The longest extant Babylonian poem, an epic narrating the heroic exploits of Gilgamesh, a semilegendary Sumerian king of the 3d millennium b.c. In its latest and most elaborate redaction (7th century b.c.) the poem (Babylonian title: ša naqba īmuru, "he who experienced all things") probably consisted of 12 tablets of approximately 300 lines each. The discovery that this late version contained a Babylonian story of the Flood closely paralleling the deluge narrative in Genesis was announced by George Smith in December 1872 and aroused widespread interest not only in this poem and its relation to the Bible but also in the whole new field of cuneiform studies in general. This article will treat of the contents and versions of the epic, its flood narratives, and its hero.
Contents. Despite many lacunae in the present-day editions of the ancient text, the general contents of the tale may be reconstructed with reasonable accuracy. It begins by praising the knowledge and wisdom of Gilgamesh, his long journeys in quest of adventure and immortality, and his building of the monumental walls and temple in his native city, Uruk. At the outset of the story, the people of Uruk are dissatisfied with Gilgamesh and his oppressive rule: he appropriates the young girls of the city for his court and burdens the young men with heavy labor on his building projects. The people of the city pray to the gods for deliverance, and they respond by creating a foil for Gilgamesh: Enkidu, a wild man from the steppe, who is initiated into the arts of civilization by a prostitute, comes to Uruk, and, after engaging in a heroic wrestling match with Gilgamesh, proves his constant companion in adventures, thus diverting Gilgamesh's attention from the harried people of his city.
The first adventure of Gilgamesh and Enkidu is against the giant Humbaba, appointed by the god Enlil as guardian of a great cedar forest (probably to be localized in northern Syria). When they succeed in tracking down the ogre and overcoming his magic defenses, he begs Gilgamesh for mercy, only to have the latter persuaded by Enkidu to kill the giant. When the two heroes return to Uruk, the goddess Ishtar (see astarte) asks Gilgamesh to become her lover; but he refuses, tauntingly reminding her of the brutal treatment she has accorded her previously discarded lovers. Enraged, Ishtar persuades Anu, the father of the gods, to send down the " Bull of Heaven," a monster personifying seven years of drought, to punish Gilgamesh. After killing hundreds of Gilgamesh's men, the bull attacks Enkidu and is then slain by Gilgamesh and Enkidu. The subsequent triumph through the jubilant throngs in Uruk is short-lived, for that same night Enkidu sees in a dream the gods deliberating which of the two who had killed Humbaba and the bull should perish. The god Shamash comes to their aid, but can save only Gilgamesh. Enkidu becomes ill and dies.
Gilgamesh broods over the sudden death of his companion and, reflecting on his own mortality, decides to seek the secret of eternal life from Utnapishtim, the only human being who had survived the Flood. He makes a perilous journey to the far-off land "at the mouth of the rivers" and hears from Utnapishtim's own lips the tale of how the gods in wrath had tried to destroy mankind through the Flood. But the god Ea had secretly warned Utnapishtim, who constructed a large boat and saved himself and various species of fauna from destruction. Gilgamesh inquires how he too may gain immortality, but fails to remain awake when he is put to the test. Finally, after being given the Plant of Life, Gilgamesh while bathing in a pond loses it to a snake that steals it from the shore. Dejected and disheartened, Gilgamesh returns to Uruk, recognizing in the end that his utmost achievement as a mortal will be his monumental building activities.
The 12th and final tablet of the epic is an artificial appendage to the tale and describes the descent of Enkidu into the nether world to obtain two precious possessions lost by Gilgamesh.
Versions of the Poem. The preceding synopsis of the contents of the Gilgamesh epic is based on the Nine-vite recension, as known from the library of Assurbanipal, King of Assyria (668–c. 627 b.c.). This was probably the latest and most detailed redaction of the epic, and roughly half its lines are now known—with new tablet discoveries continually increasing the total.
Other redactions of the tale of Gilgamesh are known to exist. The earliest fragments are contained in Sumerian literature of the late 3d millennium, when at least five separate sagas concerning the exploits of Gilgamesh were current. By the Old-Babylonian period (18th century b.c.) some of these stories had been woven into a single larger poem; but as yet its contents are known only from five small fragments. The work enjoyed great popularity in Mesopotamia and spread through the Near East. Fragments have been found at Boghazköy, the Hittite capital, at Mageddo in Palestine, at Sultantepe in (ancient) Syria, at Nineveh and Assur in Assyria, and at Ischali, Nippur, Sippar, Ur, and Uruk in Babylonia. Hittite and Hurrian translations are known to have been made. The Old-Babylonian and Hittite versions especially differ from the later Ninevite recension in their arrangement of the various episodes and by including material not in the later edition (and, apparently, omitting tales later incorporated into the poem).
Flood Narrative. The common framework of the Flood narratives in the Gilgamesh Epic and in Genesis
has attracted much attention. Both deluges are the result of divine decisions to destroy mankind and are announced in advance to a selected hero, who is directed to build a large boat of specified dimensions and to save himself, his family, and a representative selection of living creatures from impending catastrophe. The floods are both caused primarily by heavy rains, which cover the entire land with water, submerging even the mountain peaks and killing all living creatures. When the rains cease and the flood waters subside, the heroes each dispatch several birds to test whether the ground is exposed sufficiently to sustain life. Both boats ground on mountain tops, and each hero descends and offers sacrifice to his god (s), who then bestow (s) blessings on the survivors.
There are also many disagreements in detail between the two versions. In Gilgamesh, mankind is destroyed primarily because of the caprice of the gods and only secondarily because of the fault of man (the primary motive in Genesis). In Genesis, mankind is given a chance to repent before the Flood, while no such opportunity is afforded in Mesopotamia. Finally noah is rewarded with an everlasting covenant between God and his descendants, while Utnapishtim and his associates receive personal immortality.
Despite the great number of parallels, there is no general agreement as to the genetic relationship of the two accounts. The Biblical story does not seem to derive directly from the Gilgamesh saga. They may both stem from a common account, current in Mesopotamia by the beginning of the 2d millennium b.c.
There is good reason for thinking that in Babylonian literature the Flood was not originally part of the Gilgamesh cycle. It is probable that it was borrowed from the Babylonian Atrahasis epic, where the flood theme is obviously more central, and inserted into the Gilgamesh story only after the Old-Babylonian period.
The Hero. Little is known about the historical person named Gilgamesh, who was the fifth king of the First Dynasty of Uruk (c. 2600 b.c.). The Sumerian king list states that his father was a demon and that he himself succeeded Dumuzi (tammuz) as king and reigned for 126 years. The epic, however, tells that his mother was the goddess Ninsun (supposedly the wife of Lugalbanda, Gilgamesh's second predecessor on the throne of Uruk) and that he was, consequently, two-thirds god and one-third man. In Assyro-Babylonian mythology, Gilgamesh after his death became king and judge over the people and gods of the underworld.
Bibliography: a. heidel, The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels (2d ed. Chicago 1949). The Epic of Gilgamesh, ed. and tr. n. k. sandars (Baltimore 1960). Gilgameš et sa légende, ed. p. garelli (Paris 1960). e. sollberger, The Babylonian Legend of the Flood (London 1962). j. p. pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (2d, rev. ed. Princeton 1955) 72–99.
[j. a. brinkman]