Epic of Gilgamesh - Ancient Mesopotamia
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Epic of Gilgamesh

Gilgamesh and Enkidu
Assyrian cylinder seal ca. 600s BC; Schoyen Collection

October 2016 - The Epic of Gilgamesh is a story about a Sumerian king (Gilgamesh) who seems to have lived around 2500 BC, in Mesopotamia. Story-tellers probably began telling this story not long after he died, and someone probably wrote down the story about 1700 BC, in the time of the Babylonian Empire, but the oldest written copy of it that we still have dates to the Assyrian period (around 900 BC). Archaeologists found the tablet in the ruins of the palace of one of the Assyrian kings.

The Epic begins with Gilgamesh ruling the city of Uruk, but he is not doing a good job. Everyone is mad at him because he has a lot of girlfriends all at once, he spends all his time partying instead of working, and he is disrespectful to the elders in the city.

Then a messenger tells Gilgamesh about a wild man who is living out in the hills near the city. This wild man's name is Enkidu. He goes naked or wears furs, and he drinks only water from the river. But he is very strong. Gilgamesh thinks this is interesting, so he sets a trap for Enkidu to get him to come to the city and be his friend.

Gilgamesh sends a beautiful woman to Enkidu, and when he sees her he kisses her and the kiss works like magic to tame him: he follows her back to the city and becomes civilized.

(Contrast this theme of how living a settled life and farming is so much better than living a nomadic life as a shepherd with the opposite view held by the Jews at about the same time). (There are similar themes in the later West Asian religion of Zoroastrianism).

Now that Gilgamesh has a friend, Enkidu, he is not so bored anymore and he stops being mean to everyone and bothering the girls. Instead, Gilgamesh and Enkidu plan a big heroic trip to the West to get wood for building (because very little wood grew in Mesopotamia). They travel there and fight the great monster Humbaba.

(Probably the real King Gilgamesh did trade with Lebanon for wood, though he may not have really gone there himself to get it!)

When the two heroes get home, though, they begin to have problems. Gilgamesh is so cool now that the goddess Ishtar falls in love with him, but when she asks him to be her boyfriend, Gilgamesh says no (and he is pretty rude about it too). Ishtar is angry and she makes Enkidu die of a fever. Gilgamesh is very sad and upset that his friend died. And he is afraid that he will someday die too.

Flood tablet
This is what one of the tablets that was found in the Assyrian king's library looks like. This one tells the story of the Flood.

Finally Gilgamesh travels to the Land of the Dead to see if he himself can somehow live forever. While he is there, he meets a man named Utnapishtim, who tells Gilgamesh a story about a great flood. Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh that the gods sent this flood because people made too much noise on earth and hurt the gods' ears. He himself survived the flood in a boat. (this is related to the story of Noah).

Gilgamesh finds out that he can live forever if he can stay awake for a week watching this plant. But he falls asleep in the end. He goes back to his city, still sad but realizing that everyone has to die sometime, and he goes back to being a good king.

Comic book version of this story (not G-rated)

Bibliography and further reading about Gilgamesh:

Gilgamesh the King, The Revenge of Ishtar, and The Last Quest of Gilgamesh by Ludmilla Zeman (1998-9). This is a set of three kids' books that retell the story of the Epic of Gilgamesh in an age-appropriate way. Lovely pictures.

The Epic of Gilgamesh: An English Version With an Introduction (Penguin Classics), by N.K. Sandars (1972). A translation of the actual text of the epic, for older students. The long introduction explains a lot of the ideas and context. Not the most accurate translation, but a good readable one.

Or check out the article on the Epic of Gilgamesh in the Encyclopedia Britannica.

More about the Epic of Gilgamesh
More West Asian literature
More about West Asia
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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