The Epic of Gilgamesh | Study Guide

Sîn-lēqi-unninni

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The Epic of Gilgamesh | Book 4 | Summary

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Summary

With their long strides and supernatural strength, the heroes walk 400 miles before stopping to eat and a thousand before making camp. In three days they cover the distance average men would cover in six weeks. Gilgamesh climbs a mountain and makes an offering of flour before asking for an auspicious dream. At camp, Enkidu builds a shelter and prays. He sprinkles flour to form a circle, inside which Gilgamesh sits to sleep. At midnight, the king awakes in a cold sweat and reports a frightening dream: a mountain throws itself on his feet, restraining him as a light blinds him. But a man appears, "shining and handsome," to pull Gilgamesh to safety and refresh him with water. Enkidu interprets this dream optimistically. The mountain represents Humbaba, a powerful foe who can pin Gilgamesh down, but Shamash will protect Gilgamesh and prevent his defeat.

The next day, Gilgamesh and Enkidu begin the next thousand-mile segment of their journey, and at its end, Gilgamesh again climbs a mountain to ask for a dream. That night, in the circle of flour, he dreams that a ferocious storm lashes the sky. Lightning sets the sacred cedars ablaze, and ash covers the ground. Enkidu interprets this dream, too, as a sign of victory: Humbaba attacks with fire and lightning, yet Gilgamesh survives unharmed and is ultimately victorious. The friends repeat the sequence of three days' travel, a dream, and its interpretation twice more. Gilgamesh dreams that a fiery eagle attacks him, but the shining man tears it apart, and that a huge bull's bellow rips up the earth and darkens the sky with dust, but a man pulls Gilgamesh away and gives him water to drink. Enkidu's interpretations are still optimistic. The eagle stands for Humbaba, from whom Shamash will protect Gilgamesh. The great bull stands for Shamash, and the man who gives Gilgamesh water is his late father, Lugalbanda, now Gilgamesh's divine protector. All signs point to a victory no other men could achieve—even the great heroes will attain it only with the gods' help.

After the final dream, Gilgamesh and Enkidu approach the sacred forest. Humbaba's roar strikes fear into Enkidu. Although Gilgamesh urges Enkidu to ignore his fear and stand by him in battle, Humbaba's roar soon frightens even the bold king. He stops to pray to Shamash, who answers from heaven, telling Gilgamesh to attack now, while Humbaba is at the forest's edge and wears only one of his seven protective auras. The farther into the forest Humbaba goes, the stronger he'll become. The friends gaze toward the forest silently.

Analysis

The hero's journey takes him and his companion out of their ordinary world and into unknown lands that are often vast and somehow extraordinary. Supernatural events transport the heroes from Uruk's busy streets and into the realm of the magical and monstrous. Even the pace of the journey is surprising. Gilgamesh and Enkidu cover 1,000 miles in three days and travel 4,000miles altogether (for reference, about 2,700 miles separate San Francisco and Washington, D. C.). Clearly, the heroes are off the real-world maps, since the actual distance from Uruk to Lebanon is not even a fourth of their journey. In a ritual designed to bring dreams, Gilgamesh offers flour and sleeps inside the ring of flour, likely offerings to Shamash, god of the sun and crops but also protector of travelers and giver of dreams and their interpretations. The friends sleep only every third day, but when Shamash grants Gilgamesh the dreams he prays for, the king is shaken and confused. He was seeking a good dream that would foretell his victory in the coming battle with Humbaba, but in his dream a mountain falls on him and Enkidu. This is a nightmare. Enkidu puts a positive spin on it, insisting it portends a great victory, but readers may have a hard time reconciling the dream with Enkidu's interpretation. They may wonder what more can be read into this dream than Enkidu sees.

Prayer and ritual mark the journey to the forest, and four repetitions of the pattern—travel, pray, sleep, dream—distance this part of Gilgamesh's experience from his ordinary life. The king, whose fragile balance had already begun to skew before he and Enkidu left Uruk, is thrown into doubt and anxiety. He is still king, but he is certainly no longer in control of his environment. Gilgamesh is facing his limits, perhaps for the first time, and Enkidu must reassure and guide him.

On a second reading, readers may note that the dreams foreshadow Enkidu's death. In each of the four dreams, Gilgamesh survives catastrophe, but no such prediction occurs for Enkidu. Shamash and Lugalbanda protect the king, but Enkidu seems invisible to these powerful helpers. And despite Enkidu's optimism, when the heroes approach the threshold of the forest and hear Humbaba's terrible roar, they freeze. Gilgamesh weeps as he prays, but Shamash's response is hardly comforting. The farther the monster moves into the forest, the stronger he'll become, putting on "seven auras" that give him the power to paralyze his enemies. This horrifying thought renders the heroes speechless. For the hero's quest to transform him, he doesn't have to succeed at every great deed. He does, however, have to complete the journey. Gilgamesh, whose plan looked foolhardy to Uruk's elders, laughed at their chin-wagging from his throne, full of hubris and ready to die for fame. But now, on the edge of the enemy's territory, both men find themselves tempted to turn back.

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