Remarkably, one of the founding records of civilization is unknown to most people today, although you could pick up a copy of it in any book store or find a translation on the web. The story of Gilgamesh is the oldest known epic poem in the world, created in some form probably two thousand years before Homer conceived of the Iliad and The Odyssey (presuming there was a Homer, but that’s for another day in or around the first half of the third millenium b.c.
The epic was written in ancient Sumeria, the first real civilization of which we have substantial knowledge. It is not only the first epic poem we know of, but the first adventure story, the first theological tale, the first buddy story and the first morality play. It contains the first dramatic death scene, the first seduction and even a version of a story much later told in the Bible which each and every one of you know.
Written in cuneiform on tablets by making etching knife marks in soft clay, the tale
is relatively modern in its narrative, and the reader can easily follow the story (the names are tough, but I don’t use many) which I will relate here in abbreviated form. Like many long existing tales, it underwent numerous changes over time. Because of its near completeness, a version of the story written in a language known as Akkadian made nearly 2000 years after the first compilations, is regularly tapped in modern times as “the standard version,” and so will be used here.
The hero, Gilgamesh, is a young but powerful king, mostly divine but also part human. He is purely mortal though and a tyrant.
In order to combat him, the people pray to their great sky god, Anu, for some relief and he answers their call by creating a half man/half animal named Enkidu, who possesses the strength of many wild beasts.
Despite his prowess, he is easily tamed. A local trapper who learned about Enkidu from his son advises his son to tempt him with a temple harlot. He follows through, and Enkidu immediately has sex with the girl, named Shamat, which drains him, Samson-like, of much, but not all, of his great strength.
Not surprisingly, he is disturbed by his loss of vigor and the fear he now causes in the animal kingdom. Shamat then takes him to Uruk (the city) to introduce him to Gilgamesh.
In the meantime, Gilgamesh is having troubling dreams in which he is forced by his mother to compete with a meteorite and an axe (which he “embraces as he would his wife” -- hmmm). He learns that this means he will meet a man who will be a competitor but then help him accomplish great things.
Soon, Gilgamesh is at a wedding in the city. Rather than bring a gift, he claims his right of primacy, i.e., he may have sex with the bride before the husband (a right kings and rulers of many civilizations have claimed). Even at this early time in civilization, this caused great unrest with the groom. Enkidu, who has been somewhat civilized by some shepherds, faces off against Gilgamesh to prevent his taking the bride.
They fight. Gilgamesh has almost met his match, but the hero must prevail, then as now, and Gilgamesh is the hero. Defeated, Enkidu pledges his undying support to him.
They become inseparable friends. One day Gilgamesh decides that they should go down to a foreign land and cut down a cedar forest patrolled by a great giant named Humbaba. Enkidu actually knows Humbaba from his wild days and thinks it is a bad idea. But he cannot convince Gilgamesh.
He should have had more confidence in his buddy, for Gilgamesh gets the protection of some powerful gods. One of the gods even commands Enkidu to take the lead in battling Humbaba. Not liking that idea at all, he fails for a second time to dissuade his friend.
Gilgamesh has some disturbing dreams on the way to the forest, but Enkidu, faithful despite his fears, interprets each one positively in favor of Gilgamesh. Doesn’t help much. When Gilgamesh gets to the cedar forest he starts shaking life a leaf. A god he has been praying to, Shamash, tells him that Humbaba is only wearing one of his seven coats of armor, which reassures him.
Now it is Enkidu’s turn to try to leave. Gilgamesh intercepts him, and they come to blows. They fight so hard that they alert Humbaba to their presence. He challenges them, and Gilgamesh convinces Enkidu to fight with him.
In a second version in the same story (this happens all the time in ancient literature, notably in the Bible) the two heroes enter the forest and actually begin to cut down the cedar trees. Humbaba approaches and challenges them. Endkidu tells Humbaba that the two of them together are stronger than he is, but Humbaba taunts Enkidu for being a nobody while Gilgamesh was a king. Humbaba grimaces hideously and Gilgamesh tries to hide. Enkidu talks him into fighting. Obviously, the writer(s) of the first version favored Gilgamesh and the second version, Enkidu.
However it happens, the three battle. Shamash, the friendly god, enters on the two mortals’ side and they triumph (a god helping warriors fight is also very typical of ancient literature, very notably in Homer). Defeated, Humbaba is on his knees. He begs Gilgamesh, who has his sword at his throat, not to kill him. Enkidu, advises his friend to do it while he can and gain everlasting fame. Just before Gilgamesh’s sword chops off Humbaba’s head, the giant curses Enkidu to die before Gilgamesh, without finding any peace in the world.
The two giant killers now cut down the trees, using the tallest to make a gate for Uruk and others to build a raft they use to drift down the Euphrates River to home. Their first adventure is over.
Gilgamesh gains great fame just as Enkidu predicted. He gets some new kingly duds and soon even the great goddess Ishtar falls in love with him. When she tries to seduce him, however, he recounts all of her past lovers, and how she treated them, then turns her down flat. Shamed, she does what any self respecting goddess would do and asks her father, Anu, the sky god, to let her borrow the bull of heaven to kill Gilgamesh. And just in case he doesn’t want to give him to her, she threatens to let down the gates of hell so that the dead can swarm over the earth, and, prefiguring The Night of the Living Dead, eat everyone. Even then, fathers were giving in to Daddy’s little girl, and she gets to use the ferocious beast.
This is one tough bull. With every breath he takes, he punches giant holes into the ground causing people to fall to their death. Fortunately for human kind, the first dynamic duo is tougher than any supernatural bull and team up to kill him. Ishtar is even angrier now, particularly as Enkidu, maybe feeling a little too good about himself, tells her that she is next to be dealt with and throws a piece of bull’s thigh he ripped off right in her face. The Greeks knew it was not wise to mock the gods, but perhaps ancient Sumerians were just learning.
Here’s where things turn bad. Enkidu has a few ominous dreams and sickens. He learns that the gods are punishing the two of them for killing Humbaba and the bull, by killing Enkidu! He curses the harlot who seduced him and just about everyone and everything (including the gates of Uruk) he has come in contact with except Gilgamesh. Shamash (the god) reminds him that even if he only lived a little while, at least he got to enjoy civilization . Sounds like someone was trying to sneak in a moral. Of course, now Enkidu blesses the harlot and everyone else. Clearly, he was quite easy to get around.
Near the end Enkidu has a dream of a demon dragging him down to hell, where we get our first look at. .
. . . the House of Darkness,
the dwelling of Irkalla,
to the house where those who enter do not come out,
along the road of no return,
to the house where those who dwell, do without light,
where dirt is their drink, their food is of clay,
where, like a bird, they wear garments of feathers,
and light cannot be seen, they dwell in the dark,
and upon the door and bolt, there lies dust.
On entering the House of Dust,
everywhere I looked there were royal crowns gathered in heaps,
everywhere I listened, it was the bearers of crowns,
who, in the past, had ruled the land,
but who now served Anu and Enlil . . . .
(translation by Maureen Gallery Kovacs)
An interesting vision where dullness and humiliation seem paramount to torment. Given a choice, I would rather have to wear bird feathers in he dark, eat clay, drink dirt and serve the gods than burn for eternity in the more modern version of hell.
Saying good bye to his great friend, Enkidu suffers twelve days before dying.
Gilgamesh, apparently not totally self centered, is in turmoil, orders the universe to mourn with him (prefiguring a well known myth from Norse mythology) and builds Enkidu a monument. Not shaving or bathing in his sorrow, he becomes a sorry spectacle, when it suddenly dawns on him that he is going to die someday too. Craving immortality, he determines to visit Utnapishtim, a former king of the world who was preserved by a god, along with his wife, when the gods caused a great and homicidal flood.
Trouble is, Utnapishtim lives quite a distance away (in a place actually called “Far Away” which is somewhat reminiscent of J.M. Barrie’s Neverland – it is perhaps not coincidental that Gilgamesh was first translated in English while Barrie was a young man) where all the rivers of the world enter. Ignoring more ominous dreams, Gilgamesh sets out for it. At Mount Mashu, where the sun sets and rises (the end of the known world) Gilgamesh encounters two giant scorpions who politely try to warn him off. He insists and they let him pass. He crosses the land of night, followed by the sun, for twelve leagues before coming to daylight.
If you have noticed the repeated use of the number twelve here, consider that we have a 12 hour clock and 24 hour day, courtesy of the Sumerian system, which used 60 as a base instead of ten, with 12 being one factor and 24 another.
As the sun catches up to him, he comes to a garden which might seem better suited to Oz or Disney World. It glitters with gems, many growing from the trees. Soon he comes to a tavern (if it is so hard to get to this place, who is drinking at the tavern?). The barmaid at first locks him out, as he is looking pretty wretched. She also tries to warn him off, but eventually sends him to the ferryman, Urshanabi, who is Utnapishtim’s servant.
His bad temper taking over, Gilgamesh approaches Urshanabi in a rage and kills two stone giants who are with him. When Gilgamesh tells him what he wants, Urshanabi replies to him that the only way to find him Utnapishtim is to use the giants to cross the river of death. Nevertheless, Urshanabi has Gilgamesh make some punting polls and ferries him over the river of death anyway (prefiguring Charon, the ferryman of the River Styx in Greek mythology). Guess they did not need the giants after all.
After crossing, Gilgamesh meets an old man and tells him why he is there. The old fellow explains to him that man is mortal and cannot change that state. Gilgamesh realizes he has met Utnapishtim and asks him how he became immortal, leading to the telling of the second oldest (more on this later) known version of the flood.
As explained in Gilgamesh, the flood happened when the gods had met long before on the Euphrates River and agreed to wipe out the human race. Nothing new there, right. An oath was sworn to keep this secret from the humans. One of the gods who helped creates humans, Ea, went to Utnapishtim’s house and to avoid breaking an oath technically talked to the walls. The “walls” were told to build a great boat into which all living things of the earth should be brought. Utnapishtim does as directed (and also, being no dummy, takes gold and silver with him too). After 7 days and nights, he looks out and sees that the world is covered with water and all the people were turned to stone. He cries.
Finally the boat comes to rest on a mountain, just under the surface. Utnapishtim lets out a dove, a swallow and then a raven, the last of which does not return. Realizing the waters have finally receded, he sends off the animals, sacrificing a sheep to the gods.
The gods gather around the mountain after smelling the sacrifice. One of them, Enlil is angry that a human has survived and is furious with Ea. Ea just tells him to relax and next thing you know, Enlil makes Utnapishtim immortal.
Now, Utnapishtim gives Gilgamesh his shot. He tells him that if he can sit by the shore of the river for six days and nights without sleeping, he will become immortal. Piece of cake, says our hero. He goes and sits down and instantly falls asleep. When he wakes up, he immediately denies snoozing. But Utnapishtim, knowing that all men lie, has had his wife leave a loaf of baked bread each day beside Gilgamesh. Seeing the various states of decay of the loaves, Gilgamesh cannot maintain his argument.
Instead, he starts moaning and wailing about his mortality again, and now Utnapishtim’s wife gets in the act (bringing to mind a little Miracle Max and his wife from The Princess Bride). She convinces her husband to give Gilgamesh one more chance. There is a plant at the bottom of the ocean surrounding Far Away. Gilgamesh succeeds in getting the plant by tying rocks to his ankles so he can walk underwater.
Nevertheless, he is afraid to use it and decides to test it on an old man back at home. After Urshanabi, now exiled by Utnapishtim, takes Gilgamesh back across the river of death, they hike for a while before stopping to sleep. A snake (shades of Adam and Eve) crawls up and swallows the plant. This is the reason, according to the myth, that snakes shed their skin (seeming to early mankind magical or a sign of immortality).
Whining like a big baby again, Gilgamesh can only go home, bringing the ferryman with him to admire his great city with its tall gates, not to mention Gilgamesh’s exploits carved into the rock.
Ancient writers being what they were, another tale creeps in at the end (these are all written on separate tablets) wherein Enkidu is still alive. Gilgamesh asks him to go to hell and retrieve the his game or toy that he has dropped into it. He gives him a list of things not to do in order to get out again, but, of course, Enkidu, does all of them (prefiguring Persephone from Greek mythology) and is kept in hell. As he often does, Gilgamesh asks the god for help and one of them creates a crack in the earth from which Enkidu emerges. Gilgamesh inquires about hell and Enkidu is happy to comply. Don’t try and make sense of it. Just enjoy it.
This is great story most relevant to us for its priority in ancient mythology. The list of firsts from Gilgamesh goes on and on. Outside of those stated at the top of the post, it is the first quest for immortality, the first use of a snake as a foil, the first use of trickery, the first interaction with deities, the first ferryman over a river of death, the first civilization of a wild man (a la Tarzan), the first uses of dreams as foretelling the future, the first battle with a giant, the first battle with a monstrous animal, the first wrath of a scorned woman or goddess, and so many more.
That being said, it is not the first flood story. That part did not appear in Gilgamesh tales until later versions dating from about 1300 to 1000 b.c. (still long preceding the Bible). But much of the flood myth it is copied word for word from an epic several hundred years earlier (but still well after the first Gilgamesh legends) known as Atra-hasis, and which one or more writers simply plucked out to include in Gilgamesh’s tale the same way modern science fiction tv shows pirate Star Trek for plots.
Some modern historians surmise that a King Gilgamesh may in fact have actually lived around 2700 to 2500 b.c. The desire to put flesh on legendary characters seems to be a trend in the classics field and I can’t have a lot of faith in it without some solid proof. The evidence at this time is merely a couple of artifacts which have been associated with two kings whose names were also found in the Gilgamesh epic. But these may have simply been popular names for kings, or, names chosen for the epic just because they were also those of actual kings. Likely, we will never know for sure, unless Gilgamesh’s name turns up in some pile of unread clay tablets laying somewhere deep beneath modern Iraq, in a context unconnected with the legends. Even then, it may just be a name that some writer liked and appropriated, just as one appropriated the flood myth much later.
At some point some author(s) started to put the Gilgamesh stories together in collections, or in epic form, probably in the last century or so of the millennia (2150-2000 b.c). Even the version we have looked at here is incomplete in sections, and, as you can see, self-contradictory. That shouldn’t concern anyone as both the Old and New Testaments are based upon at least two different and often inconsistent sources or proto-Bibles.
It is conceivable that we aren’t taught about Gilgamesh when we are young because some people would be upset at the presentation of a “pagan” variant of a Bible story. Yet, there are a number of published translations and histories of Gilgamesh out there today, a music group with a CD by the same name, a popular anime series called Gilgamesh but totally unrelated to the legend, a few children’s version of the story, none of the above about which I can tell you the first thing. There is even a recent novel (The Great American Novel, for that matter) by a famous author whose lead character is . . . Gil Gamesh.
Why there aren’t any number of movies about the Gilgamesh legend I don’t know either, as it seems a natural for film. The last one being worked on a few years ago included Peter O’toole, but never saw daylight.
But maybe I protest too much, as Evan Almighty, supposedly a comic take on Noah, is actually, when you think about it, based on Gilgamesh too.
If only the world knew it.
- I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .