Mesopotamia

Source poems: ca. 2100 BCE
First Old Babylonian version: 18th century BCE
Later Standard Babylonian version: 13th – 10th century BCE

Anonymous,

The Epic of Gilgamesh

Gilgamesh is probably the most ancient hero we know of. The Epic of Gilgamesh was the greatest literary work from ancient Mesopotamia, going back to literary traditions at the end of the third millennium BCE, that is, around 2000 BCE or earlier. 

Gilgamesh and Enkidu slaying the Bull of Heaven. Neo-Assyrian, 8th/7th century BC. http://www.bibleorigins.net/illustrationofGilgameshAndEnkidu.html

Gilgamesh and Enkidu slaying the Bull of Heaven. Neo-Assyrian, 8th/7th century BC. Source: bibleorigins.net

The name of Gilgamesh appears among the early monarchs recorded in the king lists of the Sumerian city of Uruk, which is Gilgamesh’s city in the epic. Hence it is surmised that this is a case where a historical figure became semi-legendary and eventually a hero around whom fantastic epic stories grew. The main theme in the Epic of Gilgamesh is the transformation of a hybristic arrogant king into a noble leader through a journey of pain and self-discovery. This journey includes the hero’s initial conflict and strong friendship with his “alter ego” in the figure of the wild man Enkidu (a perfect partnership that captures the dichotomy between nature and culture) and the heroic quest to attain glory. Among his featured exploits are battles with monstrous creatures such as the cedar-forest guardian Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven and the dangerous rejection of the love goddess Ishtart. The physical and spiritual journey of Gilgamesh also involves suffering the harsh consequences of divine punishment, which bring the death of the beloved friend, and the experience of pain and uncertainty, which pushes the hero into seeking the limits of the known world in search for answers. Only when Gilgamesh crosses beyond the world of the living and comes back does he become the king he was meant to be. In the process, he also reaches his full acceptance of the inevitability of death. This realization comes after he speaks to Ut-napishtim and hears his story of how he and his family survived the Flood, after which the god Enlil made him and his wife immortal, a fate not available to even semi-divine heroes. Along the way, Gilgamesh finds guidance from various gods and lone characters like Siduri the female tavern keeper. In a text preserved from the Old Babylonian Version, she offers Gilgamesh the most poignant piece of advice, and our first preserved version of the carpe diem idea (“collect the day”):

Gilgamesh, where do you roam?
You will not find the eternal life that you seek.
When the gods created mankind,
they appointed death for mankind,
kept eternal life in their own hands.
So, Gilgamesh, let your stomach be full,
day and night enjoy yourself in every way,
every day arrange for pleasures.
Day and night, dance and play,
wear fresh clothes.
Keep your head washed, bathe in water,
appreciate the child who holds your hand,
let your wife enjoy herself in your lap.
(Trans. Stephanie Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others, Oxford, 2000, p. 150)

Stories about Gilgamesh circulated broadly throughout the ancient Near East and became enormously popular beyond Mesopotamia. Indeed, we can see the influence of some of its motifs even in Greek epic and myth. Unlike with the Homeric and other epics, which have come to us through medieval manuscripts at the end of a long process of editing and copying, thanks to the Mesopotamian writing system in clay tablets and to archaeological excavations we have physical copies of several versions of the epic going back to the second and first millennium BCE. The textual history of what we call the Epic of Gilgamesh, therefore, is wonderfully complicated, as the texts we have do not come from a single version but are fragmentary texts from different times and places. What follows explains the main phases of this “textual epic journey.”

The oldest fragments of poems about Gilgamesh are those written in Sumerian, stemming from traditions dated to the Ur III period or Third Dynasty of Ur, that is, at the end of the third millennium BCE (2094–2047 BCE). These were not long epic poems but independent short stories about Gilgamesh (called “Bilgamesh” in Sumerian). For instance, in one of them, know as “Gilgamesh (Bilgamesh), Enkidu, and the Netherworld,” Enkidu has descended to the Netherworld at Gilgamesh’s bidding to recover some items and is trapped there; Gilgamesh is allowed by the Sun god Utu (Akkadian Shamash) to reunite momentarily with his friend, and the poem relates their conversation about what Enkidu sees in the Netherworld, especially the fates of people who lived and died in particular ways. These early Sumerian stories were preserved by later Babylonian writers probably in the eighteenth-century BCE, whose language was Akkadian but who copied Sumerian texts (just as scholars in antiquity copied Homer) because of their prestige and cultural importance.

The longer versions of the Gilgamesh epic were composed directly in Akkadian during the second millennium BCE, including the poem known as “Surpassing all other kings.” This is also known as the Old Babylonian Version. It was in the next phase, however, during the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1550–1200 BCE), that the epic was most broadly copied. In other words, by this point, this epic had become a “classic” passed down as high literature but also used for educational purposes, not unlike Homer and Hesiod in the Greek world. In Mesopotamia we find texts of Gilgamesh used for scribal practice in schools, and we know verses of Gilgamesh could be excerpted for ritual use as well, as we see for instance in Hittite texts. Outside Mesopotamia, the Epic of Gilgamesh circulated not only in Akkadian but in translations, which are attested in the Levant (at Ugarit, Emar, Meggido) and in Anatolia at Hattusa, the Hittite capital.

The most complete version of the Epic of Gilgamesh that has reached us is the next expanded version, preserved in tablets from the early-mid first millennium BCE in the royal libraries of Assyria and Babylonia. It was the British explorer and diplomat Austen H. Layard who unearthed the first tablets containing this version in 1849 in the ruins of the palace of Ashurbanipal (r. 668–627 BCE) at Nineveh. Although the copies we have date to the first millennium BCE, the originals on which they are based were probably composed between the thirteenth and eleventh centuries BCE. At any rate, this version is known as the “Standard Babylonian Version” (SBV, or just “Standard Version”), not only because it is the most complete but because its literary Akkadian is fairly standardized throughout the tablets. In ancient times, however, it was known as “He who saw the Deep,” after its opening line. This version forms the basis for most modern translations, which fill some of its gaps with lines from other extant versions. Mesopotamian literary texts were largely anonymous, but the tablets of the “Standard Version” were attributed to a scribe called Sin-liqeunninni. While we are not dealing with an “author” in the modern sense, we can assume that scribes had some leeway in modifying, expanding, and editing the existing texts, some perhaps doing it more heavy-handedly and successfully than others, hence gaining recognition for posterity.

The influence of the Epic of Gilgamesh on Near Eastern and Greek literatures and myths cannot be overstated. Artistic representations of scenes of Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu (e.g., fighting Humbaba or the Bull of Heaven) can be found frequently on reliefs and cylinder seals. Moreover, as mentioned above, many of the narrative tropes of the Gilgamesh story were adapted by Canaanites and Hittites in the Late Bronze Age, but were also very likely popular among other Iron Age groups, such as Phoenicians, Aramaeans, Luwians, and others, whose literatures are largely lost. The Greeks, too, adapted elements from the Gilgamesh story: scholars have seen resonances in the intense and tragic friendship between Achilles and Patroklos and Achilles’ mourning over his death, in Odysseus’ wanderings and his encounter with the souls of the dead, and in the theme of monster-slaying so central to Greek figures such as Herakles, Perseus, and Theseus, among other heroic features or episodes. Finally, it is possible that the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Mesopotamian writing tradition more generally inspired the Greeks (perhaps Homer and Hesiod themselves) to undertake the writing of the long epics, originally based in oral tradition.

Carolina López-Ruiz
Ohio State University

Adapted from Carolina López-Ruiz, Gods, Heroes, and Monsters: A Sourcebook of Greek, Roman, and Near Eastern Myths in Translation (Oxford, 2018 [2nd ed.]), 128-9.

 

 

Resources

English translations: 

Dalley, Stephanie, trans. and ed. Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others. Oxford University Press, 2000.

Foster, Benjamin R., trans. and ed. The Epic of Gilgamesh.  New York: Norton, 2001.

George, Andrew R., trans. and ed. The Epic of Gilgamesh: the Babylonian Epic Poem and Other Texts in Akkadian and Sumerian. Penguin Books, 2000. 

Mitchell, Stephen, trans. and ed. Gilgamesh: A New English Version. Profile Books, 2004.

 

Critical studies:

Dalley, Stephanie, trans. and ed. Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others. Oxford University Press, 2000.

Damrosch, David. The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh. Henry Holt and Co., 2007.

George, Andrew R. The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Introduction, Critical Edition, and Cuneiform Texts. 2 vols. Oxford–New York, 2003.

—. “Gilgamesh and the Literary Traditions of Ancient Mesopotamia.” In The Babylonian World.  Ed. G. Leick. London–New York, 2007. 447-59.

Schmidt, Michael. Gilgamesh: The Life of a Poem . Princeton University Press, 2019.

Tigay, Jeffrey H. The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982

 

Further reading:

López-Ruiz, Carolina. Gods, Heroes, and Monsters: A Sourcebook of Greek, Roman, and Near Eastern Myths in Translation. Oxford, 2018 (2nd ed.). For additional literary and historical context: this volume challenges the traditional view of the “classics” by situating Greek and Roman mythology within the broader ancient Mediterranean.

 

In the news:

Gilgamesh tomb believed found.” April 29, 2003. 

Authorities Seek Forfeiture of Gilgamesh Tablet from Hobby Lobby.” May 19, 2020. 

Feds Take Ownership of Smuggled Ancient ‘Epic of Gilgamesh’ Tablet Owned by Hobby Lobby.” July 27, 2021.

 

 

 

The Flood Tablet Fragment, British Museum, London.

Warka Vase (Uruk Vase). National Museum of Iraq.

The Lady of Uruk / The Lady of Warka (article from 2018 on the looting of this artifact from the National Museum of Iraq during the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and its subsequent return to the museum)

Mask of the demon Humbaba, Louvre, Paris.

Mask of the demon Humbaba, British Museum, London.

Ishtar’s place setting in “The Dinner Party” by Judy Chicago (a feminist work that represents 1,038 women in history), Brooklyn Museum.

Cylinder seal depicting Gilgamesh and Enkidu killing Humbaba, British Museum. 

Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art. “Uruk: The First City.” In Heilbrunn, Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000. (Oct. 2003).

Bull sculpture, c. 3000 BCE. Louvre.

Statue of Gilgamesh, the University of Sydney, Australia.

Uruk Archaelogical site at Warka, Iraq, in 2008.

Anu/White Temple ziggurat at Uruk (Warka, Iraq). 4000-35000 BCE

a block of lapis lazuli (Gilgamesh is said to have written his story on a tablet of lapis lazuli)

Additional images in The Art of Uruk, Wikipedia article.

Gilgamesh: Columbia College, The Core Curriculum, Explorations.

The Epic of Gilgamesh. Teaching Resources for Historians. American Historical Association. 

 

Projects on Sumerian/Akkadian writing:

The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature. Contains transliterations of Gilgamesh in Sumerian with English prose translations. 

The Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project. The Standard Babylonian, Epic of Gilgamesh. Mikko Luuko and Kalle Fabritius. 

The Gilgamesh Epic Project for Young People.

Epic of Gilgamesh. Concert by French composer Abed Azrié, Institut du Monde Arabe (Arab World Institute), Paris, March 2011.

Introduction to Epic of Gilgamesh performed in Sumerian by Peter Pringle. 

Ninsun’s Song. Sung by soprano Maya Hayashi, is from the opera/ musical “Gilgamesh” by Michael Guinn.

Extracts of Gilgamesh read in the original language. SOAS, University of London. 

“Illuminated Manuscript”, Hip Hop Epic of Gilgamesh by Antics Production: 1) interview; 2) trailer

Gilgamesh Cultural Center, California. A non-profit organization featuring Assyrian culture whose name was inspired by the epic of Gilgamesh. 

In Our Time: a conversation about the epic of Gilgamesh with Andrew George and others. BBC podcast.