Tablet IX

Gilgamesh roams the steppe
And weeps bitter tears
For Enkidu, his friend
‘Shall I not die like Enkidu?
Woe gnaws at my entrails,
I fear death.
So I roam the steppe.
I must go to see Ziusudra
The Survivor of the Flood
He, the son of Ubara-Tutu.
Immediately shall I travel the wheel-rim (1) to him.
At night I come tot he Gates of the Mountains.
Gripped by fear, I saw lions.
I lifted my head to the Moon God,
Offered prayers.
My prayers went out to the …. of the gods:
‘O God of the Moon, do you preserve me!’
He laid himself down and then awoke from a dream.
There in the dream he had seen [lodestones] (2)
Rejoicing in life they were
In his hand he raised an axe,
He drew his dagger from his belt,
He descended upon them like an arrow (3).
He struck at them,
Smashed them into pieces.
(Here many lines are lost, with only a few scattered words surviving. Six lines along, a line commences with the female pronoun she; the identity of the female personage in this missing section cannot even be guessed at, but she probably appeared in another dream and could have been Siduri [see next tablet], thereby repeating the pattern of premonitory dreaming.)
The mountain is called Mashu (4)
And so he arrived at Mashu Mountain
Which keeps watch every day
Over the rising and setting of the Sun God,\
Whose tips reach the zenith of heaven
And whose rim (5) raches the depths of the Un
Scorpion-Men (6) guard the commencement of its motion (7).
Awful their terror, their glance is death (8)
The splendour of their scintillation (9) disturbs the mountains
Which keep watch over the rising and the setting of the Sun God
When Gilgamesh observed (10) them,
His visage was darkened with terror, with fear.
Regaining his composure
He approaches them.
The Scorpion-Man called to his wife:
‘Look who comes
His body is made of flesh of the gods.’
The Scorpion-Man’s wife replied:
‘He is 2/2 god, 1/3 man’.
The Scorpion-Man calls out,
Cries to the offspring of the gods:
‘Why have you come this far a journey?
What brings you here before me?
You have made a traverse of the celestial Sea –
Its crossings are difficult
I wish to learn
The meaning of your coming.’
(The next line appears to be an enquiry about ‘your way’ or ‘your road’, or the road taken by Gilgamesh. When the text resumes, Gilgamesh is replying to the Scorpion-Man and mentioning Ziusudra, the Babylonian/Sumerian Noah:)
‘I have come in search of life,
To see Ziusudra, my forefather –
He who survived the Flood
And joined the Assembly of the Gods
I wish to ask him about life and death.’
The Scorpion-Man opened his mouth to speak, said to Gilgamesh:
‘There never was a mortal, Gilgamesh,
Never one who could do that.
No one has travelled the mountain’s path (12).
For twelve double-hours its bowels….
Dense is the darkness and there is no light.
To the rising of the Sun…….
To the setting of the Sun…..
To the setting of the Sun…..’
(Many lines are missing here. The Scorpion-Man is believed in the missing portion to have described the journey double-hour by double-hour [see note 13]. When the text resumes, Gilgamesh is speaking:)
‘Whether it be in sorrow,
Whether it be in pain,
In cold, in heat,
In sighing, in weeping,
I will go!
Let the gate of the mountain now be opened!’
The Scorpion-Man opened his mouth to speak,
Said to Gilgamesh:
‘Go, then, Gilgamesh, go you forth.
May you cross the mountains of Mashu,
May you traverse the mountains and ranges.
May you go in safety.
The gate of the mountain is now open to you!’
When Gilgamesh heard this,
When he heard the words of the Scorpion-Man,
He travelled from the east to west
Along the road of the Sun.
When he had gone one double-hour
Dense was the darkness and there was no light.
This permitted him no sight of its front or his rear
When he had gone two double hours
Dense was the darkness and there was no light.
This permitted him no sight of its front or his rear.
When he had gone three double-hours
Dense was the darkness and there was no light.
This permitted him no sight of its front or his rear
When he had gone four double hours
Dense was the darkness and there was no light.
This permitted him no sight of its front or his rear.
When he had gone five double-hours
Dense was the darkness and there was no light.
This permitted him no sight of its front or his rear
When he had gone six double hours
Dense was the darkness and there was no light.
This permitted him no sight of its front or his rear.
When he had gone seven double-hours
Dense was the darkness and there was no light.
This permitted him no sight of its front or his rear
When he had gone eight double hours, he cried out.
Dense was the darkness and there was no light.
This permitted him no sight of its front or his rear.
When he had gone nine double-hours, he felt the morning breeze.
It was fanning his face
Dense was the darkness and there was no light.
This permitted him no sight of its front or his rear
When he had gone ten double hours
He knows the moment of rising is near.
He is impatient for the end of the double hours.
When he had gone eleven double hours
He rose just before the Sun
When he had gone twelve double
Day had grown bright (13)
Upon seeing the bejewelled shrubs, he approaches them
The carnelian bears its fruit
And hung it is with goodly vines,
The lapis lazuli bears leaves
Lush fruit also hangs from it
It is fine to the eye.
(The remaining fifty lines of this tablet are mutilated or lost. From the fragmentary words surviving we can see that the description of the garden of jewels continued, for at least six different stones and minerals are mentioned, but they are merely stray words in an otherwise obliterated text.)


1. The word used in the original text -allak- means rim of a wheel, and is yet another reference to cosmic orbital motion. Similarly, allaku means ‘wanderer’, which in many cultures such as the Greek and Egyptian was what the planets were called, and it also means ‘messenger’, a concept often associated to the planet Mercury, because of its rapid shuttlings back and forth in the sky. Such a busy planet rushing rapidly to and fro was quite naturally seen as a wanderer.
The astronomical references in the Epic have always been glossed over by translators in the interests of supposed clarity. For instance, allak is explained by Speiser, Gordon, Heidel and Campbell Thompson as meaning either that Gilgamesh will travel or will take the road. But if road were really intended, we ould see harannu in the original, or if way were really intended, we would see alaktu rather than allak, as in Tablet VIII, of the Akkadian text, where the literal translation is ‘the road from which there is no way back’, which I have rendered ‘road from which there is no return.’ Here road is harranu and way is allaktu, both occurring in the very same line.
2. See Tablet X, note 5.
3. If the axe in Gilgamesh’s hand and dagger, or sword, in his belt did not continually recur in formulaic fashion, they might might be taken at face value. But these hieratic motifs may be meant to signify an identification or comparison of Gilgamesh to the constellation Orion, whose sword or dagger in his belt is plain for all to see who look at the night sky. If so, then descending like an arrow would be connected with the Arrow Star, as Sirius was known to the Babylonians, and which was just beneath the foot of Orion.
The preposition kima has two meanings -like and as. It has been usual to translate this sentence as Gilgamesh descending like an arrow, considering the statement to be merely a lit of decorative imagery. However, if the astronomical events referred to are intended to be preponderant here, the preposition could have its other meaning, and Gilgamesh would descend as an arrow, meaning that he would become the star Sirius and would set below the horizon. This passage would therefore refer to the setting of Sirius and Orion, and on occastion where it recurs, this interpretation would each time be intended. Since the rising and setting of the sun are mentioned a few lines later, thse cosmic movements may well be implied.
4. All scholars have expressed puzzlement over the name Mashu [Heidel doubted the word was Babylonian]. I believe it is a borrowing of the Egyptian ma Shu, which means ‘Behold the Sun God’. This fits the context perfectly as well as being linguistically sound.
5. The existing English translations render iratsunu (a form of irtum) as breast. But von Soden rightly says that in this passage it should be taken to mean rim. A cosmic wheel is again referred to, the one along whose rim Gilgamesh earlier said he would travel. The depths of the Underworld here means the nadir of the invisible sky below the horizon, or the south celestial pole, into which the rim turns after passing through the zenith or the north celestial pole in the visible sky. This wheel is therefore a great rotating circle at right angles to the equator, with the earth at its centre, and passing through both celestial poles. Presumably the equinoctial colure, which passes through the equinoctial points, is being referred to, or otherwise the solstitial colure, which passes through the solstice points and also passes through both the celestical and ecliptic poles. What we can be certain of is that the great circle referred to must be at right angles to the equator if part of it is to remain invisible permanently below the horizon. If it were not at right angles to the equator or at least to the eclipitic, it could not touch the tip of heaven and depths of the Underworld.
There is also a pun involved, for irat can also be used to refer to the notch of an arrow; so that we may have a punning reference to the Arrow star again.
6. The word girtablilu, Scorpion-Man, is a reference to all or part of what we now call Scorpio.
7. Once again, as in Tablet VII, I translate babu not as gate, but by its other meaning of commencement of a motion, in connection with the spinning of cosmic wheel.
8. The concealed meaning here is a reference to astronomical observations [imru] rather than a glance (In the text we find imratsunu.) The root or stem-word, MRT, yields a basic meaning to see (amaru). The verb emeru from this root is the one used to describe the heliacal rising of a star, which may be regarded as the star’s babu or commencement of its motion, and its rebirth after being dead in the Underworld (that is, the sky below the horizon). The star Sirius, for example, was dead for seventy days, or seven ten-day Egyptian weeks, and passed through seven gates in the Underworld during that time (each week had a gate) before its emeru, or heliacal rising, took place, which was subject to an imru (observation) at the moment of return, when it once more experienced its commencement of motion, on the visible part of its great sky wheel.
9. This is clearly another reference to the observations of heliacal risings and settings. Speiser used ‘shimmering’ for emeru, but I give ‘scintillation’ here to clarify further the reference to a stellar observation.
10. A verb form of imru (see note 8 above) occurs here.
11. These two lines, which recur throughout the Epic have numerological significance. Clearly genetic descent cannot be referred to, since it is impossible for anyone to be descended in thirds. The Babylonians had a sexagesimal mathematics, and from their astronomers we have inherited the division of the circle in 360 degrees, the hour into 60 minutes, the minute into 60 seconds and so on. An, the chief Babylonian god, was equated with the number 60. Enki was equated with 2/3 of An, i.e. 40. So, by saying that Gilgamesh is two-thirds god, he is also being identified with the number 40. The god Enki was called both Shanabi (two-thirds) and Nimin (forty in Sumerian). Enki’s son-in-law, the ferryman Urshanabi, has a name that means virtually Priest of the Two-Thrids. Urshanabi is also asked to survey Gilgamesh’s city of Uruk (see end of Tablet XI). So when Gilgamesh is described as being two-thirds god, the statement is a coded way of equating him with the god Enki as well as with the groundplan of the city of Uruk and its temples (Enki was traditionally the god who drew up the ground plans of temples.
Other aspects of the theme of two-thirds relate to the planet Mercury, with whom Gilgamesh is associated. The image of Gilgamesh wandering over the steppe may refer to the planet Mercury wandering across the band of the zodiac. Of the 12 degrees of the zodiac band, Mercury moves across 8 degrees, or two thirds. It could be said therefore that from Mercury’s point of view, the band of the zodiac is ‘two thirds god, one third not.’ Pliny the Elder records in his Natural History, Book 2 (xiii, 66):’The planet Mercury wanders over more than 8 of the 12 degrees of latitude of the zodiac, and these 8 not uniformly, but two in the middle of the zodiac, four above it, two below it.’ (This shows with what eagle eyes the ancients watched such things. Today no one would notice. Otto Neugebauer discovered from Babylonian records that the Babylonians watched the heliacal rising of Mercury as morning star with such fanatical attention that there were 2673 such risings in a period of 848 years).
Another occurrence of two-thirds in the planetary motions which would have been noticed by the ancients has been described by Pliny (Book 2, xiii, 59): ‘The three planets [Jupiter, Saturn and Mars] make their morning or first stations in a triangle 120 degrees away, and subsequently their evening risings opposite 180 degrees away, and again approaching from the other side, make their evening or second stations 120 degrees away….’
Martianus Capella also discusses this (Book 8, 887): ‘These planets make their morning stations 120 degrees away from the sun, and then, at opposition, 180 degrees away, they make their evening risings; likewise, on the other side, they make their evening stations 120 degrees away. The latter are called second stations and the former, first stations.’
Without going into astronomy at any greater length, the important fact to be noticed here is that 120 degrees is two-thirds, 180 degrees, and the constant alteration of these planets between two-thirds and a whole of an angular measure may be yet another factor in the strange Babylonian concern with 2/3, especially as they were such fanatical observers of planetary motions.
Another possibility not unrelated to this kind of thinking is that the Pythagorean mathematical and geometrical traditions, which preserve one important two-thirds motif may have been derived from Babylonian traditions. This is no unreasonable, for the so-called Pythagorean theorem concerning right triangles is known to be of Babylonian orgin and was most certainly not invented by Pythagoras (Pythagoras is credited with a visit to Babylon, where he presumably learned these things, which he then introduced to Greek culture.) This two-thirds motif also concerns triangles, as it happens. It is found in the neo-Pythagorean treatise On the Nature of the World and the Soul, ascribed to Timaios of Locri, and actually thought to have been written by a later author. this treatise maintains that earth is composed of isosceles triangles (two sides equal), and water, air and fire are composed of scalene triangles (having no sides equal) of the following type: ‘The smallest angle of this triangle is 1/3 of a right angle. The middle one is twice that size, that is two-thrids of a right angle. The largest is a right angle…. The triangle then is half of an equilateral triangle which has been bisected perpendicularly from its vertex to its base into equal parts.
Since, according to the Pythagorean tradition, 3 of the four elements making up the physical world are said to be composed of triangles containing angles which are in the proportion one-thrid to two-thirds to three-thirds, one wonders whether the same Babylonian tradition which gave the Pythagoerean the Pythagorean theorem gave them also this concept. And if so, could the lore of the triangle have something also to do with the two-thirds motif in the Epic?
What we can be sure of is that Gilgamesh being 2/3 god and 1/3 man must be an esoteric reference to some tradition of a mathematical, geometrical or astronomical nature, and possible even of all three.
12. The depiction of the planet Mercury as a mass of convoluted intestines in the Humbaba mask here finds an echo as libbu means intestines, and is here applied to a cosmic path.
13. Gilgamesh’s passage through the darkness of the half of the sky below the horizon, and rising just before the sun in the east again isa perfect description of the heliacal rising of a star, planet or constellation, as seen by an ancient astronomer.
It is important to note that prior to the Hellenistic period, i.e. after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE, there were no hours of equal length. The hours varied in absolute duration. Egyptian and Babylonian astronomy allotted twelve-hours to night-time, however long or short this night-time was. [The hours expanded and shrank, in other words, as there must always be twelve of them. The hours were not conceived as absolute time intervals of equal duration at all, but more like stations along a railway line, which must be passed through at whatever speed.]
The word beru, translated by Heidel as double-hour and by Speiser as league is a very curious one. It seems to be formed from a subsidiary stem of the verb root beru, whose basic meaning is to starve or to be hungry. From this basic meaning the subsidiary stem in question developed its meaning to persevere, to hold out, in other words, to hold out against starvation. In actual usage, the meaning was extended and the word came to mean to endure without interruption, and to continue to last. The word was used specifically in astronomy to describe stars and plnets which continued to be visible and had not gone below the horizon. From this verb, a noun was constructed with the meaning duration, although it was generally in the form biritu. A related preposition meant between, since what was endured between constituted an interval.
This noun also had a highly specific astronomical usage, meaning the angle of elongation of a star or planet. That means the angular distance from the sun. (In the case of Mercury, this never exceeds 28 degrees, which is just under 1/3 of a right angle, and may possibly relate to the thirds which were discussed above in note 11.) The central celestial sky band of An had an angular width of between 30 and 34 degrees, since An was identified with the number 60, it would seem that the degrees of his sky band were double-degrees, to yield this number. Perhaps the idea of a double-hour is similarly a normal hour counted double. Heidel does not explain why he has chosen to translate beru as double-hour. I have retained this translation but warn that the word really means ‘variable interval’, when Gilgamesh’s journey below the horizon is described, referring to the 12 unequal hours, two of which are the period of dawn.
F. Rochberg-Hlaton, in an article on stellar distances in Babylonian astronomy stressed that the beru was: ‘a unit of measure having three possible dimensions: length, time, or the measurement of an arc. As a unit of length, beru is customarily translated as mile (it is actually something over 10km), and as a unit of time it is equal to 30 ush (ush being the fundamental Babylonian unit for the measurement of both time and of arcs, equivalent to four minutes), hence 120 minutes or a double- hour. In the measurement of an arc, the beru refers to the 12th part of a circle, against 30 ush or 30 degrees, and serves as an astronomical unit, but only in thelate mathematical astronomy.’ Beru occurs so frequently in the Epic of Gilgamesh that it has been necessary to give a fair amount of information about it. The cosmic journey throughout the Epic, and the number of berus traversed on each occasion, are of great significance for working out what is actually being described. I have opted largely to use the translation double-hour, and occasionally leagues. But precisely what is going on in all instances is by no means clear.

A verse version of the Epic of Gilgamesh by Robert Temple, Rider, an imprint of Random Century Group Ltda, 1991, London, Sydney, Auckland, Johannerburg. All rights reserved. Here included for help in research and studies purposes

Prologue | Tablet I | Tablet II | Tablet III | Tablet IV | Tablet V | Tablet VI | Tablet VII | Tablet VIII | Tablet IX | Tablet X | Tablet XI