Epic of Gilgamesh: Summary of Events Leading to the Flood Story
Gilgamesh is torn apart by the death of his friend, and utters a long lament, ordering all of creation to never fall silent in mourning his dead friend. Most of this tablet is missing, but the second half seems to be a description of the monument he builds for Enkidu.
Gilgamesh allows his life to fall apart; he does not bathe, does not shave, does not take care of himself, not so much out of grief for his friend, but because he now realizes that he too must die and the thought sends him into a panic. He decides that he can't live unless granted eternal life; he decides to undertake the most perilous journey of all: the journey to Utnapishtim and his wife, the only mortals on whom the gods had granted eternal life. Utnapishtim is the Far-Away, living at the mouth of all rivers, at the ends of the world. Utnapishtim was the great king of the world before the Flood and, with his wife, was the only mortal preserved by the gods during the Flood. After an ominous dream, Gilgamesh sets out. He arrives at Mount Mashu, which guards the rising and the setting of the sun, and encounters two large scorpions who guard the way past Mount Mashu. They try to convince him that his journey is futile and fraught with danger, but still they allow him to pass. Past Mount Mashu is the land of Night, where no light ever appears. Gilgamesh journeys eleven leagues before the light begins to glimmer, after twelve leagues he has emerged into day. He enters into a brilliant garden of gems, where every tree bears precious stones.
Gilgamesh comes to a tavern by the ocean shore; the tavern is kept by Siduri. Frightened by Gilgamesh's ragged appearance, Siduri locks the tavern door and refuses to let Gilgamesh in. Gilgamesh proves his identity and asks Siduri how to find Utnapishtim. Like the giant scorpions, she tells him that his journey is futile and fraught with dangers. However, she directs him to Urshanabi, the ferryman, who works for Utnapishtim. Gilgamesh approaches Urshanabi with great arrogance and violence and in the process destroys the "stone things" that are somehow critical for the journey to Utnapishtim. When Gilgamesh demands to be taken to Utnapishtim, the ferryman tells him that it is now impossible, since the "stone things" have been destroyed. Nevertheless, he advises Gilgamesh to cut several trees down to serve as punting poles; the waters they are to cross are the Waters of Death, should any mortal touch the waters, that man will instantly die. With the punting poles, Gilgamesh can push the boat and never touch the dangerous waters.
After a long and dangerous journey, Gilgamesh arrives at a shore and encounters another man. He tells this man that he is looking for Utnapishtim and the secret of eternal life; the old man advises Gilgamesh that death is a necessary fact because of the will of the gods; all human effort is only temporary, not permanent.
At this point, Gilgamesh realizes that he is talking to Utnapishtim, the Far-Away; he hadn't expected an immortal human to be ordinary and aged. He asks Utnapishtim how he received immortality, and Utnapishtim tells him the great secret hidden from humans: In the time before the Flood, there was a city, Shuruppak, on the banks of the Euphrates. There, the counsel of the gods held a secret meeting; they all resolved to destroy the world in a great flood. All the gods were under oath not to reveal this secret to any living thing, but Ea (one of the gods that created humanity) came to Utnapishtim's house and told the secret to the walls of Utnapishtim's house, thus not technically violating his oath to the rest of the gods. He advised the walls of Utnapishtim's house to build a great boat, its length as great as its breadth, to cover the boat, and to bring all living things into the boat. Utnapishtim gets straight to work and finishes the great boat by the new year. Utnapishtim then loads the boat with gold, silver, and all the living things of the earth, and launches the boat. Ea orders him into the boat and commands him to close the door behind him. The black clouds arrive, with the thunder god Adad rumbling within them; the earth splits like an earthenware pot, and all the light turns to darkness. The Flood is so great that even the gods are frightened:
The gods shook like beaten dogs, hiding in the far corners of heaven,
Ishtar screamed and wailed:
"The days of old have turned to stone:
We have decided evil things in our Assembly!
Why did we decide those evil things in our Assembly?
Why did we decide to destroy our people?
We have only just now created our beloved humans;
We now destroy them in the sea!"
All the gods wept and wailed along with her,
All the gods sat trembling, and wept.
The Flood lasts for seven days and seven nights, and finally light returns to the earth. Utnapishtim opens a window and the entire earth has been turned into a flat ocean; all humans have been turned to stone. Utnapishtim then falls to his knees and weeps.
Utnapishtim's boat comes to rest on the top of Mount Nimush; the boat lodges firmly on the mountain peak just below the surface of the ocean and remains there for seven days. On the seventh day:
I [Utnapishtim] released a dove from the boat,
It flew off, but circled around and returned,
For it could find no perch.
I then released a swallow from the boat,
It flew off, but circled around and returned,
For it could find no perch.
I then released a raven from the boat,
It flew off, and the waters had receded:
It eats, it scratches the ground, but it does not circle around and return.
I then sent out all the living things in every direction and sacrificed a sheep on that very spot.
The gods smell the odor of the sacrifice and begin to gather around Utnapishtim. Enlil, who had originally proposed to destroy all humans, then arrives, furious that one of the humans had survived, since they had agreed to wipe out all humans. He accuses Ea of treachery, but Ea convinces Enlil to be merciful. Enlil then seizes Utnapishtim and his wife and blesses them:
At one time Utnapishtim was mortal.
At this time let him be a god and immortal;
Let him live in the far away at the source of all the rivers.
At the end of his story, Utnapishtim offers Gilgamesh a chance at immortality. If Gilgamesh can stay awake for six days and seven nights, he, too, will become immortal. Gilgamesh accepts these conditions and sits down on the shore; the instant he sits down he falls asleep. Utnapishtim tells his wife that all men are liars, that Gilgamesh will deny having fallen asleep, so he asks his wife to bake a loaf of bread every day and lay the loaf at Gilgamesh's feet. Gilgamesh sleeps without ever waking up for six days and seven nights, at which point Utnapishtim wakes him up. Startled, Gilgamesh says, "I only just dozed off for half a second here." Utnapishtim points out the loaves of bread, showing their states of decay from the most recent, fresh bread, to the oldest, moldy, stale bread that had been laid at his feet on the very first day. Gilgamesh is distraught:
O woe! What do I do now, where do I go now?
Death has devoured my body,
Death dwells in my body,
Wherever I go, wherever I look, there stands Death!
Utnapishtim's wife convinces the old man to have mercy on him; he offers Gilgamesh in place of immortality a secret plant that will make Gilgamesh young again. The plant is at the bottom of the ocean surrounding the Far-Away; Gilgamesh ties stones to his feet, sinks to the bottom, and plucks the magic plant. But he doesn't use it because he doesn't trust it; rather he decides to take it back to Uruk and test it out on an old man first, to make sure it works.
Urshanabi takes him across the Waters of Death. Several leagues inland, Gilgamesh and Urshanabi stop to eat and sleep; while they're sleeping, a snake slithers up and eats the magic plant (which is why snakes shed their skin) and crawls away. Gilgamesh awakens to find the plant gone; he falls to his knees and weeps:
For whom have I labored? For whom have I journeyed?
For whom have I suffered?
I have gained absolutely nothing for myself,
I have only profited the snake, the ground lion!
The tale ends with Gilgamesh, at the end of his journey standing before the gates of Uruk, inviting Urshanabi to look around and view the greatness of this city, its high walls, its masonwork, and here at the base of its gates, as the foundation of the city walls, a stone of lapis lazuli on which is carved Gilgamesh's account of his exploits.