The Epic of Gilgamesh
"I will proclaim to the world the deeds of Gilgamesh. This was the man to whom all things were known; this was the king who knew the countries of the world. He was wise, he saw mysteries and knew secret things, he brought us a tale of the days before the flood. He went on a long journey, was weary, worn-out with labour, returning he rested, he engraved on a stone the whole story."
—The Epic of Gilgamesh, translated by N. K. Sandars (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1972), p. 61.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is a series of Mesopotamian tales that recount the exploits of Gilgamesh, King of Uruk. We learn of his overwhelming power, his friendship with Enkidu, and his quest for eternal life. We also read of a great flood that devastated the region. Several cuneiform texts dating to approximately 750 B.C.E. that make up the Gilgamesh epic were found by archaeologists who excavated the library of King Ashurbanipal at Nineveh. Scholars have also discovered other texts and additional fragmentary evidence that places the origin of the Gilgamesh stories in the age of the Sumerian city-states. A list of kings indicates that there was a ruler of Uruk named Gilgamesh in about 2600 B.C.E.
The Text's History
Though The Epic of Gilgamesh appears in numerous anthologies of primary sources in ancient history, and the story's earliest versions are likely quite ancient, the text is in many respects a modern one. There is no set of perfectly intact cuneiform tablets that offers the Epic as we encounter it in books today. Nineteenth and twentieth century scholars located and deciphered several partial texts and painstakingly cobbled them together to offer a "complete," or at any rate coherent narrative. Moreover, these texts were written in different languages at different times, and they were not found at a single location, but at several places in both Mesopotamia and Asia Minor (modern Turkey). The Gilgamesh referred to in the Epic has an historical correlate in a King Gilgamesh who is mentioned in lists of Sumerian kings, but there is no definitive evidence regarding his life and actions apart from the fragmentary texts that comprise the Epic. Finally, though a King Gilgamesh evidently lived during the third millenium B.C.E., and there are fragments of texts on Gilgamesh that date to the second millenium B.C.E., the most substantial text fragments of the Epic were discovered in a library that dates to the first millenium B.C.E. (For further information on these various ancient manuscripts, see the Introduction and Appendix to Sandars' translation of the Epic, cited above.)
Questions to Consider
- What are some of the problems that can accompany historians' use of a text that has been reconstructed from several fragments and then translated and amended to provide a narrative that appears complete?
- Does is matter whether or not there was a "real" historical Gilgamesh? Why or why not? What are the limitations of or opportunities for historical study that our answers to these questions establish?
- How important are the issues of the dating of this text and the fragmentary character of the Epic? How might we explain or challenge the long chronological gap beetween the date of the text artifacts and the dates of the reign of the historical King Gilgamesh? How can we find out more about the current state of scholarship regarding the Gilgamesh texts?
The book version of the text most often used in college-level courses--and the one quoted above--is N.K. Sandars' translation, The Epic of Gilgamesh (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972). Other English translations are also available. Passages taken from The Epic of Gilgamesh also appear in most of the World or Western Civiilization readers. Teachers and students may find these books more useful for their purposes than an online version of the text. The questions on the next page (click on Questions about the Gilgamesh text below) do not refer readers to any particular edition of the text.
An online introduction to and summary of the Gilgamesh text can be found at:
Examples of cuneiform tablets and further information on ancient Mesopotamian languages and cultures are found at this site listed below, maintained by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago:
The University of Birmingham, England, offers background information and discussions of current research at its Cuneiform Database website:
Christopher Siren's site contains helpful information on Mesopotamian mythology as well as useful links to other sites:
See also the web pages on the Epic of Gilgamesh developed by Prof. Lee Huddleston of the University of North Texas at his site on the Ancient Near East (Appendix V):
Questions about the Text
These questions are of an introductory nature, and can be used as the basis for classroom discussions, papers, or both.
- What characters and events does the Epic of Gilgamesh tell about? What are the key events of the story?
- Who is Gilgamesh? How is he described? How does he behave?
- Who are the other main characters in the epic? What roles do they play in the story?
- What kinds of people are unnamed and generally insignificant in the Epic? What might this tell us about the culture that generated the Gilgamesh story?
- What kinds of female characters appear in the story as crucial characters? What might their role in the Epic tell us about the lives and status of women in ancient Mesopotamia?
- Who is Enkidu? How does the story present him? Under what circumstances do Gilgamesh and Enkidu become friends?
- What do Enkidu and Gilgamesh accomplish together? What events lead to Enkidu's death?
- How do humans and deities behave toward one another? Who are Anu, Enlil, Ninurta, Ennugi, and Ea?
- How does Gilgamesh respond to Enkidu's death?
- Who is Siduri, and what information does she have for Gilgamesh?
- Who is Utnapishtim and what does Gilgamesh learn from him?
- What does Gilgamesh learn from the series of events he has experienced? How does the story end?
Questions about the Text as Evidence of Past Civilizations
- What can The Epic of Gilgamesh teach us in a general way about ancient Mesopotamia? What other kinds of sources might we investigate in order to learn more about the character and sequence of civilizations in this region?
- What are some of the limitations of this story as evidence about ancient Mesopotamia? What does the story not tell us that we might want to know? What is the relative validity of the story as evidence about life in that place and time? (And which time period are we referring to if we use the Gilgamesh story as cultural evidence?)
- When was The Epic of Gilgamesh first translated into English? By what methods and by whom? How many English translations of the Gilgamesh story can you find?
- Do you find similarities between this story and the stories in the book of Genesis? How do various historians and archaeologists explain these similarities?
- When and where did the Gilgamesh story begin to appear as a primary source text in courses in Ancient History? What might this fact teach us about the history of learning about the past in modern times?
- What other question(s) about this story would you like to ask or answer?