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Gilgamesh

Gilgamesh

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 ancestorgood 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.

The Story

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 Background

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?

The Meaning

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 citythis 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

Bibliography

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.

JENNIFER WESTWOOD

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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).

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Gilgamesh

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 Gilgamesha 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 thinglasting fameby 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.

Accepting Mortality

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

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Gilgamesh

Gilgamesh a legendary king of the Sumerian city state of Uruk who is supposed to have ruled sometime during the first half of the 3rd millennium bc. He is the hero of the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh, one of the best-known works of ancient literature, which recounts his exploits in an ultimately unsuccessful quest for immortality. It contains an account of a flood that has close parallels with the biblical story of Noah.

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Gilgamesh

Gilgamesh Hero of the great Assyro-Babylonian myth, the Epic of Gilgamesh. He went in search of the secret of immortality. Having overcome monsters and gods, he found the flower of life, only to have it snatched from him by a serpent.

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Gilgamesh

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Gilgamesh

GILGAMESH

GILGAMESH , a Sumerian hero, god, and ruler of the city-state Uruk, is the subject of a classic epic poem that Mesopotamian tradition attributes to the priest-exorcist and scribe Sin-leqi-unnini. The poem was the product of a lengthy compilation effort, which resulted in the composition of the national poem of Babylon. Until the 1990s there were five known Sumerian works that described the deeds of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk. The Sumerologist Samuel Noah Kramer identified them as: "Gilgamesh and Agga," "Gilgamesh and Hubaba," "Gilgamesh and the Bull of Heaven," "Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Underworld," and "The Death of Gilgamesh." The environment in which they were conceived and composed has been generally regarded as the court of the third dynasty of Ur (c. 21002000 bce), whose sovereigns sought to trace a direct link between the figure of Gilgamesh and the royalty of Uruk. Giovanni Pettinato has suggested that a 107-line text found in 1975 at Tell Mardikh-Ebla is related to the Gilgamesh saga. This text, and the entire library from which it comes, can be dated to 2500 to 2400 bce. The events described in this text concern relations between the king of Uruk and the city of Aratta. The narrative fits well with the tradition of epic wars between the royal dynasty of Uruk and the colony founded in an indeterminate location in Iran: both King Enmerkar and Lugalbanda, the supposed divine father of Gilgamesh, waged war against Aratta according to the four epics that concern these figures.

A new version of "The Death of Gilgamesh," rediscovered at Me-Turan in 1979, serves to confirm the narrative translated by Kramer, while also, because it is more complete, opening up new avenues of understanding concerning the complex nature of Sumerian civilization. This version verifies for the first time the Sumerian custom of collective burial, something for which there is archaeological evidence at Ur and Kish, but which had not been previously confirmed by epigraphic sources. This text also includes confirmation of the legend of Urlugal, the son of Gilgamesh, specifically named in the Sumerian King List as Gilgamesh's son and successor to the throne of Uruk. Similarly, a new version of "Gilgamesh and the Bull of Heaven" was found there in 1979.

Unfortunately the authors of Sumerian narratives featuring Gilgamesh are unknown to us, and scholars are not certain whether it is pure chance that the series of Gilgamesh poems is attributed to a single author. According to a catalog of authors and texts from the neo-Assyrian period, rediscovered in the library of Assurbanipal and published by W. G. Lambert (1962), the series of Gilgamesh was conceived by Sin-leqi-unnini, who according to Lambert lived between the thirteenth and twelfth centuries bce, at the end of Kassite power in Babylon, and more precisely at the moment when Babylon, under Nebuchadrezzar I, managed to obtain its independence from foreign rule.

Contents of the Epic

The classic epic, while consisting of a reconstruction of a literary work conceived and composed in the Old Babylonian period, should be considered as a single unified composition. Sin-leqi-unnini was not simply responsible for a brief summary in twelve tablets of the story from earlier times; it can be said with some certainty that he, in a sense, reconsidered and re-created the entire story from scratch.

An important piece of evidence for the unity of the classical epic is the presence of a prologue, as well as an epilogue found at the end of Tablet XI, where part of the prologue is repeated. Tablet XII is generally considered by scholars to be an appendix to the epic. Its contents consist of a literal translation of part of the Sumerian story known as "Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Underworld."

The epic may be divided as follows:

  1. Prologue: The hero Gilgamesh (Tab. I.151).
  2. Enkidu, the alter ego of Gilgamesh (Tab. I.52II.155ff.).
  3. Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the monster Hubaba (Tab. II.184V.266).
  4. Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Bull of Heaven (Tab. VI.1182).
  5. Death of Enkidu and despair of Gilgamesh (Tab. VI.183VIII.207ff.).
  6. Gilgamesh in the quest for immortality (Tab. IX.1X.325).
  7. Only the gods have the gift of life (Tab. XI.1302).
  8. Epilogue (Tab. XI.302308).
  9. Fate of humankind in the afterlife (Tab. XII.1154).

Interpretation of the Epic

No interpretation of the epic should be separated from an analysis of the work of Sin-leqi-unnini. Closely connected to this is another investigation concerning the identity of the two main characters as divine or human. Thus far, we have spoken of the "epic" or "saga," putting into this category both the Sumerian stories and the various poetic versions that have Gilgamesh as their main hero, regarding them as res gestae, whether of a historical or legendary figure. A review of various scholarly interpretations indicates that the second problem cannot be decisively resolved. Although the majority of scholars are convinced that the king of Uruk is a historical figure, Pettinato and others think that Gilgamesh did not exist in a historical sense, but is instead a god who has been made into a historical figure.

The first interpreters of the work of Sin-leqi-unnini, which was discovered in 1872 by George Smith among the thousands of fragments of the library of Assurbanipal at Nineveh, were concerned with defining its nature. Apart from its real or supposed parallels with stories told in the Biblethe example of the universal flood on Tablet XI marks the beginning of an argument so heated that it has been called "the war between the Bible and Babel"scholars have sought to explain the deeper meaning of the work centered upon Gilgamesh.

Hugo Winckler and Heinrich Zimmern came to the conclusion that the Gilgamesh poem was a myth concerning the sun god and in particular was constructed like the myth of the Dioscuri. Otto Weber confirmed this view, and pointed out that the twelve tablets contain clear reference to the signs of the zodiac. For Weber, the poem's basic theme is the journey of the sun through its twelve phases over the course of the year, with the figure of Gilgamesh functioning as an allusion to the sun god and Enkidu representing the moon. For these scholars, there are clear antecedents of the adventures of Odysseus in the Epic of Gilgamesh, as well as of the labors of Herakles and the later voyages of Alexander the Great.

Heinrich Schneider claimed that all the characters in the epic were either powerful gods or second-rate divine beings who, like Gilgamesh, had been made into human figures. Schneider also argues that the friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu corresponds to the medieval ideal of chivalry, and he defines the Old Babylonian story as heroic and the Ninevite story as chivalrous.

Meanwhile Peter Jensen's lengthy Das Gilgamesch-Epos in der Weltliteratur (The Epic of Gilgamesh in world literature, 1906) attempted to show the astral and mythological nature of the work. For Jensen, the epic was a description of the events that took place in the heavens during the course of the year, especially the heliacal rising of the stars. Notwithstanding Jensen's passion and deep convictions, important biblical scholars, such as Hermann Gunkel and Hugh Gressmann, not only categorically refuted alleged biblical parallels, but denied the mythical nature of the Epic of Gilgamesh, considering it rather as pure saga, clearly parallel to the romance of Alexander.

In 1923 the German scholar Arthur Ungnad, completely abandoning any mythical interpretation, argued that the epic was an ethical work and the forerunner of Homer's Odyssey. Although Ungnad does not propose that the Greek author copied the work of Sin-leqi-unnini, he has no doubts that the Greeks adapted and retold sagas from the East to suit their own temperament. A year later Hermann Häfker argued that the Gilgamesh epic was an entirely historical work, with its guiding theme being the problem of life and death. In 1937 there appeared an important contribution by the Swedish scholar Sigmund Mowinckel, in which he defends the divine nature of Gilgamesh and interprets the entire work as the description of a god who dies and rises again, a commonplace in the context of history of religions.

A completely different view was proposed by Benno Landsberger. For him the work is the national epic of the Babylonians and Gilgamesh is the personification of the ideal human being for the Babylonians. The predominant theme in the epic then is the problem of the eternal life, discussed using the familiar example of Faust.

Mythological interpretations were not completely abandoned however. Beginning in 1958 scholars such as Franz Marius Theodor Bohl and Igor M. Diakonov continued to hold this position, with Bohl stating that what lay behind the epic was a religious war between the followers of the cults of Ishtar and those of Shamash and Marduk, while for Diakonov the figures of Gilgamesh and Enkidu are personifications of the sun god and moon god.

Geoffrey S. Kirk argued that the Epic of Gilgamesh has as its theme the contrast between nature, represented by Enkidu, and culture, represented by Gilgamesh. For Thorkild Jacobsen, on the other hand, the poem contains a description of the process by which human beings become mature, moving from innocent and reckless adolescence to the awareness of values that are more real, though less apparent. This leads to a psychoanalytical interpretation: the love of Gilgamesh for Enkidu is the love of an adolescent boy for one of his peers, before discovering love for women.

Giorgio Buccellati interprets Gilgamesh in terms of wisdom. After analyzing the epic's various themes, such as impurity, fear, the wanderer's life as opposed to family life, and the uncertainty between dreams and reality, Buccellati concludes:

The emphasis is shifted from the object of the search, life, to the actual effort of the search as such, to the assumptions upon which it is based, and to the consequences for the person who carries it out: these consequences are not external, as in the pursuit of a particular benefit, perhaps even physical life itself, but rather they are internal, deeply psychological and are concentrated upon the spiritual change of the person who is undertaking the search. (Buccellati, 1972, p. 34)

One of the first scholars to stress the central nature of the theme of friendship in the Epic of Gilgamesh was Landsberger, who wrote that one of the fundamental motifs of Sin-leqi-unnini's work is the ideal of a noble friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu, which not even death can erase. Indeed, from their first meeting after their battle in the streets of Uruk and then later in the dreams Gilgamesh has, the deep bond between these two characters is emphasized, to the extent that it has been compared to love for a woman. The troubled quest for eternal life also shows how much Enkidu means to Gilgamesh. However, the rejection of the love offered by Ishtar is not to be read as the repudiation of love for women, as Landsberger has it, but rather in a much more profound manner, as concerning the future destiny of the king of Uruk.

Other scholars have considered friendship to be the central theme of the epic, including Lubor Matouš, but in particular Giuseppe Furlani, who in an article titled "L'Epopea di Gilgameš come inno all'amicizia" (The Epic of Gilgamesh as a hymn to friendship) and then in the introduction to his 1946 translation of the epic, asserts that he is obliged to "revise the fundamental, central theme of the epic" in that "the epic of Gilgamesh is truly a hymn to friendship, a long-lasting friendship enduring even beyond the grave, between Gilgamesh of Uruk and Enkidu, shining, eternal examples of faithful friends" (Furlani, 1946, p. 587). Furlani further states that "the central and underlying idea of our poem has been thought of as a discussion of the problem of life and deathit seems to me instead that this idea should now be abandoned and we should recognize that the epic is in reality a hymn to friendship" (Furlani, 1946, p. 589).

Following Landsberger, who sets the problem of human existence at the heart of the epic, Alexander Heidel considered its central theme to be a meditation on death in the form of a tragedy. Heidel argues that the epic confronts the bitter truth that death is inevitable: all human beings must die. Matouš and A. Leo Oppenheim also stressed that the underlying theme of the work is the search for eternal life.

Readers of the epic of Sin-leqi-unnini should first take full account of the prologue: in the first eight lines, the author repeatedly identifies knowledge with wisdom. For him the adventures of Gilgamesh consist of a series of important staging points, necessary to reach a final end, which the author correctly identifies as the wisdom of his hero. The author advises the reader that this is the key to the text. As Buccellati emphasizes, seeing other motives or themes means considering the staging points and methods of approach to this ideal as ends in themselves. Therefore, an accurate reading of the poem cannot ignore the fundamental motifs proposed by its author. The fact that the author then mentions the troubled quest for eternal life as an essential part of the hero's personal journey, and that Gilgamesh, in attaining wisdom, has experienced all kinds of suffering, only serves to confirm the critical nature of wisdom in interpreting the work.

Scholars are in general agreement that the epic may be divided into two parts: the first narrates the marvelous adventures of the two heroes and their epic deeds, the killing of the monster Hubaba and the Bull of Heaven; the second part describes how Gilgamesh, who is two-thirds god and one-third human, is forced to deal with the eternal human problem of death. Gilgamesh tries to overcome death, and he hopes that he will receive a conclusive answer from the hero of the flood, but as we learn from Tablet XI, even this semidivine being does not succeed, and it is perhaps in this failure that Sin-leqi-unnini sees the logical ending of his work. This would be surprising however, since the author opens his work by praising the wisdom of Gilgamesh, so this must mean that he does not consider these events to be a failure as such. The treatment of the figure of Gilgamesh throughout the epic could not allow for such a dismal ending: the king of Uruk, besides being two-thirds god, is the paradigm of a true king. If the interpretation proposed below regarding the "plant of life" is correct, Gilgamesh is showing himself to be a true king at the very moment of his failure.

The real answer to all the problems of Gilgamesh has been seen in the final gift of Utanapishtim to the king, when he reveals to Gilgamesh the existence of a special plant. This interpretation is based upon an insertion accepted by the majority of scholars at line 270 in Tablet XI, which says: "You will obtain life." But nothing in the text justifies an insertion of this kind. The gift of Utanapishtim is defined as "a plant of restlessness," and Gilgamesh explains the nature of the plant: "It is reputed to turn an old man back into a man in his prime. So I want to eat the plant and become young again." This leads to the conclusion that Gilgamesh, by eating the plant, would be returned to a youthful state, with all its anxiety and restlessness. Hence the interpretation of the plant as an elixir of youth: by eating the plant, Gilgamesh would have been returned to the position he was in during the first part of the epic. The fact that he lost the plant is a further sign of the greatness of this king. Gilgamesh had not forgotten that a king is responsible for the fate of his subjects and he loses the plant precisely because he wanted to share it with his fellow citizens. His first thought when he is given the plant is to take it back to Uruk and feed it to the old.

However, the gift of Utanapishtim was not available for the whole of humanity, but reserved for Gilgamesh alone, perhaps as a reward for all his travels and his tenacious quest in pursuit of the unattainable ideal of eternal life. When Gilgamesh wanted to share this with other people, the serpent became its sole beneficiary: "Gilgamesh on that day sat down and wept / and the tears rolled down his cheeks." In these two lines the scribe expresses the diverse emotions of the hero, the first being his inability to fulfill his royal duty. Yet this admission itself marks the attainment of complete wisdom, of a maturity that is the legacy of a true king of Mesopotamia.

See Also

Death; Heroes.

Bibliography

Abusch, Tsvi. "Ishtar's Proposal and Gilgamesh's Refusal: An Interpretation of the Gilgamesh Epic, Tablet VI, Lines 179." History of Religions 26 (1986): 143187.

Buccellati, Giorgio. "Gilgamesh in chiave sapienziale." Oriens Antiquus 11 (1972): 236.

Cavigneaux, Antoine, and Farouk N. H. Al-Rawi. "Gilgamesh et Taureau de ciel (shul-mè-kam ) (Textes de Tell Haddad IV)." Revue d'Assyriologie 87 (1993): 97129.

Cavigneaux, Antoine, and Farouk N. H. Al-Rawi. "New Sumerian Literary Texts from Tell Haddad (Ancient Meturan): A First Survey." Iraq 55 (1993): 91105.

Cavigneaux, Antoine, and Farouk N. H. Al-Rawi. Gilgamesh et la mort: Textes de Tell Haddad VI. Groningen, Netherlands, 2000.

Cavigneaux, Antoine, and Farouk N. H. Al-Rawi. "La fin de Gilgamesh: Enkidu et les enfers d'après les manuscrits d'Ur et de Metura (Textes de Tell Haddad VIII)." Iraq 52 (2000): 119.

Furlani, Giuseppe. "L'epopea di Gilgamesh come inno all'amicizia." Belfagor 1 (1946): 577589.

Furlani, Giuseppe. Miti babilonesi e assiri. Florence, 1958.

George, Andrew, trans. and ed. The Epic of Gilgamesh. London, 1999.

Heidel, Alexander, The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels, Chicago, 1967.

Kirk, Geoffrey Stephen. Myth: Its Meaning and Functions in Ancient and Other Cultures. Berkeley, 1970. See pages 132152.

Matouš, Lubor. "Die Entstehung des Gilgamesh-Epos." Altertum 4 (1958): 195221.

Oberhuber, Karl. Das Gilgamesch-Epos. Darmstadt, Germany, 1977.

Oppenheim, A. Leo. Ancient Mesopotamia. Portrait of a Dead Civilization. Chicago, 1964.

Pettinato, Giovanni. La saga di Gilgamesh (in collaboration with S. M. Chiodi and G. Del Monte). Milan, 1992.

Thompson, R. Campbell, trans. and ed. The Epic of Gilgamesh. Oxford, 1930.

Tigay, Jeffrey H. The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic. Philadelphia, 1982.

Giovanni Pettinato (2005)

Translated from Italian by Paul Ellis

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Gilgamesh

Gilgamesh

Nationality/Culture

Sumerian

Pronunciation

GIL-guh-mesh

Alternate Names

None

Appears In

The Epic of Gilgamesh

Lineage

Son of Lugalbanda

Character Overview

The best-known and most popular hero in the mythology of the ancient Near East, Gilgamesh (pronounced GIL-guh-mesh) was a Sumerian (pronounced soo-MER-ee-un) king who wished to live forever. Endowed with superhuman strength, courage, and power, he appeared in numerous legends and myths, including the Epic of Gilgamesh. This long, grand-scale poem, written more than three thousand years ago, may be the earliest work of written literature. It is an adventure story that explores human nature, dealing with values and concerns that are still relevant today.

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 cruel ruler who mistreats the people of Uruk (pronounced OO-rook). 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 (pronounced EN-kee-doo) 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 (pronounced hum-BAB-uh) 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 (pronounced ISH-tahr) 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 (pronounced AH-noo), to send the sacred Bull of Heaven to kill Gilgamesh. Anu sends the bull, but Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill the bull. 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 and has other dreams of his death and descent to the underworld , or land of the dead. He grows weaker and weaker and finally dies after twelve 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, or the ability to live forever.

Search for Utnapishtim After Enkidu's funeral and burial, Gilgamesh sets out on a long and hazardous journey to seek a man named Utnapishtim (pronounced oot-nuh-PISH-tim). 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.

Gilgamesh in Context

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 bce. These same texts, however, also say that Gilgamesh was half-man and half-god, and reigned for 126 years.

According to legendary accounts, Gilgamesh was the son of the goddess Ninsun (pronounced nin-SOON) 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 bce. 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 bce, the epic weaves various tales 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 (pronounced NOH-uh) and the flood in the Bible.

The epic appears on twelve clay tablets found at the site of the ancient city of Nineveh (pronounced NIN-uh-vuh). The tablets came from the library of King Ashurbanipal (pronounced ah-shoor-BAH-nee-pahl), the last great king of Assyria (pronounced uh-SEER-ee-uh), who reigned in the 600s bce.

Key Themes and Symbols

One of the key themes in the story of Gilgamesh is mortality, or the knowledge that one will eventually die. This knowledge is what drives Gilgamesh to search the world for a way to live forever. This certainty of death is emphasized when his best friend and companion, Enkidu, dies in his company. Gilgamesh's fear of his own death is overcome when he finally realizes that all men must die, and that the gods have already given him many other great gifts.

Another important theme in the epic of Gilgamesh is the power of friendship. Enkidu is originally sent by the gods to harm Gilgamesh for his cruel ways. Instead, the two men find respect in each other's abilities, and become great friends. This ultimately accomplishes the same goal the gods set out to do: it helps Gilgamesh learn to become a better person. When Gilgamesh loses his friend, he is devastated.

Gilgamesh in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life

As the first known work of literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh has inspired countless re-tellings and adaptations over thousands of years. These adaptations have taken the form of stage plays, operas and choral works, radio dramas, films, novels, and comic books. Some notable versions of the tale include Robert Silverberg's 1984 novel Gilgamesh the King, the three-act opera Gilgamesh created by Rudolf Brucci in 1986, and Never Grow Old: The Novel of Gilgamesh (2007) by Brian Trent. Many other works have been loosely inspired by the Gilgamesh myth, including the Japanese animated science fiction series Gilgamesh (2003) and the surreal 1985 Quay Brothers animated short This Unnameable Little Broom. Gilgamesh is also mentioned in the song “The Mesopotamians” on the 2007 album The Else by They Might Be Giants.

Read, Write, Think, Discuss

The epic of Gilgamesh is largely the story of two best friends experiencing a grand adventure together. This same formula has been used countless times in literature, television, and film; in fact, a sub-genre known as the “buddy movie” is built upon this very foundation. Can you think of a modern example of a similar tale that you have seen or read? How is it similar to the story of Gilgamesh? How is it different?

SEE ALSO Floods; Ishtar; Noah

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http://apastyle.apa.org/

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