The Epic of Gilgamesh | Study Guide


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The Epic of Gilgamesh | Book 11 | Summary



Gilgamesh admits he expected Utnapishtim to look like a god and to have to fight him, but in fact, Utnapishtim looks like any mortal. Utnapishtim then tells his story, "a secret of the gods," in a long flashback.

Long ago, Utnapishtim was king of Shuruppak, a city on the Euphrates. At that time, five gods—Anu, Enlil, Ninurta, Ennugi, and Ea—conspired in secret to destroy humanity in a Great Flood. But clever Ea, who often sided with humanity, whispered the plan into the reeds near Utnapishtim's palace. He instructed the king to build a great ship and take on board "examples of every living creature." He even provided a lie Utnapishtim can tell his people: Enlil despised Utnapishtim, so he must sail on the Great Deep to live near Ea, who would bless the city with abundance after its king left.

The king put all the people to work; even the children carried tar as the ship was constructed, six square decks with an acre each of floor, walls 200 feet high, and a roof over it all. Thousands of gallons of tar, pitch, and oil were needed to waterproof the ship. Every day, Utnapishtim slaughtered his herds and poured a river of beer for the workers, and when the ship was finished, everyone feasted as Utnapishtim loaded his wealth and his family, along with samples of all creatures, into the boat. Shamash warned the king to board quickly, so the king gave the master shipwright, Puzur-amurri, his palace and its contents before Puzur-amurri sealed the hatch. The sky darkened, and Adad and his destructive companions Shullat and Hanish, gods of the storm, unleashed a torrent of rain and wind. Nergal, god of the plague, opened the floodgates beneath the earth, and Ninurta released the waters of heaven. At the same time, other gods set the earth on fire. So great was the destruction that the people were quickly overwhelmed and the gods themselves fled in fear to highest heaven. Aruru, creator of humans, cried out her regret at going along with the plan, and other gods joined in, lamenting till their lips were chapped and scabbed.

The storm lasted seven days, and afterward, Utnapishtim could at first see nothing but water. The ship came to rest on Mount Nimush, and there it stayed for seven days. Then Utnapishtim released a dove, which found no place to rest and returned to the ship. Later, he released a sparrow, which also returned. After some time, he released a raven, which didn't return, indicating the water was receding. When the land was finally dry again, Utnapishtim let the animals leave the ship and sacrificed a sheep to the gods. He burned fragrant branches, and the gods were drawn to the offering. Aruru held up a necklace of lapis lazuli, a gift from Anu, and promised never to forget the horror of the Great Flood that killed her children. Enlil, however, was enraged to learn that Utnapishtim and his kin survived, thanks to Ea. But Ea defended himself cleverly. He pointed out that, while the gods were within their rights to punish sinful people, it was unjust to wipe out all humanity because of the sins of a few. Enlil should have allowed lions to eat a tenth of the population instead. Also, Ea noted that he didn't reveal the secret plot; he merely whispered to some reeds, where Utnapishtim happened to overhear. Appeased, Enlil granted immortality to Utnapishtim and his wife and settled them far away in the east.

After finishing his story, Utnapishtim asks Gilgamesh if any gods will plead his case and challenges him to prove he deserves immortality. If Gilgamesh can remain awake for seven days, perhaps he can escape death. But the minute Gilgamesh sits down to start the test, sleep overwhelms him. Utnapishtim is not impressed. When his wife asks him to wake the king gently and send him home, Utnapishtim spits, "All men are liars." He lets the king sleep, marking the wall for each day that passes, and has his wife bake a loaf of bread for every day of sleep. When seven loaves lie beside Gilgamesh in various stages of staleness, Utnapishtim wakes the king, who doesn't realize he's been asleep and must be convinced by the stale, moldy bread. Now Gilgamesh despairs; he can't outrun death or sleep. Utnapishtim is done with the king. He commands Urshanabi to help Gilgamesh bathe, comb out his matted hair, and dress in robes befitting a king. Then Urshanabi will make a final trip across the ocean and accompany Gilgamesh to Uruk. When all is ready, the men push off in the boat, but while they're still near shore, Utnapishtim's wife insists he give Gilgamesh some reward for his long, difficult journey. So Gilgamesh returns to shore to hear Utnapishtim describe a spiky plant that grows in the Great Deep. If the king can find it, he can use it to restore youth. Gilgamesh ties stones to his feet and sinks into the Great Deep. His lungs strain as he looks for the plant; his fingers bleed as he pulls it up; then he cuts away the stones and swims toward the air.

Pleased, Gilgamesh shows Urshanabi the plant and says he'll test its power on an old man when they get to Uruk. If the plant restores youth, Gilgamesh can at least return to his younger days, when his heart was lighter. The men travel on, a thousand miles, and make camp near a pool of cool water, where Gilgamesh bathes. He doesn't notice the serpent that smells the plant and steals it, leaving behind its shed skin. This failure is too much for Gilgamesh. He sobs, "All my hardships / have been for nothing." They've even lost the boat. But there's nothing to do but continue home. After another thousand miles, the men camp again, and the next leg of their journey brings them to Uruk, where Gilgamesh has an epiphany. With fresh eyes he sees the great city's wall, noting its enduring beauty and craftsmanship. He begins to praise the city to Urshanabi. No other city can compare with Uruk now that Gilgamesh, having absorbed the wisdom of Siduri, Utnapishtim, and his own experience, has learned to appreciate his people's achievements.


The final book of Gilgamesh is packed with stories and ends in a homecoming and resolution.

The first story is Utnapishtim's narrative of the Great Flood. The story is told in the Gilgamesh tablets and on others as well, sometimes with a hero named Atrahasis, who built an ark to save some of humanity from a great flood. Scholar and translator Stephanie Dalley explains that Atrahasis's flood story spread widely among ancient cultures, "reworked to suit different areas and cultures" and popular in many languages. Readers may notice, for example, that the Sumerian version includes sevens: seven days of the downpour, seven days before the boat slips away from the mountain, and so on.

Utnapishtim doesn't explain why the gods conspired to flood the world, but other versions of the story do. Some say the gods were worried about people overpopulating the world and sent the flood to solve the problem. A more petty reason is that the people grew noisy, with their busy lives of planting, making goods, and trading, and the gods became annoyed by the noise and decided to wipe out humanity for a little peace and quiet. The Sumerian pantheon, like the Greek and Roman pantheons, features anthropomorphic gods, flawed like humans but with much greater powers to do harm in their angers and jealousies. In both plots, the gods quickly regret their decision because they no longer have people to do their work. Utnapishtim and his family, upon leaving their boat, immediately build a fire and sacrifice animals to the gods, who, drawn to the scent of the roasting meat, grant Utnapishtim and his wife immortality.

The Sumerian flood story predates the biblical flood story in Genesis, which ascribes a very different motivation for the flood—human evil. But many parallels exist, including the specific details for building the ark, similar construction materials, and the injunction to take animals into the boat to protect them. The release of birds to check whether the waters had receded and the sign in the sky (the rainbow in Genesis and Aruru's lapis lazuli necklace in the epic) are also parallels. Noah and his family, of course, do not become immortal, though they do, upon disembarking, build an altar and offer a sacrifice. Perhaps the most striking and disturbing difference is Utnapishtim's description of how the people, even children, help build the boat. He treats them generously, slaughtering his herds to feed them and supplying plenty of beer. But all along, he knows what their fate will be. Unlike Ea, who stealthily warns Utnapishtim of the impending catastrophe, the king says nothing to his subjects. Yet he's aware, as the waters rise under the ark, that "the Flood burst forth, / overwhelming the people like war."

The second story in Book 11 tells of Gilgamesh's final failures and an unlooked-for success. Utnapishtim ends his story with an accusing question: What has Gilgamesh done to deserve immortality? In fact, Gilgamesh has done the opposite. He abused his power, defied and insulted the gods, and raged against their judgment. He doesn't even try to answer Utnapishtim's question, but he does accept a new challenge—to stay awake for seven (of course) days. The king, exhausted from his long travail, doesn't make it seven minutes, much to Utnapishtim's disgust. Yet the old man knows the test is unfair, which is perhaps why, at his wife's urging, he offers the information about the plant that restores youth. For once, it looks like Gilgamesh will succeed in his quest, if not for immortality, then at least for extended youth, "an antidote to the fear of death." He descends again, this time into a watery underworld, and returns with the marvelous plant. For the first time since Enkidu's dream of the assembly of the gods, Gilgamesh speaks with a note of hope. He will take the plant to Uruk and see what it can do for him and his people.

The final stages of the hero's journey are the return trip and the homecoming. Urshanabi and Gilgamesh travel fast, as he and Enkidu did once, to bring the prized plant to Uruk. They leave behind Utnapishtim and the strangely beautiful but inedible fruit trees. They leave behind the Twin Peaks, the tunnel of the sun, and all the other strange places, heading for the sturdy city filled with industrious people. Yet a final failure, a final mistake, mars the homecoming. While Gilgamesh bathes, a snake smells the plant and drags it away. When Gilgamesh sees the snake's molted skin, he knows the plant did have magical powers. But he won't be bringing it home as a boon for his people after all. It may seem strange to have a hero who fails so many tests (even the successful fight against Humbaba was against the gods), but in fact, the last-minute mistake is not uncommon in the quest story. Another well-known example occurs toward the end of Frodo Baggins story in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Return of the King. Having finally, with the help of the loyal Sam, made it to Mount Doom, Frodo succumbs to the power of the One Ring. Rather than throwing it in the volcano to destroy it, he puts it on his finger and assumes its power, dooming everyone. Only because a villainous character acts, in a frenzy of jealousy, is disaster averted. Yet Frodo returns home a hero. And even a story as brief as that of Lot's wife, another story from Genesis, conveys how hard it is for people to follow a single, simple instruction under duress: Don't look back. Lot's wife does, but as she catches a final glimpse of her home, she's transformed into a pillar of salt.

So it seems that Gilgamesh has failed entirely: "was it for this that I gave my heart's blood?" he wails in dismay to Urshanabi. He couldn't save Enkidu, he didn't learn how to cheat death or even stop fearing it, and he lost the plant that renewed youth. Yet readers know from the Prologue that Gilgamesh became a good and beloved king. When he approaches the city, he's filled with pride—not self-centered hubris, but joyful pride in the work his people have done. Somehow, when he loses the only thing he had to show for his efforts, he finds a kind of contentment. His restlessness seems tamed; his love for Enkidu has changed him and now spills out over the city. He is mortal, and death will find him as it found Enkidu, perhaps suddenly, as Utnapishtim points out it often does. But in the moment he sees the city walls again, the king's existential questions subside. He's home, and he has work to do.

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