The Epic of Gilgamesh | Study Guide

Sîn-lēqi-unninni

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The Epic of Gilgamesh | Book 10 | Summary

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Summary

Beyond the garden lies the ocean, where Siduri, goddess of wisdom and brewing, keeps her tavern. She's at work, her face veiled, when Gilgamesh approaches. She sees his desperate expression, locks the tavern door, and retreats to her rooftop, taking him to be a murderer. Gilgamesh calls up to her to let him in, or he'll let himself in by breaking down the door. When Siduri asks who he is, he gives a brief résumé: king of Uruk, destroyer of Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven. Siduri isn't satisfied; she asks why he's haggard and grief stricken. So Gilgamesh tells her of Enkidu's death and his heartbroken sorrow. For six days, he says, he wouldn't let Enkidu be buried, thinking his extreme grief would revive his friend. But on the seventh day, a maggot fell from the corpse's nose, and the fear of death seized Gilgamesh. His mind can't rest, so unbearable are these memories.

Siduri advises Gilgamesh to stop searching for immortality, which belongs to the gods alone. The gods have decreed birth, life, and then death for humans, who should not waste a day of their sweet years on earth. A man should eat and drink, dress well and enjoy music, love his children, and enjoy his wife as best he can, every day. Still deep in his grief, Gilgamesh rejects Siduri's advice and insists on finding Utnapishtim. Unfortunately, mortals can't cross the wide ocean to reach the Distant One, Siduri says, because a single drop of the Waters of Death, in the middle of the ocean, kills any mortal. Gilgamesh has one chance—to persuade Urshanabi, Utnapishtim's boatman, to take him across. Since Urshanabi and the Stone Men are in the forest cutting pine branches, Gilgamesh, weapons in hand, ambushes them at their work, shattering the Stone Men and throwing their broken bodies into the ocean as Urshanabi watches, astonished.

After Gilgamesh explains who he is and what he wants, Urshanabi reveals that the Stone Men, whom Gilgamesh destroyed in his anger, were the boat's crew, immune to the Waters of Death. If Gilgamesh wants to risk the crossing, he'll have to cut 300 punting poles 100 feet long, strip them of bark, and make grips. Gilgamesh crafts the poles, and he and Urshanabi begin punting the boat across the ocean. In three days they travel as far as ordinary men could in six weeks. When they reach the Waters of Death, Gilgamesh must use each pole only once and then let it sink; he uses up all 300 poles and then deploys Urshanabi's robe as a sail to reach the shore. There, Utnapishtim watches, wondering where the Stone Men are and who travels with Urshanabi. Gilgamesh asks the old man, whom he doesn't recognize, to direct him to Utnapishtim, but Utnapishtim wants to know, first, why the king is so haggard and sorrowful. Again, Gilgamesh summarizes his journey, adding details about his "ceaseless striving" as he traversed harsh terrain and hunted to eat. Now, the weary king says, he seeks an end to grief.

Utnapishtim asks Gilgamesh to consider a new perspective. The gods graced him with gifts of strength and intellect and placed him on the throne of a wealthy city. Contrast this condition, Utnapishtim says, with that of a fool, to whom the gods give crusts and dregs for food, rags for clothes, and confusion for thoughts. Gilgamesh has wasted days of his good fortune on this journey and accomplished nothing. The world is as the gods made it; death can come suddenly to anyone, yet people carry on with the business of life as if they'll live forever. Though the gods know each person's fate, they keep their secrets.

Analysis

Siduri, the tavern keeper on the edge of the earth, brews her beer for customers whose identity is a mystery. In the garden of the gods and beyond, visitors are rare (the tunnel sees to that), and the dead don't require food. Siduri is a goddess in some Sumerian stories and a wise matron in others, but whatever she is, she belongs in this strange land of jeweled trees and deadly oceans. She's shocked by Gilgamesh's appearance and state. If he's truly a king and a monster-slayer, surely he shouldn't look like a man about to collapse from exhaustion and hunger. His explanation, yet another lament, fills in new details about Enkidu's death. After "the fate of mankind" swept Enkidu away, Gilgamesh mourned for seven nights, hoping his deep grief would resuscitate Enkidu. Only the stark and sickening sight of a maggot falling from the decaying corpse shook Gilgamesh out of his misguided belief. Then his grief was augmented by fear that he, too, would soon be host to maggots, and he fled. "How can my mind have any rest?" he asks.

Siduri has a ready answer. Gilgamesh, she says, is on the wrong quest and asking the wrong question. Of course he's going to die; he's mortal. Mortals are born, live, and die, following "the order that the gods have decreed." Since this is the case, mortals should enjoy their lives, down to every bit of food and drink of beer and every sweet clasp of a child's hand or a woman's embrace. She advises an approach to life sometimes called seizing the day (carpe diem) and popular in ancient wisdom literature. Ecclesiastes, for example, an ancient book of wisdom purportedly written by Solomon, advises, "Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God now accepteth thy works. Let thy garments be always white; and let thy head lack no ointment. Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity, which he hath given thee under the sun, all the days of thy vanity: for that is thy portion in this life, and in thy labour which thou takest under the sun" (9:7–9 KJV).

Gilgamesh, however, rejects Siduri's advice as meaningless for him. Perhaps his desperate outcry persuades Siduri to send Gilgamesh on to Utnapishtim, with Urshanabi's help, but his angry frustration nearly scuttles that plan, too. For no reason, and to Urshanabi's astonishment, he destroys the Stone Men, lashing out much as Ishtar does in Book 6, without thought to the consequences. So Gilgamesh gains another laborious task, preparing the 300 pine poles to punt across the ocean.

When he reaches the other shore, Gilgamesh is so frantic for answers and so near the limit of what he can endure that he doesn't stop to find out who the old man on the shore is. He repeats his story, adding details about what he's endured to cross deserts and mountains, and seems to reach the end of his strength. He wants to close "the gate of sorrow" behind him and seal it for good. Utnapishtim is remarkably impatient with Gilgamesh. Rather than comforting him or sympathizing with him, he scolds the king for his self-centered, indulgent grief. Gilgamesh has a good life; he should accept and enjoy it. Life is so fleeting, says the immortal man, it's like "mayflies / floating downstream" that glimpse the sun and die. Like Siduri's philosophy, Utnapishtim's words are pointless and even painful for Gilgamesh to hear in his state of grief.

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