Text Epic Of Gilgamesh

Epic of Gilgamesh Text #

The Epic of Gilgamesh is putatively the earliest form of literature extant. He was an historical king of Uruk in Babylonia, on the River Euphrates in today’s Iraq; he lived about 2700 B.C. Discovered in the late 19th C., The Epic of Gilgamesh is a narrative tale about the friendship between the King of Ur and Enkidu, a feral human raised in the wild.

There are many versions and interpretations of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Michael Schmidt, Princeton U. stresses that Gilgamesh is an alien text. The shards of the poem, found on scattered clay tablets around the Middle East cannot be forced into a coherent or familiar narrative that allows easy identification with King Gilgamesh and his unlikely friend, the wild man Enkidu.

Schmidt encourages us to see “Gilgamesh” not as a finished, polished composition—a literary epic, like the Aeneid, which is what many people would like it to be—but, rather, something more like life, untidy, ambiguous. Only by reading it that way, he thinks, will we get close to its hard, nubbly heart.

The following is based on a lecture by Andrew George, Professor of Babylonian, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.

Sources: #

We are extremely fortunate in the recovery of ancient history by recent advances in Archaeology, Anthropology, re-enactments and decipherment of artefacts.

In the 1850’s a British adventurer, Austen Henry Layard, on his way to Ceylon, stopped by the present day city of Mosul in Iraq, earlier – Babylonian - Nineveh and earlier Akkadian - Uruk, where he began digging into some ruin mounds where he found sun dried clay tablets with picture writing. Intrigued he sent them back to the British Museum.

They were also interested and offered money for more. Over the next fifty some years eager inhabitants of Iraq dug up mounds and eventually more than 90,000 cuneiform tablets were unearthed ending up in various museums throughout the world.

Two problems emerged. Many tablets were broken and putting them back together was a giant jigsaw puzzle – even today parts are missing.

The next problem was that the cuneiform writing was unique and no one knew how to decipher it.

By 1866, the Museum hired a George Smith who learned to translate the tablets into English. Since then, a small number of decipherers have engaged in the painstaking task of piecing together and translating the tablets. The first reliable one published in 1912. Some versions are Akkadian, some Babylonian, others Sumerian. All appear to have been written some 500 years after the events. This results in fragmentation of research as well as an aggregation of accumulated and collective knowledge.

A common element is the recording of The Flood or The Deluge common to most ancient mythology.

The Deluge #

The God Errakal was uprooting the mooring poles
Minurra, passing by made the weirs overflow
The Auunnaki Gods carried torches of fires
Scorching the country with brilliant flashes
The stillness of the Storm God passed over the sky
And all that was bright, then turned into darkness.

Prologue - Tablet I lines 1 - 10 #

He who saw the Deep, the country’s foundation,
Who knew the proper ways, was wise in all matters,
Gilgamesh, who saw the Deep, the country’s foundation,
Who knew the proper ways, was wise in all matters,
He explored everywhere the seats of power,
And learnt of everything the sum of wisdom,
He saw what was secret, discovered what was hidden,
He brought back a tale of before the flood.
He came a far road, was weary, found peace
And all his labours were set on a tablet of stone.

Gilgamesh, who lived before 2500 BCE, became deified after he died with a number of variant sources making him into an Epic hero. It was his legendary greatness that gave rise to his heroic deeds being recorded some 1000 years after he had died. While valorised, the author: Shin-eqi-unninni, portrays a complicated flawed larger than life man in all his travail. Is it a true representation of the human condition?

Great men build great monuments to be remembered. Uruk had huge walls surrounding about 8 square miles of city to protect the inhabitants. Its ruins are still there today, almost 5000 years later. But Gilgamesh is well known today because several people took the time to record his life on clay tablets. Recorded history or song is more durable than stone, a fact noted by Juvenal:

“a name that might/ Cling to the stones that guard their ashes, those stones the barren/ Fig tree’s malicious strength is capable of shattering,” Satire X The Rewards of Fame and Eloquence. 166 - 168.

Prologue End Tablet I lines 18 – 28 #

Climb Uruk’s wall and walk back and forth!
Survey its foundations, examine the brickwork
Were its bricks not fired in an oven?
Did seven sages not lay its foundations?
A square mile is city, a square mile is a date grove,
Half A square mile the temple. A square mile is clay-pit
A square mile is the Temple of Istar,
three square miles and a half is Uruk’s expanse.

See the tablet – box of cedar;
Release its clasp of bronze,
Lift the lid of its secret,
Pick up the tablet of lapis lazuli and read out
The travails of Gilgamesh and all that he went through.

Gilgamesh, a super hero, 2/3 god and 1/3 man, (11 cubits - 17 feet tall and 4 cubits from nipple to nipple). Other sources give credence to the existence of giants. Gilgamesh, corrupted by his power, became an abusive oppressive tyrant. He insists on the droit du seigneur: he, not the groom, spends the wedding night with the bride.

The gods, listening to the complaints of his people send a priestess, the Goddess of Love, Shamhat, a sacred prostitute, to offer herself to Enkidu, the wild brutalised man, and they make love continuously for six days and seven nights. Enkidu is transformed by that experience, and becomes socialised, humanised and empathetic.

By becoming human, Enkidu loses something. He loses his kinship with the animals and the ability to be with them because they’re afraid of him after this experience.

The gods expect Enkidu to rein in Gilgamesh’s untrammelled power because of his great strength. They already recognised that the role of good leadership and governance was to rule in the general interests of wider community.

The seduction of Enkidu #

(Warning – Ancient Porn ?)

Shamshat unfashioned the cloth of her loins
She bared her sex and he took in her charms
She did not recoil, she took in his scent:
She spread her clothing and he lay upon her.
She did for the man the work of a woman,
His passion caressed and embraced her.
For six days and seven nights
Enkidu was erect, as he coupled with Shamhat.
When with her delights he was fully sated
He turned his gaze to his herd.
The gazelles saw Enkidu and started to run,
The beasts of the fields shied away from his presence.

It’s a kind of Anti-Garden of Eden story, where instead of sexuality being a fall, it’s an initiation into what it means to be human. It can also be seen as an indictment of civilised society and a demand for freedom from oppression and for equitable justice.

When Enkidu discovers Gilgamesh’s claim of “**Jus Prima Nocta” **the right of the King to sleep with all brides on their wedding night, he challenges it. When the fight ends in a draw, the two men, Gilgamesh and Enkidu become great friends and travel the world together.

Humbaba #

Visiting the Cedars of Lebanon, where they kill the Guardian of the Cedar Forest, the great demon, Humbaba the Terrible before cutting down the trees. The cedar was rafted down the river to build large gates for Gilgamesh’s city of Ur.


Humbaba, whose shout is the flood weapon, whose utterance is fire and whose Breath is death, can hear for a distance of sixty leagues through the forest. So who can penetrate his forest? Disability would seize anyone who penetrated his forest.

Later conquests of Noah and the Whale, Hercules and Medusa, Jason and Golden Fleece, Theseus and the Minotaur echo the supernatural feats of Epic Heroes.

Ishtar #

When Gilgamesh spurns the goddess, Ishtar, she begs her father, the sky-god Anu, to let her have the Bull of Heaven (Taurus) to wreak vengeance on Gilgamesh and his city:

Anu reluctantly gives in, and the Bull of Heaven is sent down into Uruk. Each time the bull breathes, its breath is so powerful that enormous abysses are opened up in the earth and hundreds of people fall through to their deaths. Working together again, Gilgamesh and Enkidu slay the mighty bull. Ishtar is enraged, but Enkidu begins to insult her, saying that she is next, that he and Gilgamesh will kill her next, and he rips one of the thighs off the bull and hurls it into her face.

Enkidu falls ill after having a set of ominous dreams; he finds out from the priests that he has been singled out for vengeance by the gods. The Chief Gods have met and have decided that someone should be punished for the killing of Humbaba and the killing of the Bull of Heaven, so of the two heroes, they decide Enkidu should pay the penalty. Enraged at the injustice of the decision, Enkidu curses the great Cedar Gate built from the wood of the Cedar Forest, and he curses the temple harlot, Shamhat, and the trapper, for introducing him to civilization. Shamhash reminds him that, even though his life has been short, he has enjoyed the fruits of civilization and known great happiness. Enkidu then blesses the harlot and the trapper.

Gilgamesh is utterly devastated by the death of his friend Enkidu and spends ten days in a vigil over the corpse, planning a great monument for this hero. However when a maggot crawls out of Enkidu’s corpse, Gilgamesh becomes aware that man is just matter - dead meat and that he too will some day die.

Now, with the death of Enkidu, everything changes. Gilgamesh sends up a great, torn-from-the-gut lament - a dirge - elegy:

“O my friend, wild ass on the run,
donkey of the uplands,
panther of the wild,”
may the Forest of Cedar grieve for you,
and the pure Euphrates.

First Statue #

He calls for his craftsmen—“Forgemaster! [Lapidary!] Coppersmith! Goldsmith!”—and orders Enkidu’s funerary monument:

“Your eyebrows shall be of lapis lazuli, your chest of gold.”

Enkidu’s death sends Gilgamesh into another journey to seek immortality. He lets his hair grow, dresses up in the skin of a lion and sets off for the mountains to see how he can avoid death.

The Wisdom of Utanapishti #

(The underworld)

Man is snapped off like a reed in a canebrake
The comely young man, the pretty young woman
All too soon in their prime Death abducts them
*………. *(missing, or non existent?)
No one at all sees Death
No one at all sees the fact of Death
No one at all hears the rage of Death,
Death, so savage, who hacks men down.

Conclusion #

The Epic of Gilgamesh illustrates enduring universal themes of the human condition. Both heroes go through hardship – the travail and pain of life. Both aspire to immortality, but the brevity of life is revealed to be that of an insect - the mayfly - whose existence is a mere blink in the scale of existence. In the search for meaning in life, the individual is insignificant – survival of the tribe, society, community or civilisation is paramount. When given the choice of who should prevail, the gods chose the King over Enkidu. The gods gave themselves eternal life; they gave us inescapable death. Such is the destiny of mortal men.

Early civilisations put great store in omens. Order, justice could only be dispensed by the gods. Dissolution and dystrophy threatened all order, reverting to chaos. The cycles of nature gaurantee renewal or rebirth.

The Wisdom of Utanapishti: the Mayfly** #

Tablet X lines 308 – 315

Ever do we build our households,
Ever do we make our nests,
Ever do brothers divide their inheritances,
Ever do feuds arise in the land.
Ever the river has risen and brought us the flood
The Mayfly floating on the water
On the face of the sun its countenance gazes,
Then all of a sudden nothing is there.

At the end of the World #

Advice of a woman he meets returning from the underworld.

Make merry each day,
Dance and play day and night
Let you clothes be clean
Let your head be washed, may you bathe in water!
Gaze on the little one who holds your hand,
Let a woman enjoy your repeated embraces.

The Epic gives us insights into the Cradle of Civilisation. Its Archetypes as Professor Wheel Wright explains in Metaphor and Reality (Indiana, 1962), are symbols which carry the same or very similar meanings for a large portion, if not all, of mankind. The tale of the flood is meticulously recorded some 2000 years before the Hebrews record it. At times it talks about the one God, a precursor to monotheism. It records mankind’s longing for continuity, for living a good life through fostering justice by curbing the unlimited power some leaders crave.

Gilgamesh gives us a homily at the end. Make merry and enjoy the continuity of your children and grandchildren before you die.

End of the Poem #

Tablet XI lines 323 - 28

O Ur- Shanibi, Climb Uruk’s wall and walk back and forth!
Survey its foundations, examine the brickwork
Were its bricks not fired in an oven?
Did seven sages not lay its foundations?

A square mile is city,
a square mile is a date grove,
Half A square mile the temple of Istar.
A square mile is clay-pit,
three square miles and a half is Uruk’s expanse.

City - homes, family

Date Grove - food

Clay pits - industry

Temple - spiritual, intellectual

Acknowledgements: #

My first toehold into the Epic tale was several references to it in Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion. Then in 2006, I heard Rachael Kohn on ABC Radio National interview a translator, Stephen Mitchell from Los Angelos. In 2019, I watched a fascinating online lecture by Professor Andrew George. You can watch it @ /www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rd7MrGy_tEg

The fullest surviving version is derived from twelve stone tablets, in the Akkadian language, found in the ruins of the library of Ashurbanipal, king of Assyria 669-633 B.C., at Nineveh. The library was destroyed by the Persians in 612 B.C., and all the tablets are damaged.

The tablets name an author: Shin-eqi-unninni - the oldest known human author we can name by name!

This summary is derived from several sources: translations, commentaries, and academic scholarship from sundried clay tablets discovered in 1839 in Iraq near Mosul. Over the past 50 years thousands of tablets have been meticulously unearthed by European archaeologists and painstakingly patched together and transcribed into French, German, Italian and English.

You will find several sources on the World Wide Web.

Lecture by Andrew George