The Ascension of Gilgamesh: Did the Epic Hero Actually Exist?
The Epic of Gilgamesh is widely recognized and frequently a required reading for world literature courses. The poem is considered a masterpiece in its own right, not just because it is the earliest piece of Western Asian epic poetry. Written 4,000 years ago, the poem tells the story of a hero contending with gods and demons, as well as grappling with issues that still confound us today: how to deal with the grief of a deceased loved one and the purpose of existence. More recently, however, scholars have been pondering a different line of questions: did Gilgamesh really exist? How much of the epic poems about the demi-god is based on reality and how much is fiction?
If he were a real man, Gilgamesh would have lived in ancient Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, in what is now Iraq. The poem itself was most likely created between 2150 and 1400 BC. Experts believe that the tale probably existed in oral form during the Sumerian Third Dynasty of Ur (c. 2100 BC) and that it was written down after the Babylonians came to power (c. 1800 BC). The events depicted in The Epic, as well as in 4 other epic poems that survived from that period, are mythic, but may have been meant to celebrate real people and events.
The king-hero Gilgamesh battling the ‘Bull of Heaven’. (CC BY SA 4.0)
Hints on Gilgamesh’s Existence in the Sumerian King List
The Sumerian King List is an ancient stone tablet that lists the Kings of Sumer and was supposedly handed down from the gods. It was passed from city-state to city-state to affirm the unity of the region. Whatever the List’s origins, it ultimately became a political tool as the cities vied for hegemony within the Sumer Empire. Gilgamesh appears on the List with no special fanfare.
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Stone tablet inscribed with the Sumerian King List. (Public Domain)
Under the ‘First Rulers of Uruk’ section, Gilgamesh is listed 5th with the epithet: “whose father was a phantom, the lord of Kulaba.” (Livius, 2017) He was said to have reigned for 126 years around the year 2600 BC. This epithet, by no means the strangest on the List, neither confirms nor denies the legendary ancestry of Gilgamesh.
Mace dedicated to the hero Gilgamesh (fifth king of Uruk, according to the Sumerian king list) by Urdun, civil servant of Lagash, Ur III. (Public Domain)
According to poems that pre-date The Epic, Gilgamesh’s father was Lugalbanda, a priest-king. The name Lugalbanda also appears on the Sumerian King List as the 3rd Ruler of Uruk (which would make him Gilgamesh’s grandfather, if anything) who reigned for 1,200 years and was given the epithet “the shepherd” (Livius, 2017). In the stories, Gilgamesh’s mother is the goddess Ninsun. It is this aspect of Gilgamesh’s ancestry that gives him magical abilities and super-human strength (Mark, 2010).
A fragmentary relief dedicated to Ninsun. (Public Domain) Ninsun was Gilgamesh’s mother in the stories.
“Known as 'Bilgames’ in Sumerian, 'Gilgamos’ in Greek, and associated closely with the figure of Dumuzi from the Sumerian poem The Descent of Inanna, Gilgamesh is widely accepted as the historical 5th king of Uruk whose influence was so profound that myths of his divine status grew up around his deeds and finally culminated in the tales found in The Epic of Gilgamesh” (Mark, 2010).
Artist’s representation of King Gilgamesh. (King Gilgamesh)
Gilgamesh’s Interactions with Humans and Gods
In several of the poems’ stories, Gilgamesh comes to the assistance of humans and gods. In others, he fights them. One tale tells of a conflict between Gilgamesh of Uruk and King Aga of Kish. Aga’s name is also on the Sumerian King List, under the ‘First Dynasy of Kish’ section with the epithet “the son of En-me-barage-si” and a reign of 625 years also around the year 2,600 BC.
The Flood Tablet / The Gilgamesh Tablet / Library of Ashurbanipal (7th century BC). (British Museum)
The Kish section ends with the line “Then Kish was defeated and the kingship was taken to E-ana” (Livius, 2017). The Sumerian ‘E-ana’ literally translates as “House of Heaven” and refers to the temple of the great goddess Inanna in Uruk.
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Relief on the front of the Inanna temple of Karaindash from Uruk. Pergamon Museum. (CC BY SA 3.0)
In the Sumerian legend, Inanna and the Huluppa Tree, Gilgamesh is described as Inanna’s brother. Clay tablets found in tombs are inscribed with prayers to Gilgamesh asking for lenient judgment, suggesting that the King had become a judge of the Underworld (Inanna famously descended into and returned from Kur, the Sumerian underworld).
If more documents from the time still existed, perhaps they would show a steady progression of the much beloved king becoming a divine being. Until then, the mystery remains.
Gilgamesh Statue Sydney University. (CC BY SA 4.0)
Top Image: Louvre Museum, Department of Near Eastern Antiquities: Gilgamesh and Lion, Human headed winged bull, Assyria. Source: Jean-Christophe BENOIST/ CC BY 3.0
Livius. “The Sumerian King List.” The Sumerian King List, Livius, 2017, www.livius.org/sources/content/anet/266-the-sumerian-king-list/
Spar, Ira. “Gilgamesh.” The Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Apr. 2009, www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/gilg/hd_gilg.htm