In Tablet VII of the Epic of Gilgamesh, the gods Anu, Enlil, Ea and Shamash decide that Enkidu should pay with his life for the deaths of Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven:

Enkidu began to speak to Gilgamesh: 'My brother, this night what a dream [I dreamed!] The gods Anu, Enlil, Ea and celestial Shamash [held assembly], and Anu spoke unto Enlil: "These, because they slew the Bull of Heaven, and slew Humbaba that [guarded] the mountains dense-[wooded] with cedar," so said Anu, "between these two [let one of them die!]"

'And Enlil said: "Let Enkidu die, but let not Gilgamesh die!"
'Celestial Shamash began to reply to the hero Enlil: "Was it not at your word that they slew him, the Bull of Heaven and also Humbaba? Now shall innocent Enkidu die?"

'Enlil was wroth at celestial Shamash: "How like a comrade you marched with them daily!'"

Source: The Epic of Gilgamesh, translated by Andrew George, Penguin Books

Why didn't the gods kill both Gilgamesh and Enkidu? And why did Enlil pick Enkidu instead of Gilgamesh?

3 Answers 3


According to this lecture by Michael Sugrue, Enkidu is chosen to die because of his hubris and also his refusal to accept his human status which exceeds that of Gilgamesh. For example, Enkidu throws meat at the goddess Ishtar, and actively tries to create a conflict with her. Although Gilgamesh (wisely) rejects the sexual advances of Ishtar, he does not try to purposely antagonize her; as a semi-god (half human, half god), he apparently recognizes Ishtar's higher status.

  • Hello Greg and welcome to the site. I am a bit confused about the second part of your answer: Gilgamesh mocks Ishtar relentlessly. Doesn't that count as antagonizing her?
    – yannis
    Jan 2, 2016 at 11:13
  • According to the lecture by Michael Sugrue, it is Enkidu who mocks Ishtar relentlessly, not Gilgamesh. Sorry if I did not make that clear in my answer. Jan 2, 2016 at 19:45

Enkidu is the direct creation of the gods so they have more control over him than Gilgamesh.If they were to choose who to kill.Enkidu will be easier to kill than Gilgamesh Sense they can just make him return to clay but if they were to kill Gilgamesh they will have to probably have to send someone or something to kill him and plus the gods still need a bridge that connect the earth and the heavens and also the goddess Ninsun will probably not agree because Gilgamesh is his sun.

  • interesting answer. sources would greatly improve this answer
    – Tom Sol
    Oct 11, 2020 at 8:29
  • My sense of the overall theme of the Gilgamesh myth is the grappling with an acceptance of mortality.

Enkidu is overtly mortal, and Gilgamesh 2/3 god, and they literally grapple then become friends.

Thus, Gilgamesh must survive Enkidu so that Gilgamesh can come to terms with the his own eventual death.

(Enkidu is a tanist in the sense of Frazer—a proxy for the king who dies in his place in ritual sacrifice. This is the same idea of the pharmakon as scapegoat victim in ritual sacrifice.)

Important to note however:

  • Gilgamesh is granted a reprieve, but not spared from death

Gilgamesh saw a well of cool water and he went down and bathed; but deep in the pool there was lying a serpent, and the serpent sensed the sweetness of the flower. It rose out of the water and snatched it away, and immediately it sloughed its skin and returned to the well. Then Gilgamesh sat down and wept, the tears ran down his face, and he took the hand of Urshanabi; ‘O Urshanabi, was it for this that I toiled with my hands, is it for this I have wrung out my heart's blood? For myself I have gained nothing; not I, but the beast of the earth has joy of it now. Already the stream has carried [it away].


Here this is the magic plant that would grant him immortality, stolen by a beast, here a metaphor for the mortal part, and the condition of humans as mortal, despite having a divine spark.

Prior to the theft:

'Come here, and see this marvellous plant. By its virtue a man may win back all his former strength. I will take it to Uruk of the strong walls; there I will give it to the old men to eat. Its name shall be "The Old Men Are Young Again"; and at last I shall eat it myself and have back all my lost youth.’

The plant restores youth, and thus, presumably, would render one immortal.

(My recollection of the Gardner translation is that this is made more explicit.)

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