The Gilgamesh Epic is thought to be one of the oldest
recorded stories in the world. It tells the fanciful story
of Gilgamesh, an ancient king of Uruk.
For centuries the story of Gilgamesh was lost to human
memory, except for occasional fragments. It wasn't until
the mid-nineteenth century AD that the story was rediscovered
and made available to the modern world. It was first translated
into German around the beginning of the twentieth century.
One of the first things people noticed when they read
this most ancient of stories (older than the Bible) was
that the flood story in Gilgamesh was very similar to the
flood story in the Hebrew Bible.
Oral and Written Versions
The story of Gilgamesh, in various Sumerian versions,
originally existed as part of the repertoire of Sumerian
storytellers as early as the third millennium BC. After
a long history of being told verbally, the story was finally
recorded in a standardized Akkadian version in the seventh
Without a written version, stories can be told for thousands
of years, varying from teller to teller, and adapted to
the expectations of the audience. The names of kings, places,
and characters can be added or subtracted according to
the whim of the storyteller. The story of Gilgamesh was
orignially part of such an oral tradition.
It's virtually impossible to say with scientific certainty
just when the story was first written, let alone when it
was first told. However, scholars assume the written version
is a combination of various oral traditions, and was gradually
expanded as it was told by various tellers.
The story of Gilgamesh was first discovered in the library
of King Assurbanipal of Nineveh, written on twelve tablets.
The first eleven tablets tell of Gilgamesh's life and adventures
during his unsuccessful quest for immortality. The twelfth
tablet describes how, after his death, Gilgamesh continues
to rule in the nether world. He acts as the divine judge
over the dead, guiding and advising them.
Fortunately for us, the story was written on clay tablets,
which were then fired, making them durable. Clay, especially
when fired, is one of the cheapest, but most durable, materials
used by ancient writers. If it had been written on one of
the other materials such as papyrus, leather, wood, parchment,
metal, or stone, we might not have the story today.
Another fortuitous reason for the story's survival is
that the language itself (cuneiform) was very difficult
to learn. Sumerian and Akkadian scribes who attended training
sessions to learn to write in cuneiform were expected to
copy texts exactly. Accuracy of transcription was highly
desired, and probably required if the scribe hoped to obtain
Sumerian and Akkadian Versions
Originally, Gilgamesh was a Sumerian hero-king. However,
the kingdom of Sumer was eventually conquered by the Akkadians.
The story of Gilgamesh continued to be told, but now in
the Akkadian language.
We have to assume that not only did the language of
the story change, but also some of the details must have
changed to fit the Akkadian themes.
Although the epic tale could easily be attributed to
various rulers over the millennia, the character might
be based on an actual king, for Gilgamesh appears on the
Sumerian King List. He appears fifth in line of the First
Dynasty of Uruk, following the great flood recorded in
This places him somewhere in the latter half of the
third millennium BC. According to the king list, he ruled
a hundred and twenty-six years. He was known as the builder
of the wall of Uruk.
His mother was said to be the goddess Ninsun. Although
she was the wife of a god named Lugalbanda, he was not
Gilgamesh's father. According to the king list, his father
was a high priest of Kullab, a district in Uruk. It was
from this high priest that Gilgamesh derived his mortality.
If he had been the child of his father and mother, a god
and goddess, Gilgamesh would have been immortal and he
wouldn't have sought immortality. But then, we wouldn't
have much of a story.
One of the reasons the story still touches so many people
profoundly is because, even after so many centuries, it
deals with issues that affect everyone. Every human, at
one time or another, suffers the anguish of death and loss.
In the story, Siduri the immortal barmaid, in stereotypical
barmaid and part-time philosopher style, tells Gilgamesh
that he'll never find what he's looking for in life. When
the gods created man, they consigned him to die. Immortality
they kept for themselves.
Siduri tells him that he should give up the quest to
be godlike and instead, cultivate his human side. Do the
things that humans can do. Eat, dance, and be merry. Feast
and rejoice. Wear clean clothes and bathe himself. Cherish
the child who holds his hand. Make his wife happy in his
Probably the tale is meant to say that even kings, who
in the ancient world were often thought to be descended
from the gods, must die. Death should not be thought of
as a failure, but rather a result of some solemn, divine
Here is a brief description of the story. Hopefully,
these words don't end up in some school homework assignment.
Gilgamesh, the King of Uruk, is born of a mortal father
and an immortal mother (a goddess). During the course of
the story, Gilgamesh is forced to face his own mortality,
knowing that it was his mother's chance affair that caused
him to miss his claim to eternal life. That thought plagues
him all during his life, making him a poor ruler.
A Harsh King
Embittered and angry that he was mortal, Gilgamesh sleeps
with every woman he can seduce and takes children away from
their families. His subjects soon grow to hate and fear him.
Finally the people plead with the gods for help, and the
gods respond by having the goddess Aruru create a man, Enkidu,
who will be an almost equal match for Gilgamesh.
Enkidu is a wild man, covered with shaggy hair, and
as wild as the wilderness in which he was raised. He eats
grass with the gazelles and drinks with the animals at
the watering hole.
At one point, a trapper discovers that Enkidu is freeing
all the animals from his traps. He asks his father what
he should do. His father advises him to go to Uruk, find
King Gilgamesh, and tell him of the wild man. His father
then tells his son how he should go about enticing Enkidu
to go into the city, where the wild man will meet Gilgamesh.
He tells his son to hire a temple harlot to come with
him to the wilderness where she can seduce Enkidu. That
will make the animals reject Enkidu and he'll be forced
to go to the city.
Enkidu Wrestles Gilgamesh
The harlot does seduce Enkidu, and like the trapper's
father had said, the animals reject Enkidu. The harlot
then teaches Enkidu how to live in civilization. Things
like wearing clothing, eating bread, and drinking wine.
Then she tells him about the strength of Gilgamesh, knowing
that Enkidu will want to challenge Gilgamesh.
Enkidu hears about how Gilgamesh is a blatant womanizer,
sleeping with all the women of Uruk and decides to challenge
Gilgamesh, conquer him, and force him to behave properly.
Gilgamesh accepts Enkidu's challenge. They struggle together,
wrestling as near equals, but finally Gilgamesh defeats
Instead of being angry for being beaten, and much to
the dismay of the gods, Enkidu develops great respect for
Gilgamesh. They embrace and become best friends. They are
opposites, but provide a sense of balance for each other.
Slaying of Humbaba
Gilgamesh longs for fame and decides that one way to
gain it is to go into the cedar forest and slay its guardian,
a monster named Humbaba. Now Enkidu knows Humbaba personally
from when he lived in the wilderness, and he fears the monster.
But Gilgamesh is insistant, so the two men prepare for their
As soon as Enkidu touches the ceder forest gate, his
hand becomes paralyzed, but Gilgamesh helps him and they
continue on. Despite having nightmares about it, they cut
down a cedar tree. Of course, when Humbaba hears that they've
cut down the tree, he challenges them. They fight, but
Gilgamesh and Enkidu win the battle and cut off Humbaba's
Bull of Heaven (Drought)
Gilgamesh then bathes and puts on clean clothes and
his crown. He is so handsome that he catches the eye of
Ishtar, the goddess of love, who wants desperately to
marry him. Gilgamesh spurns her, pointing out how she
had ruined the lives of her previous husbands.
This episode might have been the beginning of the saying
about "hell hath no fury like a woman scorned." Ishtar
goes to her father, Anu, demanding that he send the Bull
of Heaven (a drought) to punish Gilgamesh. She is so adamant
that she threatens to smash down the gates to the god's
underworld if her father doesn't do as she asks.
Anu does send the Bull of Heaven, but Enkidu manages
to grab it by the horns while Gilgamesh kills it.
The gods are angry and hold a council to determine who
should die for killing the Bull of Heaven. Should it be
Gilgamesh or Enkidu? But Gilgamesh discovers their plot
in a dream, but can do nothing to alter their plan. They
decide that since Gilgamesh is part divine, while Enkidu
is part animal, that Enkidu should die.
Enkidu curses the harlot who led him to civilization
and to death, but he then blesses her for the joy of his
friendship with Gilgamesh. Soon he gets sick and dies.
Distraught with grief, Gilgamesh keeps the body of his
friend for a full week, until the body crawls with worms.
After burying Enkidu, Gilgamesh leaves Uruk to live in
the wilderness as a hunter, and dresses in animal skins.
While in the wilderness, faced with the recent death of
his friend, Gilgamesh contemplates his own mortality.
Gilgamesh Seeks Utnapishtim
Not wanting to die, Gilgamesh decides to seek out a
man by the name of Utnapishtim, who is the only human being
(who is not partly a god) who had ever been granted eternal
life by the gods. Gilgamesh hopes to learn the secret of
how he too can avoid death.
Eventually, Gilgamesh's quest takes him to the entrance
into the land of the gods. The god-world is under a mountain,
guarded by a man-scorpion and his mate. Gilgamesh gains
entrance to the mountain and has to travel in the darkness
until he arrives at the jeweled garden of the gods.
In the land of the gods, Gilgamesh meets Siduri, a divine
wine-maker. She gives him shelter and advises him to accept
his human side and to enjoy life while he's alive. But he
insists he has to find Utnapishtim, so Siduri tells him
about Urshanabi, a boatman who can ferry him across the
Sea of Death to the island where Utnapishtim lives alone
with his wife.
Urshanabi agrees to take Gilgamesh to the island. Utnapishtim
tells Gilgamesh his story of how he and his family became
immortal after surviving a great, global Flood (the details
of which are remarkably similar to the Noah story in the
Bible). Utnapishtim says he cannot help Gilgamesh because
the Flood was a one-time event and one which the gods had
assured him would never occur again.
Gilgamesh falls into a deep sleep and sleeps for seven
days. When he awakens, Utnapishtim asks him how he can
expect to live forever when he can't even stay awake for
However, Utnapishtim's wife takes pity on Gilgamesh
and pleads with her husband to share the knowledge of a
sacred plant that will make Gilgamesh young again, though
not immortal. Gilgamesh dives into the sea to retrieve
the plant. Unfortunately, while Gilgamesh was later bathing,
a snake shows up and steals the sacred plant.
Gilgamesh Returns to Uruk
After losing his last chance at immortality, Gilgamesh
returns to Uruk with the boatman, Urshanabi, and points
to the mighty walls of the city. Gilgamesh confesses that
the walls are the proper legacy of a human being, not the
search for eternal life.
In the final segment of the story, Gilgamesh dies and
all the people of Uruk mourn is death.
Thanks for stopping by. I hope to see you again.
Incidently, if you read the actual translated text of
the Epic, you'll find that it uses rhythms of the period.
You'll find yourself thinking someone is repeating themselves.
They are. That's just the way they did things 5,000 years