Gilgamesh washes his hair, cleans his weapons, and puts on his royal robes. Once he puts on his crown, the goddess Ishtar speaks to Gilgamesh: she tells him to come to her and be her husband. She offers him a gift of a lavish chariot and a beautiful home. Gilgamesh refuses to marry her, however, claiming that she has always been available to many lovers and has eventually fallen out of love with them. He tells the story of Tammuz, “the lover of your youth,” whom she loved and showered with gifts. Tammuz fed Ishtar and hunted for her, and then she turned him into a wolf. Then Gilgamesh says, “Did you not love Isullanu . . . ?” Isullanu too brought Ishtar gifts, but refused to sleep with her, and so Ishtar turned him into a mole. Gilgamesh asks why he should believe he would be treated any differently.
Gilgamesh’s rejection of Ishtar’s proposal marks a major shift in his relation to the gods. Whereas on their quest to defeat Humbaba, he paid homage to Shamash, here he violates the will of Ishtar, a goddess. Though he has good reason to reject her (she has treated past lovers cruelly), to Ishtar it is a grave offense that he would even dare to do so. To the gods, it is simply not a mortal’s place to deny them.
Gilgamesh’s speech enrages Ishtar. She tells her mother and father, Antum and Anu, that Gilgamesh has insulted her. Ishtar asks that Anu release the Bull of Heaven to destroy Gilgamesh. She asks her father to make Gilgamesh so arrogant that he brings about his own destruction. Ishtar threatens to “break in the doors of hell and . . . bring up the dead to eat food like the living” if he does not comply. Anu tells Ishtar that if he does as she asks Uruk will experience seven years of drought—he asks if she has stockpiled enough grain to last seven years of drought. She says that she has.
It is Ishtar’s offended pride that continues the chain of events leading to Enkidu’s death. Her father, Anu, even points out that Gilgamesh had good reason to reject her, but her pride overrules her rational thinking and she basically throws a tantrum. The gods are often portrayed as petty, jealous figures who seem to have far more power than they know how to responsibly use, and humans must remain humble and pious to survive their whims.
Anu grants Ishtar the Bull of Heaven. She leads it to Uruk, where the Bull goes to the river. Its “snort” creates fissures in the Earth, into which two hundred people fall and die. Enkidu leaps onto the bull and grabs its horns. Gilgamesh grabs the Bull’s tail and stabs it, killing the Bull. Then they cut out the Bull’s heart and give it to Shamash. Ishtar appears in a tower on the wall of Uruk, and she curses Gilgamesh for killing the Bull of Heaven. Enkidu tears out the Bull’s thigh and tosses it at Ishtar, saying that he wishes he could do to her what he did to the Bull. Ishtar assembles her people, dancers and singers, prostitutes of the temple, and courtesans to mourn the Bull.
Though they simply mean to protect the people of Uruk (and earn more glory in battle), Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s killing of the Bull of Heaven is the offense to the gods that then leads to Enkidu’s death. Critically, it is Enkidu who says he wishes he could kill Ishtar like he did the bull. The heroes immediately make an offering to Shamash, but then they turn around and scorn and insult Ishtar. Clearly not all the gods are equal in their eyes.
Gilgamesh presents Uruk’s smiths and armorers with the Bull’s enormous horns plated with decorative rock. Inside the horns hold “six measures” of oil, which Gilgamesh presents to his guardian god, Lugulbanda. The horns themselves he hangs on the wall of his palace. Then he and Enkidu drive through Uruk, asking the people, “Who is most glorious of the heroes . . . ? Gilgamesh is the most glorious of heroes.” Feasts and celebrations are held in his honor until he and Enkidu go to sleep.
Despite having incurred the wrath of the gods, Gilgamesh maintains his naïve sense of pride. He even takes credit for what was just as much Enkidu’s victory as his own. Still, at this point in the story, Gilgamesh does not think of his own mortality—he aims only to be remembered for heroic feats, and assumes that nothing can defeat him.
The next morning, Enkidu tells Gilgamesh of a dream he had: the gods gathered together and Anu said that because of the deaths of Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven, one of the two (Enkidu and Gilgamesh) must die. Shamash argues with the others, saying that Enlil ordered them to kill the Bull of Heaven and Humbaba, so there is no reason for anyone to die. Telling Gilgamesh of this dream, Enkidu cries and tells Gilgamesh that the gods will “take me from you.” Enkidu rages at the gate to Uruk, which is built from cedar, saying that if he had known what was to come, he would have smashed the gate apart. At dawn, Enkidu weeps and curses the trapper and Shamhat for bringing him out of the wild and to Uruk.
Even though Ishtar chose to send the Bull of Heaven to attack Gilgamesh and Enkidu, the gods are offended by its death. To them, it is not the place of mortals to defy the gods, even if their lives and people are in jeopardy. Importantly, Enkidu directs his rage at the gate of Uruk: it symbolized his entrance to civilization, which eventually led to his doom. He wishes he could undo the symbolic decision he made when he passed through the gate.
Shamash speaks to Enkidu, asking why he curses this woman who brought him into a lavish life with Gilgamesh as his companion. Shamash reminds Enkidu that Gilgamesh has given him much, and that when Enkidu dies Gilgamesh will mourn him. Enkidu takes back his curse, praying that Shamhat will be sought after by many men and become rich.
Enkidu experiences a major change in how he thinks about his own mortality: at first he lashed out at Shamhat and civilization for leading him to death, but Shamash convinces him to instead appreciate all the experience his path led him to, particularly his friendship with Gilgamesh. This is important because it shows that civilization isn’t only a negative, corrupting force—becoming civilized may mean the loss of one’s “innocence,” but it also means the gain of knowledge, experience, and human relationships.
Enkidu complains bitterly to Gilgamesh: “It was I who cut down the cedar, I who leveled the forest, I who slew Humbaba and now see what has become of me.” He tells Gilgamesh of his most recent dream: Enkidu, between heaven and Earth, faced a terrifying “bird-man” with a “vampire face,” “lion’s foot,” and “eagle’s talon.’ The bird-man held Enkidu and transformed Enkidu’s arms into feathers, then led him to the “house from which none who enters ever returns.” He speaks of hell, describing it as dark, with dust and clay for food. In the “house of dust” Enkidu saw famed kings and princes of the past working as servants.
Facing his own death, Enkidu forces Gilgamesh to face his own mortality. Enkidu lists his feats and asks Gilgamesh what it all means now that he’s dying anyway, and Gilgamesh has no answer. The Epic now turns more exclusively to its central theme: the fact that everyone will die eventually, and the question of how to find meaning in the face of this inevitability. The grotesque imagery here only emphasizes how existentially frightening this ageless question still is.
Gilgamesh cries while hearing Enkidu’s dream. He says that Enkidu’s dream is both awe-inspiring and grim, and declares that he will pray to the gods for Enkidu. At the end of the day, Enkidu’s sickness grows. He resents Gilgamesh for bringing him out from the wilderness. The next day, the sickness gets even worse. On the third day, again it worsens and “his eyes were blind with weeping.” Twelve more days he lies in bed, suffering more and more. Enkidu laments that he could not die in battle, and is ashamed to die sick in bed. At dawn, Gilgamesh cries out to the counselors of Uruk. His lamentation is then presented in its entirety.
Enkidu again feels resentful for being taken away from nature and brought into civilization (although not even remaining “innocent” could have spared him from eventually dying). As he dies, he wishes that he could have died in battle—he feels his death is less meaningful in a sick bed in the city than out in the wild, performing heroic acts.
In his lamentation, Gilgamesh says that he weeps for Enkidu as “the axe at my side.” He says that the wild animals that raised Enkidu weep too, as well as the people of Uruk, and “all the paths where we talked together,” all the animals they hunted, the rivers, the mountains, all the people of Eridu, and all those who fed and cared for Enkidu. He ends his speech with “What is this sleep which holds you now? You are lost in the dark and cannot hear me.”
On Enkidu’s deathbed we see the true strength of his relationship with Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh weeps for his friend and raises a lamentation among the people of Uruk, the wild animals that raised Enkidu, and all of nature. The fierceness of Gilgamesh’s grief shows just how much the two men loved each other, and cements their friendship as the central relationship of the epic.
Enkidu has died, and Gilgamesh lays a veil over him. Then Gilgamesh rages, tearing out his hair and throwing down his lavish robes. At dawn, he speaks of how well Enkidu served and accompanied him. He says that the people will weep, and “the joyful people will stoop with sorry.” Gilgamesh says that he will grow his hair long and travel through the wilderness in a lion’s skin. For seven days, Gilgamesh mourns Enkidu. But Enkidu’s body begins to rot, so he is buried. Gilgamesh assembles various smiths and stone-workers to make a statue of Enkidu with gold and ornamental rock. Finally, Gilgamesh makes an offering to the sun, and his tears stop flowing.
Gilgamesh’s excessive expression of grief isn’t seen as weak or “unmanly,” but as the proper feeling for a larger-than-life figure with larger-than-life emotions. Such overwhelming displays of grief and emotion are common to heroes of other epics as well, like Achilles mourning Patroclus in the Iliad.