All  
Gilgamesh Cylinder Seal

The Legend of Gilgamesh

Print

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 7 th 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

The Flood Tablet / The Gilgamesh Tablet / Library of Ashurbanipal (7 th 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 bearded naked Humbaba

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

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)

By Noushin Nabavi

References:

What is Mythology by David K. Abraham. 2014. [Online]
http://www.davidkabraham.com/OldWeb/Beliefs/Education/mythology.htm

Gilgamesh Myth, 2014. [Online]
http://www.mythencyclopedia.com/Fi-Go/Gilgamesh.html#b

Wikipedia, 2014. Gilgamesh. [Online]
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epic_of_Gilgamesh

Illustrated Mythical book of Gilgamesh in English and Farsi. Patreon [Online]
http:// http://www.patreon.com/user?u=215147

Comments

Gilgamesh Immortal wild born wore lion skins
till tamed by the priestess Ishtar
Great Sage and Warrior defeated mortality
the unceasing tyranny of Time

Invincible Conqueror he first captured Uruk
then even to Lebanon on the Middle Sea shore
Sumer's great gods he brought and smashed idols
his glories are carved in permanent rock

Gilgamesh Emperor refused his mortality
challenged this affronting curtailment of power
He curses the gods who gave mankind death
and kept immortality themselves

He desecrates the temples dismantles the altars
discredits the ancient beliefs
Then Gilgamesh wanders again wearing lion skins
searching for everlasting life

But he cannot claim one hundred years
or even five days in this world
till Sleep gently takes to her restful abode
the great warrior docile and blind

Eternity is found in the cavernous dark
excess time too great to endure
Is this then my fate or will I cease to be
Gilgamesh resolves to inquire

The answer he learns as sailors well know
lies on the deep ocean floor
But that bitter truth encased in sharp spines
has never been brought back to shore

Undaunted the sage who searched beyond heaven
for the secret to undying youth
ties rocks to his feet descends through the deep
poised at the threshold of death

Gilgamesh plucks and swallows the fruit
too thorny for mortals to hold
Then returning to Uruk reigned fifty more years
devoted and caring for all

Ninety-nine years was his time on this earth
after ninety-nine years and nine days
maggots appeared a great stench arose
his corpse was consigned to the flames

His funeral remembered for eighty four years
was portrayed in gold and bright stones
The shrine was revered for five hundred more
then plundered and levelled by foe

But Gilgamesh Immortal has no need of monuments
from clay to papyrus he strides
From parchment to print and digital media
technologies yet to arrive

Ripples arise in the seething entropy
multitudes exist and subside
Five thousand years and all that has passed
Gilgamesh alone survives.

scabs mcscrotum's picture

The above article mentions parallels between the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Bible – I’ve gone into that in more detail in the ‘manuscripts’ section of the ‘history and archaeology’ forum, if you’re interested.

"Hurry else Death may spy us here, and quicken the pulse of dawn . . ."

Thank you for correcting them and I agree with your statement. I am so glad I read comments!

I take issue with the telling of a great myth while clearly not having read it oneself, merely ABOUT it. Gilgamesh was not betrothed to Ishtar. Ishtar was a goddess who tried to seduce Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh refused HER, not the other way around, because she had a reputation for killing her lovers. She petitioned the leader of the gods, Anu, to lend her the Bull of Heaven to destroy Gilgamesh, saying that he had insulted her. Gilgamesh and Enkidu slay the Bull.

Speaking of Enkidu, he was not a beast, but a wild man. Tales of his strength spread, and a sacred temple whore was sent to gentle him and civilize him by sleeping with him. He and Gilgamesh do fight to a standstill, and do become friends. Anu is the one who sends them after Humbaba, who is a dragon, by the way, as a test. He did not want them to kill Humbaba, merely subdue him. But when, with some help from Anu, they subdue the dragon, Enkidu encourages Gilgamesh to kill Humbaba, which angers the gods. Enkidu is punished with a wasting disease that slowly kills him, which inspires Gilgamesh's fear of death and starts him on his journey.

Don't post about ancient myths if you can't get them right, lest the thousands of people who read your page suffer from believing wrong information.

ancient-origins's picture

Hi Brad. It appears that there is a bug not showing the subject line of comments under the articles (but it is shown in the recent comments page). We are working to fix it. Thanks for that!

Pages

Next article