Gilgamesh has travelled the world and ended up in the Sumerian city of Uruk, where he is now king. The locals criticize his arrogance, however: he takes sons from their fathers and sleeps with all the women he pleases.
From its first lines, the Epic describes Gilgamesh’s arrogance and associates it with his position as ruler of a city. Though he is a strong king, the people criticize him for abusing his power.
The gods hear the people of Uruk’s complaints and repeat them to Anu, the god of Uruk. After Anu has heard them, the gods next plea to Aruru, the goddess of creation, asking her to create someone to be Gilgamesh’s equal in strength.
The gods in Sumerian mythology are often involved in human affairs: they can even hear what the people of Uruk say.
The goddess Aruru, using water and clay, creates the man Enkidu in the wilderness. Within Enkidu is the spirit of the god of war, Ninurta. Enkidu has long hair and a hairy body, and he is described as “Innocent of mankind.” Having grown up in nature, he knows nothing of civilization.
Enkidu is Gilgamesh’s counterpart in several ways: Gilgamesh rules the city, but Enkidu lives in nature; Gilgamesh lives luxuriously in Uruk, but Enkidu grows his hair long and lives like a wild animal. This immediately sets up the conflict between civilization and nature as also being a divide between innocence and knowledge.
Enkidu lives with wild beasts, eating grass and drinking from watering holes. For three days in a row, however, Enkidu comes face-to-face with a human trapper who is hunting for wild game. The trapper tells his father about Enkidu, describing him as “The strongest in the world, he is like an immortal from heaven.” The trapper’s father advises the trapper to tell Gilgamesh about Enkidu’s strength. He also says to ask Gilgamesh for a temple prostitute to bring with him to seduce Enkidu. The trapper’s father says that when Enkidu is drawn to the woman’s naked body, the wild beasts will reject him.
The trapper’s father understands that sexual knowledge and experience will make “nature” reject Enkidu, because he will fully become a human (and thus be divided from nature). In this first part of the epic, nature is primarily associated with innocence, and civilization with corruption. This is another parallel to the Biblical Adam and Eve story, in which they lose their innocence when they gain knowledge that they are naked.
The trapper travels to see Gilgamesh and tells him about Enkidu’s life with the wild beasts, destroying the trapper’s traps, and filling in his holes. Gilgamesh tells the trapper to take a prostitute back with him to tempt Enkidu. He says (as the trapper’s father did) that when Enkidu is drawn to the naked woman, wild animals will reject him.
Upon hearing of a man as strong as himself, Gilgamesh needs to meet and challenge him—he has a strong sense of pride and desire to prove himself through great deeds. It’s also telling that he comes to the same conclusion as the trapper’s father—sex and humanity will bring a separation from nature.
The trapper travels back for three days with a temple prostitute named Shamhat. They then wait three days for the herds to come. Enkidu joins the wild animals in drinking from the watering hole. The trapper tells the prostitute to approach Enkidu and seduce him. Shamhat immediately strips and approaches him naked, and Enkidu embraces her. They spend seven days and six nights together, and then Enkidu returns to the hills where the wild beasts live. But now the animals run away from him, and when Enkidu tries to chase after them, his knees buckle and he is not as fast as he used to be. Having been transformed by his encounter with the prostitute, “Enkidu was grown weak, for wisdom was in him, and the thoughts of a man were in his heart.”
We see that his sexual relationship with Shamhat completely changes Enkidu. Not only do the animals reject him, but also he becomes physically slower—less of a wild animal himself. The Epic specifically states that his new weakness is directly a result of gaining wisdom and human consciousness. This continues the tension between the “innocence” of nature and the burden (but also blessing) of knowledge and civilization.
Enkidu accepts Shamhat’s invitation to come to Uruk, and she tells him that Gilgamesh has never met a man stronger than himself. Shamhat tells Enkidu of the riches of Uruk, where “every day is a holiday” and where people smell “sweet.” Finally, she tells Enkidu that “Gilgamesh will know in his dreams that you are coming.”
Pride and a desire for luxury drive Enkidu to Uruk. Hearing of Gilgamesh’s strength, Enkidu wants to test his own—he has a similar sense of pride to Gilgamesh. Shamhat also lures him to Uruk with promises of an easy life full of luxury. This is another example of how civilization and the city are presented as sources of comfort, but also of idleness and corruption.
Indeed, Gilgamesh has had a dream, and he describes it to Ninsun, his mother (a goddess). Gilgamesh tells Ninsun that he dreamed of “young heroes” gathered together, and of a meteor falling from the sky that Gilgamesh could not lift. Finally, the citizens of Uruk came to see the meteor and helped Gilgamesh: he was able to raise the meteor, and when he brought it to his mother, she “pronounced it my brother.” Ninsun, tells Gilgamesh that she made the meteor for him, “a goad and spur,” and that in the meteor Gilgamesh will find a friend.
Dreams reveal lots of information in the Epic, and they are often prophetic. This makes sense, as this is a world where the gods interact closely in most human affairs. The fact that Gilgamesh dreams of Enkidu’s coming tells us that this is an important event. The nature of the dream (the Enkidu is presented as Gilgamesh’s “brother”) also highlights how the two men are bound together—indeed, Enkidu was only created to be a counterpoint to Gilgamesh.
Gilgamesh tells his mother of a second dream. In it, Gilgamesh found an axe in the streets of Uruk and began to carry it with him. Ninsun interprets the dream: she says that the axe represents Gilgamesh’s new companion, who will guard and rescue him when needed. Gilgamesh then tells his dreams to a counselor, and they are then relayed to the prostitute Shamhat, who retells them to Enkidu. Shamhat asks Enkidu why he wants to live in the hills with wild beasts. She clothes him and herself and leads him into the shepherds’ tents, where the shepherds offer him bread. This confuses Enkidu, because previously he fed only on the milk of wild animals. He does not know how to eat bread or drink wine, but Shamhat teaches him. Enkidu gets drunk and rubs his hair and skin with oil. To protect the shepherds, Enkidu hunts and kills lions and wolves.
Again, Gilgamesh’s dream reinforces the importance of his relationship with Enkidu. Enkidu is brought more fully into civilization by his time with the shepherds. The drinking of wine and application of oils signify his introduction to civilized life—he is now wholly divided from nature, and is being seduced by the comforts civilization. Shamhat plays an important role in the Epic, and it’s also important to note that “temple prostitutes” were, in many ways, holy figures at the time—earthly representations of fertility.
Living with the shepherds, Enkidu is happy. One day, a mysterious man appears and tells Enkidu that Gilgamesh has shut himself in “the marriage-house” and has been acting strangely. Gilgamesh is to be married to the Queen of Love, but he still demands protection of his right as king to sleep with any bride before her husband can. This tradition is seen as tyrannical by the people of Uruk. Enkidu declares that he will fight Gilgamesh because of this. With Shamhat behind him, he travels to Uruk and enters the city.
Gilgamesh’s demands to sleep with the bride before her husband is allowed to demonstrate his arrogance and abuse of power as king of Uruk. This is presented as another example of how the city can provide comfort and luxury, but that comfort also leads to idleness, and idleness breeds corruption. Gilgamesh can only redeem himself as a hero by leaving the city and testing his strength out in nature.
All the townspeople admire Enkidu when he enters Uruk. That night, Gilgamesh is on his way to meet his bride, but Enkidu meets him at the city gate and blocks his way in the street. The two wrestle, smashing doorposts and shaking the walls. Gilgamesh throws Enkidu to the ground, and then the two stop being angry. Enkidu tells Gilgamesh “There is not another like you in the world,” and he declares that Gilgamesh has earned his friendship. The two embrace.
As an “epic,” the Epic appropriately highlights the importance of strength and heroic deeds. Here, the nearly even matchup between Gilgamesh and Enkidu leads not to a rivalry, but to a close friendship. They recognize that they are very similar in being the two strongest men in the world, and so this mutual respect translates itself into friendship. It’s also worth noting that this crucial fight takes place at the city gate. Throughout the epic, gates and doorways act as physical places of entry, but also as symbols of spiritual transition.