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Essays Death Enkidu Shamhat

Summary

Enkidu awakens from a chilling nightmare. In the dream, the gods were angry with him and Gilgamesh and met to decide their fate. Great Anu, Ishtar’s father and the god of the firmament, decreed that they must punish someone for killing Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven and for felling the tallest cedar tree. Only one of the companions, however, must die. Enlil, Humbaba’s master and the god of earth, wind, and air, said that Enkidu should be the one to die. Shamash, the sun god, defended Enkidu. He said that Enkidu and Gilgamesh were only doing what he told them to do when they went to the Cedar Forest. Enlil became angry that Shamash took their side and accused Shamash of being their comrade, not a god.

The dream proves true when Enkidu falls ill. Overcome with self-pity, he curses the cedar gate that he and Gilgamesh brought back from the forbidden forest. He says he would have chopped the gate to pieces if he’d known his fate, and that he’d rather be forgotten forever than doomed to die like this. Gilgamesh is distraught. He tells Enkidu that he has gone before the gods himself to plead his case, but that Enlil was adamant. Gilgamesh promises his friend that he will build him an even greater monument than the cedar gate. He will erect an enormous statue of Enkidu, made entirely of gold.

Enkidu cries out to Shamash. He curses the hunter who first spotted him at the watering hole and says he hopes his hunting pits are filled in and his traps are unset. Weeping, he curses the temple prostitute too, who seduced him away from the animals. Shamash answers him from afar. He asks why Enkidu curses the harlot, since if it hadn’t been for her, Enkidu would have never tasted the rich foods of the palace, never worn beautiful clothes, and never known Gilgamesh’s friendship. Shamash tells Enkidu that when he dies, Gilgamesh will wander the earth, undone by grief. Enkidu finds comfort in Shamash’s words. He retracts his curse and supersedes it with a blessing for the prostitute: May her patrons be generous and rich.

The next morning, lying in his sickbed, Enkidu tells Gilgamesh about another terrible dream. In the dream, he was all alone on a dark plain, and a man with a lion’s head and an eagle’s talons seized him. They fought furiously, but the man overpowered him and changed him into a birdlike creature. Then he dragged him down to the underworld. There he saw kings, gods, and priests, all of them dressed in feathers. He saw King Etana, whom Ishtar had once chosen to be King of Kish, and Samuqan, the god of cattle. All of them were living in darkness. Dirt was their food and drink. Queen Ereshkigal, the ruler of the underworld, sat on her throne, and Belit-Seri, the scribe of the gods, whose tablet tells everyone’s fate, knelt before her. Enkidu says the queen looked at them and asked who led them there. Enkidu tells the appalled Gilgamesh that he would have been blessed if he’d died in battle, because those who die in battle are “glorious.” He suffers for twelve more days then dies.

Analysis

The first half of Sin-Leqi-Unninni’s version of The Epic of Gilgamesh revels in the friends’ raw physicality as they sate themselves with pleasure and test themselves with heroic tasks. In this pivotal tablet, the exact halfway point of the epic, they must struggle against that same physicality. No matter how strong, bold, or beautiful they are, a place awaits them in the underworld.

The adolescent exuberance and celebration of Tablet VI comes to an abrupt halt as the two heroes face the stark horror of an agonizing, wasting death, unredeemed by battlefield heroics. The gods have spoken, and their verdict seems arbitrary: Enkidu must die. In a later tablet, Gilgamesh learns that the gods once set out to eliminate all life on Earth for no discernable reason at all. Enkidu curses the hunter and the prostitute, who connived together to lure him from the wilderness. He believes that if he had stayed with the animals and continued to live like an animal, he wouldn’t have brought doom upon himself. Without self-knowledge, he wouldn’t be able to feel the exquisite anguish that the prospect of dying is causing him. Enlil accused Shamash of acting more like a human being than a deity, and the comfort the sun god offers Enkidu is indeed humanistic. The god tells him that love, glory, and the pleasures of a cultivated life are important, as are being loved while alive and mourned when dead. This consolation offers a strange kind of comfort, since he is essentially saying that the recompense for losing the life he cherished is the life he cherished.

  • 1

    Enkidu is civilized through his encounter with Shamhat, a prostitute. As opposed to our own society, what does this say about views toward sexuality and femininity in ancient Mesopotamia?

    Rather than being seen as a negative attribute, Shamhat's sexuality and its ties to the temple cement her importance in Mesopotamian society. She is a means to tame Enkidu as opposed to a means for him to behave like an animal. Throughout the poem, the role of women is unavoidable and important. Although Enkidu and Gilgamesh insult Ishtar, Gilgamesh specifically points out her temple to Urshanabi.

  • 2

    Compare and contrast the role of the serpent and the flood in the Bible and the Epic of Gilgamesh. What similarities and differences can be found?

    In both books the serpent is presented negatively; a force that deprives humanity of some pleasure or immortality. In the Bible, the serpent is a deliberate force of temptation, and Adam and Eve are cast out as sinners. It is clearly depicted as an evil presence. In Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh’s own carelessness deprives him of immortality. In his case, the role of the serpent is necessary for him to move past his feelings toward life and death and become a better king, making this serpent less of a villain and more a catalyst for change.

    The flood stories in both texts are very similar, and some scholars believe that they refer to a singular event. However, there are differences between the accounts.

  • 3

    What does Gilgamesh's and Enkidu's constant struggle and defiance of the gods tell us about how the gods were viewed in Gilgamesh's time? Are the consequences that both characters face worth the risk each takes?

    The gods as depicted in Gilgamesh's story, as well as Utnapishtim's, are presented as being easily angered and vengeful. Part of Gilgamesh's heroic pedigree is inherent in being two-thirds a god himself, but his acts of defiance also speak to a possibly resentful view of the gods among ancient Mesopotamians. The gods are depicted as being difficult to please, sometimes punishing without explanation or meting out punishments that seem far out of proportion to the original offense, as in Utnapishtim's story. Both characters take on large risks by insulting Ishtar, but Gilgamesh is able to face his own mortality and Enkidu is able to learn of the world of humans and of the value of life. Both also come to understand the importance of friendship in life.

  • 4

    What does Humbaba/Huwawa represent? Use examples from the story to support your position.

    Humbaba represents fear and the unknown. Both Enkidu and Gilgamesh experience great fear in the cedar forest when they are about to face Humbaba. They support one another with encouraging words when the other is frightened. One can also argue that Humbaba represents nature itself. As guardian of the Cedar Forest, he has a duty to protect it from harm. Gilgamesh and Enkidu together represent civilization. They seek to tame the natural world for their own purposes.

  • 5

    At various points in the story, dreams foretell events to come. What do these passages reveal about how dreams were valued in Mesopotamian culture? What do they tell us about the dreamer's state of mind?

    It is obvious from the text that dreams were regarded as important markers that should be interpreted. It seems fair to say that the ancient Mesopotamians lent a good deal of credibility to them in their day-to-day lives. As Gilgamesh dreams of the meteor and the axe in anticipation of his meeting with Enkidu, he turns to his mother for an interpretation of his dreams. While she informs him of the imminent arrival of Enkidu, it could also be that Gilgamesh is lonely and looking for a companion. Enkidu dreams of the gods deciding his death and of what the underworld will be like. His state of mind is one of absolute fear of his defiance of the gods.

  • 6

    Although Gilgamesh faces his own mortality upon Enkidu's death, he also must now face a life without his friend. Why is this also of importance? What does it teach Gilgamesh about life and the spirit of endurance?

    Beyond teaching Gilgamesh that his own life must end, Enkidu's death also forces Gilgamesh to continue living the life he still has left. He is initially so distraught over Enkidu's death that he more or less abandons his kingly duties. Utnapishtim teaches him that life must end, but Gilgamesh also must return to Uruk with the full understanding that his own life must continue if it is to have meaning.

  • 7

    What is the significance of the darkness that Gilgamesh encounters in the passage beneath Mount Mashu on his way to seek Utnapishtim?

    The text repeatedly mentions how Gilgamesh is alone at this point in the story. With nothing else visible around him, Gilgamesh is truly on his own on this quest. He is also completely lost, without obvious direction, fumbling in the dark. This metaphor reiterates Gilgamesh's struggle with the loss of Enkidu. He is suddenly finding himself unsure of how to proceed in life.

  • 8

    Repetition is a frequent technique the author(s) used in the Epic of Gilgamesh, as is the theme of duality. Enkidu and Gilgamesh are near mirrors of each other, for example. They undertake two quests: one against Humbaba, the other against the Bull of Heaven. Discuss other examples of duality and repetition in the story. Why does the epic contain these elements?

    Repetition reinforces themes present in the story, or attributes of a character. Sometimes repetition can also draw contrasts between different events or characters. Besides reinforcing elements in the story, repetition also suggests that these stories may have had a strong oral tradition and were largely passed down in this manner before being committed to these tablets.

    Duality also draws comparisons between characters and again reinforces one of the themes of the story: companionship. Enkidu and Gilgamesh are near mirrors of each other. Gilgamesh and Utnapishtim also share some characteristics, not in appearance, but in the knowledge that they both have gained. Enkidu and Gilgamesh embark on two quests. Gilgamesh's journey to the underworld mirrors his quest with Enkidu.

  • 9

    The story begins and ends with a description of the city of Uruk and its walls and other features? What does this signify?

    For Gilgamesh it signals reconciliation with the finite nature of life. He is able to return to where he began and see it, almost with new eyes, and a new appreciation. He accepts his place. It also brings the story full-circle, perhaps an aesthetic choice to mirror the cyclical nature of life.

  • 10

    Comment on Gilgamesh and Enkidu's relationship. Is their love of a sexual nature or a more platonic one? The text describes them as being very close. Why do you think that is?

    Although there is language in the text suggestive of a relationship beyond friendship between the two, there is no direct evidence of a sexual relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu. At the same time, Gilgamesh declares a love for Enkidu greater than that for any woman. However, Gilgamesh's sexual appetite for women is established early on in the text, where it is written that he sleeps with newly married brides before their husbands do. It is more likely that as the gods created Enkidu to be a counterweight to Gilgamesh, the characters are able to find in each other an understanding that no one else can provide. Only they are able to comprehend what it is like to be the other.