Archive for June, 2012

An Introduction to the Epic of Gilgamesh

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Gilgamesh and EnkiduHello all, this is Caleb Jacobo with The New American Scholar project and this podcast is the first in a series that will attempt to give context to some of the great works of literature that I have found to be vital to my studies. While I am by no means an expert in literature, I know what information has been meaningful to me and helped me in my literary journey. That being said, Here is a brief introduction to the Epic of Gilgamesh.

What is the Epic of Gilgamesh?

Well first, it is of course an “epic”. And what we mean by “epic” here
in literary terms, is a long narrative poem that usually focuses on a single hero as it’s main subject and recounts that hero’s heroic deeds. It is a composition that can be in either written or oral form, which was the primary means of passing along important cultural stories before the development of writing.

Probably the most famous oral epics that you may be familiar with are Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. And the most famous written examples probably being Virgil’s Aeneid and John Milton’s Paradise Lost. All of which I plan on having future podcasts about. There are of course others, but they are not within the scope of this episode.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is recorded in Akkadian, an extinct semantic language which is written in cuneiform script. Cuneiform is composed using ideograms and phonetic signs much like Egyptian hieroglyphics. The epic is written on twelve stone tablets that are not completely in tact, and are actually a collection of stories that are brought together to form the epic we know today.

So, we know that the Epic of Gilgamesh is a long narrative poem about a hero’s deeds written in the ancient Akkadian script cuneifrom, and we can safely assume that the hero of the epic is Gilgamesh.

Who is Gilgamesh?

Gilgamesh is a mesopotamian hero who was obsessed with the concept of mortality and his own death. Gilgamesh was the king of the Mesopotamian city-state Uruk (also called Erech in the bible) which some people believe the modern name Iraq came from, which is where the ancient city-state existed. Gilgamesh was also most likely the king who constructed the 6 mile long wall that surrounded Uruk.

Unlike the Iliad and Odyssey, which focused on the mythical heroes Achilles and Odysseus respectively, the Epic of Gilgamesh seems to be based on an actual historical figure who existed some time around the middle of the 26th century bce. Although no historical evidence for the events recorded in the epic exist, records of the king Gilgamesh are recorded by multiple sources including a Sumerian list of kings that reigned when we believe Gilgamesh lived.

So, now we know that the Epic of Gilgamesh is a long narrative poem about an ancient Mesopotamian King, Gilgamesh, who actually ruled some time around the 25th century bce and we can talk a bit about why the Epic of Gilgamesh is important to read.

Why is it important?

The main reason I feel that the Epic of Gilgamesh is important for any modern scholar of literature is that the epic is the oldest written story in the world. While the actual Gilgamesh reigned in Uruk around the 26th century bce, the composition of the story dates to around the 17th century bce, placing it a good thousand years before the Iliad and Odyssey. This is important because the epic gives us a starting place for analyzing influences of later literary works, including the bible, which shares much of it’s story of Noah and the great flood with the events in the Epic of Gilgamesh.

The epic is also important because literature, from any time period, allows the reader to understand what was important to the people who lived durning the time it was written. For example, we can glean from the epic of Gilgamesh, that in these ancient times, honor, legacy, and bravery are among the most cherished qualities of heroes. And also, surprisingly that the environment, specifically the protection of nature was important, as well as the idea of ruling with kindness and civility. These seemingly modern concepts were alive and well thousands of years ago which suggests that the people who composed the epic were not dissimilar from the people reading it today.

What is the story about?

The Epic of Gilgamesh is about the ancient mesopotamian king, Gilgamesh, who is a huge, strong, radiant man who is 2/3rds god, 1/3rd mortal, who nonetheless mistreats his subjects with violence and lechery. He kills who he pleases and takes the virginity of every bride in Uruk.

The people of Uruk call to the gods to control Gilgamesh, and in response, they create a hero, equal in size, strength and beauty. The hero is Enkidu and he is formed out of clay and placed in the wild. Eventually, an animal trapper discovers Enkidu in the woods, releasing his animal friends from the his snares. The trapper goes to the great city of Uruk to plead to Gilgamesh to help him deal with the wild man Enkidu.

Gilgamesh advises the trapper to go to the temple of the god ishtar and find the priestess Shamat who, with her womanly ways, can tame the wild man.
(It was beleived in that time that sex with a woman would make a wild man civil)

The trapper brings Shamat to the woods and she seduces Enkidu and they have sex for seven days, at the end of which, Enkidu is a civilized man and the animals of the forest run from him.

Shamat tells Enkidu about Gilgamesh and his mistreatment of his subjects, and Enkidu vows to stop him.

When Enkidu arrives in Uruk, he finds Gilgamesh about to sleep with a new bride and they fight each other in great battle. Gilgamesh eventually overpowers Enkidu, but Gilgamesh feels a deep connection with him and they embrace like brothers. The companionship that Gilgamesh finds in Enkidu balances out the king and he no longer abuses his people.

After Gilgamesh and Enkidu are together for some time, Gilgamesh decides they need to do something heroic so that their names will be remembered. He decides that they should enter the cedar forest, which is guarded by the monster Humbaba, and slay him and cut down the largest trees in the forest and bring them back to Uruk.

Enkidu advises against the plan because he knows of the monster Humbaba and tells Gilgamesh that they cannot hope to defeat him. Also, the elders plead with their king not to go, because they also believe the mission is suicide.

Gilgamesh will not be deterred, and so him and Enkidu travel thousands of miles into the cedar forest and they battle with the monster Humbaba.

Humbaba is weakened with the help of the gods and is defeated by Gilgamesh and Enkidu, who cut off his head, even after Humbaba pleads with them, telling them that he is the protector of the forest and he keeps it safe from humans.

Upon returning victorious from the forest, the goddess Ishtar falls in love with Gilgamesh and attempts to seduce him with promises of great gifts.

Gilgamesh refuses her, though, pointing out that Ishtar never keeps a husband for long, and when she is done with them, she casts them aside.

The goddess is furious at being denied and so goes to the other gods and convinces them to let her unleash the bull of heaven on the heroes, who brings with it to earth seven years of famine.

The bull is a formidable beast, but Gilgamesh and Enkidu have little problem killing and eating him.

Ishtar, outraged at another offense, convinces the gods that the heros must be punished for their discretions. The gods agree that one of the heroes must die and they choose Enkidu.

Enkidu falls ill and relates to Gilgamesh visions of the underworld. Gilgamesh tries to give Enkidu hope, but Enkidu eventually dies after much suffering and Gilgamesh is beside himself with grief.

Gilgamesh, terrified at the prospect of mortality after seeing his companion die, takes to the wilderness in search of the Mesopotamian Noah, Utnapishtim, who was granted immortality by the gods after he survived the great flood by building a giant ark.

Gilgamesh finally meets Utnapishtim after a long journey thought the wilderness and the underworld, where the sun sets and rises. Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh that he should enjoy his mortal life, and live it to the fullest, because it is short. Before he sends Gilgamesh away, Utnapishtim is convinced by his wife, who is also immortal, to tell Gilgamesh about a sacred plant that can restore a mortal’s youth.

Gilgamesh finds the water plant, but it is stolen from him by a serpent on his journey back to Uruk.

The epic ends with Gilgamesh returning to Uruk and the appendix tells of the return of the spirit of Enkidu, who advises Gilgamesh and tells him of the terrible underworld.

So, Now what?

While this podcast did not attempt to be give an in depth summary of the Epic of Gilgamesh, since there are a great many sources on the internet that provide that service better than I could, I hope that it has given you enough of a taste of the story to entice you to do the best thing you can do to appreciate and understand the Epic of Gilgamesh, read it!

An Introduction to Gilgamesh