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 Gilgamesh—a 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 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 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.
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