The Epic of Gilgamesh
One RPG thing I’m involved with at the moment is Mythic Babylon, a setting for Mythras that I’m working on with Chris Gilmore. Chris is a huge expert on the whole subject, and I’ve learned what I can. And beyond the history component (set in the “rise of Babylon” era in the time of Hammurabi) it makes an absolutely terrific (sickle) swords and sorcery setting, with mythical monsters, dark magic and demons, exorcists, and a political clash between great kingdoms, with intrigue and war.
Here’s the cover.
But I’m posting about something which was cut for space…a retelling of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Of all the Sumerian myths, Gilgamesh’s doomed quest for immortality (spoilers) is perhaps the best-known, and easiest to find elsewhere. Now a retelling can be found here too:
The Epic of Gilgameŝ
Gilgameŝ was the King of Uruk, son of the goddess Ninsun and King Lugalbanda. He was two thirds divine, and one third mortal. He was handsome, brave, and strong. He built the great city walls of Uruk. He sought the secret of immortality and instead found wisdom. This is his story.
The Coming of Enkidu
When he first became king, Gilgameŝ was young and arrogant. He picked fights with other young men and slept with their brides before they married. The gods decided that Gilgameŝ must be diverted from such activities. He needed a companion, an equal.
And so Enkidu was born. He grew up in the wilderness. He was hairy and naked, and the wild animals were his only friends. Enkidu protected the animals from hunters by destroying their traps. And so one hunter decided to trap Enkidu. He hired a prostitute named Ŝamhat to go into the wilderness to draw Enkidu out.
Enkidu was immediately drawn to Ŝamhat, but reticent. Eventually he allowed her to get close, and then to seduce him. Ŝamhat spent several days with him, teaching the first the arts of sex, and then how to dress. When next they parted, Enkidu found he had lost some of his animal thinking but gained something else. His animal friends were now strangers to him, and Enkidu felt very alone. Ŝamhat pitied Enkidu, and invited him back to Uruk.
In Uruk, Gilgameŝ had a premonition of Enkidu’s arrival. The king met Enkidu on the road and challenged him to a wrestling match. The two wrestled for a long time, but were absolutely evenly matched, and the result was a draw. For the first time, Gilgameŝ had not won. The two became fast friends.
The Cedar Mountain
Gilgameŝ now had all he needed, and his mind turned to more esoteric subjects, and settled on immortality. To acheive immortality, he proposed a great deed. He proposed to kill Humbaba, the demonic guardian of the Cedar Mountain. Enkidu and the Council of Elders in Uruk tried to dissuade Gilgameŝ from his rash action, but the king could not be shifted. Following the advice of the elders, Enkidu and Gilgameŝ visited Ninsun, Gilgameŝ‘ divine mother. Ninsun adopted Enkidu as her son. Then Ninsun conducted Gilgameŝ and Enkidu through a magical ritual to bless their chances of success against Humbaba.
When they returned to Uruk, Gilgameŝ gave instructions for the rule of the city while he was away. Enkidu tried a second time to dissuade his friend from rashness, but Gilgameŝ was still firm in his desire for glory. So Gilgameŝ and Enkidu left the city for the Cedar Mountains, and the crowds cheered, exalted by the glorious deed to come.
On the journey to the Cedar Mountain, Gilgameŝ had a series of disturbing dreams. In one, Gilgameŝ wrestled a great bull with breath that tore the ground apart. In another, Gilgameŝ dreamed the skies roared with thunder and the earth heaved, before darkness and fire from the heavens, turning the plains to ash. Enkidu, though cautious earlier, interpreted the first dream as saying the bull was the god Ŝamaŝ, and he would protect Gilgameŝ. The second dream, he said, suggested a mighty battle where Gilgameŝ would be victorious.
When they arrived at the mountain, Enkidu and Gilgameŝ chopped down several cedar trees. The felling of the cedars aroused the wrath and notice of the demon Humbaba, who came at them, roaring and breathing fire, his face a hideous mask. Gilgameŝ’s courage failed him, but Enkidu called out, saying that the two of them together were stronger than the demon, and Ŝamaŝ‘ divine winds turned back Humbaba’s flames.
Enkidu and Gilgameŝ triumphed. Humbaba begged for mercy, and offered Gilgameŝ all the trees in the forest and his eternal servitude. But Enkidu urged Gilgameŝ to kill Humbaba as he had set out to do, before any of the gods intervened, to ensure his fame and glory. Humbaba cursed Enkidu as he died, to not find any peace in the world and to die before Gilgameŝ.
The pair took Humbaba’s head as a trophy, and loaded the cedar trunks they had cut onto a raft to make a door for Enlil’s temple in Uruk.
Iŝtar and the Bull of Heaven
Gilgameŝ’ deed had assured his fame. It spread as far as the ears of the goddess Iŝtar. Iŝtar came to observe Gilgameŝ, and saw him while he was bathing. Lust kindled in her heart.
The goddess tried to seduce Gilgameŝ, but Gilgameŝ knew the dire fates of Iŝtar’s mortal lovers in the past, and told her so, listing their names and dooms in a singing mocking voice. Iŝtar was understandably angry, and begged the sky god Anu to release the Bull of Heaven, Guhulanna, to ravage the land of Uruk. The bull caused widespread destruction, but Gilgameŝ and Enkidu met and defeated it in battle.
When Iŝtar came, protesting and even more angry, Enkidu hurled the bull’s thigh at the goddess. He and Gilgameŝ then consecrated the bull’s horns to celebrate their victory and to attempt to appease the gods.
The Death of Enkidu
Enkidu dreamed the gods had given him a death sentence for his part in the murder of Humbaba, and the death of the Bull of Heaven. He regretted helping make the cedar door for the ungrateful god Enlil. He cursed the prostitute Ŝamhat for teaching him to be a man rather than a beast.
The god Ŝamaŝ consoled Enkidu, speaking of the pleasures he had as a man, of food, beer, clothes, and the friendship of Gilgameŝ. He also tolk Enkidu of the honours people would bestow upon him after his death. Enkidu was convinced and regretted his curses, blessing Ŝamhat to take back the curse.
Then Enkidu sickened and died. Gilgameŝ felt the loss of Enkidu deeply. He recited their shared deeds, and had a statue of Enkidu made in Uruk.
The Wanderings of Gilgameŝ
After Enkidu’s funeral, Gilgameŝ was gripped with a profound sadness, and became aware of his own mortality. He wandered the world seeking relief, and learned of a fabled man, Utnapiŝtim, the survivor of the Great Flood who dwelled at the edge of the world.
To get there, Gilgameŝ went through a tunnel under the mountains guarded by two scorpion-men. He arrived in a garden of bright jewels, beyond which was an immense sea. Gilgameŝ was tired by his journey and travails, and came across a tavern. After his time in mourning and the long journey, Gilgameŝ was dishevelled and unkempt, appearing as much beast as man. The tavern owner, Siduri, though herself divine, was frightened by Gilgameŝ and hid.
Gilgameŝ found Sidiri and grasped her arm so she could not flee, and told her his story. He told her of his love for Enkidu, his one equal, and how upon his death he watched over Enkidu’s body until he saw a maggot crawl from the nose. Gilgameŝ told Siduri how he then realised death would one day come for him too, so he sought a way to keep death at bay.
Siduri was wise in the ways of the gods. She told Gilgameŝ he would never find what he sought and to be content. The gods gave men the gift of death. Gilgameŝ should eat, drink, celebrate and enjoy life while he could. He should wear fresh clothes, stay clean, and enjoy his wife and children. So men should do.
But Gilgameŝ did not listen, and so Siduri directed him to a ferryman by the name of Urŝinabi who could take him across the vast sea and the Waters of Death beyond them. The ferryman took the king to the home of Utnapiŝtim, the only man ever to have been awarded immortality.
Utnapiŝtim told Gilgameŝ of the great flood unleashed by the god Enlil, and how Enlil, repenting of his actions, rewarded Utnapiŝtim and his wife with immortality. The Flood survivor proposed a test for Gilgameŝ to see if he deserved immortality; he told the king to stay awake for six days and seven nights. If Gilgameŝ could resist the call to sleep, he could resist the greater call to sleep at the end of life.
But Gilgameŝ failed, and fell asleep before his time was up. Utnapiŝtim commanded the ferryman Urŝinabi to put Gilgameŝ back on the boat, and never to bring him back. But Utnapiŝtim’s wife took pity on Gilgameŝ, and prompted her husband to tell Gilgameŝ about a magical plant growing at the bottom of the sea. A plant that could restore youth.
Gilgameŝ dove down to the bottom of the sea and picked the plant. When he and Urŝinabi had crossed the sea, they began the long overland journey back to Uruk together. On the journey, the pair stopped to rest and bathe by a pool. Gilgameŝ put the plant down at the edge of the pool before wading in, and the sweet aroma of the magical plant attracted a snake, who ate it. The snake sloughed its skin, emerging fresh and young, and then departed. When Gilgameŝ came out of the pool, he found the plant was gone.
Despondent, the king wept for the loss. Gilgameŝ knew that was his final chance at immortality. When the king and the ferryman finally made it back to Uruk, Gilgameŝ showed Urŝinabi the proud great city with the high strong walls he had built. Urŝinabi patted him on the shoulder and said “My friend, therein lies your immortality.”