This chapter consists of the story that Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh. It begins in Shurrupak, a city built along the Euphrates river. The city was growing quickly. The god Enlil hears the sounds of the city and complains that it’s impossible to sleep because of all the noise. The gods agree to wipe out all the mortals. Enlil attempts to do so, but the god Ea appears in Utnapishtim’s dream and warns him to take apart his house and build a boat of specific dimensions.
This story has many similarities to the Biblical tale of Noah and the Flood, suggesting that the Biblical writer may have drawn on the myth of Gilgamesh, or that both stories are based on a real flood that occurred in ancient Mesopotamia. To Enlil, it seems that mankind has overstepped its place in the universe by building such loud cities. This offends his pride—his sense that those below him have not accepted their place—and also sets up another connection between civilization and a kind of corruption or fall from grace.
Utnapishtim agrees to do what Ea told him in the dream. He asks how he will explain himself to others, and Ea tells him to say that Enlil was angry with him, so that he may no longer live on land or in the city. With his children and hired men, Utnapishtim builds the enormous boat with seven decks, packing it with supplies. He is generous to the boat’s builders, killing sheep for them to eat every night and granting them endless supplies of wine.
Utnapishtim, who plays a very similar role to Noah in the Bible, receives a prophetic dream from a different god—one who clearly doesn’t agree with Enlil’s spiteful plan to destroy all of humanity.
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 . . . down” the boat that evening in preparation for rain, and the weather does indeed turn awful. At dawn, a black cloud is seen on the horizon, “thundering within where Adad, lord of the storm was riding.” The heralds of the storm, Shullat and Hanish, approach from land. The “gods of the abyss” also approach from the sea: Nergal, Ninurta, and the Annunaki. The storm god, Adad, turns day into night, and a tempest comes that is so terrible even the gods fear it. Then Ishtar, the Queen of Heaven, asks herself why she had commanded that mankind be destroyed, for now all her people are “turned to dust.” All the gods weep.
The parallels continue between Noah in the Hebrew Bible and Utnapishtim in the Epic. Water is most important as a symbol in this story of the flood, a force representing both destruction and rebirth. Previously Gilgamesh has bathed after all his major actions (a sign of physical and spiritual rejuvenation), and the flood takes this idea to a much larger scale. The earth is essentially being “cleansed” of humanity, and then humanity is reborn anew. Once again the most frightening images in the Epic are of wild, uncontrollable nature, usually embodied as storms or natural disasters.
For six days and nights, the storm rages 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 also sees a mountain rising out of the water fourteen leagues away. For six days and six nights the boat sails toward the mountain, and on the seventh dawn Utnapishtim releases a dove into the air. The dove returns, having not found a place to land. Then Utnapishtim releases a swallow, and it too returns. But then Utnapishtim releases a raven that eats and keeps flying, and does not come back. Utnapishtim then opens all the hatches and makes an offering of cane, cedar, and myrtle on a mountaintop in a heated cauldron. The gods “gathered like flies over the sacrifice.” Finally, Ishtar comes.
The details again resemble those of the story of Noah. Like Noah with the dove, Utnapishtim sends out birds to figure out whether there is land nearby. Ishtar was a destructive, petty goddess in dealing with Gilgamesh, but here she appears as a friend to mankind.
Ishtar swears that she will remember the flood and all that happened. She tells all the gods but Enlil, who was responsible for the 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.
Now Enlil has overstepped his bounds. Though as a god he is more powerful than mere mortals, the other gods judged that he did not respect his place in the universe, which is to be involved in human affairs but not presume to destroy all of mankind.
The chapter then relays Ea’s words. Ea says “Lay upon the sinner his sin,” and he speaks of transgressions and punishment. He then wishes that a lion, or wolf, or famine had destroyed mankind, rather than the flood.
Ea is ashamed of Enlil’s actions. The gods’ sense of place in the universe has been tested by Enlil.
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 boat and takes Utnapishtim and his wife below-deck, and he makes them kneel down. Enlil blesses Utnapishtim and his wife, saying “In time past Utnapishtim was a mortal man; henceforth he and his wife shall live in the distance at the mouth of the rivers.” And so Utnapishtim is placed far away, at the mouth of the rivers, to live and be immortal.
Importantly, as Utnapishtim and his wife are granted immortality, they kneel before the gods and pay respect. By listening to the gods’ advice in a dream to build the boat, and bowing down now, they receive gifts of the gods’ benevolence. It’s also telling that immortality comes with conditions—Utnapishtim and his wife must live apart from the rest of humanity, as they are now no longer truly human.