The Epic of Gilgamesh Analysis
- The Epic of Gilgamesh exemplifies the form of the epic in its tale of a hero who is larger than life, performs superhuman feats, and attracts the attention of the gods.
- The Epic of Gilgamesh is a part of a long oral tradition and shares its narrative sensibilities with other epics like The Odyssey.
- A first-person narrator introduces The Epic of Gilgamesh, inviting readers to imagine the walls of Uruk and the glory of Gilgamesh's reign. After the prologue, the "I" slips away, and the narrative is told in the third person.
Last Updated on February 21, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1770
The Definition of an Epic
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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 proclaims, are those of the great Gilgamesh and now I will tell you his story. This sense of immediacy continues throughout the Epic.
In medias res
Traditionally, epics begin "in medias res" or "in the middle of things." Although this characteristic was originally applied to Greek and Roman epics like The Odyssey and The Iliad, it is equally true of The Epic of Gilgamesh. The story begins not at the beginning of Gilgamesh's life, but somewhere in the middle. He is initially portrayed as a young, hot-headed king, heedless of the effect of actions and desires on the well-being of his people. One of the effects of this technique is to allow the reader to gauge the extent of Gilgamesh's development as a character.
Another key technique of the epic style is the use of "epithets," usually adjectives or persistent adjective phrases that reveal the attributes or personality of people, places, and things in the story: "strong-walled Uruk" (1. 68), "Humbaba whose name is 'Hugeness'" (1.71), "Shamash the Protector" (1.78), and Utnapishtim "the Faraway" (1.97). Epic epithets provide a good way of keeping track of a character and that character's development.
Literary Formulae and Set-Pieces in the High Style
A third literary characteristic of the epic style is found in the elevated, formal language and repeated formulaic phrases. In fact, the dialogue sounds stilted and rehearsed, as if read for a formal occasion. During chapter 2, "The Forest Journey," Gilgamesh calls out for assistance: "By the life of my mother Ninsun who gave me birth, and by the life of my father, divine Lugulbanda, let me live to be the wonder of my mother, as when she nursed me on her lap" (1. 80). These formal invocations of deity give the task an elevated stature and a sense of being a holy mission which Gilgamesh undertakes for his city and his divine heritage. In another example, a bit later as he faces Humbaba in battle, Gilgamesh beseeches his patron god: ''O glorious Shamash, I have followed the road you commanded but now if you send no succor how shall I escape?'' (1. 81). The use of "apostrophe," a figure of speech indicated by "O," indicates a formal invocation of a person or personification who is not otherwise present.
Another important element of the elevated style of the Epic is its inclusion of ''laments,'' the formal poems of praise and songs of grief that the living give on behalf of the dead. The finest example in the poem is Gilgamesh's lament for Enkidu, which begins (on line 94):
Hear me, great ones of Uruk, I weep for Enkidu, my friend, Bitterly moaning like a woman mourning I weep for my brother. You were the axe at my side, My hand's strength, the sword in my belt, the shield before me, A glorious robe, my fairest ornament; An evil Fate has robbed me.
Gilgamesh's heartfelt lament concludes with the mournful lines, '''What is this sleep which holds you now? / You are lost in the dark and cannot hear me'" (1. 95). Nearly all of these formal speeches also serve to summarize or rehearse the characters' attitudes or even the action in the story up to that point in the narrative.
Balance and Repetition
A fourth literary characteristic of Gilgamesh closely related to its often formal, even stilted language, is its carefully balanced structure and strategic use of repetition at all levels. There is hardly a moment, event, or speech that does not have a counterpart somewhere in the tale. Commonly called "parallelism" and "antitheses," these repetitions and contrasting and balancing elements can indicate both a comparison and/or a contrast between the paired elements of the story. The repetitious elements can be examined in terms of structure, events, speeches, and numbers.
Repetition of Structure
First, the entire Epic of Gilgamesh is split into two halves and is balanced along structural lines. The pivot of the story is Enkidu's death. In the first half of the narrative, Gilgamesh travels outward into the Forest of the Cedars to slay Humbaba; in the second half he journeys into the realm of the gods to find Utnapishtim. Gilgamesh's early successes and personal glory contrast the successive frustrations and individual hardships of the end of the tale, while Enkidu's physical presence contrasts with his later, but no less palpable, absence.
Repetition of Events
The first section of the Epic of Gilgamesh is full of repetition: Gilgamesh and Enkidu are mirror images of one another; they slay two semi-divine monsters, Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven; and Gilgamesh has a series of dreams, matched by Enkidu's dreams later in the section. Events in the second half of the Epic are often repetitions of earlier affairs, as when Gilgamesh's twelve-league journey through the Mashu's darkness pales in comparison to his one hundred, twenty pole voyage across the waters of death. Finally, events in the second half mirror those in the first: Enkidu's funeral and Gilgamesh's lament for his dead friend are matched by Gilgamesh's funeral and Uruk's praise for its dead king, and Gilgamesh's voyage to find Utnapishtim parallels the earlier journey to the Cedar Forest.
Repetition of Speeches
Parts of a speech may be repeated from one character to the next or, more tellingly, the entire speech may be repeated several times throughout a portion of the Epic of Gilgamesh. The most significant instance of this technique occurs in chapter 4, "The Search for Everlasting Life." In his horrific journey from the Country of the Living to the abode of the gods, Gilgamesh encounters Siduri, goddess of the vine and of wine; Urshanabi, "the ferryman of Utnapishtim'' who takes him across the waters of death; and finally Utnapishtim himself, the immortal human. Each encounter follows the same structure.
1. Each divinity initially opposes Gilgamesh, who responds with a summary of his deeds and identity: ''I am Gilgamesh who seized and killed the Bull of Heaven, I killed the watchman of the cedar forest, I overthrew Humbaba who lived in the forest, and I killed the lions in the passes of the mountains."
2. The divinity, in this case Siduri, repeats Gilgamesh's claim but asks: "If you are that Gilgamesh who seized and killed the Bull of Heaven, who killed the watchman of the forest, who overthrew Humbaba that lived in the forest, and killed the lions in the passes of the mountains, why are your cheeks so starved and why is your face so drawn..."
3. Gilgamesh's answer includes the divinity's questions and concludes with his ultimate rationale for making his journey: "And why should not my cheeks be starved and my face drawn?" for "Enkidu my brother, whom I loved, the end of mortality has overtaken him" (1. 101).
4. In each case, the divinity then offers Gilgamesh advice for his life—in effect, an entire worldview—and here the pattern breaks down, for each inhabitant of the domain of the gods gives Gilgamesh a different answer. Siduri tells him to eat, drink, and be merry. Urshanabi, whose sailing gear Gilgamesh has destroyed, tells Gilgamesh that he must create a new means of powering the ferry if he is to meet Utnapishtim. Utnapishtim himself finally reveals to Gilgamesh that, in fact, "There is no permanence" (I. 106). Thus, the Epic of Gilgamesh offers meaningful patterns of similarity and of repetition, but variations in the pattern can also reveal important insights to the story.
Repetition of Numbers
Repetitions in patterns of two (two halves to the story or two carefully balanced main characters) or three (Gilgamesh's series of three dreams or the three quests of the tale) are well-known characteristics of oral composition. An even more obvious symbolic number in the Epic of Gilgamesh is the number seven, sometimes in combination with two and three. Generally considered to be a "perfect" number or number of "completion" or "wholeness," seven appears throughout the tale: the "seven sages" laid the foundations of Uruk (1. 61); Enlil gives Humbaba "sevenfold terrors" with which to guard the forest (1. 71); the gate of Uruk has seven bolts (I. 73); and during the climactic battle with Humbaba, the giant unleashes the "seven splendors" against the pair of warriors; they fell "seven cedars" to provoke Humbaba's wrath, and they kill the giant with three blows to the neck, severing his head (1. 83). This symbolic numerology continues especially in the story of the flood and throughout the Epic.
Annular or Ring Structure
One final, closely-related literary technique to note is the Epic's "annular" or "ring-like" structure. Simply stated, the end of the story refers the reader back to the beginning by repeating key images and speeches. The Prologue begins: "I will proclaim to the world the deeds of Gilgamesh. This was the man to whom all things were known; this was the man who knew all the countries of the world. He was wise, he saw mysteries and knew secret things..." (1.61). Chapter 6, "The Return'' of Gilgamesh to Uruk, concludes, "This too was the work of Gilgamesh, the king, who knew the countries of the world. He was wise, he saw mysteries and knew secret things..."(1.117). By referring the reader to the story's opening at its conclusion, the narrative gains a sense of wholeness or completion, and the Epic invites the reader to experience Gilgamesh's story once again.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 995
*Uruk (EW-rewk). Ancient city in what is now Iraq (now called Tall al-Warka) over which the demigod Gilgamesh rules. During the period in which the epic is set (c. 2600 b.c.e.), Uruk was one of the largest cities in the world. Protected by brick walls, it preserved urban technology and order. In all versions of The Gilgamesh Epic, the city’s king or “shepherd,” Gilgamesh (also known as Bilgamesh), combines within himself civilization and fierce lawlessness, so that he can relate both to the city and to the barbarous rest of the world.
The split within Gilgamesh’s character helps the urbanites, since it gives Gilgamesh the ferocity to defend them. Nonetheless, they resent his disorderliness, particularly his leading the young in revels throughout such sacred precincts as Egalmah, the temple complex governed by the goddess Ninsun, Gilgamesh’s mother. Because of public resentment, Gilgamesh’s Uruk appears to be a grim totalitarian state. However, the prostitute whom he employs to lure Engidu (also called Enkidu) there, extols Uruk as a joyous place in which people wear wide belts and attend festivals every day that are celebrated with beautiful music.
Nagbu (NAHG-bew). Chaotic abyss, believed to exist at the center of the earth. It is the source of all rivers and maintains the aboriginal condition before order (and mortality) came to the world. Its most characteristic figure is Utnapishtim, a Noah-like being who survived a world-wide flood, thus preparing him to dwell forever amid Nagbu’s timeless waters. Appropriately, Gilgamesh finds within the abyss the plant of immortality. In the best-known and fullest version of Gilgamesh, that composed by the exorcist priest Sin-leqi-uninni (c. 1600-1000 b.c.e.), Nagbu is especially important, with Gilgamesh identified in the very first line of the poem as the one who saw this abyss. Knowledge of it is presumably why he is then described as the “lord of wisdom” who knows everything.
Edin (AY-din). Grassland surrounding Uruk. Embodying the almost total wildness and contradictoriness of that hinterland, Engidu, its heaven-appointed guardian eats grass with gazelles and releases animals from traps but also defends shepherds from wolves. A primordial savage, Engidu reflects the vitality of the region, thus threatening Gilgamesh, who therefore introduces Engidu to a human relationship with a woman in order to weaken him. After sleeping with the woman, Engidu sees his vitalizing link to the land weakened; animals desert him, and he loses in battle to Gilgamesh. However, Engidu retains sufficient rustic skills to help Gilgamesh during campaigns through Edin.
Although the epic does not dwell on the economic importance of Edin as Uruk’s primary source of raw materials or its strategic importance as a buffer zone around the city, readers should be aware of these functions. They explain why Gilgamesh must subdue Engidu, thereby symbolically conquering Edin.
Cedar wood. Gloomy, dense forest area even farther from civilization than grassy Edin. Early versions of The Gilgamesh Epic—those in Babylonian and Hittite—locate this forest in the east (presumably in what is now Iran). Because of gradual deforestation in that zone, late Akkadian versions of the epic, such as Sin-leqi-uninni’s, place this forest in the west, probably in the Anti-Lebanon Mountains of Syria.
The guardian of the cedars is named Humbaba in Akkadian and Huwawa in Sumerian, Old Babylonian, and Hittite. Since the guardian breathes fire, some scholars have speculated that he personifies an eruption of lava, and thus the forest must be on a volcano. Equally, he might allegorize forest tribes conquered by Uruk; therefore, description of him as a monster who deserves death would explain how writers of The Gilgamesh Epic justified killing and robbing those tribes of their precious cedars. The earliest versions declare the guardian to be a danger to humanity, and Sin-leqi-unnini’s version terms Humbaba an enemy of Shamesh, the god of light and law. As early as the Old Babylonian version, Huwawa’s voice is likened to the flood (thus comparing him to Nagbu, a place of chaotic waters) and he is also described as a “siege-engine,” a metaphor that treats him (and consequently the region he represents) as an enemy of cities such as Uruk.
Heaven. Realm of the gods above the earth. It can be reached via Mashu, which is also the route to Nagbu. Although Gilgamesh does not conquer Heaven itself, he does kill the Bull of Heaven—the guardian sent from Heaven to earth to destroy Gilgamesh. In a sense, Gilgamesh makes his power felt even in Heaven. Modern readers might assume that Heaven is the supreme power; however, in coercing the heavenly gods to attack Gilgamesh, Ishtar threatens to raise Nagbu, thereby implying that Nagbu is more fearsome than Heaven.
Mashu (MA-shew). Legendary mountain with twin peaks, connecting the three realms: the “above” (Heaven), the “land” (Earth), and the “below” (Nagbu). These realms guard the route of Shamash, the sun god. Mashu means “twins.” A possible reason for the mountain’s having twin peaks includes their symbolizing the principal divisions in the Sun’s journey, its light, celestial path during the day and its dark, subterranean one during the night.
Embodying Mashu’s role as guardian are a pair of scorpion people, so fearsome that at first they terrify Gilgamesh. They open Mashu’s gates, allowing him to enter caverns through which the Sun passes by night. After traveling through these caverns for twenty-four hours, Gilgamesh reaches a Garden of Precious Stones. The garden’s vine-covered cedar trees with carnelian fruit and lapis-lazuli leaves make it is an earthly paradise that may threaten Gilgamesh’s journey by tempting him to stay.
Sea. “Waters of death” believed to surround land. At its “lip” (its shore), Siduri the Barmaid (presumably a manifestation of the goddess Ishtar) guards the sea. She embodies its inherently feminine qualities. No mortal has previously traversed it, but, with the aid of the supernatural boatman, Urshanabi, Gilgamesh crosses the sea to Nagbu.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2670
History and Recovery of the Epic of Gilgamesh
The critical reception of the Epic of Gilgamesh parallels the history of ancient Near Eastern archaeology over the last 150 years. The Epic first came to light in tablets from the palace library of Ashurbanipal, King of Assyria (66827 B.C.), in Nineveh. The Epic comprised twelve fragmented clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform. Since that initial discovery, portions of the tale have surfaced throughout the region, from different time periods, and in several different languages. By comparing the differences among the tablets and between various versions of the story, scholars have been able to reconstruct the history of the Epic's composition. Although the complete literary history of the Epic is quite complex, its formation can be divided into four main phases: (1) the period of oral composition and circulation, (2) the Sumerian tales of Gilgamesh, (3) the Akkadian and Babylonian epics, and (4) the Standard Version.
First, the historical Gilgamesh ruled Uruk, in southern Mesopotamia, around 2700 B.C., and a variety of historical artifacts confirm his existence. As is the custom of traditional cultures, stories of the king's exploits circulated among the populace and were repeated orally before being written down probably about 2500 B.C.
Second, the Sumerians inscribed into clay tablets at least five separate Gilgamesh stories, the earliest of which we have dates from around 2100 B.C. These stories are now known as "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." It is important to note that these stories shared little except the same main character. They were not joined together as a whole, nor did they share an overriding theme.
Third, these separate Sumerian stories became the raw material for the Babylonian (or Akkadian) Epic of Gilgamesh, composed about 1700 B.C. The Babylonian editor(s) combined aspects of the earlier Sumerian stories to create the unified story of Gilgamesh's search for the meaning of life and his struggle against death. This Babylonian edition also introduced several important changes, including: (1) turning Enkidu from Gilgamesh's servant, as he is in the Sumerian tales, to an equal and companion; (2) adding the hymn-like Prologue and conclusion and intensifying the use of formulaic sayings and set-pieces; and (3) incorporating the ancient legend of Utnapishtim and the great flood. This Babylonian version became known throughout the ancient Near East in a variety of languages.
Finally, rather than adding new stories or deleting old material, the Epic became fixed in the so-called Standard Version, attributed to the author Sin-leq-iunninni, who lived about 1300 B.C. This Standard Version is the one found in Ashurbanipal's library. See the introductions to the translations by N. K. Sandars, Maureen Gallery Kovacks, and Stephanie Dalley for succinct overviews of the Epic's history of composition.
About the Author
The Epic of Gilgamesh is not the product of a single author in the modern sense. It has come to us as the progressive creation of several ancient near-eastern cultures, specifically the cultures of the Euphrates River valley. Originally an oral composition recited by communal storytellers, perhaps priests, to a listening audience, portions of the Gilgamesh epic were repeated, probably for many generations, before being "written" by scribes in an archaic form of writing called "cuneiform." Scribes "wrote" the ancient oral stories into clay tablets with a sharply pointed, triangular stick, and the tablets telling the Gilgamesh story were kept in royal libraries. The most famous of these was the library of Ashurbanipal, king of Babylon during the seventh century B.C., but other portions of the Epic of Gilgamesh from different time periods have also been found. The individual stories of the Gilgamesh cycle were probably first written in cuneiform by ancient Sumerian scribes about 3,500 to 4,000 years ago. The story passed from the Sumerians through succeeding civilizations to the Babylonians, who added or otherwise adapted the Gilgamesh stories to their own culture until a socalled Standard Version of the story coalesced about 1500 B.C.
The Epic of Gilgamesh was lost for thousands of years until archaeologists began to discover the ancient tablets during the nineteenth century. Therefore, it is important to keep in mind that the English translation we now have of the Epic of Gilgamesh is the product of many scholars' work and many years of archaeological investigation, historical inquiry, and linguistic research. Even with all this academic reconstruction, we cannot be completely sure of all the details of the Gilgamesh epic. Some portions of the story are missing, lost on broken-off sections of the existing cuneiform tablets found buried in ancient ruins. Some aspects of its language are so obscure that modern translators cannot be sure of an exact meaning. At many points, the story we read is a reconstruction—the best guess of this or that scholar—of what the story said originally. As new tablets come to light—either containing more fragments of the Gilgamesh epic, or of other works in the same language and from the same era—our knowledge of the Epic of Gilgamesh can grow.
Originally, the Epic of Gilgamesh was written as poetry, but not in the kind of rhyming verse commonly recognized as poetry by modern readers. The style was closer to the alliterative tradition of a poem like Beowulf. A readily available and easily readable translation of the Epic of Gilgamesh is the narrative version by N. K. Sandars, and many other editions are available. Sandars's translation has turned the poetic form of the so-called Standard, or Babylonian, Version of the Epic of Gilgamesh into a narrative or story form. Moreover, the Epic probably appeared originally as five or six separate Sumerian stories that were adapted by later cultures, especially the Babylonians. The current translation has divided the original story found in twelve tablets into eight sections: seven chapters and a prologue. Therefore, the Epic of Gilgamesh has been transformed once again in language, style, and structure for contemporary readers.
Utnapishtim: The Mesopotamian Noah
Although at its discovery the Epic was immediately recognized for its literary and historical merit, it gained recognition especially for its account of Utnapishtim and the flood. The story of the flood is found in Tablet XI of the Epic, and is itself derived from an earlier story, "The Myth of Atrahasis." What most intrigued readers were the parallels between Utnapishtim and the Old Testament story of Noah and the Flood, found in Genesis 6:19:18. What shocked them even further is that the Utnapishtim episode predates, or is earlier than, the biblical account of Noah and the ark. Alexander Heidel, in The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels, 2nd ed., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949, pp. 224-69, compares and contrasts Noah's story and Utnapishtim's:
Utnapishtim: Flood decreed by an assembly of gods because of humanity's clamor: "The uproar of mankind is intolerable and sleep is no longer possible by reason of the babel," says Enlil (1. 108). Emphasizes divine capriciousness (or arbitrariness) and polytheism, or the many gods of the Mesopotamian pantheon. Enlil motivates the action, but not all the gods agree, namely Ea and Ishtar.
Noah: Flood attributed to a single god because of humanity's wickedness: "Now the earth was corrupt in God's sight, and the earth was filled with violence" (Genesis 6:11). Emphasis on divine judgment and Hebrew monotheism, or worship of one all-powerful god.
Utnapishtim: Spared because he is a favorite of Ea, as demonstrated by his obedience to the god's command.
Noah: Spared because of his singular righteousness, as demonstrated by his obedience to the god's command.
Utnapishtim: Storm is immediate and devastating, with only a few days' warning.
Noah: Storm preceded by a long period wherein humanity could amend its ways.
Utnapishtim: Great boat is square shaped (120 x 120 cubits), with seven decks, symbolizing the design of the great
Mesopotamian ziggurats, or step-temples. It is built in seven days out of wood and caulked with pitch and asphalt. Finally, Utnapishtim loads the boat with his family, kin, wealth, craftsmen, and ''the beast of the field, both wild and tame" (1. 109).
Noah: Ark more realistically boat-shaped (300 x 50 x 30 cubits), with three decks and a door. It is built of wood and caulked with pitch. Finally, Noah loads food, his family, and "of every living thing of all flesh, you shall bring two of every sort into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female (Genesis 6:19).
Utnapishtim: Storm persists for 6 days and nights; on the seventh day the storm breaks from above, all humanity is dead, and the world is desolate. According to Utnapishtim, after the flood, "I looked at the face of the world and there was silence, all mankind was turned to clay. The surface of the sea stretched as flat as a rooftop; I opened a hatch and light fell on my face. Then I bowed my face and I wept, the tears streamed down my face, for on every side was a waste of water'' (1.111). The boat comes to rest on "the mountain of Nisir" (1. 111).
Noah: Storm continues for 40 days and nights, and ''on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened'' (Genesis 7:11). The flood covers the entire earth, killing every living thing, and the ark comes to rest on ''the mountains of Ararat'' (Genesis 8:4).
Utnapishtim: Seven days after the boat comes to rest, Utnapishtim releases a dove and swallow, who return to the boat, and finally a raven, who finds dry land and does not return. Afterward, Utnapishtim makes "a sacrifice and pour[s] out a libation on the mountain top," and when "the gods smelled the sweet savour, they gathered like flies over the sacrifice" (1. 111).
Noah: Forty days after the ark comes to rest, Noah sends out at seven day intervals a raven and dove, who return to the ark. After seven days, he sends the dove out again, who returns with "a freshly plucked olive leaf' (Genesis 8:11), indicating dry land. Afterward, Noah offered burnt offerings on the altar. And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odor, the Lord said in his heart, "I will never again curse the ground because of man..." (Genesis 8:21).
Utnapishtim: Visited by Ishtar, who offers ''her necklace with the jewels of heaven" as a remembrance of the flood and who bans Enlil from the sacrifice (1. 112). In restitution, Enlil blesses Utnapishtim and his wife and grants them immortality. "Thus it was," Utnapishtim says, "that the gods took me and placed me here to live in the distance, at the mouth of rivers" (1.113).
Noah: God blesses Noah and his family and commands them to repopulate the earth. God offers the rainbow as "the sign of the covenant which I have established between me and all the flesh that is upon the earth" (Genesis 9:17). Prior to the flood, biblical characters were said to have lived for hundreds of years. After this point, the biblical generations live a more recognizably human life span.
The argument of ''precedence,'' or which story came first, is still debated. While Heidel argues that the two stories could be derived from a common ancestor, most scholars accept that the Mesopotamian myth came before the Hebrew account. Since the cuneiform texts are much older than the biblical account, most scholars accept that the biblical writers drew from that account and adapted it to their own historical and theological circumstances.
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 Sin-leq-unninni around 1300 B.C. This is the most completely preserved version of the Epic, which archaeologists discovered in Ashurbanipal's library in Nineveh (66827 B.C.) (Jeffrey H. Tigay, The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982, pp. 248-50). This Standard Version is the basis for the present translation by N. K. Sandars, but the text will continue to change as new archaeological discoveries are made and as scholars understand more fully the language, culture, and history of these antiquated cultures.
Events Historical and Mythological
The Epic of Gilgamesh is marked by both the threat and the promise of its historical and physical setting. According to the famous Sumerian "King-List," which traces the royal lineage from the time ''When kingship was lowered from heaven,'' through the past rulers during the time of the great flood, until the defeat of Uruk, Gilgamesh was an historical figure who reigned about 2700 B.C. He is called "the divine Gilgamesh...[who] ruled 126 years" ("Sumerian King-List," trans. A. Leo Oppenheimer, in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, ed. James A. Pritchard, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950, p. 266). Although it is impossible to know exactly, events like Gilgamesh's journey to the Forest of Cedars to defeat Humbaba may reflect the historical Uruk's trade relations, need for natural resources, and later struggles with neighboring city-states over vital resources like wood.
Other details of daily life emerge from the story of Enkidu's gradual humanization at the hands of the Courtesan: "This transformation is achieved by eating bread, drinking beer, anointing oneself, and clothing oneself... Bread, beer, oil, and clothing are the staples which were distributed as daily rations by the central institutions, such as the temple or palace, to a large segment of the population; these rations were their only means of subsistence" (Johannes Renger, "Mesopotamian Epic Literature," p. 44). Furthermore, the cultures of the Tigro-Euphrates river valley depended upon the rivers for the rich soil that sustained their agriculture; at the same time that the rivers brought life, frequent floods also wrecked havoc upon their cities and people. The Epic reveals these horrors, for Gilgamesh himself "looked over the wall and [he] see[s] the bodies floating on the river, and that will be [his] lot also" (1. 72). Even the gods are affected, for Ishtar ''cried out like a woman in travail" when she sees her people floating in the ocean "like the spawn of fish" (1. 110) during Utnapishtim's flood. Likewise, Ishtar's Bull of Heaven represents another of the ancient world's great fears: drought, famine, and natural disaster. Anu reminds Ishtar, "If I do what you desire there will be seven years of drought throughout Uruk when corn will be seedless husks" (1. 87). Thus, the ancient Mesopotamians were caught between the bounty of their river valley and the misery of its floods and droughts.
Finally, the Epic of Gilgamesh does not encompass all the stories recorded about Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh himself is placed in the pantheons of gods as "an underworld deity, a judge there and sometimes called its king. His statues or figurines appear in burial rites for the dead, and his cult [official worship] was especially important in the month of Ab (July-August), when nature itself, as it were, expired" (William L. Moran, "Introduction," in David Ferry's Gilgamesh: A New Rendering in English Verse, [New York: Noonday Press, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1992], p. ix).
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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 genetic monarchy; education widely available. The possibility for "total war" leading to widespread destruction.
Ancient Mesopotamia: Farm-based, agrarian economy, based on domesticated livestock and on the yearly cycles of flood and soil replenishment. Supply of foodstuffs highly susceptible to ecological disruptions. Industry limited to traditional crafts (wood- and metalworking, warcraft) and large-scale building projects of lumber and baked brick (city walls and gates, royal and religious structures). First large-scale urban centers in cities like Uruk and Ur (the Biblical Erech), with populations near 50,000 people.
Modern Western Civilization: Highly competitive, diverse, interdependent global and local economies increasingly based upon information or communications rather than traditional commodities. Risk of famine minimized by chemical and genetic interventions. Large-scale industries with hugely complex inventory, production, and distribution systems. Some metropolitan areas exceed 20 million people.
Ancient Mesopotamia: Pantheon of gods, related to natural phenomenon. Series of religious festivals keyed to yearly seasonal cycle. Religious and political systems highly interrelated, with local and patron deities celebrated in specific cities.
Modern Western Civilization: Pantheon of faiths, largely dominated by different forms of Christianity. Religious festivals intact, but often secularized. Religious and political systems separated, but religious practice often determined by local custom and history.
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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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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 and explanations for specific translation preferences. The introduction provides an interesting take on the Epic, though transposing the Greek concepts of "Apollonian" and "Dionysian" (via Nietzsche) onto a Mesopotamian myth seems an unwarranted choice for understanding the dynamics of the story.
Gray, John. Near Eastern Mythology: Library of the World's Myths and Legends, New York: Peter Berdrick Books, 1982.
A handsomely illustrated coffee-table book covering the historical geography, religion, myths, and kingship of Mesopotamia, Canaan, and Israel.
Heidel, Alexander. The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels, 2nd ed., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949.
The most thorough examination of the relationship of the Mesopotamian materials to the Old Testament. Brings a religious point of view to the debate.
Joffe, Alexander. "Review of The Uruk World System: The Dynamics of Expansion of Early Mesopotamian Civilization, by Guillermo Algaze." Journal of World-Systems Research, Vol. 1, Book Review 4, 1995 Reprint, Journal of Field Archaeology, Vol. 21, 1994, pp. 512-16, http://csf.coloradoedu/wsystems/jwsr/voll/vl_r4.htm.
This technical article offers a thorough review of the current thinking concerning the rise, expansion, and fall of ancient Mesopotamian cities in general.
Jones, Charles E. ABZU: Guide to Resources for the Study of the Ancient Near East Available on the Internet, March 13, 1997, http://wwwoi uchicago.edu/OI/DEPT/RA/ABZU/ ABZU.HTML.
A comprehensive web site sponsored by the Research Archives of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. Carries links to sources for the general reader and research specialist, including a regional and subject index and online journals, museums, and articles.
Katz, Solomon H., and Fritz Maytag. "Brewing an Ancient Beer," http7/beer tcm.hut.fi/SumerianBeer html.
Don't let the title fool you. The article, reprinted here from an unacknowledged source, is the latest in an ongoing academic discussion over whether ancient Mesopotamians first began to gather and domesticate grain for the production of bread or beer.
Kovaks, Maureen Gallery. The Epic of Gilgamesh, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989.
A faithful but very readable rendering of the Standard Version, following the structure of the original eleven cuneiform tablets (Kovacks does not consider Tablet XII, The Death of Gilgamesh, to be part of the original version and so does not include it in her translation). Includes a fine, succinct introduction; helpful summaries introducing each tablet, and a useful glossary of key terms and names.
Kramer, Samuel Noah. The Sumerians: Their History, Culture, and Character, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963.
Technical but readable. Kramer's introduction is still the standard introduction to Sumerian culture, though it is now somewhat dated.
Lloyd, Seton. The Archaeology of Mesopotamia: From the Old Stone Age to the Persian Conquest, London: Thames and Hudson, 1978.
A thorough, detailed, and interesting survey of the significant archaeological sites in the ancient Near East. Packed with illustrations and diagrams, it includes a significant section on Uruk, Gilgamesh's home city.
Oates, Joan. Babylon, rev. ed., London: Thames and Hudson, 1986.
Excellent comprehensive overview of Babylonian history and culture, including the Epic of Gilgamesh. Well illustrated and fully documented.
Oriental Institute of Chicago. WWW Page: http://wwwoi_uchicago edu/OI/default html.
As this impressive homepage demonstrates, "The Oriental Institute is a museum and research organization devoted to the study of the ancient Near East. Founded in 1919 by James Henry Breasted, the Institute, part of the University of Chicago, is an internationally recognized pioneer in the archaeology, philology, and history of early Near Eastern civilizations." Check out especially the "Virtual Museum,'' with its variety of artifacts and artwork.
Pritchard, James B. The Ancient Near East in Pictures, Relating to the Old Testament, 2d ed. with supplement, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969.
A fascinating and informative photographic survey of the archaeological artifacts of ancient Near Eastern cultures. The book is organized topically: I Peoples and Their Dress, II Daily Life, Writing, IV. Scenes from History and Monuments, and so on. Viewing these photographs provides a reader with the best possible sense of the daily life and practices of these ancient peoples.
Renger, Johannes M. "Mesopotamian Epic Literature," in Heroic Epic and Saga: An Introduction to the World's Great Folk Epics, edited by Felix J. Oinas, pp. 27-48, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978.
A general introduction to the epic literature of Mesopotamia, including the Lugulbanda and Gilgamesh cycles. Includes a succinct summary of literary techniques in the epics.
Sandars, N. K. The Epic of Gilgamesh, rev. ed, London: Penguin Books, 1972.
Rendering the Epic as a narrative, or in story form, Sandars has provided the most accessible and easily read translation. This edition also boasts a thorough introduction, though somewhat dated now.
Sciafe, Ross and Suzanne Bonefas. Diotima. Materials for the Study of Women in the Ancient World, http://www.uky.edu/ ArtsSciences/Classics/gender.html.
Includes a searchable database and a good set of links to a variety of topics related to women and gender.
Siren, Christopher B. The Assyro-Babylonian Mythology FAQ [Frequently Asked Questions], version 1.7html, October 6, 1995, http://wilmot unh edu/~cbsiren/assyrbabylfaq html.
Along with its companion, Sumerian Mythology FAQ, these FAQs provide a handy guide to the main aspects of ancient Mesopotamian mythology. Includes bibliography.
Siren, Christopher B. Sumerian Mythology (Version 1.8html), October 6, 1996, http://wilmot.unh.edu/cbsiren/ sumerfaq.html.
Along with its companion, Assyro-Babylonian Mythology FAQ, these FAQs provide a handy guide to the main aspects of ancient Mesopotamian mythology. Includes a bibliography.
Thompson, R. Campbell. The Epic of Gilgamesh. Text, Transliteration, and Notes, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1930.
Designed for specialists, but is interesting to peruse for the transliterations of Sumerian, Babylonian, and Assyrian tablets. It also contains Thompson's own hand-copies of the individual cuneiform tablets.
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