The Story of the Flood in the Epic of Gilgamesh

Today we come to the second part of our examination of the story of the Great Flood found in the Epic of Gilgamesh wherein we will look at the story itself. I'm actually going to break this into two separate posts, a summary of the story and the interpretation of it, which I'll combine with an examination of the story's significance. Before I do that, however, let's recap what we've already covered in Part 1.

Last time, in the first step, the rhetorical analysis, we noted that the Flood account is really a story-within-a-story, which means we need to consider it along with the larger story that contains it. This narrative technique is sometimes called a “frame tale,” a term that is very appropriate in this case because the story of Gilgamesh provides the frame (context) for the part we're most interested in, and the Flood story is what gets framed (the focus of our attention). Still, although we are most interested in the Flood account, the relationship between the two stories suggests that to understand either, we have to understand both. 

Bored with his achievements, Gilgamesh became a tyrant.
So our method of proceeding will be first to look at the frame within which the story of the Great Flood is set, and then at the Flood narrative in particular. I mentioned in my last post that Gilgamesh was a legendary king of the Mesopotamian city of Uruk and that there were many tales that got handed down about his great achievements. So the poet who wrote the poem we call the Epic of Gilgamesh had a great quantity of source material from which to knit the tale he wanted to tell. We don’t need to be familiar with all that material to understand this poem, but we should be aware that the poet made conscious and deliberate choices, not only about how to tell his story, but also about which story to tell. Those choices shape our understanding of the story means. I also pointed out last time that there are at least a couple of important themes woven into the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Now, if I were to sum up this story of Gilgamesh as briefly as possible, I would probably want to indicate not only the events (plot) but also their meaning (theme). For instance, if I wanted to allude to the major theme of human mortality, I could say that this is the story of how a great hero comes to grips with the fact that the one foe he cannot conquer is Death itself. Another way to describe the story in a nutshell, emphasizing the theme of kingship, would be to say that it is a story of how a king goes from being a ruthless despot who abuses his subjects to being a man truly worthy of admiration and imitation. Both of those summaries, of course, are far too brief to do the poem justice, but they each capture something true about the poem. And, notice that they both indicate the kind of change that the protagonist undergoes. Every story, after all, is about change.

But I think we need a more detailed summary, one that includes actual characters and events. Here goes:

The outer story: Gilgamesh


The poem’s prologue states that Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, “two-thirds divine and one-third human,” has many outstanding qualities — he enjoys physical perfection, immense strength, and surpassing wisdom and knowledge — yet he behaves abominably toward his people, using them as slave labor to build magnificent ziggurats and other monuments to his own greatness, slaying young men to prove his own strength, raping any woman who takes his fancy. So the story begins with a bad situation that needs to be dealt with.

The story proper
Together, Enkidu and Gilgamesh
slay the Bull of Heaven
The story itself begins when the oppressed people of Uruk cry out to the gods for relief. So the gods send a wild man, Enkidu, to oppose Gilgamesh. A battle ensues between the two men, but they manage to resolve it without killing one another. No longer opponents, they become great friends and together the two heroes have a number of adventures. Eventually, though, they anger the gods, who decide that at least one of them must die, and they decide Enkidu is the one. He sickens, but before he dies he has dream-visions of the underworld. He recounts these to Gilgamesh, explaining how they have angered the gods, foreseeing his own death, describing the abode of the dead as a “house of dust,” a place of darkness, from which no one returns. Then he dies.

Stricken by the death of his friend and haunted by the vision of what awaits all men after death, Gilgamesh for a time goes mad with grief. He begins to question the very meaning of life: what worth is there in being a mortal man when, for all his power and wealth, the greatest hero will succumb to death? (By the way, this is the part of the story recounted by Captain Picard in that Star Trek episode I mentioned in an earlier post.) Gilgamesh decides he must avoid death at all costs and recalls that there once was a man, Utnapishtim, a king like himself, who was not subject to death. (Utnapishtim means “He Who Saw Life.”) Gilgamesh becomes determined to find this man and learn from him the secret of immortality.

The man Gilgamesh seeks, Utnapishtim, lives far away, beyond the Waters of Death, but Gilgamesh manages to track him down, and demands to know how he achieved his immortality. This is the story Utnapishtim tells him in reply:

The inner story: Utnapishtim and the Great Flood

The gods had grown to regret having created the human race. They decided to erase the human slate and start over, and a flood seemed like a good way to do that. They plan afterward to create a new, improved human race. One god, however, betrays their secret — Ea, the cleverest of them, went to the palace of Utnapishtim and whispered through the flimsy woven-reed wall not only the destruction the gods have planned, but also a way that the king could save himself and his family.

Ea told the king that he has a choice between clinging to his possessions and saving his life. Since Utnapishtim, of course, wanted to live, the god told him how to build a huge boat that would survive the flood, big enough to contain animals and seeds to replenish the Earth after all other life has been destroyed. Ea also instructed him how to get his subjects to help him build the boat without their asking pesky questions about it, such as, “Why do you need a boat so big that it won’t actually fit in the river?” He must say that the god Enlil had grown to hate him, so for the good of the city he must leave.

So the people of the city all pitched in to get the boat finished ASAP, and then they celebrated a great festival to send off the king and his household. (Utnapishtim, having been instructed in deception by the god Ea, disobeyed the god in one matter: in addition to storing the seed of all living things in the boat, he also managed to sneak aboard all his gold and silver.) After the people got good and drunk on their feasting, everyone pulled together to push this gigantic boat into the Euphrates. Then the king and his family climbed aboard and a craftsman sealed them in. And then came the great deluge.

Seven days of terrible storms ensued — so dark and fierce that it frightened the gods themselves. Utnapishtim and his household were safely sealed inside their boat. A good thing, too, because every living thing except those on the boat perished in the ensuing flood. After seven days, the storm abated and Utnapishtim sent out a dove to see if it could find a place to alight. But the waters had not yet receded far enough to expose the land, so the bird returned. Later, he tried again with a swallow, but got the same result. Finally, he sent out a raven, which did not return — the water was going down and bare land had reappeared.
Utnapishtim and his wife were made deathless.
But was that such a good thing?
After his boat lodged at the top of a tall mountain and the flood waters went down, Utnapishtim let his animals loose and sacrificed a sheep in thanksgiving for his survival. The fragrance of his sacrifice attracted the attention of the gods, who had grown hungry since they killed off all the worshipers who used to sacrifice to them as well as all the animals needed for burnt offerings. The gods were glad that someone survived to offer them sacrifice — all except Enlil, who grew very angry, realizing that if someone had survived the flood it could only be because Ea had warned him.

Ea deflected attention from himself by accusing Enlil of using overkill to deal with the human problem — why did he have to destroy everyone? Why couldn’t he be satisfied with sending plagues and famines, or ravenous wolves and lions, to keep mortals in check?

Enlil responded to this remonstration by relenting in his anger and conferring immortality on the flood’s survivors, Utnapishtim and his wife. Then he sent them to a remote spot to live, which is where Gilgamesh finds them, centuries later.

Return to the outer story:
The effect of Utnapishtim’s account on Gilgamesh

Walls of ancient Uruk, excavated
Uruk, a lasting testament to King Gilgamesh.
"Look at its wall which gleams like copper,
inspect its inner wall, the likes of which no one can equal!
Take hold of the threshold stone–it dates from ancient times!"
It would appear that Gilgamesh has sought Utnapishtim to no purpose, since his immortality was a gift from the god Enlil, not anything he achieved through his own efforts. But when Gilgamesh seems on the point of despair, Utnapishtim tells him about a magical plant that will restore his youth. The hero plucks it from the bottom of the sea, planning to take it back to his city and try it out on an old man to see if it works. On his way home, though, he stops to bathe and a snake steals the plant. The snake, revitalized by the magic herb, sloughs off its skin. So Gilgamesh sees that the plant did, indeed, restore youth, but he is left frustrated, undone by a lowly serpent. He is empty-handed after all his questing, and returns to his well-built city, taking consolation from the fact that, although he is mortal, he has built magnificent things that will outlive him.

That’s the story, briefly told. If you would like something a bit more detailed (and animated!), take a look at this animated summary. (It runs about 10 minutes in length.)

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In my next post, I’ll discuss what meaning a careful reader can draw from the story (and why). I’ll also discuss the way this story has affected posterity, touching on the way it influenced the later development of both epic poetry and religious mythology. Meanwhile, why don’t you think about what meaning you find in the story?
©2015 Lisa A. Nicholas

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