Epic of Gilgamesh stands out as one of the earliest known writings in the human history. It is an epic poem whose prose narrate the story revolving around the life of a man named Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh was the King of Uruk – the majestic Sumerian city that is located in present day Iraq. This historic poetic piece of literature actually predates Homer’s earliest writings by 1500 years. For this reason, many historians put it as the oldest remaining remnant of an epic in the history of western literature. Starting off the introduction of the powerful being that Gilgamesh is, the epic takes off the lead characters in an adventure where they learn the essence of life, death, and friendship. Here is a list of 10 interesting points to summarize the Epic of Gilgamesh.
10. Epic of Gilgamesh: The Prelude
The prelude to the epic of Gilgamesh primarily revolves around the introduction of Gilgamesh, the King of Uruk and the subsequent events that shape up his journey. Born as two-thirds a god and one-third a man, Gilgamesh had beyond formidable strength and an intimidating yet appealing physique. In the early excerpts, he is portrayed as a wiser man, building magnificent temple towers in his Sumerian city that was surrounded by high walls. But as he realized his might was beyond any common human being, he soon became a cruel tyrant. He was now abusing his people, raping any woman he had his eyes upon and forcing labor to complete his personal projects.
To curb Gilgamesh’s advances, the gods then create an equally potent being named ‘Enkidu’ to battle him. They end up becoming great friends – so much so that Gilgamesh is devastated when Enkidu dies of an illness inflicted by the gods. Unable to grasp the concept that death was a real possibility even for the likes of him, he embarks on a journey to the edge of the world. On his way, he learns about things that were beyond the scope of his kingdom, and records his knowledge on stone tablets. These tablets are then represented as the different lessons of life in the Epic of Gilgamesh.
9. Epic of Gilgamesh: History
Citing the earliest traces of ‘Epic of Gilgamesh’, if the myths abound Gilgamesh are to be believed, the epic stood right at the top among great literary masterpieces in the ancient times. It is without any doubt a gem in the history of cuneiform literature – a writing system developed by the ancient Sumerians themselves around 3500 – 3000 BC. Archaeologists are yet to discover any preserved evidence that could date the epic back to its time of origin. But multiple copies of certain snippets of the epic have been found in modern-day Israel, Syria and Turkey. Furthermore, the titular character Gilgamesh has been mentioned on different occasions across the entirety of ancient Greek and Roman literature.
There are few cuneiform tablets depicting the epic that survive to this day from the subsequent millennia of its origin. These older stone tablets showcase the ‘Babylonian’ version of the epic – a version that dates well back to the second millennium BC. It is only two thirds complete, and presents the story of Gilgamesh in a different light. Then there is the ‘Akkadian’ version from early 13th to 10th century BC. It wasn’t until the 7th century AD when contemporary historians found the best preserved copies in the ruins of Assyrian king Ashurbanipal’s library. Around the time First Great War had ended, the myth and story behind this epic had already stretched out beyond the middle east Asia and Europe.
8. Myth of Gilgamesh
He is also known as ‘Bilgames’ in Sumerian, ‘Gilgamos’ in Greek and known to be an amalgamation of two parts gods and one part man. Gilgamesh was the 5th king of the Sumerian city of Uruk. His life and deeds were so profoundly influential that the subsequent generations of Sumerians created myths abound his once highly proclaimed stature. These myths and stories finally culminated into the many proses found in the Epic of Gilgamesh. The epic describes him as a fierce warrior and audacious builder. Despite having his entire rule at the mercy of his limitless power, his kingship was marred with his outrageous antics. He could partake in ceaseless battles, force his people to labor to build him walls and structures and rape any woman he fancied.
It is only when he befriends an equally powerful being ‘Enkidu’, he tones down his atrocities. In Enkidu, he finds a true friend and brother – someone he can trust his life with and confide his biggest fears to. So, when Enkidu dies, he has a sudden horrifying realization that death is a destiny he cannot escape either. Still grieving from the death of his friend, he sets out on a quest to attain the secrets of eternal life, abandoning all his glory and power as a king. By the end of his pursuit, he finds that true harmony to life lies at accepting how ephemeral it can be. His happiness depends on how he chooses to reconcile with this truth. He then gets back to his kingdom with a promise to be a better king and uses his divine skills for the greater good as a mortal being.
7. Origin of Enkidu
To counter the ever-growing menace Gilgamesh was wrecking upon his people, the gods made Enkidu from water and clay as a being on par with Gilgamesh in terms of might and power. But unlike the king of Uruk, Enkidu’s early days are spent in the wild, his instincts and lifestyle are influenced by the wild animals that raised him. For a long time, he remained in complete isolation from the civilized world. But gradually, his interactions with humans become more regular whereupon he would free animals trapped by hunters. In time, he breaks away from his ways of the wild and heads for the city of Uruk.
It is said that on reaching Uruk, Enkidu wrestles with Gilgamesh as a test of strength. But soon, they become good friends, so much so that Gilgamesh now regards him as his equal brother and a part of his conscience. In a way, Enkidu does fulfill the purpose of his creation by taming down Gilgamesh’s atrocities with his friendship. As a true brother in arms, Enkidu inspires the king of Uruk to become the perfect leader he once showed promise to be. Things take a dire turn when he slays god of earth Enlil’s servant Humbaba together with Gilgamesh. He faces the wrath of Ishtar and gets an illness that slowly poisoned his body causing his ultimate demise.
6. Utnapishtim guide into mortal
Long before the time of Gilgamesh, Utnapishtim ruled as the king and high priest of the city of Shurrupak. He was then chosen by god Enki to abandon all his possessions and create a giant ship so as to survive the impending great flood that would wipe out all plants, animals, and humans. One can see obvious influence Utnapishtim’s life has on the story of Noah’s Ark. Regardless of the moral dilemma of having to leave behind his neighbors and friends to die, Utnapishtim loyally completed the task assignment by Enki. He, along with his wife, were granted immortality and a place among the gods.
In his sorrow over the death of Enkidu, and the fear of inevitable death that awaited him, Gilgamesh was ardent to find Utnapishtim. He believed since Utnapishtim was given eternal life by the gods themselves, Utnapishtim could guide him into right way to gain immortality. When they finally met, Utnapishtim tried to convince Gilgamesh to break away from his quest and live a happy life a mortal. But he did also tell him about a magical plant that could possibly help him gain eternal life.
5. Siduri, tavern Keep of underworld
In his pursuit to find Utnapishtim, at a point in his journey, Gilgamesh ended up at the gates of underworld. This is where he met Siduri – a tavern keeper of the underworld. The different iteration of the epic give varied account of the interaction between Siduri and Gilgamesh. Also known as the goddess of wine-making and brewing, Siduri is rather alarmed when Gilgamesh threatens to smash the tavern into pieces if she doesn’t help him in his quest.
In the beginning, Siduri tries her best to talk him out of his search for eternity – a quest that she only considered, to say in terms of modern euphemism, a ‘Fool’s Gold’. Ultimately, she does usher him on the whereabouts of Urshanabi, the boatman, whose help was essential for him to succeed in his search.
4. Epic of Gilgamesh: Old Babylonian Version
Also referred to as the ‘earlier’ or ‘older’ Akkadian version, this version represents the oldest of cuneiform tablets inscribed with details of the epic of Gilgamesh. Dating as far back around 2000-1500 BC, the old Babylonian version of the epic is however considered incomplete with some of its tablets missing. Some historians actually believe that the beginning of myths surrounding the epic could actually have started in a period earlier than origin attributed to this version.
The Old Babylonian version opens up in the words ‘Surpassing all other kings’ – a starting composition in its different tablets and fragments that have diverse origins. As stated earlier, this version is incomplete in its entirety. Several tablets have been said to be missing, and the discovered ones have distinct gaps in their narration. All together there are eight different tablets of Old Babylonian version. Each tablet takes its name from its current location or from the places of its discovery.
3. Epic of Gilgamesh: Standard Akkadian Version
This is the far more popular and well-preserved version, composed by Sin-liqe-unninni somewhere between 1300 – 1000 BC in contemporary Mesopotamia. It was discovered by Hormuzd Rassam from the ruins of the library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh. The standard Akkadian and old Babylonian version had two different and distinct opening phrases based on which these two can be distinguished. In these cuneiform versions, such opening words are known as incipit. The incipit in older version starts with “Surpassing all other kings” whereas in the standard version it says ‘He who saw the deep”. In the later phrase, the word ‘deep’ is translated from Akkadian word ‘nagbu’ which linguists have interpreted as an iteration that refers to ‘unknown mysteries’.
The standard Akkadian version consists of 11 tablets that map the entire story of Gilgamesh from his origin, to his friendship with Enkidu and then his eventual journey in search of eternal youth and life. The final tablet concludes the epic by retelling how Gilgamesh attains the knowledge to worship the gods and decides to live rest of his life virtuously as a wise king. In a later date, a 12th tablet was added to the Akkadian version as a sequel to the original eleven tablets.
2. Biblical References
The epic of Gilgamesh and the Hebrew Bible has strikingly similar themes and narration throughout their respective storyline. Perhaps the best-known event that chronicles out almost as a mirror image of one another in the two narratives is the flood story. The epic’s flood story pans out almost exactly like the tale of Noah’s ark in the Bible.
The similarities don’t end here. Events from Gilgamesh’s arc such as a serpent foiling his chances of grabbing the plant of eternal life and his ultimate realization that mortal life can be meaningful only if he truly accepts his humanity – these episodes and their gist are very closely re-enacted in the different genesis of Bible. That being said, while certain events when generalized in their scope are much alike between the epic and the Bible, when we delve into details, they have their fair share of differences too. For example, in Bible, Noah takes 100 years to build the arc whereas, in the epic, Utnapishtim had only 7 days to complete it. Similarly, where it rained non-stop for 40 days in Bible during the flooding, it rained only for 7 days in the epic.
1. Epic of Gilgamesh: Influences in art and literature
Once the epic of Gilgamesh was profoundly scripted as one of the oldest masterpieces of cuneiform literature, it slowly gained recognition and popularity among masses that surpassed its various myths and mysteries. In due time, it went through multiple adaptations and retelling by subsequent generations of Mesopotamian cultures. Since it had a universally feasible theme of friendship, mortality and the nature of gods, the epic had an insurmountable influence in shaping the literature of different future cultures.
The ancient Greek epics by the likes of Homer such as The Odyssey and The Iliad have clearly visible similarities to the various episodes in the epic of Gilgamesh. In the modern era, the epic gained a far wider audience in the post World War I period. By the time the second world war had ended, it was already being featured in various genres of art and literature.
The rich history of the epic of Gilgamesh puts its legacy beyond the typical ‘astounding piece of archaeology’ that is usually attested to various contemporary surviving arts and artifacts. Yes, the epic has its share of bizarre twists and rather unheard of theory on the creation of the universe. It also has a countless number of retelling and reshaping that might have significantly altered the actual narration from the time of its origin. Despite all these, the tale of the epic remains astoundingly mesmerizing – be it in terms of the monumental adventure Gilgamesh sets out on or in terms of the powerful message the epic gives to the readers.