The Epic of Gilgamesh | Study Guide


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The Epic of Gilgamesh | Book 8 | Summary



Gilgamesh sits by Enkidu's body, weeping, till dawn. He speaks of Enkidu's strange, brief life among the animals. Even the paths Enkidu walked mourn him, as do the hills they crossed and the sacred cedars. All nature mourns, and in Uruk and around it, the people mourn. The king speaks to the city's old and young men, promising to grieve forever. His lament is long and poetic; it recalls their adventures and Enkidu's glorious strength. The lament also expresses how hard it is for Gilgamesh to accept this death, this "sleep that has seized you ... and stopped your breath." Even the stillness of Enkidu's heart under Gilgamesh's hand is hard for the king to comprehend. Finally, Gilgamesh places a veil over Enkidu's face. He walks around the deathbed, ripping his robes and pulling out his hair.

The next day, Gilgamesh orders the city's craftsmen to create a statue of Enkidu, their best work using the finest materials that can be had. He opens the treasury, chooses richly adorned weapons, and offers them to the gods of the underworld, and he slaughters animals for an offering for Enkidu. He sets out honey and butter in beautiful bowls for Shamash and offers Ishtar a javelin made of cedar. He makes gifts to other gods and divine servants as well, all to ensure favorable treatment of Enkidu in the underworld. When the funeral is done and the statue is in place, Gilgamesh wraps himself in a lion skin and roams away from Uruk in his grief.


Book 8 conveys the shock to Gilgamesh of Enkidu's death and his eventual recovery, at least to the point at which he can begin his long labor of grief. Tablets recovered from ancient Mesopotamian cities include beautiful laments and elegies like the one Gilgamesh gives over his friend's still body. One element of many epics is the epic catalogue, a list that piles example upon example or detail upon detail to create an increasingly overwhelming effect. Enkidu's curse and then blessing of Shamhat in Book 7 are examples, as is Gilgamesh's list of Ishtar's betrayed lovers in Book 6. Here, the catalogue lists all the people, places, and things that mourn Enkidu's death: the paths he walked on, "the forest we slashed in our fury," animals of many kinds, rivers, warriors, Shamhat, the person who made the beer Enkidu drank, and many others. Gilgamesh addresses his subjects, too, with another catalogue, this time listing various metaphors that describe how dear Enkidu was to Gilgamesh. He was the weapon Gilgamesh reached for, the shield that protected him, the robe and belt that wrapped his body, and more. Yet even these poetic laments can only begin to express Gilgamesh's grief and disbelief that Enkidu won't wake up. Finally, the king places a veil over his friend's face "like a bride's" and turns his grief against himself, tearing his clothing and ripping out chunks of his own hair.

Book 8 describes the rituals surrounding death, at least as the wealthy could carry them out. Gilgamesh manages to suppress his grief temporarily to do what must be done. He orders a votive statue, "more splendid than any statue" ever made before, adorned with precious metals and stones, which he will set up for princes to adore. He raids his treasury for rich offerings to the gods and slaughters animals to please them and to get their favor for Enkidu in the underworld. Another detailed catalogue follows, listing every gift and explaining how it's appropriate to the god who receives it. Gilgamesh utters ritual words over each gift to ensure the god will receive it and walk by Enkidu's side in the underworld "so that Enkidu may not be sick at heart." The wealth represented by the gifts is astonishing, but to Gilgamesh, wealth is now meaningless except in that it shows honor to Enkidu. As for himself, he turns away from his palace, his treasury, and his city. Enkidu came to Uruk to find his soul mate; Gilgamesh, having lost his soul mate, flees in a lion skin to the wilderness to grieve.

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