Epic of Gilgamesh

The Epic of Gilgamesh is from Babylonia, dating from long after the time that king Gilgamesh was supposed to have ruled. It was based on earlier Sumerian legends of Gilgamesh. The most complete version of the epic was preserved in the collection of the 7th century BC Assyrian king Ashurbanipal.

Based on a summary of the Epic (available online here), the contents of the eleven clay tablets are:

  1. Introducing Gilgamesh of Uruk, the greatest king on earth, two-thirds god and one-third human, the strongest super-human who ever existed. But his people complain that he is too harsh, so the sky-god Anu creates the wild-man Enkidu. Enkidu is tamed by the temple prostitute Shamhat.
  2. Enkidu fights Gilgamesh but loses, they become friends. Gilgamesh proposes the adventure of the cedar forest.
  3. Preparation for the adventure of the cedar forest; many give support, including the sun-god Shamash.
  4. Journey of Gilgamesh and Enkidu to the cedar forest.
  5. Gilgamesh and Enkidu, with help from Shamash, kill Humbaba, the demon guardian of the trees, then cut down the trees which they float as a raft back to Uruk.
  6. Gilgamesh rejects the sexual advances of the goddess Ishtar. Ishtar gets her father, the sky-god Anu, to send the "Bull of Heaven" to avenge Gilgamesh and his city. Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill the bull.
  7. The gods decide that somebody has to be punished for killing Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven, and it is Enkidu. Enkidu becomes ill and describes hell as he is dying.
  8. Lament of Gilgamesh for Enkidu.
  9. Gilgamesh fears death, decides to seek eternal life by making a perilous journey to visit Utnapishtim and his wife, the only immortal humans, alive since before the Great Flood.
  10. Completion of the journey, by punting across the Waters of Death with Urshanabi, the ferryman.
  11. Gilgamesh meets Utnapishtim, who tells him about the great flood and gives him two chances for immortality. Gilgamesh blunders both chances and returns to Uruk, where the sight of its massive walls provoke Gilgamesh to praise this enduring work of mortal men.

A twelfth tablet is known to exist, although an intact copy has never been found. A fragment believed to be from the twelfth tablet describes a brief scene wherein the spirit of Enkidu appears to Gilgamesh to console him. An untranslated tablet which may have contained the lost segments of the epic may have been lost in 2003 during looting in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad.

Although the epic itself was lost for millennia, Hittite versions of it existed. It has had an indirect impact on Western literature through the Biblical story of Noah and the flood, a retelling of a portion of the Gilgamesh epic.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is more widely known today. The first modern translation of the epic was in the 1870s by George Smith. More recent translations include one undertaken with the assistance of the American novelist John Gardner, and published in 1984.

Sumerian legends of Gilgamesh

Translations for several legends of Gilgamesh in the Sumerian language can be found in Black, J.A., Cunningham, G., Fluckiger-Hawker, E, Robson, E., and Zólyomi, G., The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature (http://www-etcsl.orient.ox.ac.uk/), Oxford 1998-.

Some versions of the texts date from as early as the third dynasty of Ur, 2100-2000 BC.




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