The Epic of Gilgamesh | Study Guide


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Course Hero. "The Epic of Gilgamesh Study Guide." June 14, 2017. Accessed September 30, 2023.


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Plot Summary

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the plot summary of Sîn-lēqi-unninni's epic poem The Epic of Gilgamesh.

The Epic of Gilgamesh | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


A brief prologue describes Gilgamesh as an exemplary king: he is brave in battle and wise in governing. His city, Uruk, is well built and beautiful. The narrator invites readers to read Gilgamesh's story, which the king himself engraved into tablets of lapis lazuli (blue metamorphic rock).

Gilgamesh wasn't always beloved by his people. The son of King Lugalbanda and the goddess Ninsun, he rules harshly. He forces families' sons to work for him and takes their daughters to satisfy his sexual desires. Since Gilgamesh is two-thirds divine and stronger and larger than other men, no one dares question his rule. So the people beg the gods for help. Shamash, god of heaven, commands Aruru, goddess of creation, to create a man who can balance the king's arrogance. So Aruru shapes Enkidu, a huge, hairy man who at first lives among the herds of antelope and gazelles. A trapper catches sight of this frightening man who releases animals from the trapper's snares. The trapper travels to Uruk to seek the king's advice. Right away, Gilgamesh knows what to do: take Shamhat from Ishtar's temple and have her seduce Enkidu. The trapper and Shamhat travel to the watering hole where Enkidu and the animals drink. When she sees him, she's filled with desire. They make love for seven days, after which the animals shun Enkidu because he has become humanized. He even understands human language. When Shamhat tells him of Uruk and Gilgamesh, he realizes he wants a friend. But when Enkidu learns Gilgamesh sleeps with every man's bride first, he rushes angrily to Uruk to stop this behavior. He stands in the door of the marriage house. He and Gilgamesh fight. They damage houses as they wrestle through the streets, until finally Gilgamesh overcomes Enkidu. Their anger fades as each realizes the other is his heart's companion.

Time passes. One day, Gilgamesh announces his plan to travel to the Cedar Forest to kill its guardian, a monster by the name of Humbaba. This feat is necessary, he says, to drive evil from the world and to make his name famous. Enkidu objects: Humbaba is a deadly monster whom Enlil, one of the three gods who rule the universe, assigned to protect the forest. But Gilgamesh, determined to have his adventure, calls Enkidu a coward and threatens to go alone. He locks the city's gates and addresses his people from his throne, describing his proposed adventure. The elders agree with Enkidu—to kill Humbaba is dangerous and against the gods' will. Still, at Gilgamesh's insistence, Enkidu agrees to go with him. They arm themselves and seek the blessing of Ninsun, Gilgamesh's mother. She prays to Shamash for their safety and adopts Enkidu as her son.

For days, the two men journey to the Cedar Forest, praying for guidance in dreams. Gilgamesh's dreams frighten him, but Enkidu interprets them optimistically. As they near the forest, Humbaba's roar terrifies Enkidu, who wants to turn back. When even Gilgamesh becomes afraid, he prays to Shamash for guidance. The god tells the heroes to attack now, before Humbaba returns to the forest's depths and gains more strength. Encouraging each other through their fear, the heroes follow the path to Humbaba's den and confront the monster. Humbaba breaks the ground so that volcanic fumes overwhelm them. Shamash, however, sends winds to disperse the fumes and paralyze Humbaba so the men can attack. With Gilgamesh's knife at his throat, Humbaba pleads for his life and then curses the men before the king cuts off his head. The heroes harvest cedars, including the tallest tree. They make a raft to float them to Nippur for Enlil's temple. They take Humbaba's head as a trophy.

When he comes home, Gilgamesh bathes and dresses in kingly garments that attract Ishtar's gaze. The goddess of sexual love promises Gilgamesh wealth and power if he'll marry her. Instead he insults her as inconstant and recalls how badly she's treated her past lovers. In her fury, Ishtar asks her father, Anu, to let her take the Bull of Heaven to earth to kill Gilgamesh. The bull stomps around Uruk, causing disaster and death until Enkidu and Gilgamesh kill it. When Enkidu taunts Ishtar, hurling a thigh from the bull's carcass at her, she retreats to her temple, seething.

That night, after a feast, Enkidu has a terrible dream that the gods met in council to punish him and Gilgamesh for offending the gods by killing Humbaba and the bull. Enlil decrees that Enkidu must die. Immediately, Enkidu falls sick and has another dream about his death. Gilgamesh insists Enkidu will recover. Enkidu curses the trapper and Shamhat for removing him from the wild, but Shamash speaks to him from heaven. He reminds him that without Shamhat's actions, Enkidu would never have gained Gilgamesh's friendship. He blesses the priestess then and suffers 12 more days before dying. The king remains constantly by his side. Gilgamesh laments and arranges the details of Enkidu's funeral. He makes offerings to many gods, requesting their special care of Enkidu in the underworld. Then he leaves Uruk, dressed in a lion's pelt, to wander and grieve. He heads east to find Utnapishtim, the only man to whom the gods have granted immortality, to learn how to escape death.

The king arrives at the Twin Peaks, where the scorpion people guard the entrance of the tunnel through which the sun passes each night. They instruct him to run as fast as he can through the tunnel's total darkness for 12 hours. If he doesn't reach the exit by then, the sun's heat will incinerate him. Gilgamesh survives the tunnel to emerge in the garden of the gods. There, Siduri, goddess of wine and wisdom, warns him against crossing the ocean and advises him to return home and enjoy life. But Gilgamesh persists, convincing Urshanabi, Utnapishtim's boatman, to help him cross. Finally, Gilgamesh meets Utnapishtim, who tells the story of the Great Flood. When he was king of a city on the Euphrates, five gods decided to flood the world. Ea, a friend to humanity, warned Utnapishtim to build a great ship, stock it with animals, and prepare for the flood. When the storms came, fires and plagues came with them, and the gods regretted their decision. Only Utnapishtim and his kin survive. Though he's displeased anyone survived, Enlil blesses Utnapishtim and his wife with immortality and settles them in the distant east.

Utnapishtim then sets a test for Gilgamesh: if he can stay awake for seven days, perhaps the gods will let him escape death. But because his journey has exhausted him, Gilgamesh falls asleep immediately and sleeps for seven days. On each day, Utnapishtim's wife bakes a loaf of bread and places it by the king as proof of his long sleep, which ends when Utnapishtim wakes him. Now Gilgamesh despairs; he won't escape death. Utnapishtim releases Urshanabi from his employ and directs him to help Gilgamesh bathe and dress like the king he is for the journey home. Utnapishtim offers a consolation prize, directing Gilgamesh to search the deep waters for a plant that renews youth. Weighting his feet with stones, Gilgamesh sinks into the deep water and finds the plant. Then he and Urshanabi depart for Uruk, where Gilgamesh plans to eat the plant to regain his untroubled youth. They pause at a pool, and as Gilgamesh bathes, a snake steals the plant, leaving behind its shed skin. Gilgamesh weeps; his labors were for nothing. The men travel on until they reach Uruk, where Gilgamesh, in language that echoes the Prologue, proudly shows Urshanabi what a marvelous city his people have built.

The Epic of Gilgamesh Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction


1 Gilgamesh oppresses his subjects.

Rising Action

2 Aruru creates Enkidu to balance Gilgamesh.

3 Shamhat tames Enkidu and tells him of Gilgamesh.

4 Enkidu challenges Gilgamesh in Uruk; they become friends.

5 Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill Humbaba, guardian of the forest.

6 Gilgamesh snubs Ishtar; the heroes kill the Bull of Heaven.

7 The gods decree Enkidu must die to punish him and Gilgamesh.

8 Gilgamesh wanders the wilderness, mourning Enkidu.


9 Utnapishtim explains how he and his wife became immortal.

Falling Action

10 Gilgamesh fails to become immortal and sleeps seven days.

11 Gilgamesh finds, then loses, the plant that restores youth.


12 Urshanabi and Gilgamesh, now a wise king, arrive in Uruk.

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