Sumerian Mythology – The Epic of Gilgamesh – Tablets 5-11

We begin with Gilgamesh and Enkidu acting much like America. They tromp through the Near East, searching for dudes in caves to fight under the pretense of their own state security. Here, after days of dreams and omens, the two encounter Humbaba. The payoff has arrived.

Humbaba sets the scene with a truly fantastic villain’s speech. The underlying dread of an opponent who knows one better than one knows oneself is used to full effect, and Humbaba does not disappoint in his delivery. Enkidu comes in as the hype man for Gilgamesh, perhaps a little too effectively. Gilgamesh is a practicioner of the L. Jenkins school of boss fights, and he charges into the fray with Humbaba despite Enkidu’s best efforts.

With a flash of fury, Gilgamesh the one-third god gets the upper hand. Humbaba pivots to pleading, appealing to Enkidu as the onlooker with a pitiful tone that would make Sheev Palpatine proud. Of course, Enkidu also takes the Palpatine route, goading Gilgamesh to kill Humbaba without further delay. Gilgamesh obeys, and with his last words Humbaba utters a truly chilling curse. While the combat itself was swift and decisive, Humbaba’s taunts and curses make one wonder if our two boys really did win in the end.

After some business with a door and a secret temple, our heroes sail home – a reliable mechanism for compressing the return time from an arduous quest.

Returning home, we find Ishtar courting Gilgamesh as a husband. After her extended pitch, Gilgamesh returns with an equally elaborate rebuttal and essentially roasts her to pieces. It’s absolutely savage. Ishtar returns home to the world of the gods, where there is interplay between her own devious urges and the mistrusting ignorance of her father, who is partially wise to her deceit. Key in this story is Anu’s inability to hear all which occurs, which stands in contrast to his all-hearing abilities of the origin myths. Perhaps his powers have decreased with time, or perhaps it is merely a necessary conceit of this particular tale.

With wickedness and style, Ishtar establishes herself as the next villain of the epic. With an established base of myths to draw from, there is a shared background of knowledge between the characters and the reader which allows conversations to be had with a little more depth in the form of callbacks. Throughout, the Sumerians futher establish themselves as a culture of profound and clever insults – not baseless ones, as one hears on the schoolyard, but truly well crafted and barbed for maximum effect.

Returning to the land of men, we find Enkidu in a terrible state. He is beset with evil dreams, some ‘too terrible to recount.’ In this way, he conceals his worst fears from the reader, allowing one to imagine one’s own worst fears in their place – much as Hitchcock achieves brilliant horror by hiding the horror from view. From here, Enkidu falls deeper into illness, and in a fairly shocking turn of events he then succumbs and dies.

From there, the epic of Gilgamesh slows to a grind. This turn confirms that, even thousands of years ago, eulogy scenes were universally dull and ineffective plot devices. The mourning of Enkidu is excruciating, and it’s not until Gilgamesh allows his mourning to be turned into forward action that the story can even hope to begin again. The note about hired mourners is interesting, and shines light on how long such a practice has existed. Unlike contemporary China, however, I don’t believe Gilgamesh contracted any funeral strippers.

Ultimately, Gilgamesh arrives at a self-aware truth – the death of Enkidu is terrifying to him because it reminds him of his own mortality. Killing a lion, he cloaks himself in its skin like Hercules, massacring the others of its pack with a mourning-rage that rivals Anakin Skywalker. Following this, he sets off with a new purpose, to travel to the edge of the world and discover the secret of immortality.

The limits of his world are then described. With an upper threshold at the tops of the mountains, and portals to the netherworld at the bottom, Gilgamesh’s Near East starts to sound more like Minecraft than anywhere on Earth. Gilgamesh leaves his city behind, entering a more and more fantasy-driven realm as he pushes forward.

Gilgamesh Finds the Edge of the World

Arriving at the inn of Siduri, Gilgamesh once again reveals his character. He is brash and violent, threatening to trash this old lady’s house as she stands on the edge of a Miyazaki-style shoreline. With Enkidu dead, he’s worse than ever, and murders indiscriminately while whining about his own life in true narcissist’s form. Despite his assaults, the ferryman to the edge of the world survives, and Gilgamesh is able to travel with him across the Death Waters to Uta-napishti.

In his meeting with Uta-napishti, the form of Gilgamesh’s tale becomes clear. He is petulant and childish, unable to meaningfully grow or take responsibility for his actions. He is impulsive, and he makes his own life harder by failing to heed warnings or act with restraint. The longer his life goes on, the more difficult this makes his existence. He is a warning tale in the end, and hardly an object of any admiration.

Uta-napishti begins his tale, and if you’re at all familiar with the Western canon then I’m sure you were as shocked as I was by the story he tells. He’s Noah, it’s needless to say, and the story of the flood which he shares with Gilgamesh is a blow-by-blow version of the accounts found in the Bible. Of course, this is Sumerian mythology, so our single didactic Abrahamic God is replaced by a squabbling group of lesser immortals.

Unlike the ceaseless rambling of Henry James, Uta-napishti’s story within a story is constantly marred by interruptions form the framing device – in this case, an antsy Gilgamesh who cannot help but provide running commentary. This interplay between Uta-napishti and Gilgamesh is humorous and light, and provides a second layer that increases the complexity of the text during the course of ark story, which is on its own fairly dry in substance (if not in subject matter).

The disaster of the flood is described, and its details feel much like a cataclysmic volcanic eruption. As a point of reference for world-ending catastrophe, I’m sure there is an oral and ancestral memory of such events from which the myth-writers drew inspiration. The tone of Uta-napishti’s story is thinking and self-aware, with asides taken to discuss logical caveats where things in the text seem improbable. This is another refreshing departure from the Abrahamic literary style, where even the most preposterous lifespans and phenomena are taken as a given – and your ability to believe them is taken as a sign of your faith.

After Uta-napishti’s story concludes, the epic begins to flounder. In its last pages, Gilgamesh is told of the flower of eternal life, sending him in a new direction which feels entirely contrary to the moral of Uta-napishti’s extended ark tale. Gilgamesh retrieves the flower, taking it back to his palace, and in a face-palming twist of fate a snake eats it while he’s going for a swim. Overall, this is a messy and rushed ending, and is so deliberately ignoble that it minimizes all the accomplishments and undertakings which made up the majority of the story. Gilgamesh is left almost as he started, alone and deeply in need of counseling to curb his violent and self-important tendencies. This epic, for all its occasional highlights, fails to provide us with any truly memorable characters or story arcs worth immortalizing in our own work.