The Epic of Gilgamesh | Study Guide

Sîn-lēqi-unninni

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The Epic of Gilgamesh | Book 7 | Summary

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Summary

In Enkidu's dream, the gods meet in council to discuss how Enkidu and Gilgamesh have offended them by killing Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven. Anu insists that one of the men must die, and Enlil agrees—Enkidu will die. Soon Enkidu becomes gravely ill and lies on his bed weeping because death will part him from Gilgamesh. The king weeps, too, as he insists Enkidu has misinterpreted the dream, but Enkidu counters with a second dream he's just had.

In the dream, Enkidu stands on a plain during a storm. A creature, half lion and half eagle, knocks Enkidu down and tramples him. Enkidu calls to Gilgamesh to help, but the king is afraid and doesn't come. When the creature touches Enkidu again, feathers cover his arms, and the creature binds his arms and takes him to the underworld to sit in darkness with the dead. There, Enkidu sees the dead—the lofty and the low—and the deities of the underworld. Queen Ereshkigal sees him and asks who brought him there.

The dream's meaning is clear to Enkidu, but Gilgamesh tries to force a positive interpretation. Only the healthy receive dreams, he claims. Still, he prays to the gods for mercy and plans to create a golden votive of Enkidu to heal him. Enkidu knows the truth—whatever Enlil has decreed will be done, no matter what remedies Gilgamesh tries. At dawn, Enkidu speaks from his deathbed, cursing the trapper who saw him in the wild with starvation. He then curses Shamhat for making him human. His curse is elaborate and includes a lack of children, a husband who beats her and prefers younger women, a home in need of serious repairs, and lawsuits brought by other women against her.

When Shamash hears this curse, however, he reminds Enkidu that without Shamhat, he would never have come to Uruk to meet Gilgamesh, who loves him and will lead all Uruk in mourning for him. Enkidu considers Shamash's words and offers a blessing to replace the curse on Shamhat, wishing her success and wealth as Ishtar's priestess. He asks Gilgamesh to remember all their days together. For 12 days, Enkidu grows weaker. Finally he speaks again. His vision is dim; he doesn't know that Gilgamesh is by his side. Yet Enkidu knows that no hero can rescue him from fearful death. Gilgamesh hears Enkidu's labored breathing and begs him in vain not to die.

Analysis

Enkidu's dream shifts the epic's tone permanently. Not till the epic's final lines does Gilgamesh speak again with contentment and pride in his people's achievements. Death, at which Gilgamesh once laughed, becomes the new companion of both men as it tears them apart. Their estrangement begins even before Enkidu dies, as readers see, for example, in the contrasting reactions to Enkidu's fatal illness. Enkidu accepts it, bitterly, while Gilgamesh denies it actively, although he must know Enkidu's dreams are prophetic, as they always have been.

It must also be bitter to both men when Enkidu dreams of calling for Gilgamesh to save him only to have the king's fear prevent action. "They are taking me from you," Enkidu says of the gods, yet he doesn't direct his anger toward them. Instead, he curses the trapper who spotted him in the wild, and he curses Shamhat at great length for bringing him out of the wild, where he was "strong and innocent and free." He hopes she will fall from her privileged position in the temple to become a ragged whore, bereft of children, beaten by her man "as a housewife beats a rug," vomited on by drunkards, and plagued by wild dogs in her home. But Enkidu is quick to recant his curse and offer a blessing instead when the ever-watchful Shamash reminds him of the great good Shamhat did by bringing him to his beloved Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh will ensure that Uruk mourns Enkidu long and well; that, and their time of friendship, should be enough for Enkidu.

Interestingly, neither man blames Humbaba for cursing them, nor does Enkidu blame Gilgamesh for insisting on attacking Humbaba. Perhaps both men realize but can't bear to state the truth: they are both complicit in Enkidu's didivinely decreed death. Gilgamesh refused to be talked out of the unwise plan to kill Humbaba, preferring fame over death. But when the moment to strike came, Gilgamesh paused. Perhaps he had second thoughts about killing a god-appointed guardian, or perhaps he felt pity for the monster, so suddenly reduced from terrorizing attacker to pathetic victim. As he vacillated, however, Enkidu had only one objective—to persuade Gilgamesh to kill Humbaba. Together, after the monster is dead, the men help themselves to the sacred cedars, as if they are like gods. And so they both brought Enkidu's agonizing death on him.

This section of the story, supplemented by some translators by other tablet fragments of Sumerian mythology, gives readers the clearest glimpse of the Sumerian explanation of the afterlife. A happy afterlife in heaven doesn't enter the picture; heaven is the abode of the gods. Enkidu's dream vision of the underworld rules out the idea of punishment or reward that dominated ancient Egyptian views of the afterlife, too. Instead, the underworld is more a dismal holding cell. There, the high and the low are equal; all sit bowed in the dark and eat dust under the watchful eye of Ereshkigal and her scribe. Enkidu points out a curious disconnect between people's behavior during life and their treatment in the underworld. Wealthy kings who offered roasted meats and refreshing waters to the gods and priests who spent their lives serving in the temple fare no better than anyone else. All shuffle in the dust, clothed in feathers. When, later in the epic, Siduri advises Gilgamesh to enjoy every day he has on the sweet earth, the knowledge of the dusty underworld that awaits the dead may underscore the sweetness of even a rather bad day on earth.

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