Epic of Gilgamesh
Time & Place
Language & Form
Anonymous. The story
was crafted and reworked by various Mesopotamian and Near Eastern cultures including
the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Hittites and others.
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.
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.
("land between rivers"), region between rivers
Tigris and Euphrates considered to have been the "cradle of
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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)
"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)
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?
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 the wilderness? Is he better off as a civilized man and companion of Gilgamesh?
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?
According to this story, what is the good life? What is the meaning of immortality?
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?
ABC News 12/10/2012: "Evidence Noah's Biblical Flood Happened, Says Robert Ballard"
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) .
2000-2018 by Fidel Fajardo-Acosta,
all rights reserved
September 23, 2018 23:22