Few poems are nobler in expression and content than the Epic of Gilgamesh. Its Sumerian hero was famous throughout the Near East from about 2000 B.C.E. to the seventh century B.C.E. when the epic was "written down and collated in the palace of Ashurbanipal, King of the World, King of Assyria." Gilgamesh was reckoned by Ashurbanipal as an ancestor—good reason for wanting his adventures preserved.
But this is a tale worth any king's attention, as relevant today as to the Sumerians of ancient Iraq. It tells of a man who finds a friend, loses him to death, and embarks on a quest for immortality. It speaks of earthy things given mythic status: felling trees, guarding sheep, baking bread, washing clothes, making wine, punting boats, diving in the sea. These amount to a celebration of life that gives poignancy to the poem's stark message: Death is the end of existence.
There was no greater city than Uruk, but Gilgamesh, its king, being two-thirds god, was driven by the relentless energy of divinity. Resting neither day or night, he took young men to labor on grandiose buildings, and carried brides off from their weddings. ("He is the first. The husband comes after.") Hearing the people's complaints, the gods told Aruru, goddess of creation, to make a match for him, to divert his energies. She fashioned a wild man, huge, hairy and strong, who roamed the plains with the gazelle. His name was Enkidu.
When word of Enkidu reached Uruk, a temple prostitute was sent to seduce him, so that his animal companions would shun him. After this, she "made him a man," teaching him human speech, and how to eat human food, drink alcohol, dress his hair, and wear clothes. Because of his strength, Enkidu was asked to stop Gilgamesh from abducting a bride and barred his way. They wrestled until Enkidu was thrown, but Gilgamesh acknowledged he had won because he was semi-divine: "In truth, you are my equal." Here began their friendship.
Their first exploit was to go to the Cedar Forest to kill its giant guardian, Humbaba. Their second was to kill the Bull of Heaven (drought personified) sent because Gilgamesh rejected advances by Ishtar, goddess of love. The gods decreed that for the two slayings one of the friends must die. The lot fell on Enkidu.
The Gate of the Cedar Forest had seemed so beautiful to Enkidu that he could not hack it down, and instead pushed it open with his hand. But there was an enchantment on it, which blasted the hand, so that a fever spread from it and he dreamed of dying. He cursed the prostitute and the Forest Gate, and on the twelfth day fell silent. For seven days and nights Gilgamesh would not give him up for burial, and only when a maggot fell from his nose accepted his death.
Knowing that, like Enkidu, he would die. Gilgamesh set out to find Utnapishtim, the one man saved by the gods from The Flood. Making him immortal, they had placed him with his wife in Dilmun, the Garden of the Gods. Gilgamesh would ask Utnapishtim how to become immortal himself.
His quest led him through a gate guarded by Scorpion People with flaming aureoles into Mashu, the mountain into which the sun passes at night. He journeyed in darkness before coming out in the Garden of the Sun, where Shamash walked at evening. The sun god said his quest would fail: All mortals must die. Next he encountered Siduri, Woman of the Vine, beside her house making wine for the gods. She urged him to live from day to day, taking pleasure in food, wine, and the love of wife and children, "for love was granted men as well as death."
Seeing him undeterred, Siduri directed him to the Images of Stone, near which he would find Urshanabi, Utnapishtim's boatman. To reach Dilmun, one must cross the deep, bitter Waters of Death, and the Images kept the ferryman safe on the crossing. In a fit of temper, Gilgamesh broke the Images of Stone and, when he found the boatman, Urshanabi said that it was now too dangerous to cross. However, he had Gilgamesh cut long poles from the woods, and they launched the boat on the sea. When they reached the Waters of Death that lay between it and Dilmun, Gilgamesh punted the boat along, dropping each pole before his hand touched the fatal Waters.
Reaching Dilmun, Gilgamesh told Utnapishtim why he had come there. Utnapishtim said first he must pass a test: not sleeping for six days and seven nights. But Gilgamesh was exhausted by his journey and he who had once needed no rest now fell into a profound slumber. Every day, Utnapishtim's wife stood a fresh loaf of bread beside him. When Utnapishtim woke him, he saw six of them and despaired.
Utnapishtim now dismissed him, together with Urshanabi, who, having ferried a living man over the Waters, had broken the rule of the gods. Utnapishtim's wife persuaded him to give Gilgamesh something in return for his suffering. So Utnapishtim told him of a place in the sea where grew the Flower of Youth, which would make the old young again.
Reaching the spot, Gilgamesh tied stones on his feet and jumped into the water. Down to the bottom he sank and, despite its thorns, plucked the flower. Cutting off the stones, he surfaced in triumph, telling Urshanabi he would give it to the old of Uruk to eat, and eventually eat it himself. But on their homeward voyage, they went ashore to rest and Gilgamesh bathed in a nearby pool, leaving the Flower of Youth on the bank. Deep in the pool lay a serpent that snuffed the fragrance of the flower, rose up, devoured it, and grew young again (sloughing its skin as snakes have ever since).
Then Gilgamesh wept. He had failed to win everlasting life, and with the Flower of Youth in his grasp lost even that. But presently he said they should continue to Uruk and he would show Urshanabi his fine city. There at least his labors had not been fruitless.
The story of Gilgamesh comes from Sumer on the Persian Gulf. The Sumerians entered southern Iraq around 4000 B.C.E. and established city-states, each with its king. One of these was Gilgamesh, who appears in a king-list as the fifth king in Uruk (biblical Erech). Another Sumerian text tells of a conflict between Gilgamesh and Agga, king of Kish (c. 2700 B.C.E.). Some identify Gilgamesh as the "mighty hunter," Nimrod son of Cush, mentioned in the Book of Genesis. Thus the epic may be based on traditions of real events.
But it has a mythic dimension. Gilgamesh was the son of Ninsun, a minor goddess residing in Egalmah, the "Great Palace" of Uruk, by "the high priest of Kullab" in the same city. Gilgamesh was regarded as superhuman. In theEpic he is said to be 11 cubits (approximately 18 feet) tall, and his punt poles were each 60 cubits long. The king-list says that he reigned for 126 years.
In about the fourteenth century B.C.E., Akkadians living north of Sumer established Babylon as their capital and took control of the whole area between Baghdad and the Gulf. The Babylonians preserved the Sumerian language as their language of religion, and with it Sumerian legends and myths.
The Hebrews may have learned Sumerian tales during their Babylonian exile. There are echoes of the Epic of Gilgamesh in the Bible: The flaming guardians of the Otherworld gate and the loss of immortality to a serpent are mythic themes that recur in the Expulsion from Eden in the Book of Genesis. Noah's Ark also corresponds in some details to the Epic 's account of The Flood.
The Babylonians were succeeded in the region by the Assyrians. Originally the exploits of Gilgamesh were recounted in separate poems, such as "Gilgamesh and the Land of the Living," a surviving Sumerian account of his quest. If Sumerians or Babylonians ever strung these poems together into an epic, it has been lost. The Epic of Gilgamesh exists only in the Assyrian version, written on twelve clay tablets in Ashurbanipal's library at Nineveh and recovered at different times. From these the epic has been pieced together, breaks in the text being supplemented from separate poems. Some mysteries remain. What were the Images of Stone?
Despite its enigmas, the Epic is one of the literary masterpieces of the world, at one level a swashbuckling adventure story; at another a "buddy" tale prefiguring the great friendships of David and Jonathan and Roland and Oliver; at another, a demonstration that the gods have an agenda independent of human interests (Enkidu is a toy for Gilgamesh, and expendable). At yet another level it is a contemplation of what it means to be human, in the figure of the wild man "tamed," civilized by the prostitute to his undoing, for he responds to the Forest Gate as man not brute (which is why he curses both it and her).
At its most profound, the poem is a meditation on living in the knowledge of death. Enkidu tells Gilgamesh a fever-dream he has of dying. He is standing before a dark being whose talons are choking out his life. Then it turns his arms into wings and leads him to the house of the underworld queen, Ereshkigal. Everyone here has feathered wings and sits in eternal darkness, "dust their food and clay their sustenance." This was the common lot in the ancient Near East. It is because "darkness is the end of mortal life" that Gilgamesh is desperate to learn Utnapishtim's secret.
After failure comes resignation. He proudly shows Urshanabi his city—this much he has achieved. But his words before the Cedar Forest adventure return to haunt readers: "Only the gods live forever . . . As for mankind, numbered are their days; Whatever they achieve is but the wind!" One of the ironies of time is that Gilgamesh's great city was long ago ruined; and it is the story of his heroic failure, written on brittle tablets of clay, that survives.
See also: Afterlife in Cross-Cultural Perspective; Gods and Goddesses of Life and Death; Immortality
Heidel, Alexander. The Babylonian Genesis, 15th impression. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965.
Heidel, Alexander. The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1946.
Hooke, S. H. Middle Eastern Mythology. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1963.
Kramer, S. N. Sumerian Mythology. Philadelphia: American Philosophic Society, 1944.
McLeish, Kenneth. Myth: Myths and Legends of the World Explored. London: Bloomsbury, 1996.
Pritchard, J. B. Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament. Vol. 1. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973.
Sandars, N. K., tr. The Epic of Gilgamesh. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1960.
Sollberger, Edmund. The Babylonian Legend of the Flood, 2nd edition. London: The British Museum, 1966.
"Gilgamesh." Macmillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/gilgamesh
"Gilgamesh." Macmillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. . Retrieved August 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/gilgamesh
Gilgamesh (gĬl´gəmĕsh), in Babylonian legend, king of Uruk. He is the hero of the Gilgamesh epic, a work of some 3,000 lines, written on 12 tablets c.2000 BC and discovered among the ruins at Nineveh. The epic was lost when the the library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal was destroyed in 612 BC The library's remains were excavated by British archaeologists in the mid-19th cent., the tablets were discovered, and the epic's cuneiform text was translated by British scholars. It tells of the adventures of the warlike and imperious Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu. When Enkidu suddenly sickened and died, Gilgamesh became obsessed by a fear of death. His ancestor Ut-napishtim (who with his wife had been the only survivor of a great flood) told him of a plant that gave eternal life. After obtaining the plant, however, Gilgamesh left it unguarded and a serpent carried it off. The hero then turned to the ghost of Enkidu for consoling knowledge of the afterlife, only to be told by his friend that a gloomy future awaited the dead.
See verse translations by H. Mason (1970), D. Ferry (1993), and S. Mitchell (2007); prose translation by N. K. Sandars (1960); A. Heidel, Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels (2d ed. 1949); D. Damrosch, The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh (2007); T. Ziolkowski, Gilgamesh among Us: Modern Encounters with the Ancient Epic (2011).
"Gilgamesh." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/gilgamesh
"Gilgamesh." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved August 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/gilgamesh
The best-known and most popular hero in the mythology of the ancient Near East, Gilgamesh was a Sumerian* king who wished to become immortal. Endowed with superhuman strength, courage, and power, he appeared in numerous legends and myths, including the Epic of Gilgamesh. This epic, written more than 3,000 years ago, seems to be the earliest work of literature. It is an adventure story that explores human nature, dealing with values and concerns that are still relevant today.
Historical Figure and Mythical Hero
Although most tales about Gilgamesh are obviously myths, they may be based on an actual historical figure. Ancient lists of Sumerian kings identify Gilgamesh as an early ruler of the city of Uruk around 2600 b.c. These same texts, however, also say that Gilgamesh was a demigod and reigned for 126 years.
According to legendary accounts, Gilgamesh was the son of the goddess Ninsun and of either Lugalbanda, a king of Uruk, or of a high priest of the district of Kullab. Gilgamesh's greatest accomplishment as king was the construction of massive city walls around Uruk, an achievement mentioned in both myths and historical texts.
Gilgamesh first appeared in five short poems written in the Sumerian language sometime between 2000 and 1500 b.c. The poems—"Gilgamesh and Huwawa," "Gilgamesh and the Bull of Heaven," "Gilgamesh and Agga of Kish," "Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Nether World," and "The Death of Gilgamesh"—relate various incidents and adventures in his life.
However, the most famous and complete account of Gilgamesh's adventures is found in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Originally written between 1500 and 1000 b.c., the epic weaves various tales
immortal able to live forever
epic long poem about legendary or historical heroes, written in a grand style
demigod one who is part human and part god
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
of Gilgamesh together into a single story. Its basic theme is the king's quest for fame, glory, and immortality through heroic deeds. One of the best-known parts of the epic is the tale of a great flood, which may have inspired the story of Noah and the flood in the Bible.
The epic appears on 12 clay tablets found at the site of the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh. The tablets came from the library of King Ashurbanipal, the last great king of Assyria, who reigned in the 600s b.c.
The Epic of Gilgamesh
The Epic of Gilgamesh begins with a brief account of Gilgamesh's ancestry, his youth, and his accomplishments as king. Although acknowledged to be a wise man and a courageous warrior, Gilgamesh is criticized as a tyrant who mistreats the people of Uruk. The nobles of the city complain bitterly of Gilgamesh's behavior. Their complaints attract the attention of the gods, who decide to do something about it.
Enkidu. The gods create a rival for Gilgamesh—a man named Enkidu who is as strong as the king and who lives in the forest with the wild animals. Their plan is for Enkidu to fight Gilgamesh and teach him a lesson, leading the king to end his harsh behavior toward his people. When Gilgamesh hears about Enkidu, he sends a woman from the temple to civilize the wild man by showing him how to live among people.
After learning the ways of city life, Enkidu goes to Uruk. There he meets the king at a marketplace and challenges him to a wrestling match. The king and the wild man struggle, and Gilgamesh is so impressed by Enkidu's strength, skill, and courage that he embraces his rival, and the two men become close friends. Because of this loving friendship, Gilgamesh softens his behavior toward the people of Uruk and becomes a just and honorable ruler.
One day Gilgamesh and Enkidu decide to travel to a distant cedar forest to battle the fierce giant Humbaba (or Huwawa) who guards the forest. Knowing that he cannot live forever like the gods, Gilgamesh hopes that he will gain the next best thing—lasting fame—by slaying the monster. Together the two heroes kill Humbaba, and Enkidu cuts off the monster's head.
The Insulted Goddess. Impressed with Gilgamesh's courage and daring, the goddess Ishtar offers to marry him. He refuses, however, and insults the goddess by reminding her of her cruelty toward previous lovers. Enraged by his refusal and insults, Ishtar persuades her father, the god Anu, to send the sacred Bull of Heaven to kill Gilgamesh. Anu sends the bull, but Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill the bull first. Enkidu further insults Ishtar by throwing a piece of the dead bull in her face.
That night, Enkidu dreams that the gods have decided that he must die for his role in killing the Bull of Heaven. His death will also be the punishment for his dear friend Gilgamesh. Enkidu falls ill
clay tablet baked clay slab inscribed with ancient writings
tyrant ruler (or other person) who uses power harshly or cruelly
and has other dreams of his death and descent to the underworld. He grows weaker and weaker and finally dies after 12 days of suffering. Gilgamesh is overwhelmed with grief. He also fears his own death and decides that he must find a way to gain immortality.
Search for Utnapishtim. After Enkidu's funeral and burial, Gilgamesh sets out on a long and hazardous journey to seek a man named Utnapishtim. Utnapishtim had survived a great flood and was granted immortality by the gods. Gilgamesh travels through various strange lands and meets people who tell him to end his search and accept his fate as a mortal. Refusing to give up, Gilgamesh finally reaches the sea and persuades a boatman to take him across the waters to the home of Utnapishtim.
Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh the story of the Great Flood and of the boat that he constructed to save his family and various animals. He then offers the hero a challenge: if Gilgamesh can stay awake for seven days, he will be given the immortality he desperately desires. Gilgamesh accepts the challenge but soon falls asleep. When he awakes seven days later, he realizes that immortality is beyond his reach, and with sorrow, he accepts his fate. Utnapishtim tells him not to despair because the gods have granted him other great gifts, such as courage, skill in battle, and wisdom.
In appreciation of Gilgamesh's courageous efforts to find him, Utnapishtim tells the hero where to find a plant that can restore youth. Gilgamesh finds the plant and continues on his journey. Along the way, while he bathes in a pool, a snake steals the plant. This explains the snake's ability to slough off its old skin and start afresh with a new one. Disappointed and tired, but also wiser and more at peace with himself, Gilgamesh returns to Uruk to await his death.
The last part of the Epic of Gilgamesh, thought to be a later addition, tells how the spirit of Enkidu returns from the underworld and helps Gilgamesh find some lost objects he received from Ishtar. Enkidu also tells his close friend about the afterlife and describes the grim conditions of the underworld.
See also Anu; Enkidu; Floods; Ishtar; Noah; Utnapishtim.
On his travels, Gilgamesh meets a goddess who tries to persuade him to end his quest for immortality with these words:
Gilgamesh, whither rovest thou?
The life thou pursuest thou shalt not find.
When the gods created mankind,
Death for mankind they set aside,
Life in their own hands retaining.
Thou, Gilgamesh, let full be thy belly
Make thou merry by day and by night.
Of each day make thou a feast of rejoicing,
Day and night dance thou and play
Let thy garments be sparkling and fresh,
Thy head be washed, bathe thou in water.
Pay heed to the little one that holds thy hand,
Let thy spouse delight in thy bosom,
For this is the task of mankind.
underworld land of the dead
"Gilgamesh." Myths and Legends of the World. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/gilgamesh
"Gilgamesh." Myths and Legends of the World. . Retrieved August 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/gilgamesh
"Gilgamesh." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/gilgamesh
"Gilgamesh." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Retrieved August 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/gilgamesh
"Gilgamesh." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/gilgamesh
"Gilgamesh." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved August 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/gilgamesh
"Gilgamesh." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/gilgamesh-0
"Gilgamesh." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Retrieved August 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/gilgamesh-0