Epic of Gilgamesh

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Ancient History, Classical History and Mythology; Poetry & Opera

Fertile Crescent
myth series
Mark of the Palm
Primordial beings
7 gods who command
The great gods
Spirits and monsters
Tales from Babylon
Demigods and Heroes 

Adapa, Enkidu
Enmerkar, Geshtinanna
Gilgamesh, Lugalbanda
Shamhat, Siduri
Tammuz, Utnapishtim

The Epic of Gilgamesh is an epic poem from Babylonia and is among the earliest known literary works. A series of Sumerian legends and poems about the mythological hero-king Gilgamesh, thought to be a ruler of the 3rd millennium BC, were gathered into a longer Akkadian poem long afterward, with the most complete version extant today preserved on eleven clay tablets in the library collection of the 7th century BC Assyrian king Assurbanipal.

One of the stories included in the epic relates to the deluge. The essential story revolves around the relationship between Gilgamesh, a king who has become distracted and disheartened by his rule, and a friend, Enkidu, who is half-wild and who undertakes dangerous quests with Gilgamesh. Much of the epic focuses on Gilgamesh's feelings of loss following Enkidu's death.

The epic is widely read in translation, and the hero, Gilgamesh has become an icon of popular culture.


The Deluge tablet of the Gilgamesh epic in Akkadian
The Deluge tablet of the Gilgamesh epic in Akkadian

Gilgamesh's supposed historical reign is believed to have been approximately 2500 BC, 400 years before the earliest known written stories. The discovery of artifacts associated with Agga and Enmebaragesi of Kish, two other kings named in the stories, has lent credibility to the historical existence of Gilgamesh.

The earliest Sumerian versions of the epic date from as early as the Third dynasty of Ur ( 2100 BC- 2000 BC). The earliest Akkadian versions are dated to ca. 2000- 1500 BC. The "standard" Akkadian version, composed by Sin-liqe-unninni was composed sometime between 1300 BC and 1000 BC. The standard and earlier Akkadian versions are differentiated based on the opening words, or incipit. The older version begins with the words "Surpassing all other kings", while the standard version's incipit is "He who saw the deep" (ša nagbu amāru). The Akkadian word nagbu, "deep", is probably to be interpreted here as referring to "unknown mysteries".

The eleventh (XI) tablet contains the flood myth that was mostly copied from the Epic of Atrahasis. See Gilgamesh flood myth

A twelfth tablet sometimes appended to the remainder of the epic represents a sequel to the original eleven, and was added at a later date. This tablet has commonly been omitted until recent years, as it is in a different style and is out of sequence with the rest of the tablets (" Enkidu is still alive..."), and is considered a separate work.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is widely known today. The first modern translation of the epic was in the 1870s by George Smith. More recent translations include one undertaken with the assistance of the American novelist John Gardner, and published in 1984. Another edition is the two volume critical work by Andrew George whose translation also appeared in the Penguin Classics series in 2003. In 2004, Stephen Mitchell released a controversial edition, which is his interpretation of previous scholarly translations into what he calls the "New English version".

Contents of the eleven clay tablets

Gilgamesh and Enkidu on a cylinder seal from Ur III
Gilgamesh and Enkidu on a cylinder seal from Ur III
  1. Gilgamesh of Uruk, the greatest king on earth, two-thirds god and one-third human, is the strongest super-human who ever existed. When his people complain that he is too harsh, and abuses his power by sleeping with women before their husbands do, the goddess of creation Aruru creates the wild-man Enkidu, a worthy rival as well as distraction. Enkidu is tamed by the seduction of priestess/prostitute (a hierodule) Shamhat.
  2. Enkidu challenges Gilgamesh. After a mighty battle, Gilgamesh breaks off from the fight (this portion is missing from the Standard Babylonian version but is supplied from other versions). Gilgamesh proposes an adventure in the Cedar Forest to kill a demon.
  3. Gilgamesh and Enkidu prepare to adventure to the Cedar Forest, with support from many including the sun-god Shamash.
  4. Gilgamesh and Enkidu journey to the Cedar Forest.
  5. Gilgamesh and Enkidu, with help from Shamash, kill Humbaba, the demon/ogre guardian of the trees. But before this is done Humbaba curses them both, saying that one will die for this; then he cuts down the trees, which they float as a raft back to Uruk.
  6. Gilgamesh rejects the sexual advances of Anu's daughter, the goddess Ishtar. Ishtar asks her father to send the " Bull of Heaven" to avenge the rejected sexual advances. Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill the bull.
  7. The gods decide that somebody has to be punished for killing the Bull of Heaven, and they condemn Enkidu. This also fulfulls Humbaba's curse. Enkidu becomes ill and describes the Netherworld as he is dying. Stephen Mitchell and others interpret the punishment as being for the killing of Humbaba.
  8. Gilgamesh delivers a lamentation for Enkidu, offering gifts to the many gods in order that they might walk beside Enkidu in the netherworld.
  9. Gilgamesh sets out to avoid Enkidu's fate and makes a perilous journey to visit Utnapishtim and his wife, the only humans to have survived the Great Flood who were granted immortality by the gods, in the hope that he too can attain immortality. Along the way, Gilgamesh encounters the alewyfe Siduri who attempts to dissuade him from his quest.
  10. Gilgamesh punts across the Waters of Death with Urshanabi, the ferryman, completing the journey to the underworld.
  11. Gilgamesh meets Utnapishtim, who tells him about the great flood and reluctantly gives him a chance for immortality. He tells Gilgamesh that if he can stay awake for six days and seven nights he will become immortal. However, Gilgamesh falls asleep and Utnapishtim tells his wife to bake a loaf of bread for every day he is asleep so that Gilgamesh cannot deny his failure. When Gilgamesh awakens, Utnapishtim tells him of a plant that will rejuvenate him. Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh that if he can obtain the plant from the bottom of the sea and eat it he will be rejuvenated, be a younger man again. Gilgamesh obtains the plant, but doesn't eat it immediately because he wants to share it with other elders of Uruk. He places the plant on the shore of a lake while he bathes, and it is stolen by a snake. Gilgamesh, having failed at both opportunities, returns to Uruk, where the sight of its massive walls prompts him to praise this enduring work of mortal men. Gilgamesh realizes that the way mortals can achieve immortality is through lasting works of civilization and culture. For the origin of the flood myth in tablet XI see Gilgamesh flood myth.

Influence on later Epic Literature

According to the Greek scholar Ioannis Kordatos, there are a large number of parallel verses as well as themes or episodes which indicate a substantial influence of the Epic of Gilgamesh on the Odyssey, the Greek epic poem ascribed to Homer.

Some aspects of the Gilgamesh flood myth seem to be related to the story of Noah's ark in the Bible, see deluge (mythology).

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