The Epic of Gilgamesh

Week 2: Ancient Near East - Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images

Background Reading

Gilgamesh... and Gilgamish. This week we will be reading the oldest epic recorded in writing: the Epic of Gilgamesh, also known as the Epic of Gilgamish. But if you prefer to say Gilgamesh, go ahead! Gilgamesh and Gilgamish are simply variant spellings of the same name, and "Gilgamesh" is probably the most commonly found form.

Mesopotamia. The story of Gilgamesh was told throughout the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia. Mesopotamia is actually a Greek word, meaning "land between the rivers" (meso-potamos). Specifically, the word Mesopotamia is used to refer to the land between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers in modern-day Iraq. The epic hero Gilgamesh was a legendary king of Mesopotamia. He is not a historical figure. But his story is set - at least partially - in an identifiable place: Gilgamesh ruled the Mesopotamian city of Erech, or Uruk. The ruins of this city are located in what is today southeastern Iraq. This city is referred to in the Bible, Genesis 10:10, which mentions "Babel, and Erech, and Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar" (this Biblical verse is included in the Noah readings for next week, if you happen to choose that unit - there are many fascinating connections between the story of the flood in the epic of Gilgamesh and the story of Noah and the flood).

Sumeria. Mesopotamia is the region where Sumerian civilization arose around 3000 BCE, over five thousand years ago. The Sumerians are a mysterious people. Their language is what is called an "isolate" language, because it does not appear to be related to any of the major language families of that region. The major language families were Semitic (such as Akkadian and Hebrew) and Indo-European (a wide-ranging language family which includes Indian languages such as Sanskrit and Persian, and European languages such as Greek, Latin and English; English belongs to the Germanic branch of Indo-European). The Sumerian language is not a Semitic language, and it is not an Indo-European language. Yet even though the people of Sumer were linguistically distinct from their neighbors, the mythology and religion of Sumer exerted a great influence on the people who came into contact with the Sumerians. The Sumerian language essentially disappeared but the myths and legends of Sumeria were popular for many centuries. Much of our knowledge about Sumerian myths and religion comes from texts written in languages other than Sumerian.

Babylon. One of the cultures that was profoundly influenced by Sumerian culture was Babylon. The kingdom of Babylon (or "Babylonia") rose to prominence around the year 1800 BCE. It ruled the area of southeastern Mesopotamia. One of the kings of Babylon, Hammurabi (c. 1792–1750 BCE), wrote a famous law code which is referred to as the "Code of Hammurabi."

Assyria. To the north of Babylonia was the kingdom of Assyria which covered the northern part of Mesopotamia. The version of the epic of Gilgamesh that we will be reading this week is based on twelve clay tablets discovered in Assyria. To be specific, the tablets were discovered in the capital city of Assyria, Nineveh, inside the library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (Ashurbanipal ruled from 668 to 627 BCE). These clay tablets are written in cuneidform (see image), using a language called Akkadian (sometimes referred to as "Assyro-Babylonian"). Akkadian is a "Semitic" language, which means it is related to the modern languages Hebrew and Arabic.

Reconstructing the Epic of Gilgamish. Not surprisingly, these Akkadian tablets are in very poor shape. In many cases they are broken or unreadable. Sometimes other versions of the epic can be used to fill in the gaps. For example, the story of Gilgamesh was also recorded in the language of the Hittites. The Hittites were another powerful people that established an empire in Mesopotamia, and the Hittite language belongs to the Indo-European family of languages. The version of Gilgamesh that we will be reading this week is mostly based on the Akkadian version, but where parts are missing from the Akkadian version, the Hittite version is used to fill in the gaps.

Budge and the flood story. The core of the reading this week is from a booklet published by E. A. Wallis Budge, a famous scholar who was the Curator of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities at the British Museum from 1894 to 1924 (Budge died in 1934). In this pamphlet, Budge provides a summary of the epic along with an actual translation of just one part: the flood story. Why did he translate this one part in full? Budge devotes the most attention to the story of the flood contained in the Epic of Gilgamesh because of its striking similarities to the Biblical account of Noah and the Flood, which some of you may be reading next week. The parallels between the story of Gilgamesh and the story of Noah caught the world by storm when the epic was discovered by European scholars in the 19th century. The relationship between the flood story in the Gilgamesh epic and the flood story in the Bible provided one of the most important topics for discussion in the emerging field of comparative mythology (check the Resources page for more flood stories from around the world).

Temple and Kovacs translations. In addition to Budge's summaries of all the tablets and his translation of the flood story, you will be reading excerpts from two other translations: you will read about the battle with the demon Humbaba in the translation by Robert Temple, and you will read about the death of Enkidu in the translation by Maureen Kovacs.

All those gods! Even though the epic of Gilgamesh exerted a profound influence on ancient Greek culture, it is little known today. Europeans have strongly identified with ancient Greek culture, but not with other cultures of the ancient Mediterranean and Near East. Most European scholarship assumes that Greek culture sprang from the soil of Greece, as if Greek culture existed in a vacuum. As a result, you are probably familiar (even if just vaguely) with Greek gods and goddesses, such as Zeus and Hera and Aphrodite and so on. You are probably not familiar with the Mesopotamian gods, such as Shamash and Enlil and Ishtar. Before you begin reading the epic of Gilgamesh, you should familiarize yourself with the names of these gods and goddesses:

Modern Languages / Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Mythology. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:52 PM