The Legend of Gilgamesh
Myths are traditional stories that address the various ways of living and being. The well-known myth of Gilgamesh has been cited in many sources as one of the first stories in our recorded human history originating from Mesopotamia, Iraq today, though some maintain it was not just a fairytale but was based on some elements of truth. Only a few tablets have survived from the original Sumerian texts dating back to 2000 BC and written in cuneiform language. The Babylonian version is, however, two thirds complete and dates back to 13th to 10th century BC. Some of the best copies weren’t discovered until the 7th century in the library ruins of the Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal. For our modern accounts, it was only after the First World War that the Gilgamesh myth reached a wider audience, and only after the Second World War that it began to feature in a variety of genres.
The Flood Tablet / The Gilgamesh Tablet / Library of Ashurbanipal (7th century BC). Credit: British Museum.
This myth can be divided in two main sections. In the first half, Gilgamesh, the King of Uruk, was set to marry an equal woman in rank named Ishtar. However, Enkidu, a wild beast, gets created, as a rival to Gilgamesh, to go to Uruk and free its people from the harsh behaviours of their King. Gilgamesh and Enkidu first fight each other but then Gilgamesh finds such unique strength in Enkidu that he offers to become close friends with him. They shake hands and decide to go on a long distant journey to the Cedar Mountains to defeat Humbaba the monstrous god of storm and forests. The two kill Humbaba but Ishtar sends someone to kill Enkidu. In the meanwhile, Gilgamesh refused to take Ishtar's hand in marriage. Ishtar becomes enraged and sends someone to kill Gilgamesh’s best companion, Enkidu.
A cylinder seal of a bearded, naked Humbaba with very large ears being slain by a crowned Gilgamesh with a sword or dagger and an axe-wielding Enkidu. Image source.
In the second half, Gilgamesh, feeling sad about Enkidu’s death, goes on a long and distant journey to find the secret of eternal life from a man named Utnapishtim. Utnapishtim had survived a great flood and was granted immortality by the gods. Going through many towns and talking to many people, he sees that the life one looks for, one never finds because the gods keep life in their own hands. However, he finally manages to find Utnapishtim and asks him for the secrets. Utnapishtim challenges Gilgamesh to stay awake for 7 days and then he can tell him the secrets. Of course, Gilgamesh fails that test but nevertheless Utnapishtim introduces Gilgamesh to a plant that can restore youth. Gilgamesh happily takes the plant for bring to his people in Uruk but the plant gets stolen by a snake along the way (hence the snake’s ability to shed its skin and rejuvenate). Disappointed and tired, Gilgamesh goes back to Uruk empty handed but wiser and with more peace and experience to await his death.
Gilgamesh being robbed of the plant by the snake. Image source.
The myth of Gilgamesh has influenced both ancient as well as modern literature and culture. The themes from the epic can be found in later biblical and classical literature. In fact, various themes, plot elements, and characters in Gilgamesh have counterparts in the bible, notably the accounts of the Garden of Eden, the advice from Ecclesiastes, and Noah's Flood. Perhaps, through engaging with the myth of Gilgamesh we could explore its parallels to our modern lives today, and project the future possibilities of humanity.
A creative team, named Gilga-studio, along with Mark Mellon, an indigenous international artist, are working on recreating the myth of Gilgamesh for an e-book and hardcover rendition for children and adults. To stay in touch with their progress, visit their website or Facebook page.
Featured image: Gilgamesh Cylinder Seal Impression Photo: Tom Jensen. The Schoyen Collection. (c. 2700/2600 BC)
What is Mythology by David K. Abraham. 2014. [Online]
Gilgamesh Myth, 2014. [Online]
Wikipedia, 2014. Gilgamesh. [Online]
Illustrated Mythical book of Gilgamesh in English and Farsi. Patreon [Online]