From The Epic of Gilgamesh, modernised Muss-Arnolt translation:

None with weapon might challenge him as rival. His men stand at attention, longing for his orders; but the old men of Uruk grouse that Gilgamesh has left no son to his father, for his arrogance has grown boundless. He has taken all their children, for is Gilgamesh not the shepherd of his people? Gilgamesh does not leave a daughter to her mother, nor the maiden to the warrior, nor the wife to her husband. Yet Gilgamesh is the magnificent and glorious shepherd of his people.

What exactly does it mean that Gilgamesh has "taken all their children" and "does not leave" a son to his father, a wife to her husband, and so on? Does he literally take people for his own purposes, to serve him personally? Does he take them on as servants/slaves, or just take whatever he wants for a day and then let them go? Or is the meaning less literal?

This seems pretty important to the plot, as it's what motivated the gods to create Enkidu to challenge Gilgamesh, starting off the whole story. I don't know if there's any answer beyond what I've quoted above, but given the various versions of this story, maybe another version (or another translation) is more clear.

2 Answers 2


Assyriologist Andrew R. George (The Epic of Gilgamesh, Penguin, 1999) translates the relevant passages as follows (page 3; an almost indentical passage occurs on the following page):

He has no equal when his weapons are brandished,
his companions are kept on their feet by his contests

The young men of Uruk he harries without warrant,
Gilgamesh lets no son go free to his father.
By day and by night his tyranny grows harsher,
Gilgamesh, [the guide of the teeming people!]

It is he who is shepherd of Uruk-the-Sheepfold,
[but Gilgamesh] lets no [daughter go free to her] mother.

In BBC 4's podcast In Our Time podcast Epic of Gilgamesh, originally broadcast on 03.11.2016, Andrew George summarises the relevant part of Tablet I as follows:

(...) when the narrative gets going, we have Gilgamesh as a king in Uruk who's abusing his power. It's a period of tyranny, the city can't function as it should. As a result, there's an outcry. He's preoccupying the people, particularly the young in martial exercises, he's abusing his rights. And in response, the mother goddess actually creates a wild man, Enkidu, from clay, to be a match to Gilgamesh. And the idea is that this will therefore absorb his energies, his aggression.

On page xlvi of his introduction, Andrew George points out:

The nature of Gilgamesh's tyranny is not explained by the poet, for it is not necessary to know more than that he is a tyrant.

There are reasons to assume that his tyranny involves the ius primae noctis ("right of the first night"), since on Tablet II, a man who has been invited to a wedding says (page 15 in George's translation),

He [Gilgamesh] will couple with the wife-to-be,
he first of all, the bridegroom after.
By divine consent it is so ordained:

This practice is not documented in historical sources, as George (page xlvii) and other translators (Stefan M. Maul, page 159; Wolfgang Röllig, page 158) point out.

However, the ius primae noctis is not the whole story; it does not explain in what way Gilgamesh "lets no son go free to his father" and "lets no [daughter go free to her] mother" (unless one assumes that every daughter is a bride). Wolfgang Röllig thinks the tyranny refers to statute labour.

However, the passage also contains something of a crux: the italicised word contests in George's translation is left untranslated in Röllig's translation: pukku. Stefan M. Maul translates the word as "Spielball" (playing ball), whereas Benjamin R. Foster translates it as "game stick". Both Maul and Röllig point out that the meaning of "pukku" has not been established beyond doubt. The word is also used in the Sumerian poem "Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Netherworld", where the word "mekku" is also used. Perhaps "pukku" and "mekku" refer to a ball and a stick or mallet used in a ball game with vague similarities to hockey (Maul, page 156; Röllig, page 156).

In Gilgameš, Enkidu and the nether world, both the pukku and the mekku are made from the wood of a ḫalub tree:

As for himself, from its roots, he manufactured his ball (?) and, from its branches, he manufactured his mallet (?).

However, the ball game takes up so much time and energy from the people that they start complaining about it:

the widows' accusation and the young girls' complaint caused his ball (?) and his mallet (?) to fall down to the bottom of the nether world.

In conclusion, it is possible that in the Standard Babylonian epic, Gilgamesh is wasting people's time with a ball game or requiring too much statute labour, or both (in addition to the ius primae noctis).

Sources (in chronological order):

  • The Epic of Gilgamesh: The Babylonian Epic Poem and Other Texts in Akkadian and Sumerian. Translated with an introduction by Andrew George. London: Penguin, 1999.
  • Das Gilgamesch-Epos. Neu Übersetzt und kommentiert von Stefan M. Maul. München: C. H. Beck, 2005. Sixth edition, 2014.
  • Das Gilgamesch-Epos. Übersetzt, kommentiert und herausgegeben von Wolfgang Röllig. Reclam Bibliothek. Stuttgart: Philipp Reclam jun. Stuttgart, 2009.
  • The Epic of Gilgamesh. Translated and edited by Benjamin R. Foster. Second Edition. Norton, 2019.

Andrew George, in his updated translation of the Epic of Gilgamesh: A New Translation, offers a perspective on this stanza. In short, Gilgamesh' monstrous appetites mean that he has 'taken' (in the biblical sense) all of the young wives and daughters. His sexual needs are matched only by his militarism, constantly fighting with and besting all of the young men and leading them into pointless battles, keeping them from their farming duties.

The change wrought in Gilgamesh occurs only after a long history of heroic misdemeanours. At first he does everything wrong. He is king but he does not behave like a king. In Babylonian ideology, as throughout the ancient Near East, the king should be to his people as a shepherd to his sheep, guiding them, protecting them and ruling them with a just and equitable hand. Far from that, Gilgamesh is a cruel tyrant, whose brutality calls forth the complaint of his people. The contrast between the ideal and the actual is implicit in their lament:

Yet he is the shepherd of Uruk-the-Sheepfold,
Gilgamesh, [the guide of the] teeming [people.]
. . . he is their shepherd and their [protector,]

powerful, pre-eminent, expert [and mighty.] The nature of Gilgamesh’s tyranny is not explained by the poet, for it is not necessary to know more than that he is a tyrant. All that is certain is that his demands mean that filial and conjugal duties are displaced. Daughters have no time to help their mothers nor sons their fathers, and wives are unable to tend the needs of their husbands. Some commentators have inferred that Gilgamesh’s abuse is sexual.

It is certainly true that in the Old Babylonian version of the epic the Babylonian audience, like Enkidu, would have reacted with horror to the ‘the right of first night’ (ius primae noctis) which the wedding-guest reports as customary in Gilgamesh’s Uruk:

Gilgamesh will couple with the wife-to-be,
he first of all, the bridegroom after.

Such things did not happen in Babylonia in the historical period. However, according to the text this activity was divinely sanctioned, and therefore could not have been an abuse in the context.

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