The Sumerian and Akkadian cuneiform legends about Gilgamesh are arguably Mesopotamia's most enduring and most approachable contribution to world literature. The Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh is a literary masterpiece that should be counted among other ancient classics such as Homer's Odyssey, the Mahabharata, and Beowulf. The literary traditions about Gilgamesh deal with many basic themes familiar to the human experience: political oppression, the dynamic between civilization and wildness, sex, friendship, adventure, violence, grief and loss, and facing the limits of human mortality.
According to literary sources Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, was two-thirds god and one-third human. He was said to be the offspring of the king Lugalbanda and the goddess Ninsun. So far there is no evidence for a real historical Gilgamesh, but it is quite possible that a leader by that name did exist. If Gilgamesh was a historical figure, he would have reigned sometime around the first quarter of the third millennium BCE. The first large collection of Sumerian and Akkadian literature about Gilgamesh is from the Old Babylonian period (ca. 1900–1600 BCE). Sometime during the second millennium the Akkadian Gilgamesh texts were organized and expanded into the 12-tablet epic that was transmitted throughout the first millennium.
The Sumerian Gilgamesh cycle consists of six separate literary narratives, all of which were composed and copied in the Old Babylonian period (ca. 1900–1600 BCE). In the tale known by modern scholars as Gilgamesh and Agga Gilgamesh is threatened by an attack from Agga, ruler of the city-state Kish. Gilgamesh is able to bring together the assembly of young men to defeat Agga, but it is Gilgamesh's radiance that eventually cows Agga. In this tale Enkidu is Gilgamesh's servant, not his companion. In "Gilgamesh and the Bull of Heaven" the goddess Inana offers herself in marriage to Gilgamesh, who refuses. Enraged, Inana gets the Bull of Heaven from her father, the sky-god An, and the divine bull attacks the countryside around Uruk. Gilgamesh and Enkidu confront and kill the bull, and Gilgamesh offers the bull's horns to Inana's temple in Uruk. In The Death of Gilgamesh Gilgamesh lies on his deathbed while the gods debate his destiny. Gilgamesh then dies and is made a god of the underworld. The people of Uruk build Gilgamesh a tomb and bury him. In the tale Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Nether World Gilgamesh makes furniture and sports paraphernalia for himself using a special tree of Inana. While Gilgamesh and Enkidu are playing, the ball and stick fall through a crack into the underworld. Enkidu chases after them but then gets stuck down in the underworld, a common motif in Mesopotamian mythology. The god Enki assists Gilgamesh and allows him to talk with En-kidu's ghost, who tells Gilgamesh all about what it is like in the underworld. "Gilgamesh and Hu-wawa" circulated in two versions that had both major and minor differences in plot. Gilgamesh leaves Uruk to cut down cedar trees and create an illustrious reputation for himself. He is attacked by the fearsome forest monster Huwawa, whom he defeats using his wits and takes captive. Against Gilgamesh's wishes, Enkidu then kills Huwawa. Only "Gilgamesh and Agga" and "The Death of Gilgamesh" do not have Akkadian-language parallels in Mesopotamian literature.
In the early second millennium Akkadian-language stories about Gilgamesh also circulated in written form. Only a few substantial fragments from this period have been found. It appears that in some scribal centers a unified Gilgamesh literature began to take shape in the early second millennium BCE, and the ancient Babylonians referred to this composition by the name Surpassing All Other Kings. In subsequent Babylonian tradition the compilation of the Epic of Gilgamesh was attributed to a scholar named Sin-leqi-unninni about whom virtually nothing is known. This version consisted of 12 tablets, which can be thought of as being almost like chapters. For instance, Tablet 11 contains a version of the flood story. Tablet 12 is almost like an appendix and contains an Akkadian version of some of the Sumerian myth Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Netherworld. At present only about three-quarters of the epic are preserved, although future discoveries may eventually allow us to reconstruct the whole narrative. The Epic of Gilgamesh was called "He Who Saw the Deep" and also simply "Series of Gilgamesh" in ancient Babylonia. All of the manuscripts for the Epic of Gilgamesh come from the first millennium BCE, but many elements of the epic can be found in-the fragmentary Old Babylonian stories, such as the episodes involving Enkidu, Huwawa, and Utanapishtim. The epic was probably compiled during the later second millennium BCE, when many works of Babylonian literature were organized and edited.
The Epic of Gilgamesh links together all of the known Akkadian episodes into a coherent whole. Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, oppresses his people, driving the gods to create for him a fitting rival, the wild man Enkidu. In a dream Gilgamesh foresees the coming of Enkidu, who is raised by animals. A prostitute from the city seduces him and makes him civilized. Gilgamesh and Enkidu do battle and then become fast friends. Together they embark on an adventure to cut down cedar trees in the cedar forest, which is guarded by the fearsome divine protector Humbaba, whom they slay. After the two have returned to Uruk, the goddess Ishtar propositions Gilgamesh, who rebuffs her advances. In a fit of rage, Ishtar sends the Bull of Heaven, which Gilgamesh and Enkidu slay. Because of these actions, the gods sentence Enkidu to death, and he becomes ill. When Enkidu finally dies, Gilgamesh is bereft at losing his friend, becomes terrified of death, and sets off on a quest for immortality. He crosses the Waters of Death and comes to the dwelling place of Utanapishtim, who has survived the Flood and gained immortality. Utanapishtim reveals to Gilgamesh that there is no secret way of attaining immortality. By grasping his mortal limits Gilgamesh gains wisdom, and when he returns home to Uruk he sets down his story for future generations.Bibliography
- The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh. New York: Henry Holt, 2007. .
- The Epic of Gilgamesh: A New Translation, Analogues, Criticism. New York: Norton, 2001. , , and .
- The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Introduction, Critical Edition and Cuneiform Texts. 2 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
- The Epic of Gilgamesh: The Babylonian Epic Poem and Other Texts in Akkadian and Sumerian. London: Allen Lane, 1999.
- Gilgamesh: A New English Version. New York: Free Press, 2004. .
- The Gilgamesh Epic: A Masterpiece from Ancient Mesopotamia." Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, vol. 4, edited by . New York: Scribner, 1995. . "
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