Set in the ancient city of Uruk in Sumer, also known as Mesopotamia, the Epic of Gilgamesh is the legend of the priest-king of this ancient city-state. Gilgamesh, the ruler of Uruk was not the perfect, ideal king usually seen in myths and legends; he was bedecked by many ills. Uruk’s architecture was impeccable, and thanks to Gilgamesh’s efforts it had magnificent buildings, high surrounding walls, lush green fields, orchards and towering temples. Gilgamesh’s knowledge and physical beauty were also greatly praised. However, he ensured the architectural perfection of his city completely through the forced labour of slaves. His subjects were exhausted from the sheer workload of his mass-construction projects. Moreover, the king also had a tendency to behave lecherously with any woman he could get his hands on, resorting to raping them. Being fed up and utterly dejected by his tyranny, the subjects prayed to the gods to deliver them from his rule. Anu, the god of the sky felt pity for the residents of Uruk and decided to answer their prayers. According to his command, Aururu, another goddess, creates Enkidu the wild man. Enkidu was created as a worthy equal of Gilgamesh in all aspects, he possessed qualities which were just as great as the priest-king’s and was sent from above to keep Gilgamesh in check. Later on, Enkidu becomes a loyal and true friend to Gilgamesh and his death shakes Gilgamesh to the core. It was after his death that Gilgamesh goes on his voyage to the end of the world to obtain knowledge about the days before the great flood. He recorded all of his findings from his travels on stone tablets.
In the wilderness, Enkidu is seen living among animals, behaving just like them. His days are spent drinking milk from animals and grazing in the green fields. One day, a hunter discovers Enkidu among the animals, who happened to use the same watering hole. He immediately goes back to Uruk and informs Gilgamesh of his discovery. To domesticate and civilize Enkidu, Gilgamesh sends a prostitute called Shamhat from the temple to lure him sexually. After Enkidu and Shamhat had slept together, the animals rejected him. Enkidu then learns all about civilizations from Shamhat. He also hears about Gilgamesh and the havoc he is wrecking in Uruk as a ruler. This angers him beyond measure and he decides to challenge King Gilgamesh to a fight. Enkidu also feels intrigued by Gilgamesh as they are on equal footing. When Enkidu arrives at Uruk, Gilgamesh is busy trying to break into a woman’s bridal chamber. Enkidu blocks Gilgamesh’s path and challenges him to wrestle. After fiercely battling, Gilgamesh finally emerges victorious in the fight. However, the two hold no grudges against each other and commend each other’s strength. It was then they befriended each other, to be by each other’s side on many adventures.
Very soon, Gilgamesh is seen getting busy in another one of his shenanigans. He decides to steal trees from a Cedar Forest far away against the advice of Enkidu and the elders of Uruk. To do that, he would have to kill the guardian of the forest, Humbaba. The forest guarding demon is a loyal servant of Enlil, the god of wind, earth and air. With the help of Shamash, the sun god, Gilgamesh and Enkidu manage to defeat Humbaba. The forest guarding demon pleads Gilgamesh to spare his life. Gilgamesh was ready to spare his life, but upon Enkidu’s insistence, he slew the demon. Afterwards, they begin to cut down the trees in the sacred forest. Gilgamesh cuts down the tallest of the trees and fashions it into a gigantic gate, which he dedicates to Enlil. They make their return journey to Uruk on a raft made from those trees and carry Humbaba’s head with them.
Upon returning to Uruk we find that Ishtar, the goddess of love, has taken a liking to Gilgamesh. She invites him to her palace and asks for his hand in marriage. Gilgamesh rejects her, saying that all of Ishtar’s previous lovers have been turned into animals by her or suffered misfortune. Enraged, Ishtar asks the god Anu, her father, to let the Bull of Heaven loose to punish Gilgamesh. She pressures her father by threatening to break down the doors of hell and release the dead. Anu agrees and unleashes the bull, which wrecks havoc in Uruk and brings seven years of famine with it. Gilgamesh and Enkidu are able to valiantly slay the bull. To add insult to injury, when Ishtar appears at the city outskirts, Enkidu throws one of the legs of the bull at her face.
In Enkidu’s dream the following night, it is revealed that the gods have met in council, agreeing that the duo should be punished for their many transgressions. The god Enlil selects Enkidu to be sentenced to death. Soon after, Enkidu is scourged with a mysterious illness and his condition deteriorates rapidly. Enkidu falls to his demise and the people of Uruk mourn him.
Along with the grief of losing his valued friend, Gilgamesh is also troubled by the prospect of his own demise. In order to mourn Enkidu, he dons animal skins and sets out on a journey beyond the ends of the earth. His mission is to learn the secrets of immortality from the immortal man Utnapishtim. Upon arriving at Mount Mashu he meets two scorpion guards of the rising sun. The two guards allow him to continue his quest after much pleading. Gilgamesh makes a deadly journey, scarcely avoiding being burnt by the scorching sun.
He then arrives at a beautiful garden on the seaside; The Garden of the Gods, where he encounters a veiled innkeeper Siduri. Even though she warns him about the futility of the search for immortality, she directs him to ferryman Urshanabi. He ferries Gilgamesh across the sea through the Waters of Death. Meeting Utnapishtim on the other side, Gilgamesh learns about the great deluge. Utnapishtim narrated that long ago, the god Enlil became annoyed with the noise created by the residents of the city of Shurrupak. The gods had met in council long ago and decided to obliterate humanity with an epic flood. However, the god of wisdom Ea warned Utnapishtim in advance and told him to build a gigantic ship. Utnapishtim and his wife carried some craftsmen and the seed of all living creatures on the boat to escape the flood. The party stayed on the waters until they discovered that the bird they had released did not return to the ship. This bird had presumably found dry land.
After the water subsided, Utnapishtim and his wife were granted immortality by the god Enlil, while the gods agreed never to destroy humanity again. When Gilgamesh asks for immortality, Utnapishtim challenges him to stay awake for a week. He has to stay awake for six days and seven nights in order to please the gods. After the days have passed, Gilgamesh is confident that he had stayed awake throughout the challenge. However, Utnapishtim kept track of each day by eating a fresh loaf of bread. At the end of the challenge, one of them had remained uneaten and caught mold. Hence, Gilgamesh had failed the test of staying awake for six days and seven nights and was not deemed fit for immortality by Utnapishtim.
Gilgamesh fails the test of staying awake, hence Utnapishtim urges him to go back to Uruk. However, just as Gilgamesh and the ferryman were departing, Utnapishtim’s wife has him summon them back. She makes him tell Gilgamesh about a miraculous youth restoring plant. Gilgamesh fastens rocks to his feet and walks to the bottom of the sea to fetch the plant.
From the bottom of the sea, Gilgamesh extracts the plant and decides to take it back to Uruk to share it with the elders. He also plans to test the properties of the plant on an old man before consuming it himself. One night when Gilgamesh takes a bath, he leaves the flower on the ground, which is eaten up by a snake. It is seen shedding its skin and becoming young again as it leaves. Urshanabi and Gilgamesh then journey across the sea to return to Uruk. Even though Gilgamesh reaches Uruk empty-handed, he is finally at peace with the inevitability of his death. He understands that humankind will continue to thrive even after his death. Setting his eyes on the city that he had rejected for immortality, he perceives it as his achievement- the closest to immortality that a mortal man can get.
The concluding section of the epic, ‘The Death of Gilgamesh’, looks back on Gilgamesh’s reign after his death. Gilgamesh is declared a hero by god Enlil, who states that he will be remembered for ages to come. The deceased king is ceremoniously mourned by the people of Uruk on the streets. At the end of the epic, Gilgamesh is proclaimed the best of all men and the gods’ faithful servant.