What is The Epic of Gilgamesh?
The Epic of Gilgamesh is an ancient Mesopotamian poem, written in the Akkadian language in the Mesopotamian city-state of Uruk. It is widely regarded to be the oldest piece of epic world literature on Earth, preceding the works of Homer by over 1500 years. The Akkadian text is believed to have been written by a Babylonian scribe named Sin-liqe-unninni between 1300 and 1000 BCE. Sin-liqe-unninni likely drew upon older Sumerian legends and poems in cuneiform script to write the story of Gilgamesh, most of which date back to the early third or late-second millennium BCE. Gilgamesh is written on 12 incomplete, fragmented Akkadian language tablets, all created at different times and in different places. Unfortunately, a great deal of the text remains lost, and today we only have 3200 of an estimated 3600 lines. However, across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, scholars located and deciphered these fragments, combining them to create a ‘complete’ or somewhat coherent narrative of the original tale.
Who was Gilgamesh?
The titular hero in The Epic of Gilgamesh likely references a real Mesopotamian ruler of the same name. A list of kings indicates that there was, in fact, a ruler of Uruk named Gilgamesh in about 2600 BCE. While little is known about the life of the actual king who inspired the legend, the figure of Gilgamesh is often represented as a great hero in many Sumerian texts. In addition, the historical king was eventually accorded complete divine status as God. In fact, the aforementioned Sumerian King List records his reign as 126 years! Many later Mesopotamian kings would eventually invoke his name and associate his lineage with their own, to raise their own status. By the time Shin-leqi-unninni drew upon Sumerian sources to write the epic, Gilgamesh had already been a popular hero for centuries. According to these other legends, his father is said to have been the Priest-King Lugalbanda (also featured in other Sumerian poems, and written as having magical abilities), and his mother is said to be the goddess Ninsun.
Gilgamesh was thus a demi-god possessive of super-human strength, and supposedly lived an extraordinarily long life. He likely makes his first appearance in the Sumerian tale Inanna and the Huluppu Tree. In this tale, the goddess Inanna plants a tree infested with demonic snakes at its center, and appeals to her family for help eradicating it. Gilgamesh appears as her loyal brother who comes to her aid and kills the snake. While this tale was written centuries before the epic, such displays of heroism demonstrate Gilgamesh’s divine status among Sumerian culture.
History of The Epic of Gilgamesh
In addition to the interesting history of Gilgamesh himself, the discovery of the original Akkadian tablets has a broader cultural significance in both the Western world and its place of origin. In 1849, the Akkadian version of Gilgamesh was uncovered by the Library of the 7th century BCE Assyrian King, Ashurbanipal, in Nineveh, the capital of the ancient Assyrian Empire (located in modern-day Iraq). This discovery was made by a European archaeologist named Austin Henry Layard.
Layard’s discovery was part of a broader, nineteenth-century initiative on behalf of European institutions and governments to fund expeditions to Mesopotamia, in hopes of finding physical evidence which would corroborate events described in the Bible. During the mid-nineteenth century, many people in the Western World had begun to question the historical truth of the Bible. Advancements in several scientific fields (such as geology, archeology, and paleontology) have evidence that the Earth was much older than anyone had thought, and that human societies had existed long before the dates assigned to the Flood. As a result, many scientists and scholars redoubled efforts to find evidence of the truth of the Bible through these expeditions.
The finding of these Akkadian tablets did not initially give the Western world the reassurance that was sought, as the mere existence of Gilgamesh disproved beliefs that the Bible was the oldest book in the world. However, all of this changed a few years later, upon the findings of a scholar named George Smith. In 1861, Smith, a self-made scholar with an acute interest in ancient Mesopotamian texts, was hired by the British museum to decipher cuneiform tablets that had been found years before in Nineveh. After deciphering several of the Akkadian tablets which make up the Epic of Gilgamesh, Smith found a segment on one of the tablets detailing a great flood. The accounts of this flood hint at similarities with the story of Noah from the Bible’s book of Genesis, located in the eleventh part of the 12th tablet. However, this flood appeared to have occurred much earlier than the Bible claimed, so timelines had to be adjusted.
Smith was later approved for another expedition to Nineveh to find more fragmented tablets of the epic- his early translations of the tablets were eventually published in the 1870’s, under the title The Chaldean Account of Genesis. These findings challenged literary and biblical scholarship, and forced Western scholars to reassess ancient history during a turbulent time of imperial conflict.
Early plot of Gilgamesh
Much like his divine status mentioned in earlier Sumerian texts, the Epic of Gilgamesh begins with an introduction to Gilgamesh, as an epic hero and protagonist. He is a demigod blessed with strength and physical beauty, and is also King of Uruk, the strongest and greatest king in a glorious kingdom. Gilgamesh’s adventures begin when complaints arise over his abuse of power as king of Uruk. As a result, Aruru, the goddess of creation, creates a rival for Gilgamesh by the name of Enkidu. Enkidu lives among other animals, and Gilgamesh eventually sends a temple prostitute to seduce and tame him. After he is seduced, Enkidu loses his ‘wild’ manners and learns the ways of men. He eventually decides to come and live in Uruk.
Once he arrives in Uruk, Enkidu and Gilgamesh meet in the city and fight. After a mighty battle, Gilgamesh defeats Enkidu, but decides to spare his life. Gilgamesh accepts Enkidu’s advice on the learning of human values, such as mercy and nobility. Both men are transformed through their developing friendship, and learn many lessons from each other. Gilgamesh and Enkidu embark on several adventures together, such as when Gilgamesh proposes to journey to the sacred Cedar Forest, to kill the guardian demon Humbaba. A great battle ensues once Enkidu and Gilgamesh confront Humbaba, but Gilgamesh eventually kills him. They cut down an enormous cedar tree and use it to make a massive door for the gods.
Later on, the goddess of love and war, Ishtar, makes sexual advances towards Gilgamesh, which he refuses. Angered by his refusal, Ishtar sends a ‘bull of heaven’, bringing drought and disease to Uruk in retaliation. Gilgamesh and Enkidu manage to slay the bull, but as a result, Enkidu is punished by the gods. As a result, he falls gravely ill, and eventually dies. Devastated by Enkidu’s death, Gilgamesh refuses to leave his corpse for days and becomes determined to avoid the same fate. He becomes obsessed with achieving immortality, and makes a journey to visit a man named Utnapishtim. Utnapishtim and his wife are the only known humans to have survived the ‘Great Flood’ which occurred years before. They are also believed to have been granted immortality by the gods. Gilgamesh travels far East, to the twin-peaks of Mount Mashy at ‘the ends of the earth’, to find these survivors in a heaven-like place.
Utnapishtim and the ‘Great Flood’
When he reaches their location on the island of Dilmun, Utnapishtim reprimands Gigamesh for trying to seek immortality. He reminds him that the fate of humans is unavoidable, and to try and change such a fate ruins the joy to be found in life. Utnapishtim then recalls his own experiences. He recounts how a Great Flood was brought to the world by a god wanting to punish mankind for the confusion and changes they brought to the Earth. Utnapishtim was warned by the other gods to build a ship in readiness and to load it with all of his family and possessions. When the flood finally came as promised, everything was killed except him and all aboard his ship. This part of the epic, mentioned on the twelfth tablet, was the most significant portion for European scholars studying the Akkadian tablets in the nineteenth century, as it proved the existence of a Great Flood similar to events described in the Bible.
Utnapishtim proposes to Gilgamesh that if he can stay away for seven days straight, then the gods may grant him immortality. However, due to his exhausting journey, Gilgamesh fails this test, and is unable to escape the prospect of his own death. Utnapishtim instructs Gilgamesh to locate a plant that renews youth to lift his spirits, which he finds successfully and plans to eat upon his return home. He then decides to return to Uruk, but while stopping at a pool, a snake steals the precious plant, destroying Gilamesh’s hopes of regaining his youth. He mourns his loss, but is reminded of his prosperous homeland once he returns to Uruk.
Contemporary Relevance of Gilgamesh
Despite its age, the Epic of Gilgamesh continues to inspire many manifestations of literature, art, music, and popular culture throughout the world. These manifestations mainly began in the early twentieth century, when reliable translations of the epic were made more available to the public; this eventually allowed the story to reach a variety of audiences and genres. In particular, themes of existentialism present in the epic held interest for a variety of German authors and scholars after the Second World War. The text has also been critically examined in other disciplinary fields, such as queer literary studies, environmental criticism, and feminist criticism- in fact, it was even included in the Columbia Anthology of Gay Literature, published in 1998.
In addition to literary and academic interest, the epic has also made an appearance in popular literature, comic books, video games, television shows, plays, and film. Some of these appearances include a 1992 opera by Franco Battiato, the 1973 novel The Great American Novel, written by Phillip Roth, and even a bar and restaurant entitled ‘Gilgamesh’ located in London, which opened in 2006. Modern statues of Gilgamesh also appear at the University of Sydney in Australia, designed by Assyrian sculptor Lewis Batros. In his 2011 book, Gilgamesh Among Us: Modern Encounters with the Ancient Epic,Theodore Ziolkowski highlights several of these contemporary references to the epic, along with many others. Gilgamesh remains a cultural icon throughout the world, in a similar ball-park to the epic heroes of Homer and Virgil.
The epic also holds contemporary relevance in its ties to Orientalist discourse, and to European cultural encounters with the Middle East. The initial discovery of the text, through several European expeditions, is often seen by historians as representing an Orientalist intent to further contrast conceptions of ‘east’ versus ‘west’. This is especially significant in the context of the historical period of discovery, during which Britain was attempting to solidify imperial control in Eastern nations. The heavy focus on biblical connections to the epic also represents these Orientalist values. In particular, George Smith’s interpretation of the tablets, and his focus on the ‘Great Flood’ mentioned, also undermine the literary value of the text as a work of Middle Eastern origin.
Significance in Anthropology and World Literature
As the Epic of Gilgamesh continues to hold cultural and historical significance among nations throughout the world, it is important to revisit the context behind its discovery. Previous attempts to only view this epic in relation to Western belief systems or literary traditions are ultimately counterproductive and further perpetuate harmful conceptions of non-western nations. As such, revisiting Gilgamesh with knowledge of these contexts helps to remove any Orientalist modes of interpretation, and encourages an open-minded, appreciative reading of the epic. Once this is realized, readers can enjoy the epic as a ground-breaking work of literature, one which will remain significant for centuries to come.