The Epic of Gilgamesh | Study Guide

Sîn-lēqi-unninni

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The Epic of Gilgamesh | Book 9 | Summary

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Summary

Gilgamesh is driven through the wilderness not only by grief for Enkidu but by fear of his own death, which now seems so real. He heads east, hoping to find Utnapishtim, the only man to whom the gods gave immortality. He is the only man who can tell Gilgamesh how to escape death. Gilgamesh comes to the Twin Peaks, mountains whose tops touch heaven and whose roots descend to the underworld. The mountains lie under the sun's course across the sky and over a tunnel under the earth, the entrance to which is guarded by two scorpion people. The mere sight of these people can kill most men, but Gilgamesh overcomes his fear to speak to them. They recognize his semidivinity and ask why he has risked the journey. He explains why he seeks Utnapishtim, his ancestor and now his last hope. The scorpion man says no mortal can pass the peaks and enter the tunnel. But then the scorpion woman acknowledges Gilgamesh's tenacious courage to have come so far, so the scorpion man explains the path through the pitch-black tunnel. Gilgamesh must race through the darkness in 12 hours because once the sun enters the tunnel, its flames will incinerate anything inside. At dawn, Gilgamesh enters the tunnel and begins to run, counting the hours, unable to see anything. Fear begins to seize him in the eighth hour, but he runs on. During the ninth hour, he feels a slight breeze. He emerges after 12 hours just as the blazing sun enters the tunnel at the other end. Gilgamesh emerges into the gods' marvelous garden, where gems hang from trees and vines.

Analysis

Gilgamesh claims, earlier in the epic, not to fear death. He's a warrior, bold and strong, the envy of the young men. Perhaps, in fact, he didn't fear his own death, but his love for Enkidu stripped him of the ability to laugh at death. Life without his friend is a living death for him, and the pain of loss is made worse by Gilgamesh's struggle with his own mortality. At one time, death that brings fame seemed a reasonable trade for him; now, having heard Enkidu's description of the dusty underworld and having helplessly watched his long, hopeless agony, Gilgamesh understands death and loss better. He wants to bring Enkidu back; failing that, he wants to avoid following Enkidu through the gates of the underworld. Book 9 takes Gilgamesh through his dark night of grief and into a literal passage through the underworld, from which he emerges into a world beyond death.

The journey through an underworld is a common feature in epics. When Beowulf descends into Grendel's cave, he sinks through murky waters as his companions watch, certain they'll never see him again. In Virgil's Aeneid, Aeneas needs his deceased father's advice and, armed with a branch of mistletoe, walks under the earth and among the dead to get it. In these and other epics, the detour through the underworld is dangerous, but the hero who risks it may emerge with useful information or items. Gilgamesh must risk the passage through the pitch-black tunnel to reach Utnapishtim, the only man who can answer the question "that gnaws at my belly." He enters the tunnel at a run just as the sun exits it to rise. The repetition of the language underscores the hour-by-hour count as the hero races against time: "deep was the darkness ... before and behind him and to either side." He survives this ordeal and emerges, with only seconds to spare, into a magical garden paradise. As a mortal, he can gaze in awe at gem-trees with lapis lazuli leaves and jewels and pearls for fruit—eye candy, but otherwise useless to a man who needs food.

The underworld passage often results in a rebirth for the hero, but Gilgamesh is not yet ready for transformation. That moment will come later in his journey. At this moment, grief still consumes him, and rage and frustration are just beneath it.

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