Water is a source of both rejuvenation and destruction in the Epic. It is neither good nor evil, but simply a force and representation of the gods’ will and the cycle of birth and death inherent to all life. Notably, after every important event in the Epic, Gilgamesh (and Enkidu if he is with Gilgamesh) bathes himself. After slaying Humbaba, when Enkidu leaves the wilderness, and after every other crucial action in the epic, there is always a bath. In practical purposes, the bath cleans and rejuvenates the heroes after their adventures, but it also seems to have ritual purpose—a spiritual as well as a physical cleansing. Spiritual cleansing through bathing has similarities to the significance of baptism in Christian practice, in which water is a means of absolution and conversion. Each time Gilgamesh and Enkidu bathe, then, we can interpret them as being rejuvenated and as reaffirming their connection to the gods.
While bathing is mostly a symbolic cleansing and rejuvenation, the other main water motif in the Epic—the flood that drowns most of mankind—is presented as a literal death and rebirth on a massive scale. As Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh, the flood was sent by the god Enlil because Enlil was tired of hearing the noises of the city, and only Utnapishtim, his animals, and a few others survived the deluge. In bathing, the “old self” symbolically dies and a new self is reborn, but in Enlil’s flood mankind as a whole was destroyed and then reborn. The destruction is inseparable from the rebirth. Ultimately, then, water is a complex symbol encompassing the ideas of physical cleansing, spiritual rejuvenation, and the cycle of destruction and rebirth. This cycle is a crucial aspect of many ancient cultures, and in the Sumerian Epic it mostly takes form through the symbol of water—a manifestation of the gods’ divine will.
Water Quotes in The Epic of Gilgamesh
‘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.
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.