Gilgamesh – The Epic Tale of King Gilgamesh of Uruk

Ancient Assyrian statue currently in the Louvre believed by some scholars to represent Enkidu, a major character of the Epic of Gilgamesh.

The tale of Gilgamesh is the oldest recorded story in history and is about King Gilgamesh of Uruk. The fate of his friend Enkidu sparks his epic journey.

The tale of Gilgamesh is the oldest known recorded story in history. Chapters were written by both the ancient Sumerians then the Akkadians after conquering Sumer (now modern day Iraq). Their cuneiform clay tablets date from 2000 to 1500 BC and were compiled into a complete edition by Akkadian Shin-eqi-unninni between 1300 and 1000 BC. This “standard” version was recorded on twelve clay tablets; the first eleven are of Gilgamesh’s epic journey and the twelfth is a description of the nether world Gilgamesh rules after his death. The tablets were later stored in the famous library of King Ashurbanipal of Syria, 669-633 BC, at Nineveh. Versions also survive in Hurrian and Hitite.

In 612 BC, the Nineveh library was destroyed by the Persians, the tablets were damaged, and Gilgamesh was essentially forgotten until the mid 19th century when the tablets were salvaged and translated to German at the end of the century.

Gilgamesh – Background

Gilgamesh is about the ancient King Gilgamesh of Uruk who lived about 2700 BC. Once thought to be mythical, experts now believe he might actually have existed. His name is found on the Sumerian King List and he reportedly reigned for 126 years. His mother was the goddess Ninsun and his father a high priest from whom he got his mortality.

Gilgamesh – The Tale (Synopsis)

Gilgamesh was a bad king, a womanizer and incessant builder of walls. His subjects ask the gods for help and the goddess Aruru creates Enkidu, a subhuman equivalent to the superhuman Gilgamesh. Enkidu springs from the wilderness and lives with the beasts. When Gilgamesh learns of Enkidu he lends a harlot of his court, Shamhat, to be taken to the wild Enkidu to seduce him. She does, and Enkidu loses his brute strength and wildness but gains knowledge and appreciation. Gradually civilized while living with a group of shepherds, Shamhat tells Enkidu she will bring him to the city to show him Gilgamesh, the only man worthy of his friendship. Enkidu enters the kingdom of Uruk as Gilgamesh is about to claim his right to sexual intercourse with a new bride on the day of her wedding. Enraged, Enkidu stands in front of the marital chamber blocking Gilgamesh’s path. They fight furiously and Enkidu finally accepts Gilgamesh’s superiority – they become devoted friends.

Together, they slay the monster Humbaba of the Cedar Forest. Afterward, Ishtar, goddess of love, wants to marry Gilgamesh. He denies her rudely, and the furious Ishtar demands that her father Anu unleash the Bull of Heaven or she will smash the gates to the underworld. Reluctantly Anu unleashes the bull but Enkidu catches it by the horns and Gilgamesh kills it. This enrages the gods and since Gilgamesh is part divine and Enkidu is part animal, Enkidu is chosen to pay and sickens and dies. Gilgamesh, overcome by grief, finally has Enkidu buried and wanders out in the wilderness seeking Utnapishtim and his wife – the only humans granted eternal life by the gods after surviving the great flood – in an effort to avoid death himself.

Gilgamesh travels to Mount Mashu, where no light ever appears. After twelve days he reemerges into daylight and meets Siduri who advises him to accept his human fate and enjoy life while he can. But he persists, so she tells him the boatman Urshanabi can take him across the Sea of Death to the place he seeks.

Gilgamesh crosses the waters and finds Utnapishtim, who tells his story. In the time before the Flood, the counsel of the gods resolved to destroy the world. Under sworn secrecy, Ea (one of the gods that created humanity) came to Utnapishtim’s house and told the secret to the walls, thus not technically violating his oath. Ea’s advice was to build a great boat, cover it, and bring all living things aboard. Utnapishtim starts immediately, finishing the boat by the new year. After loading it with gold, silver, and all living things, Ea orders him into the boat commanding him to close the door. The black clouds arrive, the earth splits, and all light becomes darkness. The Flood is so great even the gods are frightened. It lasts for seven days and seven nights, then finally light returns. Utnapishtim opens a window and sees the entire earth has become an ocean and humans have been turned to stone. The boat comes to rest atop Mount Nimush, lodging firmly on the peak just below the surface.

Utnapishtim then offers Gilgamesh immortality if Gilgamesh can stay awake for six days and seven nights. Gilgamesh accepts and sits down on the shore, falling asleep instantly. Utnapishtim tells his wife that men are liars, and asks her to bake a loaf of bread every day to lay at Gilgamesh’s feet. Gilgamesh sleeps for six days and seven nights, then Utnapishtim wakes him. Gilgamesh says he only just dozed off but Utnapishtim points out the six loaves of bread, showing their various states of decay.

Utnapishtim’s wife takes pity on the distraught Gilgamesh and asks Utnapishtim to tell him about the plant at the bottom of the sea that can make him young again, if not immortal. Gilgamesh ties stones to his feet, sinks to the bottom, and plucks the magic plant. But he doesn’t use it – he wants to test it on an old man first, to make sure it works. Later while bathing, a snake slithers up and eats it. Gilgamesh falls to his knees and weeps.

The tale ends with Gilgamesh, at the end of his journey, standing before the gates of Uruk, inviting the boatman Urshanabi to view the city’s greatness; its high walls and mason work. He realizes now that this is the proper work of humankind, not the search for eternal life.

The final segment tells of the death of Gilgamesh and the mourning of all the people of Uruk.

The Gilgamesh flood story predates the oldest known bible record by about 2000 years.