The Epic of Gilgamesh

Water Symbol Icon

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

The The Epic of Gilgamesh quotes below all refer to the symbol of Water. 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 5 Quotes

‘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:

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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:

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Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

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Water Symbol Timeline in The Epic of Gilgamesh

The timeline below shows where the symbol Water appears in The Epic of Gilgamesh. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 1: The Coming of Enkidu
Civilization and the Fall from Innocence Theme Icon
Heroism in Nature vs. Comfort in the City Theme Icon
Friendship, Love, and Sexuality Theme Icon
The goddess Aruru, using water and clay, creates the man Enkidu in the wilderness. Within Enkidu is the spirit of... (full context)
Part 2: The Forest Journey
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
...to you?” Gilgamesh says that “In the city man dies oppressed at heart.” In a river, Gilgamesh sees bodies float by, and he knows that this will be his fate as... (full context)
Heroism in Nature vs. Comfort in the City Theme Icon
Friendship, Love, and Sexuality Theme Icon
Pride and the Gods Theme Icon
...the height of the trees and the trail where Humbaba typically walked. Gilgamesh digs a well and makes an offering on top of the mountain, asking the mountain to give him... (full context)
Heroism in Nature vs. Comfort in the City Theme Icon
Pride and the Gods Theme Icon
...him. In the dream, the bull threw him back, and then a man offered him water from a water-skin. Enkidu offers his interpretation of the dream: the man is Shamash, and... (full context)
Mortality and Meaning Theme Icon
They travel another day and dig a well before the sun has set. Gilgamesh climbs up the mountain, sets an offering of food... (full context)
Part 3: Ishtar and Gilgamesh, and the Death of Enkidu
Friendship, Love, and Sexuality Theme Icon
Pride and the Gods Theme Icon
Gilgamesh washes his hair, cleans his weapons, and puts on his royal robes. Once he puts on... (full context)
Heroism in Nature vs. Comfort in the City Theme Icon
Pride and the Gods Theme Icon
...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.... (full context)
Civilization and the Fall from Innocence Theme Icon
Friendship, Love, and Sexuality Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Part 4: The Search for Everlasting Life
Friendship, Love, and Sexuality Theme Icon
Mortality and Meaning Theme Icon
...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 Dilmun, “in the garden of... (full context)
Heroism in Nature vs. Comfort in the City Theme Icon
Mortality and Meaning Theme Icon
Pride and the Gods Theme Icon
...precious rocks and metal grow as fruit, thorns, and thistles. Shamash sees Gilgamesh approaching the sea in the garden of the gods, and warns Gilgamesh that no mortal has ever crossed... (full context)
Heroism in Nature vs. Comfort in the City Theme Icon
Mortality and Meaning Theme Icon
Pride and the Gods Theme Icon
...that Siduri tell him how to get to Utnapishtim. Siduri tells him that crossing the sea is impossible and nobody has ever done it. Only Shamash, the sun, may cross 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
...he destroyed the tackle of the boat, it is no longer safe to cross the water. Urshanabi tells Gilgamesh to cut him one hundred and twenty poles of wood, to coat... (full context)
Heroism in Nature vs. Comfort in the City Theme Icon
For three days they travel and then arrive at the waters of death. Urshanabi tells Gilgamesh to use the poles to thrust into the water and... (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
...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... (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... (full context)
Civilization and the Fall from Innocence Theme Icon
Pride and the Gods Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Civilization and the Fall from Innocence Theme Icon
Pride and the Gods Theme Icon
Ishtar swears that she will remember the flood and all that happened. She tells all the gods but Enlil, who was responsible for... (full context)
Pride and the Gods Theme Icon
...then wishes that a lion, or wolf, or famine had destroyed mankind, rather than the flood. (full context)
Civilization and the Fall from Innocence Theme Icon
Mortality and Meaning Theme Icon
Pride and the Gods Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Part 6: The Return
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
...of whose limbs has been spoiled by wild skins” and to bring him to the “washing-place.” There, Utnapishtim says, Gilgamesh will wash his hair and throw away his animal skins in... (full context)
Heroism in Nature vs. Comfort in the City Theme Icon
Mortality and Meaning Theme Icon
Urshanabi takes Gilgamesh to the washing-place, where Gilgamesh washes his hair and throws away his skins. He is then given the... (full context)
Heroism in Nature vs. Comfort in the City Theme Icon
Mortality and Meaning Theme Icon
Pride and the Gods Theme Icon
...the elderly to eat. They set out in the boat and travel back across the sea, and then journey together towards Uruk. On the first night, Gilgamesh finds a cool well... (full context)
Civilization and the Fall from Innocence Theme Icon
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
...us that Gilgamesh is long remembered for revealing the story of the days before the flood, and for returning from his journey with an engraved stone telling of everything that had... (full context)