The Epic Of Gilgamesh

The Epic of Gilgamesh #

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.

Gilgamesh, a super hero, 2/3 god and 1/3 man, corrupted by his power, becoming an abusive oppressive tyrant.   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, he 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.

When Enkidu discovers Gilgamesh’s claim of “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, 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. 

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.

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.  

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.  

Sophocles echoes this tenet in Oedipus at Colonus, 607: “Only the gods have ageless and deathless life”.

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.

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.