The Epic of Gilgamesh is an ancient Mesopotamian text, recorded in the Akkadian language. It dates from circa 2100 BC, and records the reign of King Gilgamesh of Uruk from the Third Dynasty of Ur.
It records the story of Gilgamesh when he was a young king, and includes considerations on mortality and humanity. In many ways it has strikingly modern echoes, in its themes on the divine right of kings, their duty to their people, and the desire for immortality.
The Epic of Gilgamesh also touches on love, comedy, tragedy, and high adventure all wrapped in an anthology of stories. Not only is it potentially the oldest epic story of humanity, but also has clear echoes in the later Bible.
Given the gripping narrative and the moral lessons to be drawn from the text, some have described it as the first story ever written.
Finding the Story
To know more about the Epic of Gilgamesh, it is important to know how it has survived. The first detailed version of the story was discovered in the ruin of the library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh by Hormuzd Rassam in 1853.
Ashurbanipal was one of the last great kings of Assyria and reigned in 668 to 637 BC. He assembled the first systematically organized library in the ancient Middle East in Nineveh, including the Epic of Gilgamesh which recounted events from over a millennium earlier.
The Epic was written in cuneiform, a system of writing used in the ancient Middle East, on 12 clay tablets dating to 1300 to 1000 BC. This contributed to its disappearance from history, as the disappearance of the cuneiform writing system around the time of the 1st century AD accelerated the Epic of Gilgamesh’s slide into anonymity.
It was not until 1872 when George Smith of the British Museum translated the tablets that we recovered the story. In fact this is still on-going, with translation of the tablets still happening today. As we learn more about the ancient language more sophisticated understandings of the story can be uncovered, with the latest publication of a translation happening as recently as 2015.
But what do these translations tell us?
The Story originates in Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization in the Middle East in modern-day Iraq, Kuwait, and Syria. From here early agricultural innovations and practices led to the first cities, and the rise of sophisticated societies.
The story begins with Gilgamesh ruling over the city of Uruk as a tyrant. To keep him occupied, the Mesopotamian deities, particularly Anu the Sky God, created a wild man so that Gilgamesh will turn his attention to him rather than his people.
The wild man is named Enkidu, meaning “lord of the reed marsh”. He begins life living among the animals but is soon seduced by a temple priestess named Shamhat who partially civilizes Enkidu and teaches him how to eat like a human being.
He is then brought to the city of Uruk to challenge Gilgamesh in a test of strength. However, despite his divine origins, Enkidu loses to Gilgamesh. But instead of treating the defeated Enkidu with disrespect, Gilgamesh befriends him, and they become companions.
From here the two friends travel and adventure across the land. They set their sights on testing their strength against monsters such as Huwawa, the divinely appointed guardian of the Cedar Forest.
The duo planned to bring Cedar trees back to Uruk but first had to distract Huwawa. Gilgamesh can do this, and is able to surprise the guardian, attacking Huwawa before being convinced by Enkidu to kill it.
The next adventure sees Gilgamesh and Enkidu anger the goddess of war and sex, Ishtar. She is attracted to Gilgamesh for his heroic deeds and kingly prowess but is left spurned by Gilgamesh as he refused her advances.
Ishtar is enraged by this and sends the Bull of Heaven to destroy Gilgamesh. However, with the help of Enkidu holding the bull’s horns to trap it in place, Gilgamesh is able to slay the beast.
Sadly, for his role in the death of the divine bull, Enkidu is struck down by the gods through illness. Gilgamesh is left devastated and fearful of his mortality. He sets out in search of the survivor of the Babylonian flood Utnapishtim to learn how to escape death. Utnapishtim reveals a secret plant that can renew youth though as Gilgamesh obtains it, it is eaten by a serpent.
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Thus, Gilgamesh returns to Uruk empty-handed and without his friend. Although he failed to find everlasting life, he has become a wiser man and, it is implied, a better ruler.
Links to the Bible
One of the most remarkable aspects of the Gilgamesh epic is not how it is an obvious inspiration for later epics like Homer’s Odyssey, and most significantly the Bible. Enkidu’s creation and transition from wild man to civilized man through a woman bear a remarkable resemblance to Genesis and the Garden of Eden. Adam and Enkidu show similar journeys of enlightenment and Gilgamesh, like Adam, is left poorer but wiser at the end of the tale.
There is also a striking resemblance between the description of the flood of Babylonia in the Epic, and the story of Noah’s ark. The narrative of both of the stories seems to match up so closely and point by point in the same order that it seems like they come from the same tradition.
It has been argued by modern historians that the likely assumption we can make is that both the stories come from a common tradition about a flood in Mesopotamia. The stories then diverge in the retelling after this section, but it seems to suggest that the authors of the Bible drew on this natural disaster, as told in the Epic of Gilgamesh, for their text.
The Original Story?
The Epic of Gilgamesh conveys many themes that are important to our understanding of Mesopotamia and its kings but also the impact of that tradition on later peoples. The story was wildly famous in antiquity, with many versions of the text having been found throughout Akkadia and Bablyonia, and its impact on later literature can be clearly seen.
The fact that similar literary tropes can be seen in both Greek epics and the Bible shows how important and how formative this story was to the ancient world, and through it the emergent psyche of humanity. There is much that the Epic can tell us about early civilization, and the priorities and mindset of our distant ancestors.
But was it just a story? While there are certainly fantastical elements, there are also tantalizing fragments from the archaeological record which point to a kernel of truth at the heart of the story. For example, a surviving list of ancient Kings of Mesopotamia includes a king with the name “Gilgamesh.” Could this be the hero of our tale?
Themes of friendship, the role of the king, mortality, and the relationships between Gods and humans resound throughout the poem. These strong themes keep the work as relevant today as it was thousands of years ago.
Top Image: Statue of Gilgamesh in London. Source: ElPablo! / CC BY 2.0)
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