Literary analysis paper


W . W . N O R T O N Q C O M P A N Y , I N C .

A l s o P u b l i s h e s

THE NORTON ANTHOLOGY OF AFRICAN AMERICAN LITERATURE edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay et al.


THE NORTON ANTHOLOGY OF CONTEMPORARY FICTION edited by R. V. Cassill and Joyce Carol Oates

THE NORTON ANTHOLOGY OF ENGLISH LITERATURE edited by M. H. Abrams and Stephen Greenblatt et al.

THE NORTON ANTHOLOGY OF LITERATURE BY WOMEN edited by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar

THE NORTON ANTHOLOGY OF MODERN POETRY edited by Richard Ellmann and Robert O'Clair

THE NORTON ANTHOLOGY OF POETRY edited by Margaret Ferguson et al.

THE NORTON ANTHOLOGY OF SHORT FICTION edited by R. V. Cassill and Richard Bausch



THE NORTON INTRODUCTION TO LITERATURE edited by Jerome Beaty and J. Paul Hunter


THE NORTON READER edited by Linda H. Peterson, John C . Brereton, and Joan E. Hartman

THE NORTON SAMPLER edited by Thomas Cooley


For a complete list o f Norton Critical Editions, visit us on the World Wide Web at






Translated and Edited by



Translated by Translated by DOUGLAS FRAYNE GARY BEC KMAN


W W NORTON & COMPANY New York London


Copyright O 2001 by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc

All rights resewed. Printed in the United States of America

First Edition.

The text of this book is composed in Electra with the display set in Bernhard Modern.

Composition by PennSet, Inc. Manufacturing by Maple-Vail Book Group.

Book design by Antonina Krass. Cover design by Karen Polinger Foster.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Gilgamesh. English.

The epic of Gilgamesh : a new translation, analogues, criticism / translated and edited by Benjamin R. Foster. The Sumerian Gilgamesh poems I translated

by Douglas Frayne. The Hittite Gilgamesh I translated by Gary Beckman. p. cm. - (A Norton critical edition)

Includes bibliographical references.

ISBN 0-393-975 16-9 (pbk.)

1. Epic poetry, Assyro-Babylonian-Translations into English. I. Foster, Benjamin R. (Benjamin Read). 11. Frayne, Douglas. 111. Beckman,

Gary M. IV. Title: Sumerian Gilgamesh poems. V. Title: Hittite Gilgamesh. VI. Title. VII. Series.

W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 500 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 101 10

W. W. Norton & Company Ltd., 10 Coptic Street, London WClA 1PU

List of Illustrations Acknowledgments Introduction Abbreviations

The Text of The Epic of Gilgamesh

Analogues to The Epic of Gilgamesh The Sumerian Gilgamesh Poems The Hittite Gilgamesh The Gilgamesh Letter

Criticism William Moran The Gilgamesh Epic: A Masterpiece

from Ancient Mesopotamia Thorkild Jacobsen "And Death the Journey's End":

The Gilgamesh Epic Rivkah Harris Images of Women in the Gilgamesh Epic Hillary Major Gilgamesh Remembers a Dream

Glossary of Proper Names Selected Bibliography

vii ix xi



97 99

157 167



183 207 2 19

22 1 229

1. Go up, pace out the walls of Uruk. After U . Finkbeiner, Baghdader Miffeilungen 22 (1991), p. 13 and plates 7e, f. 4

2. It was Gilgamesh who knelt for the pin, his foot on the ground. British Museum Photo, BM 89140. 17

3. They gazed at the height of the cedars. A. H . Layard, A Second Series of the Monuments of Nineveh (London: John Murray, 1853), plate 14. 39

4. My bend, Humbaba's features have grown more grotesque. British Museum Photo, BM 116624 (bottom left); Yale Babylonian Collection Photo, NBC 4465, YBC 2238, YBC 10066 (top left, top right, bottom right). 4 1

5. He struck him, Humbaba the guardian, down to the ground. After P. Calmeyer, Reliefbronzen in babylonischem Stil, eine westiranische Werkstaff des 10. Iahrhunderts v. Chr., Abhandlungen der Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschafien, Philosophisch-historische Klasse, neue Folge 73 (1973), p. 45 and plate 2. 44

6. And Gilgamesh, like a strong, skillfil slaughterer, / Thrust his dagger between neck, horn, and tendon! British Museum Photo, BM 89435. 5 1

7. He filled a lapis bowl with butter. C . L. Woolley, Ur Excavations Volume 11, The Royal Cemetery, Publications of the Toint Excavations of the British Museum and of the University of Pennsylvania to Mesopotamia, Plates. Published for the Trustees o f the Two Museums (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1934), Plate 174. 64

8. Dense was the darkness, no light was there. British Museum Photo, BM 124656. 70

9. The tavern keeper eyed him from a distance. British Museum Photo, BM 118233. 7 3

10. Gilgamesh and Ur-Shanabi embarked [in the boat]. British Museum Photo, BM 89588. 80

11. I brought out a dove and set it free. MusCe du Louvre Photo, A 0 19826. 89



Figures 1 and 5 drawn by Karen Polinger Foster and reproduced with permission.

Figures 2, 4, 6-10 reproduced with the permission of the Trustees of the British Museum. O Copyright of the Trustees of the British Museum.

Figure 4 also reproduced with the permission of William W. Hallo, Curator of the Yale Babylonian Collection.

Figure 11 reproduced with the permission of the MusCe du Louvre.

I thank Andrew George (University of London) for his extraordinary generosity in allowing me to consult his manuscript edition of the stan- dard version of the epic. I was therefore able to benefit from numerous readings, corrections, and substantial new material first deciphered and translated by him in his book The Epic of Gilgamesh, A New Transla- tion (1999), in advance of his new edition of the original manuscripts. In addition, I was able to incorporate here important interpretations original with him, especially his interpretation of the episode of Gil- gamesh's race with the sun, although I have here and there understood details somewhat differently. George's work on Gilgamesh is a turning point in the history of this complicated text, removing generations of conflicting proposals on difficult passages and bringing order to the known manuscripts for the first time. I am deeply grateful to him for allowing me to make so many improvements to my own work directly from his.

For access to original manuscripts of the epic, I thank William W. Hallo (Yale Babylonian Collection), h e Sjijberg (University Museum, University of Pennsylvania), and Christopher Walker and the late Ed- mond Sollberger (British Museum). I thank Aage Westenholz (Univer- sity of Copenhagen) for permission to use his unpublished copies and collations of various manuscripts of the epic and A. Cavigneaux (CNRS, Paris) for access to his unpublished studies of the Sumerian Gilgamesh poems.

For permission to reuse, in revised form, my translation of portions of Tablet XI, published in The Context of Scripture, ed. Hallo and Younger (1997), I thank E. J. Brill, NV, Leiden. For permission to reprint my translation of "The Gilgamesh Letter," I thank Mark Cohen, CDL Press.

My particular thanks go to Karen Polinger Foster for her assistance with cover design and illustrations and for her repeated careful readings of this work in conjunction with the original Akkadian and with the best modern translations, and for discussing it with me line by line. She greatly improved the English expression and readability ofthe translation.

For errors or shortcomings that remain, I alone am responsible.


This four-thousand-year-old tale of love, death, and adventure is the world's oldest epic masterpiece. Over a millennium before the Iliad and the Odyssey, Mesopotamian poets wrote of Gilgamesh, hero-king of the Sumerian city of Uruk. The story has four main sections: first, Gilgamesh's abuse of his subjects, the creation of his rival-the wild man Enkidu-and their eventual friendship; second, the pair's heroic quest to the forest of cedars to slay a monster and bring back a gigantic tree, thus winning immortal fame for Gilgamesh; third, the death of Enkidu, which leaves Gilgamesh terrified at the prospect of his own death; and finally, Gilgamesh's arduous search for the secret of eternal life.

Who Was Gilgamesh?

According to Mesopotamian tradition, Gilgamesh was a long-ago king of Uruk, builder of its famous city walls, traces of which are still visible today. These walls were nearly ten kilometers long and had more than nine hundred towers. Archaeologists date one phase of these immense walls to about 2700 B.c.E., so if Gilgamesh was a historical person, he may have ruled Uruk at that time. Anam, a king of Uruk during the nineteenth century B.c.E., mentions Gilgamesh as builder of the walls of his city in an inscription commemorating his own work on them, thereby comparing himself to his royal predecessor. Further, the walls of Uruk are the setting for the beginning and end of The Epic of Gilgamesh.

A list of ancient Mesopotamian kings, compiled in the early second millennium B.c.E., names Gilgamesh in the following passage, where he, like other kings of his era, is given a fabulously long reign: "The god Lugalbanda, a shepherd, reigned for 1200 years. The god Dumuzi, a fisherman(?), whose city was Ku'ara, reigned for 100 years. The god Gilgamesh, whose father was a phantom, lord of the city Kulaba, reigned for 126 years." The Epic of Gilgamesh and Sumerian poems about Gilgamesh give the name of his father as Lugalbanda, king of Uruk. They also identify his mother as the goddess Ninsun, a deified wild cow. The puzzle of Gilgamesh's parentage is reflected in the epic, where he is described as two-thirds divine and one-third human. As for


the name Gilgamesh, it may mean "Old-Man-Who-Became-a-Young- Man," although this is not certain. If this understanding is correct, his name may provide a clue, beyond the great walls of Uruk, as to why Gilgamesh was remembered as a famous figure of the past, inspiring epics and poems: he sought to escape death.

Stories about the adventures of Gilgamesh were first written in Su- merian around 2100 B.C.E. These have been translated here in "The Sumerian Gilgamesh Poems" by Douglas Frayne. The kings ruling in Sumer at that time, the Third Dynasty of the city of Ur, claimed that they were descended from the ancient royal house of Gilgamesh of Uruk. One king of Ur even called Gilgamesh his "brother." The kings of Ur may well have originated at Uruk, but their claim of kinship with such a remote figure of the past was perhaps little more than a bid for prestige and antiquity for their family. They may also have wanted to avoid referring to their more recent past, when Uruk and Ur had been ruled by a dynasty not related to them. Whatever the reason, Sumerian poets of the Third Dynasty of Ur extolled the life and deeds of Gilga- mesh, as well as those of his father, Lugalbanda, and composed nar- rative poems about them, which were enjoyed at the royal court.

A document studied in Sumerian schools of the early second mil- lennium B.c.E., supposed to be a copy of an ancient inscription, names Gilgamesh as builder of a structure known as the Tummal, perhaps a temple treasury, at the Sumerian city of Nippur. This "ancient" inscrip- tion is probably not genuine but fabricated to make the treasury sound more venerable. In any case, the document certainly does not date to the time of Gilgamesh.

In the first millennium B.c.E., Gilgamesh was worshipped as a nether- world deity and was invoked in funerary rites. A prayer to him found on tablets from Assyria dating to the first millennium B.C.E. reads, in part, as follows:

0 Gilgamesh, perfect king, judge of the netherworld gods, Deliberative prince, neckstock of the peoples,' Who examines all corners of the earth, Administrator of the netherworld, You are the judge and you examine as only a god can! When you are in session in the netherworld, You give the final verdict, Your verdict cannot be altered nor can your sentence be commuted. The Sun has entrusted to you his powers of judgment and verdict. Kings, governors, and princes kneel before you, You examine the omens that pertain to them, You render their verdicts.

1. A neckstock was a device of wood used to restrain prisoners, here used to signify Gilgamesh's control over the human race.


Aelian, a Roman author of the third century c.E., perhaps quoting indirectly a Babylonian writer, tells a story of the birth of Gilgamesh (translated below, p. 154). This does not correspond to anything in the extant epic and therefore may not represent an authentic Mesopota- mian tradition. Gilgamesh is also mentioned in the "Book of Giants" in the Dead Sea Scrolls, so memory of him outlasted Mesopotamian civilization.

What Is The Epic of Gilgamesh?

The Sumerian narrative poems of the late third millennium B.C.E. pro- vided materials for narrative poems written in the Babylonian language around 1700 B.c.E., called here the "old versions" of The Epic of Gil- gamesh. The longest and most original of these took episodes from the Sumerian poems and recast them into a new, cohesive plot showing how an arrogant and overbearing king was chastened by the knowledge that he too had to die, like everybody else. Pieces of various old versions have survived. These were the source for the Babylonian epic tradition about Gilgamesh, which was to last more than fifteen hundred years. Fragments of many different versions of the epic have been recovered on clay tablets from Mesopotamia, Syria, the Levant, and Anatolia, attesting to its wide distribution in ancient times.

Manuscripts of The Epic of Gilgamesh dating to the period 1500- 1000 B.C.E. are referred to as the "middle versions." These preserve only scattered episodes. The longest surviving version, known from a group of manuscripts dating from the seventh century B.c.E., is referred to here as the "standard version." The term "late versions" refers to manuscripts later than the seventh century B.C.E.

Portions of The Epic of Gilgamesh were translated into non- Mesopotamian languages such as Hittite and Hurrian. The Hittite ver- sions of the epic have been translated here in "The Hittite Gilgamesh" by Gary Beckman. The Hurrian versions are too broken and poorly understood to translate. The "Elamite version" found in some transla- tions is actually a misunderstanding of two tablets that have nothing to do with Gilgamesh. "The Gilgamesh Letter" is an ancient parody of the epic.

When Babylonian and Sumerian tablets were rediscovered and deciphered in modern times, the story of Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu was gradually pieced together from numerous fragmentary manuscripts. Though certain pieces are still missing, enough of the text has been found to enable modern readers to read a coherent, extended narrative poem.


Form, Authorship, and Audience of T h e Epic of Gilgamesh

The Mesopotamians had no word corresponding to "epic" or "m)nh7' in their languages. Ancient scholars of Mesopotamian literature referred to the epic as the "Gilgamesh Series," that is, a lengthy work on more than one tablet, each corresponding to a "book" or "canto" in modern literature, twelve in the case of The Epic of Gilgamesh. Eleven of these tablets form a continuous narrative poem. The twelfth is a partial trans- lation of a Sumerian poem about Gilgamesh appended to the narrative, perhaps during the first millennium B.c.E., because it seemed germane. This has been omitted here in preference to the more complete Su- merian original translated by Douglas Frayne for this Norton Critical Edition. No one knows how many tablets comprised the old versions, but there were probably far fewer than eleven.

The Mesopotamians knew nothing of the original author of The Epic of Gilgamesh but associated the eleven-tablet version with Sin-leqe- unninni, a scholar who lived in the second half of the second millen- nium B.c.E., centuries after the old versions were written. Nothing further is known of this man except that long after his death he was claimed as an ancestor by certain distinguished families in Babylonia.

One common assumption about ancient epics, such as the Iliad or the Odyssey, is that their written form was based on oral tradition. This does not seem to be true of The Epic of Gilgamesh. There is no evi- dence that The Epic of Gilgamesh began as an oral narrative performed by bards or reciters and coalesced into a written text only later. In fact, the poem as we now have it shows many signs of having been a for- mal, written, literary work composed and perhaps performed for well- educated people, especially scholars and members of a royal court. Rather than being popular or folkloric literature, the story of Gilgamesh may have been mostly of interest to a small circle of people who be- longed to the social and economic elite of their day. A short excerpt of Tablet 11, found on a student's exercise tablet from Babylon and dating from the late first millennium B.c.E., shows that the epic was studied in ancient schools.

Translating The Epic of Gilgamesh

Western literary tradition since classical antiquity has transmitted an- cient works, such as the epics of Homer or the plays of Sophocles, as single unified texts with only minor "variants." This term refers to changes in wording for the same passage from one manuscript to an- other, or to important passages omitted in some manuscripts but in- cluded in others. For the most part, however, there are no substantive deviations among manuscripts of the same classical work, even those

from centuries apart. Furthermore, ancient classical literature that sur- vives only in fragments or quotations, such as the poetry of Sappho, has little chance of ever being pieced together into its original form, because it was written on perishable materials.

The situation for ancient Mesopotamian texts is quite different. For The Epic of Gilgamesh, there are numerous ancient manuscripts on durable clay tablets, some more than a thousand years older than others, from many places. When these deal with the same episodes, they show fascinating and significant variations in wording and content. This al- lows us to see what was added, subtracted, changed, and reinterpreted over the centuries, but it complicates presentation of the text to a mod- ern reader. Since no single version of The Epic of Gilgamesh has sur- vived intact from antiquity, any translator has to make difficult decisions about how to treat the material. The method followed here has been to take as the basic text the "standard version." These are later copies of the eleven-tablet edition associated with Sin-leqe-unninni. Where lines, sections, or episodes are missing or omitted from this version, I have supplied them where possible from other versions, both earlier and later. There is no consistent line numbering for any original text of The Epic of Gilgamesh. The line numbers used here refer to lines of the translation only.

Even when all versions are consulted, there are still major gaps in the narrative, as well as in individual lines or passages. Editors and translators have guessed about what the missing elements might have been; new discoveries often prove these guesses wrong. In this transla- tion, important words or ~hrases not found in any ancient manuscript and not restorable from surviving traces or ~arallel passages are enclosed in square brackets, meaning that these are only modern interpretive surmises. Where such inferences are not possible, square brackets en- close ellipses. Question marks within parentheses following words or phrases indicate ~a r t i cu la r l~ uncertain restorations that might have a significant impact upon the meaning of the passage. Words or phraxs in parentheses indicate explanatory additions by the translator. Ellipses without brackets indicate signs or words of unknown meaning.

It is important to remember that the ancient languages in which The Epic of Gilgamesh was written or translated, including Akkadian, Su- merian, and Hittite, are not so well understood as cther ancient lan- guages, such as Greek and Latin. This means that translators frequently disagree among themselves as to what a given word or phrase could mean. While this translation is based on study of the ancient manu- scripts, consultation of the extensive scholarly literature about the epic, and comparison with the best modern translations, it remains a more individual product than a translation of a work by Homer or Virgil is likely to be. The goal has been to produce a readable text well grounded


in the ancient sources. New discoveries constantly enlarge our under- standing of the epic, whose genius and power can still move the modern reader four thousand years after it was written.

Reading The Epic of Gilgamesh


The Epic of Gilgarnesh contains considerable direct speech by the char- acters, normally introduced by the formula, "X made ready to speak, saying to Y." But in situations in which the narrator wishes to convey a sense of urgency, abruptness, anger, or excitement, this formula is often omitted (I, 94, 180, 224; VI, 7-21, contrast 24-79; VI, 84-86, contrast 87-88; VI, 154-55; VII, 141, 169; IX, 3; XI, 178, 206-8).2 The story opens and closes using the same words, addressed by an omnis- cient narrator to the audience in the beginning and addressed by Gil- gamesh to the exiled boatman at the end. The poem also contains first-person discourse by individual characters describing their past (XI, 9-209) or present (IX, 3-12) actions. In general, there is more direct speech by the characters than narration of their actions.

The narrative is sometimes rapid, sometimes slow. Suspense is built up by repetition (1, 11 3-66) or lengthy speeches at climactic moments (V, 64-116). Passage of time may be conveyed by serial repetition of lines (VII, 174-80; IX, 82- 109). Description of particularly dramatic moments or speeches of great emotion may be given in full twice, as if pausing for effect (11, 66-68, 100-104). Action is presented in short episodes, often with direct speech, such as instructions, assertions, or statements of will, setting the stage for action to follow (X, 196-205). The second half of the poem makes extensive use of retrospective speech concerning events already narrated or that took place before the time of the poem, climaxing in the long speech of Utanapishtim nar- rating the story of the flood (XI, 9-209). While these speeches are progressively more important for Gilgamesh's broadening understand- ing, their effect is to slow the action in the second half of the poem, though the denouement is surprisingly rapid.


In Mesopotamian poetry, each line usually consists of a complete sen- tence or thought. Lines often divide into two, three, or more parts with roughly the same number of words in each part, usually two to four, though there are many variations on this pattern. There is no strict meter in Mesopotamian poetry, but the symmetry of poetic lines can give the poetry a kind of rhythm or beat that may be varied for artistic

2. References are to tablet and line of the translation


reasons. For example, rapid rhythms may be used for a fight scene (11, 96-108), slow rhythms for an anxious mother's prayer (111, 46-85).

Lines of poetry often come in pairs, which can be related to each other in sound, rhythm, and meaning. Meaning is developed in part of a line, a whole line, in pairs of lines, or in groups of lines by use of parallelism; that is, repeated formulation of the same message such that subsequent statements may restate, expand, complete, contrast, render more specific, or carry further the first message. The following two-line example illustrates this:

He anointed himself with oil, turned into a man, He put on clothing, became like a warrior.

(11, 43-44)

In this case, the first half of each line gives complementary, sequential actions that describe Enkidu's progress in grooming himself into civi- lization. The second half of each line proclaims his progress from be- coming a human being to becoming a leader among men.

The following example is in five lines:

The whole of Uruk was standing beside him, The people formed a crowd around him, A throng was jostling towards him, Young men were mobbed around him, Infantile, they groveled before him.

(11, 85-89)

This describes the street scene as Enkidu enters Uruk to challenge Gilgamesh. Activity increases as the scene focuses on the hero at the center: the outer limits are standing in a crowd, some within are jostling each other for position, the nearer ones are piling up on each other's shoulders, those closest are collapsing at his feet in awe. This quick- ening of action is paralleled by ever greater specification of the people involved: the whole land, a rabble or mob, the young men of the city. One senses, too, increasing derogation by the narrator, for he seems to be contemptuous of the shoving crowd of gawking, fawning men and youngsters.


The reader will observe that another favored literary device of the stan- dard version of the epic is the use of contrasts or symbols that can be redefined or even reversed in meaning between the beginning and the end of the poem. For instance, in the beginning, Gilgamesh stays up all night roistering and abusing his subjects; at the end, he cannot stay awake more than a few minutes. Gilgamesh, the king, at the apex of society, is supposed to act as shepherd of his subjects, but instead mis-

treats them; Enkidu, the uncivilized man, watches all night over the shepherds' flocks. Enkidu begins as a wild man roaming the steppe and saving wild beasts from the hunter; Gilgamesh becomes a wild man who kills wild beasts.


Mesopotamian literature makes extensive use of figures of speech fa- miliar to the modern reader, for example, a variety of similes. Some are simple comparisons: "like a lioness whose cubs are in a pitfall, he paced to and fro" (VIII, 60-61), or an attacker springs back "like a swing rope" (VII, 137). Some similes are developed further or form part of a wider set of associations: "like a guardian deity she (the harlot) led him" (11, 22). This evokes an image, familiar to Babylonians from their document seals, of a personal intercessor deity leading the seal owner into the presence of a more important deity. Yet once Enkidu has become civilized, he walks in front of the harlot to Uruk (11, 74), and later in the poem, the elders of Uruk, Gilgamesh, and Enkidu have much to say about who is to walk first as they set forth on their quest (111, 5-7, 170, etc.). So here an apparently simple simile opens a series of related images that recur throughout the poem. Some similes seem enhanced with irony: "Roof her over like the watery depths" (XI, 31), for example, is a striking way to describe the ark under construction just before the flood. The Mesopotamians considered the watery depths below the earth to have a surface over them to hold them in. This the poet compares to the roof of the ark, which is supposed to keep the waters out.

Metaphors, or implied comparisons, include such examples as "Whatever they attempt is a puff of air" (11, 187) and "his breath (of life) is death" (11, 153). They may also be refurbished and expanded, as with some of the similes. In Tablet I, line 3 1, for example, Gilgamesh as king is compared to a charging wild bull, an image common enough when used in praise of Mesopotamian royalty, but the image gains richness a few lines later by reference to his mother, Ninsun, as a wild cow (I, 37): Gilgamesh is a wild bull by birth, so to speak, as well as by behavior. Later in the poem, Enkidu dreams that he is trampled down by a monster "like a wild bull" (VII, 139), perhaps symbolic of Gilgamesh's role in his friend's impending doom. Likewise, the meta- phor of Gilgamesh as shepherd of Uruk, contrasted to Enkidu as an actual shepherd, is an example of the refurbishment of what was nearly a "dead metaphor" elsewhere: the king as shepherd of his people.


The Epic of Gilgamesh abounds in wordplay, that is, suggestion of one word through use of another with the same or similar sound. In modern


Western literature, this technique is usually used as a game or joke, but in Mesopotamian literature wordplays were used in serious and solemn literary contexts as well as for humor. Three or more wordplays in the narration of Gilgamesh's dreams (I, …