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The Zodiacal Organization of the Gilgamesh Epic

“The doctrine of the necessity for ministering to the dead is here enunciated in no uncertain fashion.

Unless their bodies are decently buried and offerings of food and drink made at their graves, their lives in the otherworld must be abjectly miserable. The manner in which they meet their end is likewise taken into account, and warriors who have fallen on the field of battle are pre-eminently fortunate.

Eabani is evidently one of the ‘happy’ spirits; his ghost is designated utukku, a name applied not only to the fortunate dead, but likewise to a class of beneficent supernatural beings.

The term edimmu, on the other hand, designates a species of malevolent being as well as the errant and even vampirish spirits of the unhappy dead. The due observance of funeral and commemorative rites is thus a matter which touches the interests not only of the deceased but also of his relatives and friends.

We have seen from the foregoing that the epic of Gilgamesh is partly historical, partly mythological. Around the figure of a great national hero myths have grown and twined with the passing of the generations, and these have in time become woven into a connected narrative, setting forth a myth which corresponds to the daily or annual course of the sun.

Within this may be discerned other myths and fragments of myths—solar, seasonal, and diluvian.

But there is in the epic another important element which has already been referred to—the astro-theological. The zodiacal significance of the division of the epic into twelve tablets may be set aside, since, as has been indicated, the significance is in all probability a superficial one merely, added to the poem by the scribes of Assur-bani-pal, and not forming an integral part of it.

At the same time it is not hard to divide the epic naturally into twelve episodes, thus:

  1. Gilgamesh’s oppression of Erech;
  2. the seduction of Eabani;
  3. the slaying of the monster Khumbaba;
  4. the wooing of Ishtar;
  5. the fight with the sacred bull;
  6. Eabani’s death;
  7. Gilgamesh’s journey to the Mountain of the Sunset;
  8. his wanderings in the region of thick darkness;
  9. the crossing of the waters of death;
  10. the deluge-story;
  11. the plant of life;
  12. the return of Eabani’s spirit.

Throughout the epic there are indications of a correspondence between the exploits of the hero and the movements of heavenly bodies.

It is possible, for instance, that Gilgamesh and his friend Eabani had some relation to the sign Gemini, also associated in ancient Chaldean mythology with two forms of the solar deity, even as were the hero and his friend.

The sign Leo recalls the slaying of Khumbaba, the allegorical victory of light over darkness, represented on monuments by the figure of a lion (symbol of fire) fighting with a bull.

Following the sign of Leo, the wooing of the hero by the goddess Ishtar falls naturally into the sign of Virgo, the virgin. The sign of Taurus is represented by the slaying of the celestial bull, Alu, by Gilgamesh.

The journey of the hero to Mashu and his encounter with the scorpion-men at the gate of the sunset are, of course, mythological representations of the sign of Scorpio, as are also his wanderings in the region of thick darkness.

It is noticeable in this respect that Babylonian astrology often doubled the eighth sign (Scorpio) to provide a seventh; it is therefore not unlikely that this sign should correspond with two distinct episodes in the poem.

The first of these episodes is associated with Scorpio by virtue of the introduction of scorpion-men; and the second, on the assumption that the scorpion is symbolical of darkness.

Perhaps the sea-goddess Sabitu is associated astrologically with the fish-tailed goat which is the conventional representation of Capricornus.

Then the placing of the deluge-story in the XIth tablet, corresponding with the eleventh sign of the zodiac, Aquarius, the water-bearer, is evidently in keeping with the astrological aspect of the epic.

Chaldean mythology connected the rainy eleventh month with the deluge, just as the first month of spring was associated mythologically with the creation.

The healing of Gilgamesh’s sickness by Ut-Napishtim may possibly symbolise the revival of the sun after leaving the winter solstice.

Lastly, the sign of Pisces, the twelfth sign of the zodiac, corresponding to the return of Eabani from the underworld, and perhaps also to the restoration of Gilgamesh to Erech, is emblematic of life after death, and of the resumption of ordinary conditions after the deluge.

It has been suggested, though without any very definite basis, that the epic was first put together before the zodiac was divided into twelve—that is, more than two thousand years before the Christian era.

Its antiquity, however, rests on other grounds than these. In later times the Babylonian astrological system became very complicated and important, and so lent its colour to the epic that, whatever the original plan of that work may have been, its astral significance became at length its most popular aspect.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 181-3.

A Snake Steals the Plant of Eternal Life

“To return to the epic:

The recital of Ut-Napishtim served its primary purpose in the narrative by proving to Gilgamesh that his case was not that of his deified ancestor.

Meanwhile the hero had remained in the boat, too ill to come ashore; now Ut-Napishtim took pity on him and promised to restore him to health, first of all bidding him sleep during six days and seven nights.

Gilgamesh listened to his ancestor’s advice, and by and by “sleep, like a tempest, breathed upon him.” Ut-Napishtim’s wife, beholding the sleeping hero, was likewise moved with compassion, and asked her husband to send the traveller safely home.

He in turn bade his wife compound a magic preparation, containing seven ingredients, and administer it to Gilgamesh while he slept. This was done, and an enchantment thus put upon the hero.

When he awoke (on the seventh day) he renewed his importunate request for the secret of perpetual life.

His host sent him to a spring of water where he might bathe his sores and be healed; and having tested the efficacy of the magic waters Gilgamesh returned once more to his ancestor’s dwelling, doubtless to persist in his quest for life.

Notwithstanding that Ut-Napishtim had already declared it impossible for Gilgamesh to attain immortality, he now directed him (apparently at the instance of his wife) to the place where he would find the plant of life, and instructed Adad-Ea to conduct him thither.

The magic plant, which bestowed immortality and eternal youth on him who ate of it, appears to have been a weed, a creeping plant, with thorns which pricked the hands of the gatherer; and, curiously enough, Gilgamesh seems to have sought it at the bottom of the sea.

At length the plant was found, and the hero declared his intention of carrying it with him to Erech. And so he set out on the return journey, accompanied by the faithful ferryman not only on the first, and watery, stage of his travels, but also overland to the city of Erech itself.

When they had journeyed twenty kasbu they left an offering (presumably for the dead), and when they had journeyed thirty kasbu, they repeated a funeral chant.

The narrative goes on :

Gilgamesh saw a well of fresh water, he went down to it and offered a libation. A serpent smelled the odour of the plant, advanced . . . and carried off the plant. Gilgamesh sat down and wept, the tears ran down his cheeks.”

He lamented bitterly the loss of the precious plant, seemingly predicted to him when he made his offering at the end of twenty kasbu.

At length they reached Erech, when Gilgamesh sent Adad-Ea to enquire concerning the building of the city walls, a proceeding which has possibly some mythological significance.

The XIIth tablet opens with the lament of Gilgamesh for his friend Eabani, whose loss he has not ceased to deplore.

“Thou canst no longer stretch thy bow upon the earth; and those who were slain with the bow are round about thee. Thou canst no longer bear a sceptre in thy hand; and the spirits of the dead have taken thee captive.

Thou canst no longer wear shoes upon thy feet; thou canst no longer raise thy war-cry on the earth. No more dost thou kiss thy wife whom thou didst love; no more dost thou smite thy wife whom thou didst hate.

No more dost thou kiss thy daughter whom thou didst love; no more dost thou smite thy daughter whom thou didst hate. The sorrow of the underworld hath taken hold upon thee.”[4]

Gilgamesh went from temple to temple, making offerings and desiring the gods to restore Eabani to him; to Ninsum he went, to Bel, and to Sin, the moon-god, but they heeded him not.

At length he cried to Ea, who took compassion on him and persuaded Nergal to bring the shade of Eabani from the underworld. A hole was opened in the earth and the spirit of the dead man issued therefrom like a breath of wind.

Gilgamesh addressed Eabani thus:

“Tell me, my friend, tell me, my friend; the law of the earth which thou hast seen, tell me.”

Eabani answered him:

“I cannot tell thee, my friend, I cannot tell thee.”

But afterwards, having bidden Gilgamesh “sit down and weep,” he proceeded to tell him of the conditions which prevailed in the underworld, contrasting the lot of the warrior duly buried with that of a person whose corpse is cast uncared for into the fields.

“On a couch he lieth, and drinketh pure water, the man who was slain in battle—thou and I have oft seen such an one—his father and his mother (support) his head, and his wife (kneeleth) at his side.

But the man whose corpse is cast upon the field—thou and I have oft seen such an one—his spirit resteth not in the earth.

The man whose spirit has none to care for it—thou and I have oft seen such an one— the dregs of the vessel, the leavings of the feast, and that which is cast out upon the streets, are his food.”

Upon this solemn note the epic closes.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 178-80.

Gilgamesh and the Quest for Immortality

“This sinister vision appears to have been a presage of Eabani’s death. Shortly afterwards he fell ill and died at the end of twelve days. The manner of his death is uncertain. One reading of the mutilated text represents Eabani as being wounded, perhaps in battle, and succumbing to the effects of the wound.

But another makes him say to his friend Gilgamesh,

“I have been cursed, my friend, I shall not die as one who has been slain in battle.”

The breaks in the text are responsible for the divergence. The latter reading is probably the correct one; Eabani has grievously offended Ishtar, the all-powerful, and the curse which has smitten him to the earth is probably hers. In modern folk-lore phraseology he died of ju-ju. The death of the hero brings the VlIIth tablet to a close.

In the IXth tablet we find Gilgamesh mourning the loss of his friend.

On the heart of Gilgamesh, likewise, the fear of death had taken hold, and he determined to go in search of his ancestor, Ut-Napishtim, who might be able to show him a way of escape. Straightway putting his determination into effect, Gilgamesh set out for the abode of Ut-Napishtim.

On the way he had to pass through mountain gorges, made terrible by the presence of wild beasts. From the power of these he was delivered by Sin, the moon-god, who enabled him to traverse the mountain passes in safety.

At length he came to a mountain higher than the rest, the entrance to which was guarded by scorpion-men. This was Mashu, the Mountain of the Sunset, which lies on the western horizon, between the earth and the underworld.

“Then he came to the mountain of Mashu, the portals of which are guarded every day by monsters; their backs mount up to the ramparts of heaven, and their foreparts reach down beneath Aralu.

Scorpion-men guard the gate (of Mashu); they strike terror into men, and it is death to behold them. Their splendour is great, for it overwhelms the mountains; from sunrise to sunset they guard the sun.

Gilgamesh beheld them, and his face grew dark with fear and terror, and the wildness of their aspect robbed him of his senses.”

On approaching the entrance to the mountain Gilgamesh found his way barred by these scorpion-men, who, perceiving the strain of divinity in him, did not blast him with their glance, but questioned him regarding his purpose in drawing near’the mountain of Mashu.

When Gilgamesh had replied to their queries, telling them how he wished to reach the abode of his ancestor, Ut-Napishtim, and there learn the secret of perpetual life and youthfulness, the scorpion-men advised him to turn back.

Before him, they said, lay the region of thick darkness; for twelve kasbu (twenty-four hours) he would have to journey through the thick darkness ere he again emerged into the light of day. And so they refused to let him pass.

But Gilgamesh implored, “with tears,” says the narrative, and at length the monsters consented to admit him. Having passed the gate of the Mountain of the Sunset (by virtue of his character as a solar deity) Gilgamesh traversed the region of thick darkness during the space of twelve kasbu.

Toward the end of that period the darkness became ever less pronounced; finally it was broad day, and Gilgamesh found himself in a beautiful garden or park studded with trees, among which was the tree of the gods, thus charmingly depicted in the text—

“Precious stones it bore as fruit, branches hung from it which were beautiful to behold. The top of the tree was lapis-lazuli, and it was laden with fruit which dazzled the eye of him that beheld.”

Having paused to admire the beauty of the scene, Gilgamesh bent his steps shoreward.

The Xth tablet describes the hero’s encounter with the sea-goddess Sabitu who, on the approach of one

“who had the appearance of a god, in whose body was grief, and who looked as though he had made a long journey,”

retired into her palace and fastened the door. But Gilgamesh, knowing that her help was necessary to bring him to the dwelling of Ut-Napishtim, told her of his quest, and in despair threatened to break down the door unless she opened to him.

At last Sabitu consented to listen to him whilst he asked the way to Ut-Napishtim. Like the scorpion-men, the sea-goddess perceived that Gilgamesh was not to be turned aside from his quest, so at last she bade him go to Adad-Ea, Ut-Napishtim’s ferryman, without whose aid, she said, it would be futile to persist further in his mission.

Adad-Ea, likewise, being consulted by Gilgamesh, advised him to desist, but the hero, pursuing his plan of intimidation, began to smash the ferryman’s boat with his axe, whereupon Adad-Ea was obliged to yield.

He sent his would-be passenger into the forest for a new rudder, and after that the two sailed away.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 171-3.

Gilgamesh and Eabani Kill the Bull of Heaven

“To resume the tale: In her wrath and humiliation Ishtar appealed to her father and mother, Anu and Anatu, and begged the former to create a mighty bull and send it against Gilgamesh.

Anu at first demurred, declaring that if he did so it would result in seven years’ sterility on the earth; but finally he consented, and a great bull, Alu, was sent to do battle with Gilgamesh.

The portion of the text which deals with the combat is much mutilated, but it appears that the conflict was hot and sustained, the celestial animal finally succumbing to a sword-thrust from Gilgamesh. Ishtar looks on in impotent anger.

“Then Ishtar went up on to the wall of strong-walled Erech; she mounted to the top and she uttered a curse, (saying),

‘Cursed be Gilgamesh, who has provoked me to anger, and has slain the bull from heaven.’”

Then Eabani incurs the anger of the deity —“

When Eabani heard these words of Ishtar, he tore out the entrails of the bull, and he cast them before her, saying,

‘As for thee, I will conquer thee, and I will do to thee even as I have done to him.’”

Ishtar was beside herself with rage. Gilgamesh and his companion dedicated the great horns of the bull to the sun-god, and having washed their hands in the river Euphrates, returned once more to Erech. As the triumphal procession passed through the city the people came out of their houses to do honour to the heroes.

The remainder of the tablet is concerned with a great banquet given by Gilgamesh to celebrate his victory over the bull Alu, and with further visions of Eabani.

The Vllth and VlIIth tablets are extremely fragmentary, and so much of the text as is preserved is open to various readings. It is possible that to the Vllth tablet belongs a description of the underworld given to Eabani in a dream by the temple-maiden Ukhut, whom he had cursed in a previous tablet, and who had since died.

The description answers to that given in another ancient text—the myth of Ishtar’s descent into Hades—and evidently embodies the popular belief concerning the underworld.

“Come, descend with me to the house of darkness, the abode of Irkalla, to the house whence the enterer goes not forth, to the path whose way has no return, to the house whose dwellers are deprived of light, where dust is their nourishment and earth their food. They are clothed, like the birds, in a garment of feathers; they see not the light, they dwell in darkness.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 168-70.

Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablets IV and V, Slaying of Khumbaba

“The IVth tablet is concerned with a description of the monster with whom the heroes are about to do battle.

Khumbaba, whom Bel had appointed to guard the cedar (i.e., one particular cedar which appears to be of greater height and sanctity than the others), is a creature of most terrifying aspect, the very presence of whom in the forest makes those who enter it grow weak and impotent.

As the heroes draw near Eabani complains that his hands are feeble and his arms without strength, but Gilgamesh speaks words of encouragement to him. It may be noted, in passing, that the word Khumbaba is of Elamite origin, a fact which has led certain authorities to identify the monster with an Elamite dynasty which anciently dominated Erech, and which came to grief about 2250 BCE.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to establish the connexion between the mythical encounter and a definite historical event; but it may at least be presumed that the bestowal of an Elamite designation on the monster argues a certain enmity between Elam and Babylon.

The next fragments bring us into the Vth tablet.

The heroes, having reached “a verdant mountain,” paused to survey the Forest of Cedars. When they entered the forest the death of Khumbaba was foretold to one or other, or both of them, in a dream, and they hastened forward to the combat.

Unfortunately the text of the actual encounter has not been preserved, but we learn from the context that the heroes were successful in slaying Khumbaba.

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 166-7.

Eabani Laments the Loss of His Animal Nature

“The feast of Ishtar was in progress when they reached Erech. Eabani had conceived the idea that he must do battle with Gilgamesh before he could claim that hero as a friend, but being warned (whether in a dream, or by Ukhut, is not clear) that Gilgamesh was stronger than he, and withal a favourite of the gods, he wisely refrained from combat.

Meanwhile Gilgamesh also had dreamed a dream, which, interpreted by his mother, Rimat-belit, foretold the coming of Eabani. That part of the poem which deals with the meeting of Gilgamesh and Eabani is unfortunately no longer extant, but from the fragments which take up the broken narrative we gather that they met and became friends.

The portions of the epic next in order appear to belong to the Ilnd tablet. In these we find Eabani lamenting the loss of his former freedom and showering maledictions on the temple-maiden who has lured him thither. However, Shamash, the sun-god, intervenes (perhaps in another dream or vision; these play a prominent part in the narrative), and showing him the benefits he has derived from his sojourn in the haunts of civilization, endeavours with various promises and inducements to make him stay in Erech—

“Now Gilgamesh, thy friend and brother, shall give thee a great couch to sleep on, shall give thee a couch carefully prepared, shall give thee a seat at his left hand, and the kings of the earth shall kiss thy feet.”

With this, apparently, Eabani is satisfied. He ceases to bewail his position at Erech and accepts his destiny with calmness. In the remaining fragments of the tablet we find him concerned about another dream or vision; and before this portion of the epic closes the heroes have planned an expedition against the monster Khumbaba, guardian of the abode of the goddess Irnina (a form of Ishtar), in the Forest of Cedars.

In the very mutilated Illrd tablet the two heroes go to consult the priestess Rimat-belit, the mother of Gilgamesh, and through her they ask protection from Shamash in the forthcoming expedition. The old priestess advises her son and his friend how to proceed, and after they have gone we see her alone in the temple, her hands raised to the sun-god, invoking his blessing on Gilgamesh :

“Why hast thou troubled the heart of my son Gilgamesh? Thou hast laid thy hand upon him, and he goeth away, on a far journey to the dwelling of Khumbaba; he entereth into a combat (whose issue) he knoweth not; he followeth a road unknown to him.

Till he arrive and till he return, till he reach the Forest of Cedars, till he hath slain the terrible Khumbaba and rid the land of all the evil that thou hatest, till the day of his return—let Aya, thy betrothed, thy splendour, recall him to thee.”

With this dignified and beautiful appeal the tablet comes to an end.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 164-6.

Ukhut, “Sacred Woman of the Temple of Ishtar”

“The poem goes on to introduce a new character, Tsaidu, the hunter, apparently designed by the gods to bring about the meeting of Gilgamesh and Eabani. How he first encounters Eabani is not quite clear from the mutilated text.

One reading has it that the King of Erech, learning the plan of the gods for his overthrow, sent Tsaidu into the mountains in search of Eabani, with instructions to entrap him by whatever means and bring him to Erech.

Another reading describes the encounter as purely accidental. However this may be, Tsaidu returned to Erech and related to Gilgamesh the story of his encounter, telling him of the strength and fleetness of the wild man, and his exceeding shyness at the sight of a human being.

By this time it is evident that Gilgamesh knows or conjectures the purpose for which Eabani is designed, and intends to frustrate the divine plans by anticipating the meeting between himself and the wild man.

Accordingly he bids Tsaidu return to the mountains, taking with him Ukhut, one of the sacred women of the temple of Ishtar. His plan is that Ukhut with her wiles shall persuade Eabani to return with her to Erech.

Thus the hunter and the girl set out.

“They took the straight road, and on the third day they reached the usual drinking-place of Eabani. Then Tsaidu and the woman placed themselves in hiding. For one day, for two days, they lurked by the drinking-place. With the beasts (Eabani) slaked his thirst, with the creatures of the waters his heart rejoiced. Then Eabani (approached) …”

The scene which follows is described at some length. Ukhut had no difficulty in enthralling Eabani with the snares of her beauty. For six days and seven nights he remembered nothing because of his love for her.

When at length he bethought him of his gazelles, his flocks and herds, he found that they would no longer follow him as before. So he sat at the feet of Ukhut while she told him of Erech and its king.

“Thou art handsome, O Eabani, thou art like a god. Why dost thou traverse the plain with the beasts? Come, I will take thee to strong-walled Erech, to the bright palace, the dwelling of Anu and Ishtar, to the palace of Gilgamesh, the perfect in strength, who, like a mountain-bull, wieldeth power over man.”

Eabani found the prospect delightful. He longed for the friendship of Gilgamesh, and declared himself willing to follow the woman to the city of Erech. And so Ukhut, Eabani, and Tsaidu set out on their journey.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 163-4.

Ist and IInd Tablet, Creation of Eabani (Enkidu)

“Now we come to the real commencement of the poem, inscribed on a fragment which some authorities assign to the beginning of the Ilnd tablet, but which more probably forms a part of the Ist.

In this portion we find Gilgamesh filling the double role of ruler and oppressor of Erech—the latter evidently not inconsistent with the character of a hero. There is no mention here of a siege, nor is there any record of the coming of Gilgamesh, though, as has been indicated, he probably came as a conqueror. His intolerable tyranny towards the people of Erech lends colour to this view.

He presses the young men into his service in the building of a great wall, and carries off the fairest maidens to his court; he

“hath not left the son to his father, nor the maid to the hero, nor the wife to her husband.”

Finally his harshness constrained the people to appeal to the gods, and they prayed the goddess Aruru to create a mighty hero who would champion their cause, and through fear of whom Gilgamesh should be forced to temper his severity.

Gilgamesh, left and Eabani (Enkidu) on the right.  http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17323/17323-h/images/060.jpg

Gilgamesh, left and Eabani (Enkidu) on the right.
http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17323/17323-h/images/060.jpg

The gods themselves added their prayers to those of the oppressed people, and Aruru at length agreed to create a champion against Gilgamesh.

“Upon hearing these words (so runs the narrative), Aruru conceived a man (in the image) of Anu in her mind. Aruru washed her hands, she broke off a piece of clay, she cast it on the ground. Thus she created Eabani, the hero.”

When the creation of this champion was finished his appearance was that of a wild man of the mountains.

“The whole of his body was (covered) with hair, he was clothed with long hair like a woman. His hair was luxuriant, like that of the corn-god. He knew (not) the land and the inhabitants thereof, he was clothed with garments as the god of the field. With the gazelles he ate herbs, with the beasts he slaked his thirst, with the creatures of the water his heart rejoiced.”

In pictorial representations on cylinder-seals and elsewhere Eabani is depicted as a sort of satyr, with the head, arms, and body of a man, and the horns, ears, and legs of a beast. As we have seen, he is a type of beast-man, a sort of Caliban, ranging with the beasts of the field, utterly ignorant of the things of civilization.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 160-3.

The Gilgamesh Epic

“The most important of the various mythological strata underlying the Gilgamesh myth is probably that concerning Eabani, who, as has been said, is a type of primitive man, living among the beasts of the field as one of themselves.

The "animal man" Enkidu (aka Eabani) defeating the King of Erech, Gilgamesh, during their first encounter.

The “animal man” Enkidu (aka Eabani) defeating the King of Erech, Gilgamesh, during their first encounter.

But he is also, according to certain authorities, a form of the sun-god, even as Gilgamesh himself. Like the hero of Erech, he rises to the zenith of his powers in a triumphal progress, then descends into the underworld.

He is not lost sight of, however, but lives in the memory of his friend Gilgamesh; and in the XIIth tablet he is temporarily brought forth from the underworld (that is, his ghost, or utukkii), which in a dim and shadowy fashion may typify the daily restoration of the sun.

Another important stratum of myth is that which concerns Ut-Napishtim, the Babylonian Noah; but whereas the myths of Eabani and Gilgamesh, though still distinguishable, have become thoroughly fused, the deluge story of which Ut-Napishtim is the hero has been inserted bodily into the XIth tablet of the epic, being related to Gilgamesh by Ut-Napishtim himself.

When he first appears in the narrative he has the attributes and powers of a god, having received these for his fidelity to the gods during the flood, from whose waters he alone of all mankind escaped.

The object of his narrative in the Gilgamesh epic seems to be to point out to the hero that only the most exceptional circumstances—unique circumstances, indeed—can save man from his doom.

Other distinct portions of the epic are the battle with the monster Khumbaba, the episode of Ishtar’s love for Gilgamesh, the fight with the sacred bull of Anu, and the search for the plant of life. These, whatever their origin, have become naturally incorporated with the story of Gilgamesh.

Gilgamesh defeating the Bull of Heaven.

Gilgamesh defeating the Bull of Heaven.

But besides the various historical and mythical elements herein presented, there is also a certain amount of Babylonian religious doctrine, evident to some extent in the XIth tablet (which points the moral that all men must die), but doubly so in the XIIth tablet, wherein the shade of Eabani appears to Gilgamesh, relates the misfortunes of the unburied dead or of those uncared for after death, and inculcates care for the deceased as the only means whereby they may evade the grievous woes which threaten them in the underworld.

Let us examine in detail the Gilgamesh epic as we have it in the broken fragments which remain to us. The Ist and Ilnd tablets are much mutilated. A number of fragments are extant which belong to one or other of these two, but it is not easy to say where the Ist ends and the Ilnd begins.

One fragment would seem to contain the very beginning of the Ist tablet—a sort of general preface to the epic, comprising a list of the advantages to be derived from reading it. After this comes a fragment whose title to inclusion in the epic is doubtful. It describes a siege of the city of Erech, but makes no mention of Gilgamesh.

The woeful condition of Erech under the siege is thus picturesquely detailed :

“She asses (tread down) their young, cows (turn upon) their calves. Men cry aloud like beasts, and maidens mourn like doves. The gods of strong-walled Erech are changed to flies, and buzz about the streets.

The spirits of strong-walled Erech are changed to serpents, and glide into holes. For three years the enemy besieged Erech, and the doors were barred, and the bolts were shot, and Ishtar did not raise her head against the foe.”

If this fragment be indeed a portion of the Gilgamesh epic, we have no means of ascertaining whether Gilgamesh was the besieger, or the raiser of the siege, or whether he was concerned in the affair at all.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 159-61.

Implications of the Gilgamesh Epic

“Among the traditions concerning his birth is one related by Ælian (Historia Animalium, XII, 21) of Gilgamos (Gilgamesh), the grandson of Sokkaros. Sokkaros, who, according to Berossus, was the first king to reign in Babylonia after the deluge, was warned by means of divination that his daughter should bear a son who would deprive him of his throne.

Thinking to frustrate the designs of fate he shut her up in a tower, where she was closely watched. But in time she bore a son, and her attendants, knowing how wroth the King would be to learn of the event, flung the child from the tower.

But before he reached the ground an eagle seized him up and bore him off to a certain garden, where he was duly found and cared for by a peasant. And when he grew to manhood he became King of the Babylonians, having, presumably, usurped the throne of his grandfather.

Here we have a myth obviously of solar significance, conforming in every particular to a definite type of sun-legend. It cannot have been by chance that it became attached to the person of Gilgamesh.

Everything in the epic, too, is consonant with the belief that Gilgamesh is a sun-god—his connexion with Shamash (who may have been his father in the tradition given by Ælian, as well as the eagle which saved him from death), the fact that no mention is made of his father in the poem, though his mother is brought in more than once, and the assumption throughout the epic that he is more than human.

Given the key to his mythical character it is not hard to perceive in his adventures the daily (or annual) course of the sun, rising to its full strength at noonday (or mid-summer), and sinking at length to the western horizon, to return in due time to the abode of men.

Like all solar deities—like the sun itself—his birth and origin are wrapped in mystery. He is, indeed, one of the ‘fatal children,’ like Sargon, Perseus, or Arthur. When he first appears in the narrative he is already a full-grown hero, the ruler and (it would seem) oppressor of Erech.

His mother, Rimat-belit, is a priestess in the temple of Ishtar, and through her he is descended from Ut-Napishtim, a native of Shurippak, and the hero of the Babylonian flood-legend. Early in the narrative he is brought into contact with the wild man Eabani, originally designed for his destruction by the gods, but with whom he eventually concludes a firm friendship.

The pair proceed to do battle with the monster Khumbaba, whom they overcome, as they do also the sacred bull sent against them by Anu. Up to the end of the Vlth tablet their conquering and triumphant career is without interruption; Gilgamesh increases in strength as does the sun approaching the zenith.

At the Vllth tablet, however, his good fortune begins to wane. Eabani dies, slain doubtless by the wrath of Ishtar, whose love Gilgamesh has rejected with scorn; and the hero, mourning the death of his friend, and smitten with fear that he himself will perish in like manner, decides to go in search of his ancestor, Ut-Napishtim (who, as sole survivor of the deluge, has received from the gods deification and immortality), and learn of him the secret of eternal life.

His further adventures have not the triumphal character of his earlier exploits. Sunwise he journeys to the Mountain of the Sunset, encounters the scorpion-men, and crosses the Waters of Death. Ut-Napishtim teaches him the lesson that all men must die (he himself being an exception in exceptional circumstances), and though he afterwards gives Gilgamesh an opportunity of eating the plant of life, the opportunity is lost.

However, Ut-Napishtim cures Gilgamesh of a disease which he has contracted, apparently while crossing the Waters of Death, and he is finally restored to Erech.

In these happenings we see the gradual sinking of the sun into the underworld by way of the Mountain of the Sunset. It is impossible for the sun to attain immortality, to remain for ever in the land of the living; he must traverse the Waters of Death and sojourn in the underworld.

Yet the return of Gilgamesh to Erech signifies the fresh dawning of the day. It is the eternal struggle of day and night, summer and winter; darkness may conquer light, but light will emerge again victorious. The contest is unending.

Some authorities have seen in the division of the epic into twelve tablets a connexion with the months of the year or the signs of the zodiac. Such a connexion probably exists, but when we consider that the artificial division of the epic into tablets scarcely tallies with the natural divisions of the poem, it seems likely that the astrological significance of the former was given to the epic by the scribes of Nineveh, who were evidently at some pains to compress the matter into twelve tablets.

Of the astro-theological significance of the narrative itself (one of its most important aspects), we shall perhaps be better able to judge when we have considered it in detail.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 156-9.

Spence on the Gilgamesh Epic

“The Gilgamesh epic ranks with the Babylonian myth of creation as one of the greatest literary productions of ancient Babylonia. The main element in its composition is a conglomeration of mythic matter, drawn from various sources, with perhaps a substratum of historic fact, the whole being woven into a continuous narrative around the central figure of Gilgamesh, prince of Erech.

It is not possible at present to fix the date when the epic was first written. Our knowledge of it is gleaned chiefly from mutilated fragments belonging to the library of Assur-bani-pal, but from internal and other evidence we gather that some at least of the traditions embodied in the epic are of much greater antiquity than his reign.

Thus a tablet dated 2100 b.c. contains a variant of the deluge story inserted in the XIth tablet of the Gilgamesh epic. Probably this and other portions of the epic existed in oral tradition before they were committed to writing—that is, in the remote Sumerian period.

Assur-bani-pal was an enthusiastic and practical patron of literature. In his great library at Nineveh (the nucleus of which had been taken from Calah by Sennacherib) he had gathered a vast collection of volumes, clay tablets, and papyri, most of which had been carried as spoil from conquered lands.

He also employed scribes to copy older texts, and this is evidently how the existing edition of the Gilgamesh epic came to be written. From the fragments now in the British Museum it would seem that at least four copies of the poem were made in the time of Assur-bani-pal.

They were not long permitted to remain undisturbed. The great Assyrian empire was already declining; ere long Nineveh was captured and its library scattered, while plundering hordes burnt the precious rolls of papyrus, and buried the clay tablets in the debris of the palace which had sheltered them.

There they were destined to lie for over 2000 years, till the excavations of Sir A. H. Layard, George Smith, and others brought them to light. It is true that the twelve tablets of the Gilgamesh epic (or rather, the fragments of them which have so far been discovered) are much defaced; frequently the entire sense of a passage is obscured by a gap in the text, and this, when nice mythological elucidations are in question, is no light matter.

Yet to such an extent has the science of comparative religion progressed in recent years that we are probably better able to read the true mythological significance of the epic than were the ancient Babylonians themselves, who saw in it merely an account of the wanderings and exploits of a national hero.

The epic, which centres round the ancient city of Erech, relates the adventures of a half-human, halfdivine hero, Gilgamesh by name, who is king over Erech.

Two other characters figure prominently in the narrative—Eabani, who evidently typifies primitive man, and Ut-Napishtim, the hero of the Babylonian deluge myth. Each of the three would seem to have been originally the hero of a separate group of traditions which in time became incorporated, more or less naturally, with the other two.

The first and most important of the trio, the hero Gilgamesh, may have been at one time a real personage, though nothing is known of him historically.[1] Possibly the exploits of some ancient king of Erech have furnished a basis for the narrative.

His name (for a time provisionally read Gisdhubar, or Izdubar, but now known to have been pronounced Gilgamesh[2]) suggests that he was not Babylonian but Elamite or Kassite in origin, and from indications furnished by the poem itself we learn that he conquered Erech (or relieved the city from a besieging force) at the outset of his adventurous career.

It has been suggested also that he was identical with the Biblical Nimrod, like him a hero of ancient Babylon; but there are no other grounds for the suggestion.

So much for the historical aspect of Gilgamesh. His mythological character is more easily established. In this regard he is the personification of the sun. He represents, in fact, the fusion of a great national hero with a mythical being.

Throughout the epic there are indications that Gilgamesh is partly divine by nature,though nothing specific is said on that head. His identity with the solar god is veiled in the popular narrative, but it is evident that he has some connexion with the god Shamash, to whom he pays his devotions and who acts as his patron and protector.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 154-6.

Myths of Tammuz and Ishtar

“The myth of Tammuz is one of high antiquity, dating possibly from 4000 b.c. or even earlier.

Both Tammuz and Ishtar were originally non-Semitic, the name of the former deity being derived from the Akkadian Dumu-zi, ‘son of life,’ or ‘the only son,’ perhaps a contraction of Dumu-zi-apsu, ‘offspring of the spirit of the deep,’ as Professor Sayce indicates. The ‘spirit of the deep’ is, of course, the water-god Ea, and Tammuz apparently typifies the sun, though he is not, as will presently be seen, a simple solar deity, but a god who unites in himself the attributes of various departmental divinities.

An ancient Akkadian hymn addresses Tammuz as “Shepherd and lord, husband of Ishtar the lady of heaven, lord of the under-world, lord of the shepherd’s seat;” as grain which lies unwatered in the meadow, which beareth no green blade; as a sapling planted in a waterless place; as a sapling torn out by the root.

Professor Sayce identifies him with that Daonus, or Daos, whom Berossus states to have been the sixth king of Babylonia during the mythical period. Tammuz is the shepherd of the sky, and his flocks and herds, like those of St. Ilya in Slavonic folk-lore, are the cloud-cattle and the fleecy vapours of the heavens.

Ishtar has from an early period been associated with Tammuz as his consort, as she has, indeed, with Merodach and Assur and other deities. Yet she is by no means a mere reflection of the male divinity, but has a distinct individuality of her own, differing in this from all other Babylonian goddesses and betraying her non-Semitic origin.

The widespread character of the worship of Ishtar is remarkable. None of the Babylonian or Assyrian deities were adopted into the pantheons of so many alien races. From the Persian Gulf to the pillars of Hercules she was adored as the great mother of all living. She has been identified with Dawkina, wife of Ea, and is therefore mother of Tammuz as well as his consort.

This dual relationship may account for that which appears in later myths among the Greeks, where Smyrna, mother of Adonis, is also his sister. Ishtar was regarded sometimes as the daughter of the sky-god Anu, and sometimes as the child of Sin, the lunar deity.

Her worship in Babylonia was universal, and in time displaced that of Tammuz himself. The love of Ishtar for Tammuz represents the wooing of the sun-god of spring-time by the goddess of fertility; the god is slain by the relentless heat of summer, and there is little doubt that Ishtar enters Aralu in search of her youthful husband.

The poem we are about to consider briefly deals with a part only of the myth— the story of Ishtar’s descent into Aralu. It opens thus :

“To the land of No-return, the region of darkness, Ishtar, the daughter of Sin, turned her ear, even Ishtar, the daughter of Sin, turned her ear, to the abode of darkness, the dwelling of Irkalla, to the house whose enterer goes not forth, to the road whence the wayfarer never returns, to the house whose inhabitants see no light, to the region where dust is their bread and their food mud; they see no light, they dwell in darkness, they are clothed, like the birds, in a garment of feathers. On the door and the bolt hath the dust fallen.”

The moral contained in this passage is a gloomy one for mortal man; he who enters the dread precincts of Aralu goes not forth, he is doomed to remain for ever in the enveloping darkness, his sustenance mud and dust. The mention of the dust which lies “on door and bolt” strikes a peculiarly bleak and dreary note; like other primitive races the ancient Babylonians painted the other world not definitely as a place of reward or punishment, but rather as a weak reflection of the earth-world, a region of darkness and passive misery which must have offered a singularly uninviting prospect to a vigorous human being.

The garment of feathers is somewhat puzzling. Why should the dead wear a garment of feathers? Unless it be that the sun-god, identified in some of his aspects with the eagle, descends into the underworld in a dress of feathers, and that therefore mortals who follow him must appear in the nether regions in similar guise.

The description above quoted of the Babylonian Hades tallies with that given in dream to Eabani by the temple-maiden Ukhut (Gilgamesh epic, tablet VII).”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 126-9.

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