UNRAVELING THE EPIC OF GILGAMESH: 5 MYSTERIES REVEALED
The Epic of Gilgamesh is a work of literary genius. First recorded in Sumerian around 4200 years ago, it still reads as easy as the daily news, singing to our souls like lovers separated by time. Its mythical backdrop delves the mind into a fantastic work of heroes, gods, and monsters. Great deeds and perilous journeys build up to questions of love and loss, life and death. Until eventually, the Epic of Gilgamesh challenges the oldest question of all, what is the meaning of this life?
The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest work of great, epic literature that humanity has rediscovered. The most complete version of Gilgamesh’s tale was written by Sin-liqe-unninni somewhere between 1300-1000 BCE. His account was recorded for the Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal, after their conquest of southern Mesopotamia. We are lucky that so much of his account survives, but luckier still for the discoveries of even older tablets.
WHAT IS THE EPIC OF GILGAMESH?
To understand this timeless piece of literature, you have to have a grasp on what it is about, and what the context is.
Historians believe Gilgamesh was a real man. He was a real king, ruling of the city state, Uruk, around 2800 BCE. However, his life is a mystery to us, and separating the man from the myth is a near impossibility when all we have are fantastic tales to go by. It seems he really did build the great walls of Uruk, an acomplishment that alone would leave him a legacy to best the test of time. It is believed that he also rebuilt Ninlil’s sanctuary in Tummal, Nippur.
The shadows slowly begin to creep into Gilgamesh’s biography, he ruled Uruk for 126 years – at least according to the Sumerian Kings List. He is 2/3 divine, 1/3 human thanks to divine parentage, naturally inheriting super human strength. He bested the infamous monster Humbaba in Lebanon, and met with the lone survivor of the great the flood, the immortal Utnapishtim. He later grasped the fruit of immortality, discovering the hidden truth of outlasting death.
It is this hazy description of Gilgamesh’s life that the Epic covers, his rise from a flawed man, to his crowning achievement of discovering the meaning of life. It is this journey that still sings to our soul for it addresses the one question we all want answered. How do I live knowing I will die?
The Epic of Gilgamesh set the standard for epic prose. Its dynamic character development and confrontation of universal themes and questions is set in a stunning backdrop of ancient Mesopotamia. The story rolls fluidly, keeping its audience immersed as the tale unfolds before them. It is no wonder that its literary composition is so closely mimicked by the stories of later generations. From Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid, all the way up to Tolkien’s ground breaking Lord of the Rings, and Lucas’ endearing Star Wars, all great works of epic literature owe their due’s to the Epic of Gilgamesh.
EPIC OF GILGAMESH: 5 CRITICAL FACTS!
There are some amazing features hidden within the Epic of Gilgamesh, and some are a bit more obvious than others. It is a literary masterpiece that could be studied for a life time, revealing its secrets and teachings to those worthy of its knowledge. I have listed five of these that have always amazed me.
#1: THE GREAT FLOOD
Everyone knows about the biblical great flood, where God speaks to Noah, ordering him to build an arc big enough to hold two of every animal while he releases a great deluge upon the earth, stripping his creation of all life and therefore sin. This account is not unique to the Old Testament, in fact, the account of Noah is not even the original. This tale was first recorded in The Epic of Gilgamesh. The deluge occurs before Gilgamesh’s time, but the story is told to him by the sole human survivor, Utnapishtim.
#2: ENKIDU AND GILGAMESH
Early on in the Epic, we are introduced to Enkidu who instantly wins the heart of the reader. For you see, Gilgamesh is a man of the city, bound by the responsibilities and expectations of civilized life. Enkidu, however, is born in the natural wilderness, he is untamed and free, he lives in harmonious unity with nature, connected to the pure essence of life. What is clear is the bond between Gilgamesh and Enkidu, they are in essence the same person. Two sides of the same coin, two personalities making a whole.
This is why we connect to Enkidu, we are city folk like Gilgamesh, full of chaotic deadlines and responsibilities. Our wild personalities are bound, our innocence restricted, so we yearn to be free like Enkidu.
#3: ENKIDU AND THE AFTERLIFE
Enkidu’s death is heartbreaking, it is a shocking reminder of the futility of life. The gods mark him for death as a punishment, and the story is reminding us that some factors in life are simply out of our hands, we cannot control everything. Enkidu is struck down at the peak of his life, a strong man broken by a simple fever. The episode continues, showing the full effect of remorse, guilt and sorrow through Gilgamesh. Anyone who has lost a loved one can sympathize with the king’s loss. Gilgamesh is graced with one last encounter with his friend, and what Enkidu reveals is a shocking revelation. The underworld is a place of eternal darkness, dust is the only food, and the crowns of kings lay strewn across the ground as no man has any value. A truly harrowing account of life after death.
#4: WOMEN IN THE EPIC OF GILGAMESH
Women take a surprising role in the Epic of Gilgamesh. In many classical (and modern) societies, woman take a secondary role to men and are usually left to degraded social spheres. Classical Greece, for all its glory was a sexually dimorphic society, dividing women away from any role of power. However, in the Epic of Gilgamesh, we see quite the opposite, women for the most part are empowered, especially when they held roles helping the heroes. The temple harlot, Shamhat, is named and respected for her role in civilizing Enkidu. Utnapishtim’s wife socializes with the men and speaks openly to her husband and guest. The Scorpion King’s wife even rebukes her husband in front of Gilgamesh, showing a level of equality unparalleled for ancient cultures. What is truly amazing is the barkeep, Siduri, a woman who not only owns her own respectable establishment, but even stops king Gilgamesh from entering, showing a woman with greater power than a man! The depiction of women in the Epic of Gilgamesh is truly astonishing to see given the time at which it was recorded.
#5: THE SEARCH FOR IMMORTALITY
At its heart, the Epic of Gilgamesh depicts a man searching to overcome death. This question speaks to the heart and soul of everyone, and this is why the tale still strikes us today. He spends his youth building monuments and chasing monsters, besting any man he can at single combat. But the death of his beloved Enkidu hammers home the reality that no matter how great Gilgamesh is, no matter how much wealth he accumulates, or how much better he is than anyone else, ultimately he is destined to meet the fate of all humanity, death. His great epiphany, the greatest moment of the entire Epic, comes at last in the final section of the story. His search for immortality comes to a climatic ending as he crest the hills surrounding his home, and as he looks upon his great city Uruk. I am afraid that my words cannot reveal Gilgamesh’s final lesson, the Epic sets it up through an emotion only available by a reading of its entirety.
EPIC OF GILGAMESH SUMMARY
I feel that I should not reveal the plot and ruin this great story for you. There are many great websites that will do just that if you look, but I implore you to read the tale in its entirety as it might just give you a new perspective on life and death, as it did for me. There are also some amazing translations of the epic, they are easy to read, easy to follow, and an absolute delight to experience.
My favorite by far is the Norton Critical Edition, translated by Benjamin R. Foster. Foster keeps the traditions of the old text while breathing new life into it for a refreshing read. He includes an extensive introduction detailing fascinating facts of the Sumerian traditions, and a few essays at the end which add some food for thought. But what I appreciate most is the addition of the Hittite version and some lesser known traditional tales of Gilgamesh, which are otherwise hard to find. Here is a link to Foster’s translation of the Epic of Gilgamesh from Amazon.
I hope you enjoy reading The Epic of Gilgamesh. To me, it is a must have, it changes the way you see the world, opening your eyes to new philosophies on life and death. It will fuel your imagination and it might just resonate through your mind and spirit for years to come.