Epic of Gilgamesh
(c. 2000 B.C.)
Time & Place
Language & Form
was crafted and reworked by various Mesopotamian cultures including
the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, and Assyrians; original story
likely dates back to around the time of King Gilgamesh of Uruk (c.
2,700-2,500 BC); the Babylonian version, c. 1,600-1,200 BC, is associated with the name of the priest-exorcist, Sîn-leqi-unninni.
epic poem originally written
down by the Sumerians around 2,000 BC
poem. Original in the Sumerian language, written down with cuneiform
characters on clay tablets found at Nippúr in Mesopotamia
and dating back to around 2,000 BC; Synthetic Standard Version based
on the 12-tablet Akkadian version of the poem found in the 25,000-tablet
library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (668-627 BC) at Niniveh.
Recommended English translation: Nancy K. Sandars.
The Epic of
Gilgamesh is the story of King Gilgamesh of Uruk who oppresses his
people. As punishment, the gods send him a companion, Enkidu, who
is his mirror image and becomes his good friend. Together, Gilgamesh
and Enkidu defy the gods by killing the giant Humbaba, cutting down
the sacred cedar forest which he guards, and killing the Bull of
Heaven. Enkidu has ominous dreams of the destiny of tyrants who
become slaves in the House of Death. Enkidu finally dies of an illness
sent by the gods. Horrified by Enkidu's death and the prospect of
his own demise, Gilgamesh undertakes a quest for immortality which
brings him to the abode of Utnapishtim, a virtuous man who obeys
the gods and was saved by them from the Great Flood. Utnapishtim
puts Gilgamesh to various tests which he fails and eventually sends
him away, assuring him that he cannot escape death. A humbled Gilgamesh
returns to Uruk and orders his story to be inscribed in stone.
("land between rivers"), region between rivers
Tigris and Euphrates considered to have been the "cradle of
originally came from Iran or Persian gulf and flourished in Mesopotamia
between 5,000-2,000 BC
Sophisticated Sumerian technology and civilization: huts in marshes
and houses of mud bricks, clay blades, dikes and canals, terraced
temples (ziggurat), sailboats, wheeled vehicles, animal-drawn plows,
potter's wheel, fortified cities
Sumerian city of Eridu before 4,000 BC. Other cities: Lagash, Ur,
Kish, Nippúr, Uruk. Uruk had 6-mile, 18 ft-thick walls
3,300-3,000 BC, invention of writing, earliest Sumerian texts. Cuneiform
writing: reed markings on wet clay tablets, wedge shaped marks;
first versions of Epic of Gilgamesh found in a collection of over
40,000 clay tablets from the city of Nippúr dating back to
around 2,000 BC.
2,700 BC, Gilgamesh of Uruk, fifth ruler of first post-diluvian
dynasty of Uruk
2,100 BC, first law book, laws of Ur-Nammu, king of Ur
Sumerians coexisted with Akkadians (who came from Syria) from around
Rock, 516 BC memorial to conquests of Persian King Darius, on the
plain of Kirmanshah (Persia, now Iran) and discovered in 1835 by
Henry Creswicke Rawlinson. This discovery made possible the decipherment
of cuneiform writing. The Behistun Rock stands 300 ft high, features
sculpted figures in bas relief, and is inscribed with bands of cuneiform
writing in Old Persian, Susan (Elamite), and Assyrian-Babylonian.
and publication of Utnaphistim's "Story of the Flood"
of the Great Flood and story of a virtuous man named Utnapishtim--likely
sources for the later biblical story of Noah.
tyranny, oppression, violence, conquest, and the ambitions of the
powerful and promotes instead the values of a simple life of rest
and enjoyment of the pleasures of human companionship, love, food,
of the epic is a carpe diem ("seize the day") theme.
proto-environmentalist stance of the poem.
inventors of civilization, appear to have had misgivings about the
implications of the alienation of human beings from nature and the
victimization of nature by civilized people.
a belief in a divine retributive justice, order, or balance of things
requiring punishment in kind for transgressions such as violence,
cruelty, pride/hubris, the
oppression of others, and the destruction of nature. Such beliefs
are embodied in the story in the wrath of the god Enlil and the
concept of Namtar (evil fate) and are likely origins/prototypes
of later notions such as Babylonian Lex Talionis ("eye
for an eye"), the Greek Moira, Hindu/Buddhist Karma,
and the Christian Golden Rule. Ancient Sumerian proverb: "you
go and take the field of the enemy; the enemy comes and takes your
is no permanence. Do we build a house to stand forever, do we seal
a contract to hold for all time? Do brothers divide an inheritance
to keep forever, does the flood-time of rivers endure?" (translation
by N. K. Sandars)
at you now, Utnapishtim, and your appearance is no different from
mine; there is nothing strange in your features. I thought I should
find you like a hero prepared for battle, but you lie here taking
your ease on your back. Tell me truly, how was it that you came
to enter the company of the gods, and to possess everlasting life?"
(translation by N. K. Sandars)
roles may the epic have played in courtly settings throughout the
history of Mesopotamian civilizations? What is the relation of the
poet to the kings and heroes about which he/she spoke? Is that relation
necessarily one of harmony and agreement? What does the epic suggest?
sort of a king is Gilgamesh? Is he liked by his people? What is
the meaning of the figure of Enkidu? Why is he said to have come
into being? For what purpose? Does he succeed in that purpose?
is Enkidu said to be so similar to Gilgamesh ("his equal; ...
his own reflection, his second self, stormy heart for stormy heart")?
Does Enkidu change throughout the course of his adventures? What
sort of a man was he at the beginning? How does he change? What
are the consequences of those changes?
there some possible historical significance to situations such as
the raid against the "Country of the Living," the giant
Humbaba, the sacred forest of cedars? What does the giant represent?
What may have been the underlying motivation of such a raid? Could
economic factors have played a role?
is the attitude of the epic toward Nature (forests, animals, wild
life, etc)? What is the attitude toward the destruction and neglect
of Nature (as for example in the cutting down of Humbaba's cedar
forest and Enkidu's abandonment of his former life in another forest)?
is the meaning of the gods? What functions do they play in the story?
What is their relationship to human beings? How do gods differ from
and how are they similar to human beings? Why is Gilgamesh said
to be two-thirds god? What does that suggest about the processes
by which gods are created/envisioned by the human imagination? How
is the literary narrative and story-telling in general connected
to those processes?
is the significance and role of the dreams of Enkidu just before
his death? What does he see in his vision of the Underworld? What
happens there to those who were rich and powerful while alive? What
does this imply for people like Gilgamesh and Enkidu? Why is Gilgamesh
so afraid after Enkidu's death?
to the epic, is immortality possible for human beings? Are there
any immortal human beings depicted in the epic? What does this suggest?
What does this suggest about Gilgamesh?
is the reaction of Gilgamesh at the moment when he first sees Utnapishtim,
the Faraway? What are his exact words? What does this imply concerning
his expectations, his values, his lifestyle? Is there any relation
between those expectations, values and lifestyle-that is, the sort
of man Gilgamesh is-and his destiny? What does the life of Utnapishtim
is the significance of the story of the Flood which Utnapishtim
tells Gilgamesh? Why did the gods choose Utnapishtim to be saved?
is the meaning of the tests which Utnapishtim asks Gilgamesh to
undertake? Why does Gilgamesh fail?
the character of Gilgamesh transformed in the course of his journeys?
Is he a different sort of man at the end, after his return home?
According to this epic, what is the best way of life? That of Gilgamesh?
That of Enkidu? That of Utnapishtim?
Truth Behind Noah's Flood: http://www.pbs.org/saf/1207/features/noah.htm
ABC News 12/10/2012: "Evidence Noah's Biblical Flood Happened, Says Robert Ballard"
A. R. George, The Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh: Introduction, Critical Edition and Cuneiform Texts. 2 volumes. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
2001-2013 by Fidel Fajardo-Acosta,
all rights reserved
last updated: 01/21/2013