The Epic of Gilgamesh:
Wisdom From the Dawn of the World
By Gabriel Blanchard
Composed almost four thousand years ago, the Gilgamesh remains a moving tale of humanity and mortality.
July is a slightly paradoxical month, astronomically speaking: it is the middle of the summer, yet little by little the nights wax longer throughout. It therefore feels fitting to consider a work that is paradoxical in two respects—though hailing from the youngest chapters of history, its dominating theme is reconciliation with death, and it was forgotten for thousands of years before experiencing a rediscovery and a renaissance of popularity in the twentieth century.
Mesopotamia (roughly equivalent to modern Iraq) was home to one of the first civilizations that have left us any written records, the Sumerians; the Sumerian city-state of Ur has become a nickname for the original or prototypical example of something, and may be familiar to readers of Genesis as the original home of Abraham. The wide, flat river-plains of Sumer abounded in clay, useful for making pottery, bricks, and tablets on which to make records in the most ancient system of writing, cuneiform. Humans being what they are, it was not long before writing was used for literary purposes as well as practical ones. The date of the earliest version of the Epic of Gilgamesh is not known; poems about Gilgamesh (who may have been a historical ruler) go as far back as the twenty-second century BC, and the oldest surviving version of the tale, named for its opening words Shūtur eli sharrī (“Surpassing all other kings”), dates to the eighteenth. The complete version now generally published in translations, compiled between the fourteenth and eleventh centuries BC, received a new title: Sha naqba īmurru, “He who saw the abyss.”
The story is as follows: Gilgamesh, the son of a mortal father and a minor goddess, is himself mortal though possessed of divine strength and beauty. (Curiously, the poem describes him as two-thirds divine rather than half, apparently as a direct blessing from the gods.) He becomes the king of the city of Uruk, but he is a tyrant, and the people of Uruk cry out to the gods. In response, the gods create the wild man Enkidu, whom a sacred prostitute civilizes and brings to the city; infuriated by Gilgamesh’s behavior, Enkidu challenges him to a wrestling match, which the king narrowly wins. The two become friends and adoptive brothers, and travel to the Cedar Forest (the dwelling place of the gods) to slay its monstrous guardian. On their return to Uruk, Ishtar, the goddess of love and war, attempts to seduce Gilgamesh, but he spurns her. Enraged, she sends a divine bull to punish the city, but the two friends kill this as well. At this point the gods intervene, determining that Enkidu must die for slaying the forest guardian and the bull; after a series of ominous dreams and a twelve-day sickness, lamenting that he could not at least die gloriously in battle, Enkidu passes. Gilgamesh is stricken, and makes lavish offerings to the goddess of the underworld to ensure his friend’s good reception there—but along with grief, he is overtaken by the dread of his own inevitable death. He resolves to find the sage Utnapishtim, one of the only survivors of the Great Flood, and learn the secret of immortality from him.
Gilgamesh travels through many dangers to the very edge of the world, and is ferried across the Sea of Death to the isle where Utnapishtim lives. Utnapishtim reprimands him for seeking to escape death, telling him that this quest only spoils human enjoyment of life. Gilgamesh argues, pointing out the sage’s own deathlessness; Utnapishtim explains that this was a unique gift from the god Enlil, given out of remorse for sending the Great Flood, after Ishtar and other gods rebuked him. The sage then presents Gilgamesh with a challenge: as a first step toward immortality, he must keep awake for six days and seven nights. Naturally he fails. Nonetheless, as a parting gift, Utnapishtim tells him of a rose-like magical plant which grows on the floor of the sea that will restore his youth. Gilgamesh succeeds in obtaining the plant, and plans to bring it back to Uruk and share it with all his people, but on the homeward journey it is stolen by a serpent. Heartbroken by the futility of all his efforts, he finally reaches his city again. He lives out the rest of his days ruling Uruk justly, records his story, and accepts death when it comes to him.
The kinship of the Gilgamesh with other ancient epics can be seen in much more than its superficial form. Mournful shadows lie across many epics: Beowulf too ends with the death of its hero; the Iliad closes with the funeral of Hector; even the fundamentally victorious Æneid opens with a catastrophe. But the Gilgamesh (or at least its second half) is very frankly about death, in a way that few works of literature are. In this way it shows some affinity with the surviving texts of ancient Egypt, which are overwhelmingly spells, sometimes whole books of them, meant to ensure safety and prosperity in the afterlife—save that unlike the Egyptians, the Sumerians display no hope of a post-mortem paradise, not even for heroes or demigods. In this way the Gilgamesh agrees with Near Eastern wisdom literature, a widespread genre that remained popular for many centuries, and which is familiar to modern audiences in Biblical books such as Job, Ecclesiastes, Sirach, and several of the Psalms.
Speaking of the Bible, the obvious resemblances between several parts of the Gilgamesh and the book of Genesis, especially their parallel accounts of the Great Flood (with Utnapishtim as the Sumerian Noah), have naturally invited comment from scholars. Genesis and the epic are generally agreed to be based on some common, now-lost source from Mesopotamia; some parts of Genesis seem to be retellings of this “stock” material, often with a subversive twist (for instance, both Genesis and the Gilgamesh are unusual in making the serpent a malignant figure, when it usually symbolized life and wisdom). Given its centuries-long popularity throughout the Near East, it is likely that the Gilgamesh was familiar literature to the ancient Israelites. Its influence is also argued to be present in Greek literature, particularly the works of Hesiod and Homer, with their lengthy genealogies of gods, superhuman heroes, and fantasticated monsters.
Despite this, due to the numberless conquests and reconquests of Mesopotamia over the millennia—Persian, Greek, Roman, Arab, Mongol, Turkish, British—the epic was lost, and the Sumerian script and language were forgotten. Not until the late nineteenth century were fragments of cuneiform tablets containing the Gilgamesh first unearthed; decoding the script itself was slow work, but by 1930 an edition in translation had been published. After the massive destruction of the Second World War, this melancholy reflection on death and life experienced a surge in readership, and it has since reassumed its honored place in the canon of world literature. Four thousand years buried, Gilgamesh yet speaks.
Gabriel Blanchard (three-thirds mortal) is a freelance writer and the editor-at-large for CLT. He lives in Baltimore.
If you enjoyed this piece, you might also be interested in these profiles of Aristotle, Caesar, and The Thousand and One Nights.
Published on 25th July, 2022. Page image of a carving from a temple in Nimrud (approx. twenty miles south of Mosul), depicting a deity (right) fighting a monster embodying chaos (left); the date and the exact identities of the figures remain unconfirmed.