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The Epic of Gilgamesh
(c. 2000 B.C.)

Author

Time & Place


Language & Form

Synopsis

Contexts

Main Issues

Selected Quotations

Study Questions

Links

Recommended Reading

Author

Anonymous; story 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.

Time & Place

Mesopotamian epic poem originally written down by the Sumerians around 2,000 BC

Language & Form

Epic 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.

Synopsis

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.

Contexts

Mesopotamia ("land between rivers"), region between rivers Tigris and Euphrates considered to have been the "cradle of civilization."
Sumerians 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 3,000 BC

Behistun 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.

1872, discovery and publication of Utnaphistim's "Story of the Flood"

Main Issues

Earliest known literary work.

Contains account of the Great Flood and story of a virtuous man named Utnapishtim--likely sources for the later biblical story of Noah.

Epic criticizes 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, and drink.

Central idea of the epic is a carpe diem ("seize the day") theme.

Pro-nature, proto-environmentalist stance of the poem.

Sumerians, the 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.

Epic expresses 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 field"

Selected Quotations

"There 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)

"I look 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)


Study Questions

What 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?

What 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?

Why 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?

Is 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?

What 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)?

What 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?

What 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?

According 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?

What 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 represent?

What is the significance of the story of the Flood which Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh? Why did the gods choose Utnapishtim to be saved?
What is the meaning of the tests which Utnapishtim asks Gilgamesh to undertake? Why does Gilgamesh fail?

Is 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?

Links

The 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"

The Nippur Expedition:
http://www-oi.uchicago.edu/OI/PROJ/NIP/Nippur.html

Recommended Reading

A. R. George, The Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh: Introduction, Critical Edition and Cuneiform Texts. 2 volumes. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

 

 

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