Development of the Epic
The Epic of Gilgamesh is the product of several civilizations of ancient Mesopotamia, those city-states of the Tigris-Euphrates river valley, in present-day Iraq. These cultures are the Sumerians, the Akkadians or Babylonians, and the Assyrians. Scholars of the ancient Near East have determined that the Epic of Gilgamesh probably began as five separate Sumerian Gilgamesh stories (called "Gilgamesh and Agga of Kish;" "Gilgamesh and the Land of the Living;" "Gilgamesh and the Bull of Heaven;" "Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Netherworld;" and "The Death of Gilgamesh"). According to Jeffrey H. Tigay, who has written the standard account of the literary and historical development of the Epic, the ancient oral tales about Gilgamesh probably were first written down, in cuneiform, about 2500 B.C. by Sumerian scribes, although the earliest copies date from about 2100 B.C., or about 500 years after the historical Gilgamesh ruled Uruk. These separate Sumerian tales were drawn together by a later Akkadian author (or authors) who adapted elements of the early stories into a more unified, complete epic. By this time the Epic had been widely circulated throughout the ancient Near East, with copies being found in Hittite and Human, and as far away as modern day Palestine and Turkey. The Epic underwent other minor changes until it became formalized in a Standard Version, according to tradition, by the scribe...
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In A Glossary of Literary Terms, literary scholar M. H. Abrams lists five essential characteristics of epic literature: (1) "The hero is a figure of great national or even cosmic importance;" (2) "The setting of the poem is ample in scale, and may be worldwide, or even larger;" (3) "The action involves superhuman deeds in battle;" (4) ''In these great actions the gods and other supernatural beings take an interest or even an active part;" and (5) ''An epic poem is a ceremonial performance, and is narrated in a ceremonial style which is deliberately distanced from ordinary speech and proportioned to the grandeur and formality of the heroic subject and epic architecture'' (p. 52). The Epic of Gilgamesh fulfills each of these characteristics in its own distinct way.
Orality and Performance
One of the key attributes of the Epic of Gilgamesh is the sense of breathless immediacy of the story. The Epic achieves this effect by placing the story in a setting that simulates the oral performance in which the story was originally performed. The opening lines provide a sense that this is not an ancient story, but one just now occurring. The narrative "I" of the Prologue places the reader at Uruk's city walls and erases the distance between that ancient time and the present time of telling the story, inviting the hearer (and reader) to touch the walls, feel their strength, and sense their glory. These walls, the narrative voice...
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Compare and Contrast
Ancient Mesopotamia: Credited with the invention of the first writing system (cuneiform), the widespread use of wheeled transportation, sophisticated metalworking, extensive irrigation and agricultural production, and monumental building projects whose remains are still visible after four thousand or more years.
Modern Western Civilization: Characterized by rapid technological change, creating a ''global village," where travel to, or communication with, any part of the world (or even beyond the earth) is possible. Increased human intervention in natural processes (nuclear power and warfare, genetic engineering and cloning, disease prevention and pharmaceuticals, weather prediction and flood control, agricultural production and chemical treatments, etc).
Ancient Mesopotamia: Highly stratified and essentially male-dominated, politically and culturally, with the priestly caste and ruling elite controlling power and wealth. Power concentrated in individual city-states rather than larger administrative units and wielded by divinely-instituted monarchy. Status determined by birth, with little chance for advancement or education. Warfare limited in scope and localized in space.
Modern Western Civilization: Economically stratified, though birth and gender are somewhat less determinative for access to power and wealth. Political and religious leadership generally separated. Representative democracy rather than...
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Topics for Further Study
Compare and contrast an episode in N. K. Sandars' narrative version of the Epic of Gilgamesh with David Ferry's poetic version or one of the versions that follow the original 12-tablet structure of the story. How do the versions differ in their use of language and their organization on the page. Do they differ in their symbolic or thematic emphases? Is one easier to read than the other? What other kind of differences occur when you read the Epic as poetry and as a story?
Locate the five independent myths of the Sumerian song-cycle featuring Gilgamesh ("Gilgamesh and Agga of Kish;'' ''Gilgamesh and the Land of the Living;" "Gilgamesh and the Bull of Heaven;" ''Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Netherworld;'' and "The Death of Gilgamesh") in James Pritchard's Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament. Choose one, read it carefully, and see if you can identify which portion(s) or details of the Sumerian myth have been incorporated into the Babylonian Standard Version and which have been excluded. What changes did the later version make to the earlier Sumerian myths?
Many contemporary movies feature a hero and counterpart, a sidekick or "buddy." Examples include "Thelma and Louise" and the "Lethal Weapon " and "48 Hours" movies. Often these two characters are as different as Gilgamesh and Enkidu, but together they make a complete team. Select a current "buddy movie"—a movie that feature two dissimilar characters who...
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The Epic of Gilgamesh has not yet received the attention given to Greek and Roman epics like The Odyssey and The Iliad. However, Adapa Films (http://www.lightlink.com/offline/Adapa.html) has produced a video of the ancient Babylonian myth, "The Descent of Ishtar," and is currently producing, "The Epic of Gilgamesh Tablet XI: The Deluge." According to Adapa Film's own literature, "Adapa Films...aims to bridge the ancient and modern worlds by creating a video archive of re-enacted stories and myths from the ancient world utilizing the languages of these most ancient texts, live actors, computer imagery, as well as reconstructed ancient musical scores. Adapa introduces the viewer to seldom heard stories and beliefs and provides a unique window into the mindset of our most distant ancestors." The actors speak Akkadian, and the films use English subtitles. ''The Descent of Ishtar'' has been well-received by scholars and critics alike, and "The Deluge" promises the same.
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What Do I Read Next?
Samuel Noah Kramer's History Begins at Sumer: Thirty-Nine Firsts in Man's Recorded History, (3rd rev. ed., Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981) discusses a variety of Sumerian "innovations"—common cultural, historical, scientific, and social trends or events that were first recorded in Sumeria. Kramer's book covers such topics as: "Education: The First Schools," "Medicine: The First Pharmacopoeia," "Ethics: The First Moral Ideals," "The Sacred Marriage Rite: The First Sex Symbolism," "Ua aua: The First Lullaby," and ''Home of the Fish: The First Aquarium."
James B. Pritchard's Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950) offers an absolutely indispensable collection of literary, historical, religious, legal, and other cultural texts of the ancient Near East (Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, Egyptian, and others), including the individual myths of the Sumerian Gilgamesh song-cycle; the Enuma Elish or the Mesopotamian Creation Epic, and other early mythological texts, and well-known sources like the Code of Hammurabi.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Sources for Further Study
Dalley, Stephanie. Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, The Flood, and Others, Oxford World Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Includes two versions of the Epic of Gilgamesh as well as the Mesopotamian Creation Epic (the Enuma Elish) and other myths associated with Gilgamesh and ancient Mesopotamian civilization. The literary material follows the cuneiform closely. Excellent notes and scholarly annotations.
Exploring Ancient World Cultures: An Introduction to Ancient World Cultures on the World-Wide Web, March, 1997, http://eawc evansville.edu.
Designed with the beginning college student in mind, the EAWC Homepage is the best place to start an online search for information on the ancient Near East. It offers links, essays, chronologies, history, literature, and teacher resources.
Ferry, David. Gilgamesh: A New Rendering in English Verse, New York: Farar, Straus and Giroux, 1992.
A beautifully lyrical and evocative transformation of the Epic into verse couplets. Ferry follows the twelve tablet format and includes brief notes at the end of his translation. A haunting and poetic achievement informed by sound academic investigation.
Gardner, John, and Maie, Johnr. Gilgamesh Translated from the Sin-leqi-unninni Version, New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1984.
A very readable rendering of the twelve tablets, with extensive notes...
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