The Ancient Epic of Gilgamesh and the Precession of the Equinox
Gilgamesh is the ancient Sumerian epic, written some 4,000 years ago on cuneiform clay tablets and rediscovered only in the nineteenth century. It is a story that has echoes of the biblical Old Testament, with its graphic details of a great flood and the formation of mankind from the dust of the earth. The bulk of the story is devoted to a king of Sumer, known as Gilgamesh, and his epic quest into the mystical forests of cedar, where he performs many heroic deeds.
Although this epic story from the beginnings of recorded history contains mythical elements, it is nevertheless thought to be a biography of this Sumerian king making his mark on the world—a story of derring-do by a heroic princeling.
But it is entirely possible that this classical interpretation is in error, both in its interpretation and in its chronology. Indeed, the Gilgamesh epic may up to 600 years younger than previously thought.
During the research for the book Jesus, Last of the Pharaohs, Ralph had been working on the theory that the bulk of the biblical Old Testament was, in fact, based on similar theology to that found in Egypt and Sumer. With its constant reference to bulls, sheep and fish, the Bible portrays definite echoes of an ancient astrological religion, a story of the constellations onto which the history of the patriarchal family has been grafted. In the Gilgamesh epic, we find a similar epic tale of a battle with bulls and sheep, one that can just possibly be interpreted as a clash of the stellar constellations, a battle between Aries and Taurus.
Fig 1. Gilgamesh the Hunter, a relief from Khorsabad, now in the Louvre. This ancient epic was actually a story of Orion the Hunter, and the precessional battle with Taurus.
It is an established fact that the constellations slowly change their position with reference to the Sun as the millennia pass, with each constellation being dominant at the vernal (spring) equinox dawn for about 2,000 years or so. This is a process known as precession. Currently we are in the last centuries of Pisces (the fish), while the previous constellation was Aries (the ram). The change between Aries and Pisces happened in about AD 10, and this is why Jesus was said to have been born as a Lamb of God (Aries) but became a Fisher of Men (Pisces). As one can readily see, the last vestiges of an ancient astrological religion are still clearly visible within early Nazarene Christianity.
However, back in the early part of the Middle Kingdom of Egypt, a similar change in the constellations was about to occur - Taurus was about to cede its rule to the next constellation in line – Aries. A computer planisphere can precisely date these astronomical eras and it appears that the era of Taurus (the bull) lasted until about 1750 BC, when Aries (the sheep) came into ascendance. This date is very close to the era of the first Hyksos pharaohs, the Shepherd Kings of Egypt. It is quite possible, therefore, that this change in the astronomical alignments may have influenced the rise of the Hyksos Shepherd pharaohs (Followers of Aries?) in Lower Egypt, and perhaps even precipitated the civil war in which they were eventually thrown out of Egypt.
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So in what way, if any, does all this relate to the epic of Gilgamesh? The first clue that this Sumerian tale may be more than a simple tale of princes and kings, and may instead be a priestly account of a cosmic clash in the heavens above, is that Gilgamesh’s companion, Enkidu, is described as being like a meteor:
This star of heaven which descended like a meteor from the sky;
which you tried to lift, but found too heavy ... This is the
strong comrade, the one who brings help to his friend in need.
The Flood Tablet / The Gilgamesh Tablet / Library of Ashurbanipal (7 th century BC). Credit: British Museum.
The texts go on to describe Enkidu in great detail. The allusion is quite obvious: Enkidu is a stellar object. Gilgamesh himself, in turn, is described as arming himself for the coming quest and battle in the following fashion:
Gilgamesh took the axe, he slung the quiver from his shoulder,
and the bow of Anshan, and buckled the sword to his belt;
and so they were armed and ready for the journey.
In stellar terms, the allusion is again quite plain: the axe in the right hand; the bow in the left hand; the sword hanging from his prominent belt. Surely Gilgamesh was not a king, but this was instead the Sumerian name for the constellation of Orion. Take a look at a diagram of Orion, and see the similarities. Quite obviously Orion has all the attributes ascribed to Gilgamesh, and so the Gilgamesh epic just has to be a story about a cosmic battle of the constellations.
Fig 2. Orion as Gilgamesh, with his axe, bow, belt and sword.
Thus Gilgamesh was written as an epic of the heavens, an impending battle of the constellations; and the greatest of all the constellations, Orion, was arming himself to do battle with the cosmos. But Gilgamesh (Orion) does not know the way, so it is only fitting that he needs Enkidu (the meteor or perhaps Sirius, the dog star) to lead the way:
Let Enkidu lead the way, he knows the road to the forest
[of stars] ... the mountain of cedars, the dwelling place of
The ancient tale then goes on to describe the purpose of Gilgamesh’s (Orion’s) quest – it is to slay the constellation of Taurus the Bull. In stellar terms, this is perfectly logical. It is the constellation of Orion who is armed with the axe, the bow and has a sword hanging from his prominent belt. It is Orion who had drawn his bow and has aimed it at the adjacent constellation of Taurus.
Fig 3. Orion the Hunter, battling with Taurus the bull. In this 19th century depiction, the axe has become a club and the bow has become the skin of the Nemean lion. Thus Orion is also being associated here with Hercules.
And so it would appear that the precessional change in the constellations, from Taurus to Aries, that is also alluded to in both the Egyptian and biblical texts, is about to unfold once more. But here in Sumer it is the hero Gilgamesh, in the guise of Orion, who is reported as killing the 'Bull of Heaven' – the constellation of Taurus. But first, Gilgamesh has to seek out the watcher of the forest (the stars), a fearsome beast called the Humbaba:
At the third blow Humbaba fell ... Now the mountains were moved and
all the hills, for the guardian of the forest was killed ... the seven
splendours of Humbaba were extinguished.
For a 4,000-year-old story, the prose is still as clear today as when it was written, if you know the subject matter. There is only one guardian of the constellation of Taurus and that is the Pleiades, the constellation known as the ‘seven sisters’, a small group of seven stars that are visible to the naked eye and reside on the back of Taurus. From this elevated position, the Humbaba (the Pleiades) could watch over the constellation of Taurus and protect it. Thus if Taurus were to be attacked, the Humbaba had to be dealt with first. With the Humbaba ‘extinguished’, Taurus’ back was exposed and vulnerable - here was the weak-spot for the hero Gilgamesh (Orion) to attack.
‘Now thrust in your sword between the nape and the horns.’
So Gilgamesh followed the Bull, he seized the thick of its tail,
he thrust the sword between the nape and the horns and slew the
Bull. When they had killed the Bull of Heaven they cut out its
heart and gave it to Shamash (the Sun), and the brothers rested.
Thus Gilgamesh had slain the constellation of Taurus, and the era of Aries the Ram could now begin. This may be a rather radical interpretation of the Gilgamesh epic, but the reasoning here is further reinforced by the king-lists of Sumer; these show the successor to Gilgamesh as being the king Lugulbanda, who is known as a Shepherd King. The era of Taurus was now over and so accordingly King Lugulbanda became known as a 'Shepherd' – just like the Egyptian Hyksos Shepherd pharaohs, he became a follower of the new ruling constellation of Aries.
Thus Gilgamesh (Orion) had ended the reign of the constellation of Taurus, and ushered in the rule of Aries and the Shepherd Kings. However, the Sumerian tale indicates that some of the gods were angry with this, and:
Ishtar ... uttered a curse: ‘Woe to Gilgamesh, for he has scorned me
in killing the Bull of Heaven’. When Enkidu heard these words he tore
out the bull’s right thigh and tossed it in her face saying, ‘If I could
lay my hands on you, it is this I should do to you ...’
Again the story, and its new interpretation, rings true; thus we find that the Egyptian zodiac had a bull’s thigh depicting what we would now call the constellation of Lynx. On this same planisphere it would appear that Ursa Major is depicted by a Great Hippopotamus, instead of the Great Bear; but since the norther tribes of Europe had never seen a hippopotamus, this change in spices is quite understandable.
The Zodiac of Dendera with original coloring. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Fig 4 The Zodiac of Dendera, thought to be from Ptolemaic Egypt. Note that the constellation of Ursa Major, the Great Bear, was once a Great Hippopotamus.
It has been claimed that the zodiac of Dendera, being Ptolemaic, is based on Greek rather than earlier Egyptian concepts. Yet here is the evidence that the pictograms within the Dendera zodiac where known in ancient Sumer. It is quite possible that the modern zodiac does indeed have ancient Near/Middle Eastern roots, just as many have suspected.
In Egypt it is likely that it was Pharaoh Sheshi Mamaybra of the 14th dynasty who ushered in the new era of Aries, the first of the Hyksos Shepherd pharaohs. However, in Sumer it was King Lugulbanda, with assistance from the god Gilgamesh [Orion], who fought the Sumerian theological battle between the followers of Taurus and Aries, and became the first Sumerian Shepherd King. This, therefore, is most probably why the epic of Gilgamesh was written: it was not an epic tale of a great king, as such, but an ancient bi-millennial celebration of the movement of the stars.
© 1998 - 2013 R. Ellis has asserted his rights, in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
Featured image: Deriv; Stone statue of Gilgamesh (CC BY 2.0), nebula NGC 1788 Orion constellation (CC BY 4.0), Zodiac of Dendera (CC BY 3.0)
By Ralph Ellis