Gilgamesh (Epic of Gilgamesh)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Gilgamesh (Epic of Gilgamesh)

Gilgamesh (Epic of Gilgamesh) (ca. 1800 B.c.) The oldest known HERO tale, the Epic of Gilgamesh is the written version of a frame narrative that survives in the Akkadian language. Episodes detail the quest of Gilgamesh (ca. 2600 B.c.), a Mesopotamian god-king who raised the walled city of Uruk in Sumer (present-day Erech, Iraq) during the region's first dynasty. Traders and colonists spread his influence north of the Persian Gulf and built satellite cities with slave labor along the alluvial fan of the Fertile Crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (present- day southern Iraq). Written in cuneiform on 12 clay tablets, Gilgamesh survived in the archives of Assurbanipal, king of Nineveh around 650 B.c. The narrative reflects elements of the Perseus myth in which a young challenger escapes the plots of the Babylonian king to overcome a PROPHECY promising a hero of great strength and daring. An arrogant ruler who kills men and despoils women, Gilgamesh forms a brotherly friendship with Enkido, a literary foil. Unlike the sophisticated king, the semicivilized Enkidu, a fount of innocence and compassion, lives in the wild and roams the savannahs with gazelles and other beasts until a temple priestess introduces him to romance and carnality. He becomes friends with Gilgamesh after losing a wrestling match with the king. Together, in Syria on the Lebanese border, Gilgamesh and the outlander quell the sacred demon Humbaba in an archetypal battle of good against evil. The warriors' triumph over the Bull of Heaven, an embodiment of drought, raises threats from the gods for impiety, a charge shared by the Greek heroes Hercules and Odysseus and by the Hebrews Moses and Samson.

As a monument to empire building, the epic salutes ancient Mesopotamia as an urban civilization, which flourished with irrigated farming and river cultures in the Indus and Nile valleys. The narrative describes the quest of Gilgamesh for solace and immortality after his friend Enkidu dies and goes to the underworld as a sacrifice to compensate for the sins of Gilgamesh. Like Achilles mourning Patroclus in Homer's Iliad, Gilgamesh succumbs to sorrow. In outcries similar to the mourning of David for Jonathan in 2 Samuel 1:26, Gilgamesh honors his soulmate Enkidu as “the ax upon my belt and the bow in my weak hand, the sword within my sheath, the shield that covered me in battle, my happiest robe” (Epic of Gilgamesh 1992, 48-49). Twice thwarted in his effort to obtain eternal life, Gilgamesh despairs after a lengthy foray into the surreal land of the gods. The winemaker Siduri, like the Greek wine god Dionysus, offers pragmatic wisdom: She advises Gilgamesh to delight in the everyday joys of feasting, good company, cleanliness, and family life. She explains, “We frail humans die as you yourself must someday do. What is best for us to do is now to sing and dance” (64).

Literary historians revere the Mesopotamian epic for its humanistic theme of equality in death for all living beings, even god-kings. Chastened by loss, Gilgamesh returns to Uruk and contents himself with earthly conquest. Translator Danny Jackson renders the sensate pleasures of experiencing the architecture of Gilgamesh: “No one else ever built such walls. Climb Uruk's Tower and walk about on a windy night. Look. Touch. Taste. Sense. What force creates such mass?” (1). At the gates of Uruk, a lump of lapis lazuli establishes the role of art in empires by preserving the god-king's accomplishments carved for the edification of future leaders. In the final stave, Gilgamesh remarks, “Study the base, the brick, the old design. Is it permanent as can be? Does it look like wisdom designed it?” (84). The questions attest to a maturity in the king, who has experienced firsthand the transience of human powers.


The Epic of Gilgamesh. Translated by Danny P Jackson.

Wauconda, Ill.: Bolchazy-Carducci, 1992.

Mobley, Gregory. Samson and the Liminal Hero in the Ancient Near East. London: Continuum, 2006.