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The Story of Gilgamesh is the world’s oldest known epic and regarded by many as the world’s first piece of literature. It is an epic about a legendary Sumerian king named Gilgamesh, who oppressed his people, defied the gods and, like Apollo or Hercules, attempts to find the secret to the Afterlife, only to lose his most treasured friend---returning home an older, wiser and a more compassionate monarch. Gilgamesh is believed to have been a real person. The story has been traced to the Akkadians.

Gilgamesh dates back to around 1800 B.C. (the Old Babylonian period). The final and most popular version was produced somewhere between 1300 and 1000 B.C., and the original Sumerian poems that the later epic was based upon date to the late third millennium B.C.

Written around 2000 B.C., the Epic of Gilgamesh is based on a Mesopotamian ruler of the same name who governed the city of Uruk about seven hundred years earlier. Originally written in Akkadian, it was translated into several Near Eastern languages and became the most famous literary creation of the ancient Babylonians. Ira Spar of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “The myth known today as The Epic of Gilgamesh was considered in ancient times to be one of the great masterpieces of cuneiform literature. Copies of parts of the story have been found in Israel, Syria, and Turkey and references to the hero are attested in Greek and Roman literature. [Source: Ira Spar, Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art "Gilgamesh", Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, April 2009, \^/]

The Story of Gilgamesh --- often also referred to as The Epic of Gilgamesh ---has been dated to around 1200 B.C. Among those who have been inspired by the story were Philip Roth and Saddam Hussein. Saddam wrote a novel inspired by the epic called Zabibah and the King . The Japanese anime classic Princess Mononoke is loosely based on one episode of the Gilgamesh story. In this episode a growing urban area requires resources from a forest but is unable to gain access until a the guardian deity Funbaba is driven out. Gilgamesh and his sidekick Enkidu fight with and kill Funbaba.

Books: Gilgamesh: A New English Version by David Mitchell (Free 2004), an excellent translation. The Buried Book by David Damrosch (Holt, 2007). Damrosch is a professor of English at Columbia University. "The Epic of Gilgamesh" trans. and edited by Benjamin R. Foster (New York: Norton, 2001); "The Epic of Gilgamesh: The Babylonian Epic Poem and Other Texts in Akkadian and Sumerian" translated by Andrew George . London: Allen Lane, 1999.

Websites and Resources on Mesopotamia: Ancient History Encyclopedia ; Mesopotamia University of Chicago site; British Museum ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Mesopotamia ; Louvre ; Metropolitan Museum of Art ; University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology ; Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago ; Iraq Museum Database ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; ABZU; Oriental Institute Virtual Museum ; Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur ; Ancient Near Eastern Art Metropolitan Museum of Art

Archaeology News and Resources: : serves the online community interested in anthropology and archaeology; is good source for archaeological news and information. Archaeology in Europe features educational resources, original material on many archaeological subjects and has information on archaeological events, study tours, field trips and archaeological courses, links to web sites and articles; Archaeology magazine has archaeology news and articles and is a publication of the Archaeological Institute of America; Archaeology News Network archaeologynewsnetwork is a non-profit, online open access, pro- community news website on archaeology; British Archaeology magazine british-archaeology-magazine is an excellent source published by the Council for British Archaeology; Current Archaeology magazine is produced by the UK’s leading archaeology magazine; HeritageDaily is an online heritage and archaeology magazine, highlighting the latest news and new discoveries; Livescience : general science website with plenty of archaeological content and news. Past Horizons : online magazine site covering archaeology and heritage news as well as news on other science fields; The Archaeology Channel explores archaeology and cultural heritage through streaming media; Ancient History Encyclopedia : is put out by a non-profit organization and includes articles on pre-history; Best of History Websites is a good source for links to other sites; Essential Humanities provides information on History and Art History, including sections Prehistory

Gilgamesh Story

According to the story Gilgamesh ruled Uruk, one the great cities of Sumer around 2800 B.C. In the first half of the epic Gilgamesh is mainly concerned with performing heroic deeds and making a name for himself. Towards the end he becomes consumed with him searching for a plant that will bring eternal life. Among his feats are killing wild bulls and chopping down cedar trees in what is now Lebanon. He ultimately fails in his effort to elude death---he finds the plant of immortality but has it snatched away by a snake---but achieved immortality by building Uruk’s great city wall.

Ira Spar of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “The poem begins by explaining that Gilgamesh, although he thought that he "was wise in all matters," had to endure a journey of travail in order to find peace. Two-thirds human and one-third deity, the hero as king is unaware of his own strengths and weaknesses. He oppresses his own people. In response to complaints by the citizens of Uruk, the gods create Enkidu, a double, who becomes the hero's friend and companion. Initially described as a wild animal–like creature, Enkidu ("Lord of the Pleasant Place") has sex with a temple prostitute and is transformed into a civilized being. No longer animal-like, he now possesses wisdom "like a god," a distinguishing characteristic of humans. [Source: Ira Spar, Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art "Gilgamesh", Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, April 2009, \^/]

“After an initial confrontation, Gilgamesh and Enkidu become friends and decide to make a name for themselves by journeying to the Cedar Forest to fight against Humbaba, the giant whom the gods have placed as guardian of the sacred trees. The two kill the monster and take cedar back to Uruk as their prize. Back in Uruk, the goddess Ishtar, sexually aroused by Gilgamesh's beauty, tries to seduce him. Repulsed, the headstrong goddess sends the Bull of Heaven to destroy Uruk and punish Gilgamesh. But Gilgamesh and Enkidu meet the challenge and Gilgamesh slays the bull. The gods retaliate by causing Enkidu to fall ill and die. Gilgamesh, devastated by the death of his friend, now realizes that he is part mortal and sets out on a fruitless journey to seek immortality. \^/

“On his travels in search of the secret of everlasting life, Gilgamesh meets a scorpion man and later a divine female tavern keeper who tries to dissuade him from continuing his search. But Gilgamesh is arrogant and determined. Upon learning that Uta-napishtim ("I Found Life"), a legendary hero who had obtained eternal life, dwelt on an island across the "Waters of Death," Gilgamesh crosses the sea and is greeted by the immortal hero. Uta-napishtim explains to Gilgamesh that his quest is in vain, as humans were created to be mortal. But upon questioning, Uta-napishtim reveals that he was placed by the gods on this remote island after being informed that the world would be destroyed by a great flood. Building a boxlike ark in the shape of a cube, Uta-napishtim, the Babylonian creation myths, took on board his possessions, his riches, his family members, craftsmen, and creatures of the earth. After riding out the storm, he and his wife were granted immortality and settled on the island far from civilization. Devastated by this news and realizing that he, too, will someday expire, Gilgamesh returns to Uruk and examines its defensive wall. Finally, he comprehends that the everlasting fame he so vainly sought lay not in eternal life but in his accomplishments on behalf of both his people and his god. \^/

History of Gilgamesh Story

In the period before 2700 B.C., the Sumerians considered most of their kings to be gods, or at least heros. The deification and heroization of kings mostly ceased after Gilgamesh, king of Uruk. No contemporary information is known about Gilgamesh, who, if he was in fact an historical person, would have lived around 2700 B.C. Some early Sumerian tales about Gilgamesh make the point that he was not a great king. The story, "Gilgamesh and Agga of Kish," shows him forced to acknowledge the overlordship of the Great King of Kish, possibly Mesannepada of Ur. [Source: Internet Archive, from UNT]

Ira Spar of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “The tale revolves around a legendary hero named Gilgamesh (Bilgames in Sumerian), who was said to be the king of the Sumerian city of Uruk. His father is identified as Lugalbanda, king of Uruk, and his mother is the wise cow goddess Ninsun. No contemporary information is known about Gilgamesh, who, if he was in fact an historical person, would have lived around 2700 B.C. Nor is there any preserved early third-millennium version of the poem. During the twenty-first century B.C., Shulgi, ruler of the Sumerian city of Ur, was a patron of the literary arts. He sponsored a revival of older literature and established academies of scholars at his capital Ur and at the holy city of Nippur. Shulgi claimed Lugalbanda as his father and Gilgamesh as his brother. [Source: Ira Spar, Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art "Gilgamesh", Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, April 2009, \^/]

Sumerian King List lists Gilgamesh

“Although little of the courtly literature of the Shulgi academies survives, and Sumerian ceased to be a spoken language soon after the end of his dynasty, Sumerian literature continued to be studied in the scribal schools of the following Old Babylonian period. Five Sumerian stories about Gilgamesh were copied in these schools. These tales, which were not part of an epic cycle, were originally oral narratives sung at the royal court of the Third Dynasty of Ur. \^/

“"Gilgamesh and Akka" describes the triumph of the hero over his overlord Akka, ruler of the city of Kish. "Gilgamesh and Huwawa" recounts the journey of the hero and his servant Enkidu to the cedar mountains, where they encounter and slay the giant Huwawa, the guardian of the forest. A third tale, "Gilgamesh and the Bull of Heaven," deals with Gilgamesh's rejection of the amorous advances made by Inanna, the Queen of Heaven. Seeking revenge, the goddess sends the Bull of Heaven to kill Gilgamesh, but the hero, with the assistance of Enkidu, slays the monster. In "Gilgamesh and the Netherworld," the hero loses two sport-related objects, which fall into the Netherworld. Enkidu descends into the depths to find them and, upon his return to life, describes the horrid fate that awaits the dead. In the final composition, "The Death of Gilgamesh," the hero dreams that the gods are meeting to review his exploits and accomplishments. They decide that he, like all of humankind, shall not be granted eternal life. \^/

“In addition to the Sumerian compositions, young scribes studying in the Old Babylonian schools made copies of different oral stories about the hero Gilgamesh. One noteworthy tale was sung in Akkadian rather than in Sumerian. Called "Surpassing All Other Kings," this poem combined some elements of the Sumerian narrative into a new Akkadian tale. Only fragments of this composition survive. By the end of the eighteenth century B.C., large areas of southern Mesopotamia, including Nippur, were abandoned; the scribal academies closed as the economy collapsed. A shift in political power and culture took place under the newly ascendant Babylonian dynasties centered north of Sumer. Hundreds of years later, toward the end of the second millennium B.C., literary works in Babylonian dominated scribal learning. Differing versions of classic compositions, including the Akkadian Gilgamesh story, proliferated and translations and adaptations were made by poets in various lands to reflect local concerns. \^/

“Some time in the twelfth century B.C., Sin-leqi-unninni, a Babylonian scholar, recorded what was to become a classic version of the Gilgamesh tale. Not content to merely copy an old version of the tale, this scholar most likely assembled various versions of the story from both oral and written sources and updated them in light of the literary concerns of his day, which included questions about human mortality and the nature of wisdom. "Surpassing All Other Kings" now became a new composition called "He Who Saw the Deep." In the poem, Sin-leqi-unninni recast Enkidu as Gilgamesh's companion and brought to the fore concerns about unbridled heroism, the responsibilities of good governance, and the purpose of life. The new version of the epic explains that Gilgamesh, although he is king of Uruk, acts as an arrogant, impulsive, and irresponsible ruler. Only after a frustrating and vain attempt to find eternal life does he emerge from immaturity to realize that one's achievements, rather than immortality, serve as an enduring legacy.” \^/

Archaeologist George Smith announced the discovery of “The Epic of Gilgamesh” in 1872. He found and translated the tablets which contained the epic and told the story of the cleansing flood. Historian Marina Warner observes that “his joy was occasioned above all by the independent corroboration the poem offered to the historicity of the Bible. He was a fervent Christian and longed, as many did, for archaeology to prove the scriptures’ reliability.” When Smith first shared the story with the public it “was the first time the ‘Epic of Gilgamesh’ had been heard and understood after an interval of two thousand years: the longest sleeper ever among the world’s great poems.” What this means, she continues, is that we read it as representing a kind of “double history, as an ancient epic and a modern narrative poem.” [Source: David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times, February 27, 2014]

Discovery of the Story of Gilgamesh

Austen Henry Layard

After the fall of the Assyrian Empire in the 6th century B.C., the first great library of the world--- which contained the Gilgamesh story--- was also lost. In 1844,Sir Austen Henry Layard, a British lawyer and pioneering archaeologist, began the first excavations of the Assyrian and Babylonian ruins in Nineveh and Nimrud and the great library---the library of Ashurbanipal---was found. Many of the actual discoveries were made by Hormuzd Rassam, an Iraqi archaeologist, who was friend and protege of Layard and who excavated Nineveh and Nimrud through the 19th century, making many great discoveries only to have the credit taken by Englishmen, whose acceptance and admiration he greatly craved. [Source: The New Yorker]

Thousands of tablets from the library were taken to the British Museum, where they were examined by an amateur linguist named George Smith, who had ended his formal education at 14 and taught himself to read Akkadian. One day in 1867 during his lunch break from his day job as a printer’s engraver he was combing through the tablets---which were mostly records of business and government transactions---he came across what seemed to be a narrative of the Biblical flood and with that began the rediscovery of The Story of Gilgamesh .

Many of the tablets that contain the flood story were painstakingly assembled from fragments. After Smith made his initial discovery from a small fragment he had to wait a few days for restorer Robert Ready to show to reconstruct the tablet and make it easier to read. On the wait and the Eureka moment his friend E.A. Wallis Budge later recalled, “Smith was constitutionally a highly, nervous man, and his irritation at Ready’s absence knew no bounds.” When Ready finally did show up and Smith could read the text, Budge said, “Smith took the tablet and began to read over the lines that Ready had brought to light and when he saw that they contained the portion of the legend he had hoped to find there, he said: “I am the first man to read after more than two thousand years of oblivion.” Setting the tablet on the table, Smith jumped and rushed around the room in a greats state of excitement.”

Smith later wrote the first true history of the Assyrians, painstakingly translated important Babylonian texts and became the world’s foremost expert on the Akkadian language and its exceedingly difficult script. He also discovered passages from an older flood story than the one in Gilgamesh , dating back to 1800 B.C. , during his own archaeology work, excavating in Nineveh. He worked furiously and wrote eight important books on the Assyrians before he died in Aleppo in 1877, a decade after making his initial discovery.

Gilgamesh Themes and Art

There are a lot of versions and variations of the Gilgamesh story with different characterizations and plot twists. Gilgamesh is described as being both two-thirds god and one-third man, and two-thirds man and one-third god but ultimately is destined to same fate as ordinary men. He is strong as a “wild bull,” and impulsive and reckless. As the King of Ur he is unaware of his own strengths and weaknesses and oppresses his own people so severely the ask the gods to create a friend for him to bring him under control. .

Akkadian cylinder seal

According to CCNY (City College of New York): Though the Epic of Gilgamesh “may originally have been an historical account the tale has many layers of myth and symbolism. One of those layers deals with life after death. The afterlife for the Mesopotamians mirrors the hardships the people faced in their daily existence.

According to the University of Northern Texas: “The Epic of Gilgamesh is a story of man coming to grips with his own mortality. It reaches the secular conclusion that salvation (becoming one with God) is beyond hope and that the "immortality" of man lay in his deeds and the remembrance of them — an idea that is radically different from the prevailing ideas in ancient Egypt. The Gilgamesh of the epic was a predominantly heroic, yet tragic, figure. He was not a god. [Source: Internet Archive, from UNT]

Ira Spar of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Attempts to identify Gilgamesh in art are fraught with difficulty. Cylinder seals from the Old Akkadian period (ca. 2334–2154 B.C.) onward showing nude heroes with beards and curls grappling with lions and bovines cannot be identified with Gilgamesh. They are more likely to be associated with the god Lahmu ("The Hairy One"). A terracotta plaque in the Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin, depicts a bearded hero grasping an ogre's wrist while raising his right hand to attack him with a club. To his left, a beardless figure pins down the monster's arm, pulls his hair, and is about to pierce his neck with a knife. This scene is often associated with the death of Humbaba. The Babylonian Gilgamesh epic clearly describes Enkidu as being almost identical to Gilgamesh, but no mention is made of the monster's long hair, and although Gilgamesh is said to strike the monster with a dagger, he holds an axe rather than a club in his hand. The scene on the Berlin plaque may reflect the older Sumerian story wherein Enkidu is described as a companion rather than a double of the hero. In this older tale, Enkidu is the one who "severed [Huwawa's] head at the neck." Similar images appear on cylinder seals of the second and first millennium B.C.” [Source: Ira Spar, Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art "Gilgamesh", Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, April 2009, \^/]

Babylonian Gilgamesh


According to the Catholic Encyclopedia:“The great national epos of Gilgamesh, which probably had in Babylonian literature some such place as the Odyssey or the Aeneid amongst the Greeks and Romans. It consists of twelve chapters or cantos. It opens with the words Sha nagbo imuru (He who saw everything). The number of extant tablets is considerable, but unfortunately they are all very fragmentary and with exception of the eleventh chapter the text is very imperfect and shows as yet huge lacunae. Gilgamesh was King of Erech the Walled. [Source: J.P. Arendzen, transcribed by Rev. Richard Giroux, Catholic Encyclopedia |=|]

“When the story begins, the city and the temples are in a ruinous state. Some great calamity has fallen upon them. Erech has been besieged for three years, till Bel and Ishtar interest themselves in its behalf. Gilgamesh has yearned for a companion, and the goddess Arurn makes Ea-bani, the warrior; "covered with hair was all his body and he had tresses like a woman, his hair grew thick as corn; though a man, he lives amongst the beasts of the field". They entice him into the city of Erech by the charms of a woman called Samuhat; he lives there and becomes a fast friend of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh and Ea-bani set out in quest of adventure, travel through forests, and arrive at the palace of a great queen. Gilgamesh cuts off the head of Humbabe, the Elamite king. Ishtar the goddess falls in love with him and asks him in marriage. But Gilgamesh scornfully reminds her of her treatment of former lovers. Ishtar in anger returns to heaven and revenges herself by sending a divine bull against Gilgamesh and Ea-bani. This animal is overcome and slain to the great joy of the city of Erech. Warning dreams are sent to Gilgamesh and his friend Ea-bani dies, and Gilgamesh sets out on a far journey, to bring his friend back from the underworld. |=|

“After endless adventures our hero reaches in a ship the waters of death and converses with Pir-napistum, the Babylonian Noe, who tells him the story of the flood, which fills up the eleventh chapter of some 330 lines, referred to above. Pir-napistum gives to Gilgamesh the plant of rejuvenescence but he loses it again on his way back to Erech. In the last chapter Gilgamesh succeeds in calling up the spirit of Ea-bani, who gives a vivid portrayal of life after death "where the worm devoureth those who had sinned in their heart, but where the blessed lying upon a couch, drink pure water". Though weird in the extreme and to our eyes a mixture of the grotesque with the sublime, this epos contains descriptive passages of unmistakable power. A few lines as example: "At the break of dawn in the morning there arose from the foundation of heaven a dark cloud. The Storm god thundered within it and Nebo and Marduk went before it. Then went the heralds over mountain and plain. Uragala dragged the anchors loose, the Annunak raised their torches, with their flashing they lighted the earth. The roar of the Storm god reached to the heavens and everything bright turned into darkness." |=|

Gilgamesh in the Underworld: the Most Famous Part

In Gilgamesh there are descriptions of the UnderworldGilgamesh does not visit the Underworld - Enkidu is the only person who describes the Underworld and this is the result of a dream.

Kapara relief
Gilgamesh winged sun
In an Old Babylonian version of the epic (probably written around 1700 - 1800 BC, but not present in the "standard version" of the story a female tavern keeper tells ilgamesh in the middle of his journey to be virtuous and concern himself with matters of the world not the afterlife:
The life that you seek you never will find...
Gaze on the child who hold your hand.
Let your wife enjoy your repeated embrace!
For such is the destiny of mortal men.

In The Story of Gilgamesh , the Underworld is described as a place where 1) a man with one son “lies prostrate at the foot of a wall and weeps bitterly over it,” 2) a man with two sons “dwells in a brick-structure and eats bread,” 3) a man with thee sons “drinks water out of waterskins of the deep,” 4) a man whose body has not been buried possesses “a spirit that does not rest,” and 5) a spirit with no one to take care of it “eats pieces of bread that have been thrown to it.”

Another Mesopotamian epic about a search for eternal life centers on Adapa, who receives special wisdom from Ea, the water god. The other gods are jealous and summon him to the land of gods. Ea tells him to be on his guard and not drink or eat anything on his visit. Adapa heeds the advise. Anu, the god of the sky, offers him some bread of life and drink of life that would bring him eternal life. The gods figured Adapa already knew so much he might as well be a god. Adapa refused and returned to earth to die. Some say this story gave birth to the Adam and Eve story.

Sumerian Prologue to Gilgamesh; The Huluppu Tree

The Huluppu-Tree — a translation of a Gilgamesh Prologue — goes:
After heaven and earth had been separated
and mankind had been created,
after Anûum, Enlil and Ereskigal had taken posesssion
of heaven, earth and the underworld;
after Enki had set sail for the underworld
and the sea ebbed and flowed in honor of its lord;
on this day, a huluppu tree
which had been planted on the banks of the Euphrates
and nourished by its waters
was uprooted by the south wind
and carried away by the Euphrates.

A goddess who was wandering among the banks
seized the swaying tree
And -- at the behest of Anu and Enlil --
brought it to Inanna's garden in Uruk.
Inanna tended the tree carefully and lovingly
she hoped to have a throne and a bed
made for herself from its wood.
After ten years, the tree had matured.
But in the meantime, she found to her dismay
that her hopes could not be fulfilled.
because during that time
a dragon had built its nest at the foot of the tree
the Zu-bird was raising its young in the crown,
and the demon Lilith had built her house in the middle.[1]

But Gilgamesh, who had heard of Inanna's plight,
came to her rescue.
He took his heavy shield
killed the dragon with his heavy bronze axe,
which weighed seven talents and seven minas.
Then the Zu-bird flew into the mountains
with its young,
while Lilith, petrified with fear,
tore down her house and fled into the wilderness [Source: translation is from Kramer38:1f According to the University of Pennsylvania: “This passage, as understood and translated by Samuel Kramer, would include the oldest known reference to Lilith... Kramer's translation with Diane Wolkstein is far smoother (but for style, not accuracy). [Source: UPenn]

Huluppu Tree

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Mesopotamia , National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, especially Merle Severy, National Geographic, May 1991 and Marion Steinmann, Smithsonian, December 1988, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, Encyclopædia Britannica, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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