The Great Myths #51: Enkidu in the Underworld (Mesopotamian)


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Just before his death, Gilgamesh’s friend Enkidu dreams of the Underworld. While what remains of the story is fragmentary, it is remarkable in part for being one of the earliest descriptions in literature of an Underworld. In this case, it is less a place of punishment than one of eternal boredom and gathering dust. It likely influenced later Greek conceptions of the Underworld, best exemplified by Achilles statement that he would rather be a poor farmer on earth than “king over all the perished dead.”

[He struck me and] turned me into a dove.

[He bound] my arms like the wings of a bird,
to lead me captive to the house of darkness, seat of Irkalla:
to the house which none who enters ever leaves,
on the path that allows no journey back,

to the house whose residents are deprived of light,
where soil is itself their sustenance and clay their food,
where they are clad like birds in coats of feathers,
and see no light, but dwell in darkness.

On door [and bolt the dust lay thick,]
on the House [of Dust was poured a deathly quiet.]
In the House of Dust that I entered,

I looked around me, saw “crowns” in a throng,
there were the crowned [heads] who’d ruled the land since days of yore,
who’d served the roast [at the] tables of Anu and Enlil,
who’d proffered baked bread, and poured them cool water from skins.

In the House of Dust that I entered,
there were the en-priests and lagar-priests,
there were the lustration-priests and the lumahhu-priests,
there were the great gods’ gudapsû-priests,

there was Etana, there was Shakkan,
[there was] the queen of the Netherworld, the goddess Ereshkigal.
Before her sat [Belet]-ṣeri, the scribe of the Netherworld,
holding [a tablet], reading aloud in her presence.

[She raised] her head and she saw me:
“[Who was] it fetched this man here?
[Who was it] brought here [this fellow?]”

(The rest of the story is lost.)

– The Epic of Gilgamesh, tablet VII, tr. Andrew George