Everything originated with water. From the mixture of sweet water, Apsu, with salt water, Tiamat, the gods arose. Apsu and Tiamat gave birth to Mummu, the tumult of the waves, and to Lakhmu and Lakhamu, a pair of gigantic serpents. In turn these serpents produced Anshar, the heavens, and Kishar, the earthly world. And from these two came the great gods, Anu, Enlil, and Ea, as well as the other gods of the sky, earth, and the underworld.
Many of these new gods were noisy, which upset Apsu and Tiamat, since they could not rest. These primordial goddesses then discussed whether they should annihilate their progeny.
When Ea, the all-knowing, learned of Apsu's plan to destroy the gods he used his magic to capture her and Mummu. Tiamat was furious and created a monstrous army of gods and freak creatures to punish Ea and his cohorts.
Ea went to his father Anshar, and Anshar advised him to send Anu to fight Tiamat. But both Anu and Ea were afraid of the goddess and her army. Then Ea called Marduk forth. Marduk promised to conquer Tiamat if he were given supreme authority over the gods. The gods agreed that he was to have lordship and feasted in his honor. Marduk was invested with the scepter, the throne, and an invincible weapon.
Armed with bow and arrows, lightning, the winds, a hurricane, and a special net, Marduk rode forth to meet Tiamat in his chariot, which was a tempest, drawn by four fearsome steeds. They clashed and Marduk caught Tiamat in his net. When she opened her mouth to swallow him, Marduk let loose the hurricane, which filled her jaws and belly, thereby stunning her. Then Marduk shot an arrow into her belly and killed her. Tiamat's army fled in confusion at her downfall, but Marduk caught them in his net, chained them, and cast them into the underworld.
As he was cutting up Tiamat's body, Marduk conceived a plan. From one half of her body he made the dome of the heavens, and with the other half he made the earth. He established the dwelling of the gods, fixed the positions of the stars, ordered the movements of the heavenly bodies, and set the length of the year. Then to gladden the hearts of the gods Marduk created men from the blood of Kingu, the general of Tiamat's army. Finally, he made rivers, vegetation, and animals, which completed the creation. In recognition of his triumphs the gods bestowed all of their titles and powers on Marduk, making him the God of Gods.
Apparently the gods were displeased with the human race, for they held a council in which it was agreed that mankind should be drowned. But Ea, the god of wisdom, wished to spare human beings. So Ea told one man, Uta-Napishtim, to build a ship for his family and all living creatures. Uta-Napishtim worked diligently, and by the time the rains came his ship was prepared. For six days and nights a foul rain flooded everything on earth, and even the gods became fearful. By the seventh day the winds and rains ceased. All but Uta-Napishtim and his family had become mud. The ship came to rest upon Mount Nisir, and Uta-Napishtim sent forth birds to find out whether the waters had subsided enough to disembark. When a raven failed to return Uta-Napishtim left the ship and offered a sacrifice to the gods on the mountain peak. Only Enlil, god of the tempest, was angered to see that humanity had been spared. But Ea managed to placate Enlil with soft words, and in token of his reconciliation Enlil gave Uta-Napishtim and his wife the gift of immortality.
Over the ancient Sumerian city of Uruk there once ruled a wise and powerful but tyrannical king named Gilgamesh. He was two-thirds a god and one-third a mortal, famed for his exploits in war and for his prowess as an unbeatable wrestler. Gilgamesh was also lustful and he would abduct any woman who took his fancy whether she was single or married. The people of Uruk were greatly distressed at this, for no one could overcome Gilgamesh. So they prayed to the goddess Aruru to fashion a man who could overpower Gilgamesh in order that he would leave their women in peace.
Aruru then created the mighty Enkidu, a hairy man with legs like a bull. Enkidu roamed with the wild beasts and enabled them to escape the traps of hunters. On hearing of Enkidu's strength, Gilgamesh sent a courtesan out to Enkidu's watering place to entice him. When she saw Enkidu the courtesan disrobed, exposing her breasts, and Enkidu went to lie with her. After this his animal companions shunned him because Enkidu had lost his natural innocence. Enkidu then had nothing to do but follow the courtesan's advice and return with her to Uruk.
Back in his palace Gilgamesh dreamed of struggling with a powerful man who could master him. When he told the dream to his mother, Ninsun, she said it meant that he and Enkidu would become close companions. And after an awesome wrestling match Gilgamesh and Enkidu sat down together as friends. Enkidu was invited to live in the palace and share the honors with Gilgamesh.
One night Enkidu had a nightmare in which he was snatched up by a strange, terrible creature with eagle claws who cast him into the underworld of death. When Gilgamesh heard of the dream he offered a sacrifice to Shamash, the sun god, who advised him to go and fight Khumbaba the Strong, the king of the Cedar Mountain. When they learned of his plan to go to the Cedar Mountain, Enkidu, Ninsun, and the people of Uruk tried to dissuade Gilgamesh, to no avail. Gilgamesh was determined to make the long, arduous journey and battle Khumbaba, so Enkidu joined his friend and the two set forth.
They traveled northwest, leaving their fertile land behind, crossing a vast desert, reaching the Amanus Mountains, and finally arriving at the resplendent Cedar Mountain and the stockade of the monster Khumbaba. Enkidu's heart quailed within him, but Gilgamesh issued a challenge to Khumbaba. No answer came, so they made a sacrifice to the gods and settled down for the night. During the night Gilgamesh had a dream of victory. In the morning Khumbaba charged them, and after a terrific fight Gilgamesh was able to knock Khumbaba to the ground, where Enkidu cut his head off. With the monster dead, Gilgamesh was able to cut down the sacred cedars for the temples of Uruk.
The two heroes bathed, dressed, and made offerings to the gods. Then Ishtar appeared to Gilgamesh and tried to seduce him, but he spurned her, saying that her lovers usually had dire fates. When Gilgamesh and Enkidu returned to Uruk with the cedars Ishtar had her vengeance planned. With the help of Anu she loosed the Bull of Heaven against Uruk. In the course of wrecking the city the bull was caught and slaughtered by Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Then in an act of utter rashness Enkidu threw the bull's hide in Ishtar's face, telling her he'd do the same to her if he could. The goddess Ishtar then laid a mortal curse upon Enkidu and after twelve days of sickness he died.
Gilgamesh was inconsolable over the death of his friend, for he realized that he must die one day as well. Determined to find the secret of immortality, Gilgamesh went forth in search of Uta-Napishtim, the man on whom Enlil had conferred life everlasting. He traveled west to the far-off Mount Mashu, which was guarded by Scorpion-Men. With a trembling heart Gilgamesh approached the chief Scorpion-Man, who permitted him passage into the mountain. After a long time in a tunnel he stepped out into the garden of a goddess. The goddess advised Gilgamesh to return home, enjoy life, and accept death gracefully; but Gilgamesh was insistent on finding Uta-Napishtim, so the goddess directed him to Uta-Napishtim's boatman. The boatman warned of the turbulent waters of death that surrounded Uta-Napishtim's dwelling. However, Gilgamesh would not be put off, and with the boatman's help he managed to cross the perilous waters. At last Gilgamesh arrived at the home of the immortal man.
When Gilgamesh told Uta-Napishtim of his quest for eternal life, Uta-Napishtim laughed at his foolishness and told his own story of how he had won immortality. Then Uta-Napishtim challenged Gilgamesh to stay awake, as he himself had done, for six days and seven nights. But the exhausted Gilgamesh had already fallen asleep.
The wife of Uta-Napishtim took pity on the sleeping hero and persuaded her husband to reveal the secret of immortality. They awoke Gilgamesh and told him of a prickly plant that lay at the bottom of the sea. Gilgamesh set off at once to find the plant, and when he came to the ocean edge he tied boulders to his feet and plunged in. He sank to the bottom, found and plucked the prickly plant, untied the boulders and swam to the surface with the precious plant. Gilgamesh went homeward with a high heart, for now he could confer everlasting life on himself and the people of Uruk. He crossed the waters of death, the garden of the goddess; he went through Mount Mashu and traveled eastward.
Within a few day's journey of home Gilgamesh laid the plant on a rock and dove into a small lake to bathe. And while he was swimming a snake approached the plant and ate it. Gilgamesh wept long and bitterly to think he had wasted his enormous effort to gain eternal life. The snakes would live forever, but human beings must die. Gilgamesh returned to Uruk with a broken heart. He knew what a miserable existence the dead lived in the netherworld, for Enkidu had revealed it to him. His only consolation was that the walls of Uruk would outlast him as monuments to Gilgamesh's reign.
Babylonian myths appear more dynamic and masculine than those of Egypt. The prominent gods are male except for Ishtar. In the creation myth it is the male Marduk who slays the monster-goddess Tiamat and orders the cosmos. And Uta-Napishtim is a patriarch much like the biblical Noah. But beyond this Gilgamesh is a more imposing figure than Osiris. Isis is the dominant figure of the myth of Osiris, but Gilgamesh towers over others in his own legend. Whereas Osiris is idealized and static, Gilgamesh is drawn as a real man capable of development. If Gilgamesh is lecherous and headstrong, he is also manly, courageous, a true friend, a superb fighter, and a king who tries to give his people immortality. He suffers as we do, and he is obliged to face death as each of us must.
Furthermore, Gilgamesh grows in maturity as the story progresses. At first he's a self-centered despot who cares only for fighting and women. Then he makes a friend of Enkidu and the two of them act partly for the benefit of Uruk in killing the monster Khumbaba, bringing home the cedars and slaying the celestial Bull. Finally, Gilgamesh goes off to procure immortality for himself and his people, sparing himself nothing in the attempt. If his story has many legendary elements we recognize an authentic hero in Gilgamesh.