The Epic of Gilgamesh

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Utnapishtim Character Analysis

Utnapishtim is a simple and devout man. He listened to the dream in which Ea told him to build a great ship before the flood, and spent a great deal of time and effort to protect his family. Though now immortal, he lives a straightforward life relaxing far from civilization.

Utnapishtim Quotes in The Epic of Gilgamesh

The The Epic of Gilgamesh quotes below are all either spoken by Utnapishtim or refer to Utnapishtim. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Civilization and the Fall from Innocence Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Penguin Classics edition of The Epic of Gilgamesh published in 1960.
Part 4 Quotes

There is no permanence. Do we build a house to stand for ever, do we seal a contract to hold for all time? Do brothers divide an inheritance to keep forever, does the flood-time of rivers endure? It is only the nymph of the dragon-fly who sheds her larva and sees the sun in his glory. From the days of old there is no permanence. The sleeping and the dead, how alike they are, they are like a painted death.

Related Characters: Utnapishtim (speaker), Gilgamesh
Page Number: 106
Explanation and Analysis:

Having finally arrived at Utnapishtim’s island, Gilgamesh questions him on the significance of and route to immortality. Yet instead of offering the secret, Utnapishtim gives this heady speech on how all things in life are ephemeral.

Whereas other characters have cautioned Gilgamesh based on the pragmatics of succeeding on his quest, Utnapishtim opts for a more philosophical explanation. He begins with his thesis statement—not specifically on human life but on the stability of any type of existence. Then he follows with four compelling rhetorical questions on transience, drawing examples from both human and natural realms. A legal contract, he explains, will eventually disappear in just the same way as a river flood. In contrast, he offers the “nymph of the dragon-fly,” who, we imagine, becomes immortal by fully experiencing the divine sun. But even that image is tinged with mortality, for the nymph “sheds her larva” and thus herself undergoes a process of change. Utnapishtim then calls attention to the fact that impermanence is itself an ancient quality, for the world has been this way since “the days of old.”

This is a moving explanation, for it takes the existential despair that has preoccupied Gilgamesh and transmutes it into a beautiful transience of human life. Utnapishtim’s final image, in particular, relativizes the horror of death by rendering it similar to “sleeping.” He does not command Gilgamesh to abandon his quest, but rather offers a voice of serenity and reason that instructs him on the need to accept one’s place in the universe.

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I look at you now, Utnapishtim, and your appearance is no different from mine; there is nothing strange in your features. I thought I should find you like a hero prepared for battle, but you lie here taking your ease on your back. Tell me truly, how was it that you came to enter the company of the gods and to possess everlasting life?

Related Characters: Gilgamesh (speaker), Utnapishtim
Page Number: 107
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Gilgamesh is perturbed by Utnapishtim’s appearance and demeanor. He reveals that he had expected Utnapishtim’s immortality to be accompanied by physical vigor and a martial nature, and is surprised to find the opposite.

The first observation on their physical similarity expresses Gilgamesh’s frustration that immortality was bestowed on Utnapishtim and not on him. To Gilgamesh’s eyes, there is no significant difference between the two, and thus Utnapishtim has no greater right to live forever. Recall how frequently the text has focused on descriptions of Gilgamesh’s physical stature and beauty as an indication of his divine power: He has likely come to equate external appearance with internal wisdom and longevity. But Utnapishtim’s character teaches that the two should not be associated so quickly.

Gilgamesh’s second contention reveals a similar prejudice. He assumed that Utnapishtim would be a strong warrior ready to battle. Presumably, Gilgamesh thought he could prove his claim to immortality by besting someone in combat. This line reiterates the way Gilgamesh presumes his physical strength will allow him to overcome any obstacle—a belief that, after all, has allowed him to overcome the gods several times in the epic. Yet here that confidence has broken down: Gilgamesh seems confused as to how one could “enter the company of the gods” if not through brute strength. His conversation with Utnapishtim, then, marks his realization that physical prowess is not the sole metric by which to assess a human’s worth.

Part 5 Quotes

In those days the world teemed, the people multiplied, the world bellowed like a wild bull, and the great god was aroused by the clamour. Enlil heard the clamour and he said to the gods in council, “The uproar of mankind is intolerable and sleep is no longer possible by reason of the babel.” So the gods agreed to exterminate mankind.

Related Characters: Utnapishtim (speaker), Gilgamesh, Enlil
Page Number: 108
Explanation and Analysis:

Utnapishtim concedes to tell Gilgamesh how he acquired immortality, and he begins to recount a story from the days of old. This tale, we should note, is the one that Gilgamesh will transmit back to Uruk, so it is considered to hold deep significance for future generations. It also bears many similarities to the Biblical story of Noah's Ark, indicating that one may have stemmed from the other, or that they came from a common historical source.

Utnapishtim’s opening description of the old Mesopotamian society stresses the hubris and grandeur of human civilization. Not only are the people numerous in quantity, but they are also distinctly loud—loud enough to frustrate the god Enlil. This “clamour” can be taken as a broader metaphor for human activity and the way it became an affront to the gods. Thus Utnapishtim’s tale intersects closely with Gilgamesh’s own opening adventures, in which his arrogance caused the gods to send first Enkidu and then the Bull of Heaven to quiet him. Yet in this ancient story, the gods’ reaction is far more dire, for they decide not just to kill one man, but rather to end civilization altogether. So the story opens with a warning against not just Gilgamesh’s pride, but a more general pride of mankind. The implication is that Gilgamesh must bring back the story in order to teach the people of Uruk humility so that they do not create a “babel” that would anger the gods again.

‘Alas the days of old are turned to dust because I commanded evil; why did I command this evil in the council of all the gods? I commanded wars to destroy the people, but are they not my people, for I brought them forth? Now like the spawn of fish they float in the ocean.’ The great gods of heaven and hell wept, they covered their mouths.

Related Characters: Ishtar (speaker), Utnapishtim (speaker)
Related Symbols: Water
Page Number: 110
Explanation and Analysis:

As she watches the flood destroy mankind, Ishtar laments her own actions. The other gods follow in turn, saddened that they have slaughtered the very humans they brought forth into the world.

This passage shows a surprising affection from the gods toward humans. Though Enlil may have acted originally out of anger, others such as Ea did not agree with his actions—and still others resent it once they observe the consequences. When Ishtar says, “but are they not my people” she shows that the gods' pity stems from a paternal ownership over humans. Like children, humans were brought forth by the gods, so for them to be mere dead floating “fish” causes an expected emotional pain. Utnapishtim’s story thus reiterates the fact that gods are privy to rash action as well as regret—and it shows them to be less antagonistic toward humans than Gilgamesh’s own narrative might imply.

Ishtar’s prominent role here is far from accidental, considering it was her marriage proposal that Gilgamesh spurned earlier in the text. Utnapishtim’s tale implies that her anger is mixed with a generous and loving nature. So it instructs Gilgamesh that if he were to treat her and the other gods with more courtesy, he might receive better treatment in turn.

Part 6 Quotes

Go now, banished from the shore. But this man before whom you walked, bringing him here, whose body is covered with foulness and the grace of whose limbs has been spoiled by wild skins, take him to the washing-place. There he shall wash his long hair clean as snow in the water, he shall throw off his skins and let the sea carry them away, and the beauty of his body shall be shown, the fillet on his forehead shall be renewed, and he shall be given clothes to cover his nakedness.

Related Characters: Utnapishtim (speaker), Gilgamesh, Urshanabi
Related Symbols: Water
Page Number: 115
Explanation and Analysis:

After Gilgamesh fails the test to stay awake for seven nights, Utnapishtim sends him back with the now-banished ferryman Urshanabi. Utnapishtim instructs Urshanabi to wash Gilgamesh and offers these specifications on the way he should return to human civilization.

This description focuses on the water imagery that plays a key role throughout the epic. Gilgamesh has previously engaged in cleansing rituals, and Utnapishtim’s tale on the flood presented water as a way to cleanse humanity of its hubris (and its life). Here, water is used to extract the “foulness” from Gilgamesh and specifically to the “wild skins” that he has donned throughout the travels. These skins are apparently an indication of his arrogance, for they represent his hunting prowess, and they are a mark of civilization, with all its "sins" of fashion, adornment, and luxury. In contrast to the attire of an extravagant king, Utnapishtim prescribes that Gilgamesh present himself in his natural state: His hair should be “clean” and his body should reveal its inherent “beauty.”

Utnapishtim’s request offers some insight into what Gilgamesh must take away from his epic journey. He should abandon both his decadent life as a ruler and his dreams of immortality and return to the purity and simplicity of humanity. Furthermore, he must serve as a cleansed emissary back to the people of Uruk and carry Utnapishtim’s lessons on water and the flood.

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Utnapishtim Character Timeline in The Epic of Gilgamesh

The timeline below shows where the character Utnapishtim appears in The Epic of Gilgamesh. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 4: The Search for Everlasting Life
Friendship, Love, and Sexuality Theme Icon
Mortality and Meaning Theme Icon
...Enkidu. He declares that because he fears his own death, he will travel to find Utnapishtim, who survived a great flood and was granted everlasting life, allowing him to live in... (full context)
Heroism in Nature vs. Comfort in the City Theme Icon
Friendship, Love, and Sexuality Theme Icon
Mortality and Meaning Theme Icon
Pride and the Gods Theme Icon
...god but one third is man.” Gilgamesh says he has travelled for Enkidu, to ask Utnapishtim about life and death. The Scorpion warns Gilgamesh that no mortal has ever travelled through... (full context)
Heroism in Nature vs. Comfort in the City Theme Icon
Mortality and Meaning Theme Icon
Pride and the Gods Theme Icon
But Gilgamesh refuses to comply. He demands that Siduri tell him how to get to Utnapishtim. Siduri tells him that crossing the sea is impossible and nobody has ever done it.... (full context)
Heroism in Nature vs. Comfort in the City Theme Icon
Friendship, Love, and Sexuality Theme Icon
Mortality and Meaning Theme Icon
Pride and the Gods Theme Icon
Utnapishtim sees the boat in the distance and wonders how the boat has sailed there without... (full context)
Heroism in Nature vs. Comfort in the City Theme Icon
Friendship, Love, and Sexuality Theme Icon
Mortality and Meaning Theme Icon
Pride and the Gods Theme Icon
Gilgamesh tells Utnapishtim that he has made the journey to see him. He asks Utnapishtim if he can... (full context)
Part 5: The Story of the Flood
Civilization and the Fall from Innocence Theme Icon
Heroism in Nature vs. Comfort in the City Theme Icon
Pride and the Gods Theme Icon
This chapter consists of the story that Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh. It begins in Shurrupak, a city built along the Euphrates river. The city... (full context)
Civilization and the Fall from Innocence Theme Icon
Heroism in Nature vs. Comfort in the City Theme Icon
Pride and the Gods Theme Icon
Utnapishtim agrees to do what Ea told him in the dream. He asks how he will... (full context)
Civilization and the Fall from Innocence Theme Icon
Mortality and Meaning Theme Icon
Pride and the Gods Theme Icon
The boat is launched into the water, loaded with Utnapishtim’s gold, his children and wife, other relatives, animals, and craftsmen. Shamash warns Utnapishtim to “batten... (full context)
Civilization and the Fall from Innocence Theme Icon
Pride and the Gods Theme Icon
...on. At dawn of the seventh day, the storm ends and the sea becomes calm. Utnapishtim opens the hatch of his boat and sees an endless sea around him. But he... (full context)
Civilization and the Fall from Innocence Theme Icon
Pride and the Gods Theme Icon
...flood, to gather around the offering. When Enlil does arrive, he’s enraged to find that Utnapishtim and his companions have survived. Ea then criticizes Enlil for trying to destroy mankind. (full context)
Civilization and the Fall from Innocence Theme Icon
Mortality and Meaning Theme Icon
Pride and the Gods Theme Icon
Ea says that he was not the one who told Utnapishtim how to avoid his fate; Utnapishtim learned it from a dream. Then Enlil enters the... (full context)
Part 6: The Return
Heroism in Nature vs. Comfort in the City Theme Icon
Mortality and Meaning Theme Icon
Pride and the Gods Theme Icon
To get the sympathy and attention of the gods, Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh that he must stay awake for six days and seven nights. As Gilgamesh... (full context)
Civilization and the Fall from Innocence Theme Icon
Heroism in Nature vs. Comfort in the City Theme Icon
Mortality and Meaning Theme Icon
Pride and the Gods Theme Icon
Utnapishtim banishes Urshanabi from ever returning to his shores, and orders Urshanabi to take Gilgamesh, “whose... (full context)
Heroism in Nature vs. Comfort in the City Theme Icon
Mortality and Meaning Theme Icon
...until he arrives back in Uruk. As Gilgamesh and Urshanabi set off in the boat, Utnapishtim’s wife tells Gilgamesh that if he finds and takes a special prickly plant that grows... (full context)