The Epic of Gilgamesh

Epics, legends and myths are a part of nearly every ancient culture. Whether they are true or not, the people of those civilizations lived their lives as if they were. Understanding the myths ancient people believed leads to understanding their way of life. Compare the Myth of Osiris with the epic story of Gilgamesh below.

Gilgamesh was an historical king of Uruk in Babylonia, on the River Euphrates. He lived about 2700 B.C. The civilizations of the Tigris-Euphrates area, among the first civilizations, focus on Gilgamesh and the legends surrounding him to explain themselves. Many stories and myths were written about Gilgamesh, some of which were written down about 2000 B.C. in the Sumerian language on clay tablets which still survive. The Sumerian language, as far as we know, bears no relation to any other human language we know about. These Sumerian Gilgamesh stories were integrated into a longer poem, versions of which survive not only in Akkadian (the Semitic language, related to Hebrew, spoken by the Babylonians) but also on tablets written in Hurrian and Hittite (an Indo-European language, a family of languages which includes Greek and English, spoken in Asia Minor). All the above languages were written in the script known as cuneiform which means "wedge-shaped." The fullest surviving version is derived from 12 stone tablets, in the Akkadian language, found in the ruins of the library of Ashwbanipal, king of Assyria 669-633 B.C., at Nineveh. The library was destroyed by the Persians in 612 B.C., and all the tablets are damaged. The tablets actually name an author, which is extremely rare in the ancient world: Shin-eqi-unninni. You are being introduced here to the oldest known human author we can name by name!

Accroding to the epic, Gilgamesh, who is two-thirds god and one-third man, is the greatest king on earth and the strongest super-human that ever existed. But he is young and oppresses his people harshly. The people call out to their chief god of the city, the sky-god Anu, who creates a wild man, Enkidu, to serve as the subhuman rival to Gilgamesh. Later, when the two fight over what Enkidu sees as abusive authority by Gilgamesh, the two become devoted friends even as Gilgamesh defeats Enkidu.

While on a great adventure together, Enkidu falls ill. In a dream, a great demon drags Enkidu to Hell, a House of Dust where all dead end up; as he dies he describes Hell:

The house where the dead dwell in total darkness,
Where they drink dirt and eat stone,
Where they wear feathers like birds,
Where no light ever invades their everlasting darkness,
Where the door and the lock of Hell is coated with thick dust.
When I entered the House of Dust,
On every side the crowns of kings were heaped,

On every side the voices of the kings who wore those crowns,
Who now only served food to the gods Anu and Enlil,
Candy, meat, and water poured from skins.
I saw sitting in this House of Dust a priest and a servant,
I also saw a priest of purification and a priest of ecstasy,
I saw all the priests of the great gods.
There sat Etana and Sumukan,
There sat Ereshkigal, the queen of Hell,
Beletseri, the scribe of Hell, sitting before her:
Beletseri held a tablet and read it to Ereshkigal.
She slowly raised her head when she noticed me
She pointed at me:
"Who has sent this man?"

At the end of this story, Gilgamesh is offered a chance at immortality by an old wise man, Utnapishtim. If Gilgamesh can stay awake for six days and seven nights, he, too, will become immortal. Gilgamesh accepts these conditions and sits down on the shore. The instant he sits down he falls asleep. Utnapishtim tells his wife that all men are liars and that Gilgamesh will deny having fallen asleep. To prove his point, he asks his wife to bake a loaf of bread every day and lay the loaf at Gilgamesh's feet. Gilgamesh sleeps without ever waking up for six days and seven nights, at which point Utnapishtim wakes him up. Startled, Gilgamesh says, "I only just dozed off for half a second here." Utnapishtim points out the loaves of bread, showing their states of decay from the most recent, fresh bread, to the oldest, moldy, stale bread that had been laid at his feet on the very first day. Gilgamesh is distraught:

0 woe! What do I do now, where do I go now?
Death has devoured my body,
Death dwells in my body,
Wherever I go, wherever I look, there stands Death!


Utnapishtim's wife convinces the old man to have mercy on him; he offers Gilgamesh in place of immortality a secret plant that will make Gilgamesh young again. The plant is at the bottom of the ocean surrounding the Far Away Land; Gilgamesh ties stones to his feet, sinks to the bottom, and plucks the magic plant. But he doesn't use it because he doesn't trust it; rather he decides to take it back to Uruk and test it out on an old man first, to make sure it works.

Urshanabi, a traveling companion, takes him across the Waters of Death. Several leagues inland, Gilgamesh and Urshanabi stop to eat and sleep; while they're slewping, a snake slithers up and eats the magic plant (which is why snakes shed their skin) and crawls away. Gilgamesh awakens to find the plant gone; he falls to his knees and weeps:

For whom have I labored? For whom have I journeyed?
For whom have I suffered?
I have gained absolutely nothing for myself,
I have only profited the snake, the ground lion!


The tale ends with Gilgamesh, at the end of his joumey, standing before the gates of Uruk, inviting Urshanabi to look around and view the greatness of this city, its high walls, and its masonwork. At the base of the city wall, a stone of lapis lazuli contains carvings explaining Gilgamesh's account of his exploits.