On Gilgamesh and Dumuzi

The Deluge tablet, carved in stone, of the Gil...
The Deluge tablet, carved in stone, of the Gilgamesh epic in Akkadian, circa 2nd millennium BC. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Note: this post has been significantly revised on September 16, 2013.

A little while back I wrote a long and sometimes rambling post about the importance of the old Sumerian god Dumuzi (see The Trouble With Dumuzi) in the psyche of humanity, showing how he was the prototype for the dying and resurrected god as well as a precursor to the myth of the fallen god/angel cursed by god(s).

As an ancient myth, the myth of Dumuzi is one of the most fascinating, especially for those of us who study Joseph Campbell and  Carl Jung, who subscribe to the theory of a collective subconscious, and who are tempted to follow the crumb trails of these myths to their psychic source.

While Dumuzi himself disappears from the pantheon in early civilization, he is merely reabsorbed into other newer gods who carry not only his qualities but also his story: his union with the goddess, his ascent to power, unjust accusations, betrayal, pursuit by demons, imprisonment in the underworld, subsequent “resurrection” or revival, and reinstatement to the divine regal seat.

The process of absorbing the characteristics and myths of an old god into a new one is called syncretism.  The syncretism of Dumuzi can be seen in various gods of ancient Assiria and Babylonia, and versions of him are found in Hellenic and Roman civilizations and beyond.

But the mythic character of Gilgamesh is not a syncretism of the Dumuzi god — it is something even more fascinating than that.  While Gilgamesh’s story presents many similarities and overt connections to Dumuzi’s, Gilgamesh presents a special case, as he appropriates for himself a new journey, though not wholly original at least possessing enough unprecedented variations as to legitimately carve for himself an independent identity.

The version of Gilgamesh that most people are familiar with is called the standard Akkadian version, which is a later version of the myth that a poet, officially acknowledged to have been a literary genius, managed to cobble together from various old Sumerian poems about the adventures of a king named Gilgamesh.

In the Akkadian version of the myth, Gilgamesh defies the gods, who retaliate by killing his best friend and lover, Enkidu. Gilgamesh then goes on a quest to find the secret of immortality and fails. In the end, he reconciles with Inanna, with whom all his troubles began when he refused her advances in the first place.

I base my argument, however, not on this later, more sophisticated version of the Gilgamesh story but on the fragmented remains of the old Sumerian poems which were the original, and which differ with some importance from the standard Akkadian version. Here is a basic summary of what the disconnected old Sumerian poems say:

1. Gilgamesh is a powerful king who also has a servant named Enkidu. Enkidu matches Gilgamesh in strength. Aga, a prince from the north of Sumer makes demands on Gilgamesh to pay taxes to him. Gilgamesh refuses to acknowledge Aga’s superiority. He pleads to a city council to refuse Aga’s request, but the council, who is mostly made up of elders, tell Gilgamesh to submit and obey. Gilgamesh then takes his plea to the young men of the city who all agree to fight Aga.  Aga attacks the city, but Gilgamesh and Enkidu defeat him.  At the end, Gilgamesh releases Aga on the condition that Aga acknowledges that Uruk is free and independent.

2. The initial part of this poem is mostly lost, but fragments indicate that Gilgamesh does something concerning Inanna’s sacred gardens and temples. It has to do with irrigation, although at one point Inanna sights Gilgamesh doing something in the canopy which makes her very angry. Whatever he does, Inanna seems to consider this an affront to her power and tells Gilgamesh that he will never rule by her grace.  Gilgamesh then responds, “You rule your side of the city, and I rule mine.” This suggests that Gilgamesh is a secular king, attempting to either undermine or claim independence from the theocracy. The reference to the canopy may be a reference to a marriage bed, which might also suggest that Gilgamesh and Inanna are lovers or sexual partners, and their disharmony wreaks havoc not only in their relationship but also in the way they share their power over Uruk.

After this fight, Inanna petitions the great god An to give her The Bull of Heaven to kill Gilgamesh. An warns that releasing this supernatural monster will cause draught for seven years, but she doesn’t care and threatens to shout very loudly if he doesn’t give in.  In the meantime, Gilgamesh is enjoying music and beer inside his royal hall, while outside the mythical monster, The Bull of Heaven, rages and brings drought to the city.  Lugalbanda (the old king) persuades Gilgamesh to go out there and take care of the problem, which he does, and with the help of Enkidu, who is only a servant in this poem, he kills the bull.  He then breaks up the bull’s horns and has them gilded in gold to offer to Inanna so she may use it to keep her precious oils.  Notice the difference with this Sumerian poem and the standard Akkadian version, where Enkidu throws the ripped thigh of the bull at Inanna’s face.  In the Sumerian version, the gesture of the bull’s horns in gift is clearly conciliatory.

5. Gilgamesh and Enkidu go on a journey to find cedar wood which was precious in Sumer. The reason for this is unclear: Enkidu suggests it, because he’s scared of the monster Humbaba.  They cross various lakes and mountains because none of the cedar they find is to Gilgamesh’s liking.  They finally find a sacred cedar that Gilgamesh likes, and they cut it down, thus arousing the wrath of the monster Humbaba (it always makes me think of the giant Kumbakarna in Hindu mythology, although it’s also likely that this may have been a caricatured name of the Elamite king, or the Elamite god Huban, as the Elamites where the Sumerian’s fiercest enemy and biggest problem).  Humbaba traps Gilgamesh and Enkidu and terrorizes them, but Gilgamesh persuades him that he comes in peace, offering his wife and sister in marriage to Humbaba, until Humbaba lowers his “auras” (weapons) and Gilgamesh and Enkidu trap and kill him.

Inanna/Ishtar depicted on the "Ishtar vas...
Inanna/Ishtar depicted on the “Ishtar vase”, Larsa, early 2. millennium BCE, Louvre AO 6501 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

5. This poem begins with Inanna then a very young girl trying to grow a sacred tree but being thwarted and sabotaged by a “snake that knows no charms,” by the demon Lilitu, and by the mythical bird Anzud.  Gilgamesh comes to her rescue, scaring off the bird and the demon and killing the snake, and axing down the tree and fashioning a marriage bed and a throne for her (an obvious suggestion that he marries her).  To thank him she makes a pekku and a mekku for him from the wood of this tree.  It’s unclear what pekku and mekku means, though most speculate that it’s a scepter and drum that symbolize kingship. Gilgamesh is so pleased by this gift that he plays with it day and night, driving his subjects crazy, until, possibly in response to the prayers of exhausted subjects, Gilgamesh loses these precious objects in a grate that leads to the underworld.  Here, acting much like a spoiled child, Gilgamesh weeps and bemoans this loss loudly, until Enkidu, again, only his servant, steps up and offers to go to the underworld for him to retrieve these objects.  Gilgamesh instructs Enkidu not to eat, make noise, or engage with the dead in the underworld, but Enkidu does all three and thereby remains trapped there.  Gilgamesh petitions Enlil, who, by ways of another god, Utu, agrees to let Enkidu confer with Gilgamesh through a grate that connects the underworld with the living world.

Note, since the original post in August 21 I have consulted a lengthy discussion on the website titled ENENURU which is hosted by various students of Sumerian culture.

There is some significant doubt as to whether Enkidu is physically revived or if it’s only his soul that emerges from the underworld to speak to Gilgamesh. The doubt arises from the correct translation of the word LIL that refers to Enkidu’s spirit.  Far from being a simple noun to indicate the human soul, LIL sometimes means wind, sometimes ethereal essence, sometimes ghost or demon, while other times it means breath.  A better translation of the word LIL would be to think of it as the Hindu prana, or sacred breath, which like LIL is a life force independent of human will that, nonetheless, looks and acts like breath or wind, has intelligence, gives life to those who possess it, and exists even in semen and in vaginal fluid, therefore able to cause procreation.

The obscurity of the translation and our general lack of familiarity with the Sumerian religious culture leaves open the possibility that Enkidu in fact survived his journey to the underworld and was revived or resurrected when Gilgamesh intervened.  This hypothesis is further supported by one version of the poems which has the Humbaba sequence in which Enkidu and Gilgamesh both fight the monster as happening after Enkidu’s fated trip to the underworld.

Whatever the case may be, the tablet detailing Enkidu’s trip to the underworld ends weirdly with a long inventory of what happens to the dead. The fate of ghosts in the afterlife seems to depend on whether their surviving sons perform the necessary rites to honor them after their death.  In one recently recovered version from Ur (to the south west of Uruk), the story continues: Gilgamesh and Enkidu go home together, and Gilgamesh then vows to always honor the ghosts of his mother and father through rites.  (This ending makes more sense to me than just ending it at the inventory of woes of dead people who leave behind no sons.)

I would like to point out here that the Sumerian word “kur” which translates as “the underworld” was also used to mean “mountain” and “the east” or “foreign territory.” It was also loosely used to indicate Elam, which was a mountainous territory, hostile to Sumer and “foreign.”  

What is even more intriguing is that this poem of Inanna and Enkidu’s journey to the underworld survives as a coda to the standard version of the Gilgamesh epic.  What is puzzling is that in the Gilgamesh Epic (standard version) the penultimate tablet has Enkidu very much dead, a decaying corpse, in fact, with a worm dropping out of its nose.  But in Tablet XI, Enkidu is alive, Inanna is a young girl, and she marries Gilgamesh.

Tablet XI in the Akkadian version is clearly an appendix, as if the poet had wanted us to know the original Sumerian story and be able to compare it to his Akkadian adaptation, which we now know as the Epic of Gilgamesh.

6. There is one more tablet in old Sumerian in which Gilgamesh, now old, is on his deathbed. He makes preparations for his funeral and pleads with the gods for immortality. The gods deny him immortality but on account of his good deeds they promise him privileged status in the underworld where he will sit as judge of the dead and decree their fate in the underworld.  While it’s true that in some later translations, Dumuzi is mentioned here also, as someone who will share in this privilege of judge of the dead with Gilgamesh, in other versions no Dumuzi is ever mentioned.

It’s these old versions that inspired my theory that Dumuzi and Gilgamesh share the same identity. And here are my reasons.

Simplified version of the ancient Mesopotamian...
Simplified version of the ancient Mesopotamian eight-pointed star symbol of the goddess Ishtar (Inana/Inanna), representing the planet Venus as morning or evening star. (Stroked version) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1. In the Inanna poems, the lover of Inanna’s youth is Dumuzi. He is the one whom she marries.  Yet in the very, very ancient Gilgamesh tablet, Inanna is a young girl, and it is Gilgamesh who fashions the marriage bed and begins the worship of her.  In this poem, Inanna is at the start of her life, not the older widow that appears in the Gilgamesh Epic. In this Sumerian poem there is no mention of her ever having been married, nor any mention of any Dumuzi in the picture.

2. In the Inanna poems, Dumuzi competes with Enkidu for the love of Inanna.  Although scholars reassure us that this cannot be the same Enkidu of Gilgamesh’s poem, they never give any reasons why this Enkidu can’t be one and the same.  Enkidu is described in the Epic of Gilgamesh as being blond and covered in thick blond hair, but as I’ve been following more and more of the breadcrumbs of mythology, I suspect that description is not literal, but a metaphorical association with grain.  Enkidu in the Inanna epic is a god of grains, and his competition with Dumuzi is over which of the two is the superior, since Dumuzi is a shepherd and can therefore provide Inanna (or the city of Uruk) with the perks of cream, wool, and milk.  It ends in Enkidu backing away from the fight and offering friendship to Dumuzi.

This competition over superiority which ends in friendship is mirrored in the Epic of Gilgamesh (the Akkadian version), when Gilgamesh and Enkidu first fight over the right of bedding a bride. The bride’s name is never mentioned, and scholars always assume that it is “a bride” (no one important) on whom Gilgamesh is exercising some sort of despotic ritual or right of the first night, but there is no evidence whatsoever that this practice, which was common in the Middle Ages, was actually a right practiced by Sumerian kings.  In fact there is no evidence whatsoever that ancient Sumerians valued a girl’s virginity in any way.

However, what actually was a practice of Sumerian kings was to bed the high priestesses (shamatu) who represent the goddess Inanna and to confirm their power by a ritual known as a holy marriage, precisely the ritual described in some detail in all the Inanna poems.  It would be more politically sensible that Gilgamesh fights Enkidu because the foreign Enkidu threatens the authority of Gilgamesh by preventing Gilgamesh from consummating the marriage rights with the shamatu (not a proper name as the translator of the Epic of Gilgamesh suggest, but a title) which would confirm his kingship and put him in the graces of the protecting goddess, Inanna.

If we suppose that Gilgamesh and Dumuzi are the same person, then it would explain both the hierarchical difference between them and the at-first-hostile-but-later-turned-friendly competition between Enkidu and Gilgamesh.  Moreover, if we strip the literary dressing from Enkidu’s supposed savage state we can also surmise that Gilgamesh, by appeasing Enkidu (and Dumuzi doing the same with his Enkidu) is admitting the fierceness of an enemy and also securing allegiances.  I am not saying that Enkidu is Elamite; I am suggesting, in fact, that he may represent a different city or culture, perhaps Ur, one with which Gilgamesh forged allegiances he later used to invade other territories.

3. In the Inanna poems, Dumuzi who is human, earns divinity and kingship by marriage to Inanna.  Similarly, Gilgamesh is “part god” but the human side of him determines many of his problems and defines his inferiority to Inanna and other gods.  Moreover, while there is some lack of consensus, Dumuzi and Gilgamesh seem to share the same mother, Ninsun or Nin Duttur.  Finally, as I pointed out before, it’s marriage through Inanna that raises Dumuzi to kingship; similarly, when Gilgamesh cuts down the huluppa tree and fashions a marriage bed for Inanna, the goddess gifts him with the symbols of kingship, the mekku and the pekku.

4. It’s hard for me to ignore that the symbolic pekku and mekku that Inanna gifts Gilgamesh are phallic symbols, that they also suggest legacy or progeny in addition to kingship, and that, therefore, Gilgamesh’s loss of the pekku and mekku is the loss of kingship or progeny or both: Inanna giveth and Inanna taketh away.

5. In the Inanna poems, Inanna leaves her comfortable kingdom in Uruk to travel to the underworld on a mission. What is the reason for Inanna venturing to the underworld? In none of the translations is this reason clear.  In one version Inanna wants to offer condolences to the queen of the underworld for the death of Gugalana, or The Bull of Heaven — which creates an awkward non-chronological loop in the myths because in some translations, Dumuzi is also referred to as the Bull of Heaven.  It’s not unusual in ancient history that as kings and governments change so do the protagonists of the sacred literature. Is it Inanna that goes to the underworld or Enkidu? And is this journey undertaken as a means to restore the glory or status of the king? To recover, so to speak, the symbolic significance of Gilgamesh’s authority in Uruk? And is it possible that Inanna’s seemingly illogical rage towards her husband Dumuzi when she re-emerges from the underworld and condemns him to be ripped apart by demons may be due to the fact that she went there to fix something he broke in the first place?  Was it a hostage exchange?

Here is another supposition: Inanna is the goddess protector of the city, the god who represents the city of Uruk. In ancient Sumer, every city had a god to represent it, and often these gods in the forms of idols (carved statues) were paraded and sent to visit other cities, while chroniclers of the times mentioned these gods by name as if they had actually visited in person, and not just symbolically by way of the statues that represented them.

So, is it possible that Inanna’s visit to the “kur” was actually Uruk’s diplomatic mission to the lands of Elam?

If so, it might explain much of what happens to Inanna during this visit, and also much of what she does afterwards once she’s released by way of a hostage situation.

While we cannot really demand logical motivations from any myth, if we consider myth as an allegory for the actions of politically powerful human beings, we can arrive at many interesting conclusions.

To surmise what these hypothesis are: was Inanna’s or Enkidu’s journey to the underworld really a journey to foreign territories? A diplomatic mission to appease enraged foreign powers, perhaps? Was her imprisonment a hostage situation to which the ruling king (Gilgamesh or Dumuzi) failed to respond to promptly or appropriately enough?

There are precedents for this and many clues. In the Gilgamesh and Aga poem, the only poem that does not possess any supernatural element, Gilgamesh’s commander Birhurturre is taken captive and beaten as a result of a failed diplomatic mission with the city of Kish, (note that Enmebaraggesi wasn’t just the king of Kish; he was also the conqueror of Elam).  Are the other poems perhaps variation on this singular theme: provoking the wrath of foreign powers, failing at diplomacy, having to revert to rescue operations and subterfuges in order to regain kingship?

And if Gilgamesh goes in search of such foreign and exotic Cedar so shortly after he’s exhausted his city’s resources against Aga of Kish, wouldn’t it make sense that he does so because he needs resources and new trade routes that would firm up his independence from Kish and Kish’s hold on Elam?  Would that not rouse the wrath of an Elamite king who would rather appease his overlord, the king of Kish, than to let Gilgamesh get away with so much riches?  Enkidu fashions a portal with the wood he cuts down from the sacred cedar: is this portal also a metaphorical suggestion of a new trade route?

There is a precedent in the literature of the Sumerian people of foreign troubles and diplomatic missions gone awry, and I’ve often considered whether the Epic of Gilgamesh was finally a satire of the previous literary works involving the ancient kings of Uruk, Lugalbanda and Enmerkar and their many diplomatic missions against their foreign enemies in Aratta, a city whose whereabouts are still disputed.  (This would explain much of the humor in it, as well as maybe give a new interpretation to the homoerotic relationship between Enkidu and Gilgamesh: did Gilgamesh get into bed with the enemy? And did that relationship with a foreign power cause the wrath of other cities/gods?)

6. The similarities continue: Gilgamesh is credited in the Gilgamesh and Aga poem as being the one who conquered and subdued Enmebaraggesi (Aga’s father) and the city of Kish.  Yet in other literature it is Dumuzi who is credited with defeating Enmebaraggesi.  Again, there is no contradiction if in fact we are talking about the same person. It wasn’t unusual for Sumerians to attribute epithets and titles to the same person.  It’s possible that neither the name Dumuzi nor the name Gilgamesh are proper names in the way we understand them in our culture.

7. The names of Dumuzi and Gilgamesh offer more tantalizing clues: Dumuzi means “the faithful son.”  While we don’t know what story may have been attached to this name, it does tempt me to compare it to the various ambiguous references surrounding Gilgamesh’s birth: in the Sumerian King List he is said to be the son of a “ghost,” that word a translation of the elusive word LIL, which is also translated as life force.  Another word for life force in Sumerian is ZI, as in DUMU (child of) ZI (life force).

Is there something associated with progeny that we missed in the destructive cycle of history?  Gilgamesh’s name is a corruption of his original name, Bilgames, that also being a corruption of a still older name, GibilAgaMes (according to one reference, at least).  It’s difficult to say what the name translates to, but the general consensus seem to center around rebirth: the old god born again; the young hero from the old fire god; the god Gilbil crowned as a hero/budding crook…all suggesting once again not just the resurrected god theme established in the Dumuzi myths, but also the rebirth of a new hero out of an old myth.

Sumerologists tell us that Gilgamesh was not the hero’s real name: it was a baptismal name that he acquired when he attained kingship and that this was the custom among kings of Sumer.  In an earlier post (The Trouble with Dumuzi) I argued that Dumuzi may have been more than a name, but also a title, as for example Horus was for the Egyptians.  Perhaps this title suggested inheritance as “the rightful heir.”

If so, might it explain (and again, I speculate) why the Sumerian king list shows Dumuzi as ruling a very brief time and Gilgamesh following. Lugalbanda was still alive when Dumuzi ruled and defeated Enmebaraggesi of Kish. Lugalbanda is also alive and advising Gilgamesh when the Bull of Heaven rages and destroys all things. If Dumuzi is a title and the name of an old, old god, it might suggest that the second appearance of Dumuzi in the Sumerian King List refers to Gilgamesh by his title before he was baptized as Gilgamesh the king: he was “the heir” who, for reasons we have lost, had to abandon his kingship and run to Kish for protection.

Enkidu (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We  know from the last speech in the Sumerian poem titled “Gilgamesh and Aga” that Gilgamesh had once been a fugitive protected by the city of Kish: another confirmation of the cycle of provocation, of war gone awry, of hostage situations and needed diplomacy to right them.  In this Sumerian poem Aga is a prince, not a king.  He is acting out upon orders from his father, Enmebaraggesi.

It’s impossible to know what really happened, and I realize I maybe going out on a limb here, but is it possible that Gilgamesh once enjoyed a title of Dumuzi (heir) under the auspices of old king Lugalbanda, caused some trouble or committed a costly misjudgment, lost his power or lost the graces of Inanna and the cult that worshipped her, had to run away and seek refuge from his superiors, was restored to power by these same superiors and eventually turned against them to reclaim his independence?

I have nothing but these few clues on which to base my hypothesis, but these are the premises of my novel in progress, The Faithful Son.

If Dumuzi and Gilgamesh represent the same king, and if most of these poems were dressed up versions of political events, for satire, for propaganda or for other ends, it is easy to account for both the similarities and the discrepancies in the myths and within the various versions of these myths.  History is never objective, after all: it is subject to the views, perceptions, politics, and “facts” at the hand of whoever is writing it.

(This post was significantly revised for clarity and stronger evidence on August 21,2013 and again on September 16, 2013)

Published by laura

I'm the author of two short story collections, a story cycle, and a collection of short memoirs. I am an educator, literary translator, journal editor, and writing coach.

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