The Epic of Gilgamesh


Time & Place

Language & Form



Main Issues

Selected Quotations

Study Questions


Recommended Reading


Anonymous. The story was crafted and reworked by various Mesopotamian and Near Eastern cultures including the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Hittites and others.

Time & Place

The original story dates back to around the time of King Gilgamesh of Uruk (c. 2,700-2,600 BC) and is preserved in Sumerian poems, recovered from ruins at the city of Nippúr, written down in the days of King Shulgi, c. 2,000 BC. The 12-tablet Akkadian version known as the Standard Synthetic Version, dates to around c. 1,300-1,000 BC, and is associated with the name of the priest-exorcist, Sîn-leqi-unninni. The most complete text of the Standard Synthetic Version was recovered from the 25,000-tablet library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (668-627 BC) at Niniveh.

Language & Form

Epic poem. Multiple versions in Sumerian, Akkadian-Babylonian, Hittite, and Hurrian languages. Recommended English translation: Nancy K. Sandars. Recommended scholarly edition: Andrew R. George.


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.


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

Sumerians likely originated in peoples displaced by the Great Flood that created the Black Sea. They flourished in Mesopotamia between 5,000-2,000 BC.

Sumerians coexisted with Akkadians, Semitic peoples who came from Syria, from around 3,000 BC. After 2,000 BC, Sumerian culture dissolved into the dominant Akkadian-Babylonian culture that absorbed Sumerian traditions and accomplishments, including cuneiform writing.

Sumerian 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, use of copper and bronze.

3,300-3,000 BC, invention of writing. Cuneiform script: reed markings on wet clay tablets, wedge shaped marks.

Sumerian city of Eridu since 5,000 BC. Other cities: Ur, Nippúr, Uruk, Kish, Lagash.

Uruk had 6-mile, 18 feet thick, 40 feet high walls enclosing an area of about 2.3 square miles sheltering a population of about 50,000 to 80,000 people.

Gilgamesh of Uruk (c. 2,700-2,600 BC), fifth ruler of first post-diluvian dynasty of Uruk

2,100 BC, first law book, laws of Ur-Nammu, king of the city of Ur

Earliest extant versions of the Epic of Gilgamesh from a collection of over 40,000 clay tablets from the city of Nippúr dating back to around 2,000 BC, from the libraries of King Shulgi, son of Ur-Nammu.

Behistun Rock, 516 BC: sculptures and writing on a rock outcrop intended as a memorial to the conquests of Persian King Darius, on Kirmanshah (Persia, now Iran). The Behistun Rock stands 300 feet high and is carved with sculptures in bas relief and inscribed with bands of cuneiform writing in Old Persian, Elamite, and Assyrian-Babylonian. The Behistun Rock eventually made possible the decipherment of cuneiform writing.

Main Issues

The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the oldest extant works of written literature.

The story of Gilgamesh contains an account of the Great Flood where the hero is a virtuous man, named "Ziusudra" by the Sumerians and "Utnapishtim" by the Akkadian-Babylonians. The story is the original of the later biblical story of Noah and the Ark.

The story is seemingly praiseful of the ambitions and conquests of King Gilgamesh but ultimately criticizes tyranny, oppression, and violence and promotes instead the values of a simple life of peaceful rest and enjoyment of the pleasures of human companionship, love, food, and drink.

The central idea of the epic is a carpe diem ("seize the day") theme and the notion that, although the life of individual creatures is finite, the life of nature is eternal and much more important than any individual accomplishments.

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

Saving life, as Ziusudra/Utnapishtim does, is much more admirable than all the monster killings and conquests of Gilgamesh.

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.

Thge story 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 (Fate), Hindu/Buddhist Karma, and the Christian Golden Rule. The ancient Sumerian proverb: "you go and take the field of the enemy; the enemy comes and takes your field" makes explicit an idea that is central to the story of Gilgamesh.

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)

"Gilgamesh, where are you hurrying to? You will never find that life for which you are looking. When the gods created man they alloted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping. As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man" (translation 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 s/he 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 the wilderness? Is he better off as a civilized man and companion of Gilgamesh?

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?

According to this story, what is the good life? What is the meaning of immortality?


ABC News 12/10/2012: "Evidence Noah's Biblical Flood Happened, Says Robert Ballard"

Recommended Reading

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

Nancy K. Sandars, The Epic of Gilgamesh (Harmondsworth, UK; New York: Penguin Books, 1960) .



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