The Epic of Gilgamesh | Study Guide


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The Epic of Gilgamesh | Book 1 | Summary



Continuing to set the stage, the narrator declares that Gilgamesh, a "wild bull of a man," was stronger, larger, and more handsome than any other man. His soldiers loved him because he had never lost a battle. The son of King Lugalbanda and the goddess Ninsun, Gilgamesh was two-thirds divine and one-third mortal. A restless man, he traveled to the ends of the earth to speak to Utnapishtim, the only man to gain immortality. When the king returned, he restored religious rites and temples in Uruk. But before his journey, Gilgamesh was not beloved by his people.

Now the narrator begins the story. He tells how Gilgamesh, divinely appointed king of Uruk, treats his subjects like possessions to be used up and cast aside. He takes sons from their families and wears them out with hard labor (or, some scholars suggest, perhaps with endless athletic contests he always wins). He takes daughters for his sexual pleasure. He sleeps with brides, too, before their husbands are allowed to. Uruk's people fear the king too much to try to stop his oppressive actions. Instead, they beg the gods for help.

Hearing the people's cries, the gods in turn plead with Anu, their father and Uruk's divine protector, to curb the king's tyrannical behavior. So Anu commands Aruru, goddess of creation, to create another mighty man, a "second self" who can bring balance to Gilgamesh's overbearing nature and peace to the city. Aruru closes her eyes and shapes a warrior with a hairy body. At first this man, Enkidu, lives in the fields, running with the swift gazelles and antelopes. When a trapper spots Enkidu drinking at a watering hole with the herds, he's struck with fear of this savage man "with muscles like rocks." Because Enkidu sabotages the trapper's snares and frees animals that fall in the trapper's pits, the trapper's father sends him to ask Gilgamesh's advice. In Uruk, the king hears the trapper's story and tells him to find Shamhat, a priestess in Ishtar's temple, and take her to the watering hole. There, she will lie naked on the ground and seduce the wild man so the animals will desert him.

The trapper and Shamhat travel three days to the watering hole and wait two more days for Enkidu to appear. His beauty fills Shamhat with desire, so she strips and lies down, legs spread, and engages in sexual activity. Cautiously, Enkidu approaches, sniffing her scent, till he's close enough for her to stroke his thigh. He quickly becomes erect, and she guides him inside her. His erection lasts seven days. Finally sated, Enkidu tries to return to the herds, but they flee from him. He returns to sit at Shamhat's feet. Suddenly able to understand her speech, he listens to her description of Uruk and Gilgamesh. When she speaks of Gilgamesh's strength and beauty, Enkidu realizes he longs for a friend. Shamhat tells Enkidu of a prophetic dream the king has had in which a flame shoots across the sky and a huge boulder lands at his feet. He can't budge the boulder, but Uruk's people kiss it and delight over it. Gilgamesh, too, embraces and kisses the boulder. When Gilgamesh asked his mother, Ninsun, to interpret the dream, she predicted her son would meet a friend he would love deeply. After Shamhat tells Enkidu these things, they make love again.


The relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu is the first great friendship in literary history, and it's an answer to a prayer for the people of Uruk. Gilgamesh, as Ninsun will later complain, is a man with a restless heart. He hardly needs to sleep, and he seems to have no direction for his nearly manic energy and no use for the supernatural strength the gods have given him. As king, one of his primary duties is to protect those weaker than he is; instead, he is like a wolf among sheep. His subjects, as a result, are worn out as they attempt to gratify their king's monstrous appetites. Gilgamesh seems to be seeking some nameless thing, like a man ravenously hungry but unable to tell what would satisfy him. Perhaps because he is two-thirds divine, his longings are godlike; nothing on earth suits him.

Anu, father of the gods, must command that something new be made to meet Gilgamesh's endless need. Enkidu is that new thing. He contrasts with Gilgamesh so they "balance each other / perfectly." Where Gilgamesh acts unjustly toward his people, Enkidu protects the herds. Where Gilgamesh exploits, Enkidu serves, as when he guards the sheep through the night for the shepherds who welcome him. Gilgamesh is tied to civilization, to Uruk, the great city; Enkidu is at home in the fields, among the animals that have no language. Together, their twinned selves cover heaven and earth, nature and civilization, innocence and weary experience.

Readers get hints of what the wise king Gilgamesh could be, too, even this early in the epic. When the trapper comes to seek the king's advice, Gilgamesh, a mighty warrior, suggests a solution that is restrained, patient, and insightful. The hairy man protecting the herds, he realizes, is not yet part of human society. Gilgamesh suggests that sexual initiation will humanize the wild man. Once he's sexually initiated, the animals will shun him, "bewildered." Much later in the epic, Gilgamesh describes Enkidu as one who was "raised on the milk / of antelope and deer" and who grazed with them on field grasses. Initiation into humanity begins for Enkidu with sex and proceeds to bread, beer, and meat—all foods that must be cultivated and manufactured.

But readers also recognize in this book the king who regards his subjects as tools. He commands Shamhat, a priestess whose sexual favors he has likely enjoyed since he's well informed about her "love-arts," to meet a wild, hairy man who is hard muscled and as swift as a gazelle. And she obediently goes. Shamhat serves Ishtar in Uruk's main temple, celebrating the worship of the goddess through sexual union. Sex in the epic is not at all taboo, any more than eating bread or drinking beer or bathing and dressing are. It's sometimes difficult for readers today not to regard Shamhat as a prostitute, but she is a kind of guide who leads Enkidu out of the wilderness and into a full, human life. Sexual love and union are a practicality, a necessary part of the order decreed by the gods. Shamhat is doing their will (and enjoying the work) when she tames Enkidu with her love-making. Even more important, perhaps, she awakens a longing in Enkidu to see Uruk, the beautiful city, and to meet the glorious Gilgamesh. Meanwhile, Gilgamesh's prophetic dream is preparing him, although he doesn't yet know it, for the same meeting. It's a friendship literally made in heaven.

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