Mythic Monday: Epic Gilgamesh

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Top image: The Sumerian hero Gilgamesh, shown here in a relief sculpture presenting a slain lion to the gods, is the main character in one of the oldest poems in world literature. The earliest verses of the Epic of Gilgamesh were composed before 2000 B.C. in Mesopotamia. Credit: © Werner Forman, Art Resource

This week’s mythological figure is the hero of the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest epic poems in world literature. It tells the adventures of the Sumerian king Gilgamesh. Sumer was an ancient region in southern Mesopotamia (now southeastern Iraq). Historians believe Gilgamesh probably existed, so like King Arthur, he is not technically an entirely mythic figure. His “real” acts, however, such as reigning as king for 126 years, sometimes defy reality. Gilgamesh—possessed of superhuman strength—is also said to have built the walls of Uruk, an ancient settlement that was one of the world’s first cities.

At the beginning of the epic poem, Gilgamesh is a powerful but cruel ruler. His subjects pray for help, and the gods create a beastlike man named Enkidu to fight Gilgamesh. After a fierce scuffle, however, the two become friends and share many adventures. Enkidu dies after helping Gilgamesh defeat a heavenly bull sent by the goddess Ishtar, whose romantic advances Gilgamesh had spurned.

After Enkidu’s death, Gilgamesh falls into a deep depression and begins to contemplate his own mortality. He decides to visit Utnapishtim, a man who survived a great flood and who holds the secret to immortality. (You may know other great flood survivors such as Manu and Noah.) Beyond the Waters of Death, Gilgamesh finds Utnapishtim, who tells him that a magical plant growing at the bottom of the sea can grant immortality. Gilgamesh dives to the sea floor and gathers the plant, but loses it soon after. He fails in his quest for physical immortality, but the gods take mercy on him and allow him to visit his friend Enkidu in the underworld. In the end, like other heroes of ancient mythology, Gilgamesh did achieve immortality through legend and the written word.

The earliest parts of the Epic of Gilgamesh were composed in Mesopotamia more than 4,000 years ago. Like many ancient epics, the tale of Gilgamesh was passed down orally from generation to generation. It was eventually carved into clay tablets. Some of the tablets no longer exist and others are badly damaged. But scholars have pieced together the story of Gilgamesh from numerous fragments.

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