbu, the cosmic domain of the god of wisdom, Ea], "surpassing all other kings". He built the walls of the great city of Uruk/Erech (in Sumeria, near Ur and modern Basra), and the temple Eanna within dedicated to Ishtar and Anu. He had all his labors and exploits carved in a lapis lazuli tablet. The tablet invites us to view the greatness of this city, its high walls, the foundations laid by the Seven Sages, etc. The story begins when Gilgamesh is a young king:
He is the son of [the now deified] King Lugalbanda and Ninsun ("Lady/Queen of the Wild Cow", a minor goddess), "2/3 of him god", with human form given by Lady of the Gods (Aruru, Belet-ili, Mother Goddess) and perfected by Nudimmud (Ea). He is a man of great beauty and physical prowess. He dug wells [oases] and restored the cult worship centers destroyed by the Flood.
However, he is young and oppresses his people harshly with tyranny, claiming the jus primae noctis with each bride, and constantly staging contests that apparently harass or humiliate the young men. The people call out to the sky-god Anu, the chief god of the city (and Father of the gods), to help them. In response, Anu tells the people to summon Aruru (Belet-ili, the Mother Goddess) to create a wild man, Enkidu, out in the harsh and wild forests surrounding Gilgamesh's lands. This brute Enkidu is equal in strength to Gilgamesh and is to serve as his rival to give Uruk some rest.
A hunter/trapper soon discovers Enkidu running naked roaming, grazing, and gathering at the water hole with the wild animals. The hunter's father advises him to go into the city and take the temple harlot Shamhat with him to the forest. When she sees Enkidu, she is to offer herself to the wild man. If he submits to her, the trapper says, he will lose his strength and his wildness and the animals will abandon him.
The hunter goes to Uruk and tells this story to Gilgamesh--he gives him the same advice as his father had, to take Shamhat to entice Enkidu.
Shamhat, encouraged by the hunter, meets Enkidu at the watering-hole where all the wild animals gather; she offers herself to him and he partakes nonstop for 6 days and 7 nights. The animals then shun him and he feels weakened and defiled, but he has gained reason and understanding. She offers to take him to Uruk and its temple to see all the joys of civilization--she offers to show him Gilgamesh, whom divine Shamash (the sun god) loves.
Shamhat tells Enkidu of Gilgamesh's two dreams which anticipated the arrival of Enkidu-Gilgamesh related these to his mother Ninsun: In the first a meteorite falls to earth which is so great that Gilgamesh can neither lift it nor turn it. The people gather around the meteorite, and Gilgamesh embraces it as he would a wife. His mother interprets that a comrade will come to him who will save him and whom she will make his equal. In the second, Gilgamesh dreams that an axe appears in a street. The people gather around the axe, and Gilgamesh embraces it as he would a wife. His mother again prophesies that a comrade will come to him who will save him and whom she will make his equal. Gilgamesh welcomes receiving the man who will counsel him.
Enkidu and Shamhat have coupled for 6 days and 7 nights. The shepherds in their camp teach him how to tend flocks, and give him bread to eat, ale to drink, and clothes. He is also cleaned up and shorn by a barber.
A man tells him of an upcoming wedding banquet. Gilgamesh will make his customary claim to the first night with the bride, which makes Enkidu angry. Enkidu enters the city of Uruk and the people recognize his similarity to Gilgamesh. As Enkidu enters the city, Gilgamesh is about to exert his claim to the bride's first night. Infuriated, Enkidu stands in front of the door of the marital chamber and blocks Gilgamesh's way. They fight furiously until Gilgamesh wins out; the two embrace and become devoted friends. Gilgamesh introduces Enkidu to his mother. Enkidu, who is an orphan and has no brother, weeps.
Gilgamesh proposes a quest (seemingly out of the blue): they are to journey to the great Forest of Cedar and cut down all the cedar trees (or a single great cedar). To do this, they will need to kill its guardian, the great demon Humbaba, created by Enlil (ruler of earth and men) to terrify men away. Enkidu knows about Humbaba from his days running wild in the forest, and fears him ("his voice is the Deluge, his speech is fire, and his breath is death"--he is second in fearfulness only to Adad, the Storm god). He tries in vain to convince Gilgamesh not to undertake this folly. Gilgamesh says "as for man, [his days] are numbered, whatever he may do, it is but wind". Enkidu reluctantly consents, and they forge great hatchets, axes, and daggers for the fight.
Gilgamesh announces to the crowd and the elders of Uruk his plans to cut down the cedar and win an eternal name for himself. They will all celebrate on his return. Enkidu asks the elders to stop Gilgamesh, who also fail to sway him.
The elders of the city protest Gilgamesh's endeavor, but agree reluctantly. They place his life in Enkidu's hands. Gilgamesh goes to ask his mother's blessing. She laments her son's fate in a prayer to Shamash (the sun-god and patron of travelers), asking why he had put such a restless spirit in her son and asking him for his protection, for his path to be well lit, for him to send winds against Humbaba, etc. She hopes that Gilgamesh will someday be made a god. Ninsun also adopts Enkidu as her son, and asks him to guard Gilgamesh's life.
Enkidu and Gilgamesh perform rituals to aid a safe journey. Gilgamesh instructs the officers in how to run the city in his absence. They again advise him to keep Enkidu out in front.
In panic, Enkidu again tries to convince Gilgamesh not to undertake this journey, but Gilgamesh is confident of success.
The journey to the cedar forest takes 1 1/2 months, 50 leagues a day. On every 3rd day, they pitch camp and dig a well [an oasis]. Gilgamesh climbs to a mountain top and prays to Shamash to bring him a dream, and Enkidu makes a House of the Dream God to encourage these dreams. He guards the doorway to the house as Gilgamesh dreams. Shamash sends Gilgamesh prophetic dreams in the middle of the night. After each dream, Gilgamesh awakens sensing that a god has gone by. These dreams all seem ominous, but are given favorable interpretations by Enkidu:
(1) The first is only partially preserved and deals with a mountain that falls...
(2) In the second, Gilgamesh dreams that a mountain threw him down, but a man saves him--Enkidu says the mountain is not Humbaba.
(3) Gilgamesh dreams of the earth rumbling, a storm, darkness, lightning, fire... Enkidu interprets that the battle draws near, that they will see radiant auras of Humbaba, that Lugalbanda (Gilgamesh's father) will help him lock horns like a bull with Humbaba.
(4) Gilgamesh has seen a Thunderbird (Anzu, a lion-headed eagle or flying stallion) in the sky with mouth of fire, its breath death, as well as a man... Enkidu explains the man was Shamash and that they will bind the wings of the Thunderbird.
(5) Gilgamesh dreams of a bull he takes hold of and a [man] who gives him water. Enkidu says the bull represents Shamash who will aid them in their time of peril, and the man with water was Lugalbanda.
Near the entrance to the Forest of Cedar, Gilgamesh begins to cry with fear. Shamash calls to him, ordering him to hurry and enter the forest while Humbaba is not wearing all 7 cloaks of his armor [auras], but only one. Enkidu loses his courage and wants to withdraw, but Gilgamesh encourages him onward. Humbaba bellows. [They may begin fighting Humbaba here--a large part of the tablet is missing.]
Gilgamesh and Enkidu admire the beautiful Forest of Cedar and the Mountain of Cedar where the gods and goddesses have their secret abode and throne. Enkidu encourages Gilgamesh. Hearing their sounds, Humbaba comes roaring up to them and warns them threateningly. Gilgamesh is fearful and considers retreating, but Enkidu encourages him to confront Humbaba head on. The fight begins. Shamash sends violent winds against Humbaba, and the men get the upper hand. Humbaba pleads for his life, offers Gilgamesh all his trees, but Enkidu insists that Gilgamesh kill him to establish his fame, even though the gods will be angry. Humbaba mockingly asks if Gilgamesh the king takes orders from his servant, and asks Enkidu to request his life be spared. Humbaba curses Enkidu, foretelling that Enkidu will not grow old. Gilgamesh draws his dirk and smites Humbaba in the neck, cutting off his head. The mountains quake and tremble. [Some of the following is from the older Old Babylonian version.] Gilgamesh also slays all 7 of Humbaba's auras. Gilgamesh and Enkidu cut down some of the trees of the cedar forest and in particular the tallest of the cedar trees, to make a great cedar gate for the city of Uruk. They build a raft out of the cedar and float down the Euphrates river to their city, bringing Humbaba's head.
Back in Uruk, Gilgamesh cleans up and is dressed in his royal cloaks and crown. He attracts the attention of the goddess of sexual love Ishtar, who asks him to be her husband--she will grant his animals great fertility and strength, etc. But Gilgamesh refuses her with insults, citing all the mortal lovers that Ishtar has had, and recounting their dire fates. These included Dumuzi (Tammuz), the lover of her youth now doomed [to spend 6 months of the year in the Netherworld], the allalu-bird, the lion, the horse, the shepherd, the grazier, the herdsman, and even her father's gardener Ishullanu who she turned into a dwarf. Insulted and enraged at the slander, Ishtar ascends to her parents in heaven: the sky-god Anu and Antu [in other myths, she is the daughter of Sin the moon god]. She begs her father to let her have the Bull of Heaven [the constellation Taurus] to wreak vengeance on Gilgamesh and his city, saying otherwise she will release the dead from the Netherworld to eat the living. Anu gives her the nose-rope of the bull, and she leads it down into Uruk. The bull goes on a rampage, drying up the woods and the river, etc. When the bull snorts, pits are opened up in the earth and hundreds of people fall through to their deaths. Even Enkidu is almost killed. He seizes the bull by the tail and instructs Gilgamesh to kill it with his knife directed to a certain spot behind the horns, which Gilgamesh does. They offer the heart to Shamash. Ishtar laments, and Enkidu says that he and Gilgamesh might have killed her next. He rips off one of the haunches of the bull and hurls it toward her. Ishtar holds rites of mourning over the haunch while men admire Gilgamesh's bull trophy and he makes offerings to Lugalbanda. He boasts of his success and makes merry.
Enkidu has a dream about a council of the gods. In it Enlil declares that one of the two men who have killed the Bull of Heaven and Humbaba must die. Shamash speaks up in their defense, and Enlil rebukes him. Enkidu tells Gilgamesh he knows that he is to die, and in a delirium he speaks to the door [city gate?] made from the great cedar, as if it were a man. He is blasphemous: had he known his fate, he would have used the cedar instead at Shamash's temple at Larsa, Ebabbara. Now as he weeps with Gilgamesh, he considers tearing it down. Gilgamesh chastises his friend, and says he will be left in sorrow by Enkidu's death. Gilgamesh will pray to Anu, Enlil, and Ea. Enkidu asks Gilgamesh not to make any material offerings. Enkidu then prays directly to Shamash for his life. Enkidu curses the hunter/trapper who found him, and especially the cultic harlot, Shamhat, foretelling a miserable and lonely fate for her--she who had weakened him and left him defiled.
But Shamash reminds Enkidu that Shamhat treated him well and introduced him to his friend. Gilgamesh will honor Enkidu in death. Enkidu relents and blesses the harlot--he predicts she will have many lovers including a wealthy man who abandon his wife.
Enkidu recounts a dream: a great demon comes to him, turns him into a dove, and drags him to "the house of darkness" Irkalla (the Netherworld and home of Ereshkigal), where all the dead end up. The House of Dust has various types of priests, former kings, the queen of the Netherworld Ereshkigal, her scribe Belet-seri, etc. She asks who has brought him there. [the rest is lost].
Enkidu asks Gilgamesh not to forget him and all they went through together. Enkidu lays sick for twelve days, expressing regret he does not die in combat and shall not make his name, finally dies.
Gilgamesh mourns deeply, and utters a long lament, ordering all to mourn his dead friend: the paths of the Forest of Cedar, the elders, the people, the hills and mountains, the pastures, trees, animals, rivers, the young men of Uruk, the shepherds, the brewer, Shamhat, etc. He compares Enkidu to a trusted weapon at his side, a wild ass, a donkey, and a panther. What is this sleep that has come over him? He covers the face of Enkidu, pulls out his own hair, and rips off his clothes.
At dawn, he calls for the artisans to construct an elaborate and ornate statue of Enkidu. Enkidu will be honored in the underworld. Gilgamesh will provide jewels, precious stones, gold, ivory, weapons, oxen and sheep, and other treasures to gain him favor with the gods and inhabitants of the underworld. He makes an offering to Ishtar, and to the moon god Namra-Sit [Sin], to Ereshkigal, to Dumuzi "the shepherd beloved of Ishtar", to Namtar [vizier of the Netherworld], Hushbisha (the stewardess), to Qassu-tabat [the sweeper], to Ninshuluhha (cleaner of the house), to Bibbu (the butcher), to Dumuzi-abzu (scapegoat of the Netherworld), ... [missing parts].
Gilgamesh considers damning the river [Euphrates, to construct a tomb in the river bed]. [The remaining description of the funeral is missing.]
Gilgamesh continues to mourn, and wanders in the wild, contemplating that he will also die. He fears death, and seeks eternal life through Uta-napishti, son of Ubar-Tutu. [His tale of the Flood is told below.]
He comes to a mountain pass, sees lions, prays to the moon god Sin. Later that night he grows glad of life and kills the lions, eats them and clothes himself in their skins. He digs wells [oases] that have not existed before.
Shamash asks him where he is wandering, and Gilgamesh wonders if he will be able to rest in the Netherworld. Gilgamesh asks when the dead will see the rays of the sun again.
He arrives at the twin mountains of Mashu which guards the sun at sunrise and sunset [?] and support the heavens. Scorpion men, whose glance is death, guard its gates as well as the sun at sunrise and sunset. Gilgamesh covers his face. They realize that Gilgamesh is part god and ask him why he has come, observing that no man has reached these mountains before. Gilgamesh says he is seeking Upa-napishti, who found eternal life and may be able to tell him the secret. Unable to deter him, they describe an underground route or dark tunnel under the mountains, the path of the Sun-God [when the sun returns to the east at night?]... They wish him a safe passage [warning him that he must get to the end before the sun catches up with him]. In darkness he hurries through the passage and emerges in advance of the Sun. He has entered a garden of jewels, with carnelian trees in bloom, a lapis lazuli tree, other trees made of precious stone, jewels, and coral. He is seen by a female figure [Shiduri?].
Shiduri is a wise old tavern keeper who lives by the sea-shore. She sees him coming and bars the gate. He threatens to smash down the door, and she allows him in. He tells of his friend Enkidu, how they slew Humbaba, etc. She wonders why he now appears so gaunt, why he sorrows so. He laments again the loss of his friend. He did not relinquish his body until maggots dropped from his nostril! He tells of his own intense fear of death, of turning to clay like Enkidu. He asks for the way to Upa-napishti the Distant across the ocean. Shiduri says there is no longer a way for humans to make this journey--only Shamash can cross the ocean, it is a perilous journey, and midway lie the Waters of Death. She tells him of Ur-shanabi, Uta-napishti's boatman, who with the Stone Ones is the only one who can travel across the Water's of Death and survive. Gilgamesh rushes and attacks the Stone Ones, smashing them and throwing them into the river. He then encounters Ur-shanabi. Ur-shanabi also asks why he appears so gaunt, and he again tells of losing his friend, of their exploits, and his own fear of death and desire for immortality. He asks him about the way to Uta-napishti. The ferryman tells him that this has been prevented, since the Stone Ones, who were essential, have been destroyed by Gilgamesh. Soon, apparently changing his mind, he advises Gilgamesh to cut several trees down to serve as punting-poles of great length and thus an alternative form of propulsion. With the many punting poles, Gilgamesh can push the boat and never touch the dangerous Waters of Death. They make the journey in 3 days. After Gilgamesh used up all the poles, he makes a sail out of Ur-shanabi's garments.
At last, they approach the distant shore. Uta-napishti wonders who Gilgamesh is. Uta-napishti asks him why he is so gaunt and Gilgamesh again tells of losing Enkidu, their exploits, his fear of dying, his grieving, etc. He has had little sleep, has scourged himself, etc. Uta-napishti tells him not to chase sorrow, that his lot when a well-fed and clothed king was better than that of the fool [probably suggesting his present state]. He speaks words of wisdom: the responsibility of a king to provide for his people and the temples, etc.; man is destined to die, to be "snapped off like a reed in a canebrake", death is inevitable for all men; the river rises and the flood washes away the houses of men; the dead are like the abducted. He tells of the assembly of the Anunnaki, the great gods [mostly of the Netherworld], how they established Death and Life with Mammitum (Aruru/Mother Goddess).
Gilgamesh asks Uta-napishti how he came to be immortal, and Uta-napishti recounts the story of how he and his wife were the sole human survivors of the Deluge and Flood:
He was the king of Shuruppak, on the banks of the Euphrates. The gods decided to send down the Deluge (apparently Enlil especially wished to punish mankind). Ea slyly warned Uta-napishti to build a boat, abandon his wealth, and take aboard the seed of all living things. He obeyed Ea, and deceptively told his fellow citizens, as instructed, that he was hated by Enlil and could no longer live on his ground, but must go to Ocean Below (Apsu) to live with Ea. He also deceived them, saying that abundant rain, birds, fishes, bread-cakes, and wheat would come to them. The carpenter, ship-wright, and reed-worker assembled at dawn and began construction. The ship [actually a barge] was to be one acre in area, square in shape, with 6 decks, well sealed with pitch and tar. He fed the workers well. They oiled the boat. At last he went aboard the boat with all his wordily wealth, silver and gold, many creatures, and his kin, and he sealed the hatch. He gave his palace to the shipwright. At dawn, the Storm God Adad brought up great clouds. The god of wanton devastation Errikal [a manifestation of Nergal] uprooted mooring poles, Ninurta [Enlil's son] made the weirs overflow, and the Anunnaki started fires over the countryside. Adad then smashed the land to pieces with powerful winds. Then the Deluge came, which was so intense it even frightened the gods, who fled to Anu in heaven. Belet-ili [Mother Goddess] cried out in despair, lamenting that her speaking out in the god's assembly had brought this punishment on to the very humans to whom she had given birth. The Anunnaki gods also wept. The storm, wind, and Deluge all lasted 6 days and 7 nights, then came to an end. All the people had turned to clay, the flood plain flattened. The boat ran aground [i.e., perched above the submerged peak] of Mount Nimush [in the Zagros mountains ? of Kurdistan]. Uta-napishti released a dove, the next day a swallow, the next day a raven--when the latter does not return, he knew that he was near land. He made sacrifices which pleased the gods, who gathered like flies (since the absence of humans had left them starved for sacrifices). Belet-ili blamed Enlil for causing this destruction. Enlil arrived angry, wanting to be sure that there was not even a single survivor. Ea accused him of a lack of good counsel, that he could have used other means to punish and diminish the numbers of men without destroying them completely. Enlil debated what to do with Uta-napishti, and Ea acknowledged that he was responsible for warning him. Enlil decided to make Uta-napishti and his wife immortal.
Uta-napishti now challenges Gilgamesh to stay awake for 7 nights [presumably as a test of how worthy for immortality he is], but the exhausted Gilgamesh quickly falls asleep. Uta-napishti has his wife bake a loaf of bread and place it by Gilgamesh each day he sleeps. Thus, by means of the varying states of decay of the loaves, he proves to Gilgamesh when he awakens how long he has slept (initially, Gilgamesh thinks it has only been a moment). Gilgamesh again expresses his fear of Death. Uta-napishti banishes Ur-shanabi for bringing the forbidden visitor. He asks Ur-shanabi to clean Gilgamesh up, cast off the pelts and dress him in royal robes, and return him to his kingdom. They prepare to return by boat. Uta-napishti offers Gilgamesh a parting gift in the form of instructions for finding a prickly plant, the "Plant of Heartbeat" that will restore youth. Gilgamesh burrows down to the Ocean Below and retrieves the plant [coral?]. Gilgamesh plans to test it's effectiveness on an old man first. But on their way back, they stop by a pool and bathe, and a snake sneaks up and steals the plant, youthfully shedding its skin in the process. Gilgamesh weeps at losing the only treasure he brings from the trip--and he lacks the tools to reopen the channel to the Ocean Below, even if he did turn back.
Back at last in Uruk, he tells Ur-shanabi to climb the walls and admire the foundations laid by the Seven Sages, etc. [just as the first tablet had urged].
(Note: What used to be considered a twelfth tablet for this work is an Akkadian translation of part of one of the Sumerian Bilgames poems, Bilgames and the Netherworld.)