Gilgamesh is the world’s first action hero, playing up to all the stereotypes of masculinity – even though his story was first written somewhere in the region of 4,000 years ago. Long before it was rediscovered in 1853, and translated to English in 1870, the story had been possibly the most important and influential ever told.
While by today’s standards, the story of Gilgamesh, gods and enchanted forests might seem a little stale, it marks the very first time a great tale made it past oral traditions and into writing.
An Epic Tale of Gods, Men and Beasts
The Epic of Gilgamesh is the work of an anonymous Babylonian poet, about the king of the walled city of Uruk (now part of Iraq in modern times). In the story, King Gilgamesh is claimed to be part god, part human – making him the strongest and most beautiful man in the world, but with the mortality of a human being.
The young Gilgamesh is widely disliked in his kingdom; terrible to women and a poor sport – constantly subjecting his people to contests of strength and prowess. The people are sick of their king and beg the gods to reign him in.
The gods answer by creating a man – one that is equal to Gilgamesh in strength, yet his opposite. Enkidu was their creation, brought to life from water and clay, and was just as wild as Gilgamesh – but with complete innocence. Enkidu was raised by the animals of the forest, completely ignorant of humans – until a sacred prostitute by the name of Shamhat introduces him to the ways of humanity and civilisation.
Enkidu is enlightened by his lover, and gradually becomes more attuned to the human world. This culminates with Enkidu challenging Gilgamesh to a fight – and although the two are so closely matched in strength, Gilgamesh wins.
Realising their similarities, Gilgamesh and Enkidu become inseparable, deeply bonded friends. Their friendship is enough to tame Gilgamesh, much to the relief of his people.
And so, Gilgamesh and Enkidu embark on dangerous, exciting adventures – adventures that lead to the destruction of the guardian of the forest, the rejection of the love of a goddess and the slaying of the Bull of Heaven. As punishment, Enkidu is killed by the gods, struck down with an agonisingly slow death.
This terrible loss leaves Gilgamesh broken, in denial and terrified of death – a fear that draws him out on an epic quest for immortality. The challenges he faces on his travels transform Gilgamesh from an unruly youth to a wise and noble king – and he receives immortality in kind, by forever being remembered as a great man long after his death.
Written on Clay
The Epic of Gilgamesh was painstakingly scribed on clay tablets in cuneiform – the logographic writing system of Sumerian. Even though papyrus had been developed by the Egyptians at the time of its writing, and the two civilisations shared a good relationship, the Sumerians retained the practice of writing on clay.
This worked out quite well – the vast majority of the story survived intact in conditions that would have destroyed parchment. But enough of the clay tablets were broken to render parts of the story illegible – so how do we know how it ends?
Thankfully, there are several versions of the story from different periods, each with slight permutations, some missing parts that others have preserved. By referencing different versions in different languages and translating each, scholars have been able to piece together a master version of the story, ready for translation into all the languages of the world.
The most significant translations and critiques of the Epic of Gilgamesh in modern times was made by Andrew George in 2000 and 2003.
The Legacy of Gilgamesh
The Epic of Gilgamesh has some extremely familiar components, that have been echoed throughout history. One of the most intriguing elements is a flood story – one that includes a giant boat, filled with of pairs of animals and a promise from the gods.
The Epic was translated to Akkadian, an early Semitic language, with several permutations from the original. This could well be the first record of the Noah’s Ark story in history.
Even if you’d never heard of Gilgamesh or read the story for yourself, it’s almost inescapable – it has influenced almost every story created since, making its legacy felt throughout time.
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