Notes and Questions for The Epic of Gilgamesh
(Foster translation)
(Gilgamesh Links)
Read: Foster's introduction (xi-xxii) for historical background and some interesting comments on the story. Pages xi-xv give you some background on the epic and its hero; pages xvi-xxii comment on the style and themes of the story. (You may want to wait to read these later pages after you've started the story.) We will also read parts of the Sumerian version of the story, pp. 104-115. Note the helpful Glossary of Proper Names (221-228).

Gilgamesh Notes, tablets I-V (6-45); read also pp. 104-115, especially pp. 113-115.

(5) his game stick = This is Foster' translation of pukku. Besides wearing out the males with war games, Gilgamesh was molesting the females.
(6) Aruru = the mother goddess.
(19) the forest of cedars = probably the Amanus forest north of Lebanon.
(28) Lugalbanda = Gilgamesh's father, now a deified personal "guardian god."
(21, 36; 44) seven fearsome glories; he killed the [glories] = powers, similar to the Sumerian idea of me. See pp. 114-115, where the special power is called a "radiance."

Questions, tablets I-V (6-45)
1. How is the beginning of Gilgamesh like or unlike that of the Odyssey?

2. Why do the citizens of Uruk complain about Gilgamesh? How is this problem similar to the noise problems in Atrahasis and the Epic of Creation?

3. How is the special creation of Enkidu like / unlike other special creations (Pandora, Adam, Eve, Ymir, Audhumla, Bor, Ask, Embla, Geshtu-e, Kingu, ) we've seen? In what ways are the reasons for creating Enkidu like / unlike Enlil's reasons for sending a flood?

4. How is Enkidu a problem for the trapper like or unlike Gilgamesh is a problem for the citizens of Uruk? How are the solutions of the citizens and the trapper like or unlike?

5. What do you think Enkidu represents? What do you think the harlot represents?

6. After what happens with the harlot, why do the wild animals suddenly shun Enkidu? Why do you think Enkidu can't run as fast as before? Why has he suddenly gain reason and understanding and become "like a god" (9, 13)? In what wyas does Enkidu move from nature to culture?

7. In what ways is the story of Enkidu and the harlot like or unlike that of Adam and Eve? (Does Enkidu have a "fall"?) In what ways is it like or unlike the story of Adapa? Why do you suppose that Enkidu and Gilgamesh become such good friends after they fight (16)?

8. What do you think are Gilgamesh's reasons for going to the cedar forest? Do you think they are good ones? (Compare / contrast with Odysseus' reasons for adventure.)

9. Why does Enkidu interpret Gilgamesh's dreams (30-35) favorably? What do you think sleep or paralysis symbolizes in this epic? (See pp. 36, 91-93.)

10. What do you think Humbaba represents? In what ways Gilgamesh's fight with Humbaba like or unlike Odysseus' contest with the Cyclops?

11. Compare / contrast the journey to the forest with Thor's journey to Utgard-Loki, or Odin's journey to obtain the mead of poetry.

12. In your opinion, are felling the cedar trees and killing Humbaba good or bad deeds? What does the poem say? (See pp. 18, 40-45, 113-115.)

Gilgamesh Notes, tablets VI-VIII (46-65) [optional: pp. 123-127]

(47) roller bird —in the original, the name of the bird sounds like the words for "my wing."
(48) turned him into a scarecrow —some translations say "mole," others "frog."
(53) spoke to the door: Enkidu curses a doorframe made of wood from the Cedar Forest.
(62-65) The fragmentary lines at the end describe the making of a statue of Enkidu and the preparation of funeral rites for Enkidu and grave goods to be buried with his body. Questions, tablets VI-VIII (46-65)

1. Why do you think Gilgamesh rejects Ishtar's generous offer? Compare / contrast with Circe or Calypso in the Odyssey or with Freyr and Skirnir's wooing of Gerd in Norse myth.

2. Do you see any logic in the way Ishtar punishes her lovers (47-48)?

3. What natural phenomena do you think the Bull of Heaven (48-49, 124-127) might represent?

4. Why do you think Enkidu must die instead of Gilgamesh?

5. Do you think Enkidu's curses of the doorframe, the trapper, and the harlot (53-56) represent a shift in his attitude towards culture?

6. In what ways are Enkidu's curse and blessing of the harlot both true? Compare / contrast Enkidu's curse with the curses of the Lord on the serpent, Adam, Eve, and the sons of Ham.

7. How is the death of Enkidu like or unlike the death of Balder? (Dreams? Nature elements?)

Gilgamesh Notes, tablets IX-XI (66-95)

(67) Mashum = "twin."
(69-71) Here, Gilgamesh travels through a tunnel and emerges in a "garden of the gods."
(72) Siduri = "maiden," the barmaid at the end of the world.
(76) "Stone Charms" Perhaps ship's tackle or anchors or stone stern poles.

Questions, tablets IX-XI (66-95)

1. Why do you think Gilgamesh has changed his attitude towards death? (Contrast p. 66 with pp. 19-20.) Compare Gilgamesh's attitudes towards death with Achilles' speech in the Odyssey (134).

2. Why do you think Gilgamesh wants to find immortality? Compare / contrast with the Adapa story, the Etana story, the search for Idun's apples, the Adam and Eve story, the Tower of Babel story, or Odysseus’ refusal of eternal life.

3. What symbolism do you see in killing lions and wearing their skins (66) and / or in the jeweled "garden of the gods" (69-71)?

4. How is Siduri like or unlike Ishtar or the harlot? How is she like or unlike Calypso or Circe in the Odyssey?

5. Why do you suppose Gilgamesh fails to follow Siduri's advice on p. 75?

6. Why do you suppose the waters barring the way to Utnapishtim are lethal? Notice that Gilgamesh is still cutting down trees, for punting poles this time. In what ways are trees connected with life and death, nature and culture, in this epic? (see pp. 18-20, 44-45, 53-54, 79.)

7. How is the flood story in chapter 5 like or unlike the story in Genesis? (Compare flood heroes, boats, reasons for flood, reactions of gods, aftermath of flood, etc.) Compare / contrast with Atrahasis or the Greek flood story (Deucalion).

8. In what ways can you relate this flood story to the rest of the epic?

9. Why do you suppose Enlil grants Utnapishtim immortality, when only moments before he wanted to destroy all mankind?

10. Why is refraining from sleep an appropriate test for one who would gain eternal life? What other events in the epic take place over "six days and seven nights" (91)?

11. What do you think Gilgamesh learns on his journey to the edge of the world? Compare with what Enkidu learns in his encounter with the harlot. Compare / contrast nature and culture motifs (animal skins, clothes, sleeping, bread, etc.).

12. Can you explain the symbolism the thorny plant (94-95) and the snake that sheds its skin? Why a snake, of all animals?

13. How is Gilgamesh's journey to the edge of the world like and unlike Odysseus' journey to the Underworld?

14. In what ways is Gilgamesh's story like / unlike a typical hero's journey?

Works Cited


Storytelling, the Meaning of Life, and The Epic of Gilgamesh (Essay):

Outline of the Epic of Gilgamesh with bibliography and links:

Exploring Ancient World Cultures: The Near East:

Christopher Siren’s Babylonian Myth site:

Oriental Institute, University of Chicago:
 [Authoritative, impeccable scholarship, if a bit puzzling to navigate--check out their ABZU index to Ancient Near Eastern Resources on the web.]

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