Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The epic of Gilgamesh


Welcome to The Read-a-Myth Reading Challenge 2011!
The Read-a-Myth Reading Challenge is hosted by JoV of Bibliojunkie and Bina of If You Can Read This.  They want you to come join them in a Quest (challenge), and share any stories about mythological creatures, or any heroic figures that you have loved.


“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.”
When the Gods created Gilgamesh they gave him a perfect body.Shamash the glorious sun endowed him with beauty, Adad the God of the storm endowed him with courage, the great Gods made his beauty perfect, surpassing all others, terrifying like a great wild bull. Two thirds they made him God and one third man.
Gilgamesh went abroad in the world, but he met with none who could withstand his arms till he came to Uruk. But the men of Uruk muttered in their houses,  “Gilgamesh sounds the tocsin (alarm) for his amusement, his arrogance has no bounds by day or night. No son is left with his father, for Gilgamesh takes them all, even the children; yet the king should be a shepherd to his people. His lust leaves no virgin to her lover, neither the warrior’s daughter nor the wife of the noble; yet this is the shepherd of the city, wise, comely and resolute”.
This is the start of The Epic of Gilgamesh, with his people bemoaning their ruler, cowering beneath his terrifying visage. But luckily for them the gods are listening and they create a wild creature called Enkidu, in the hope that he will challenge the arrogant and ruthless Gilgamesh. After an initial confrontation, which ended with Gilgamesh throwing Enkidu, they became firm friends. They then set out on an expedition to the west, meet an evil monster (Humbaba) in the Cedar forest, Enkidu slays this monster who, it turns out, is favoured by the gods and they in retribution take Enkidu’s life.
Enkidugilgamesh’s death has a profound affect on Gilgamesh and he becomes Gilgamesh a broken mortal
“hear me, great ones of Uruk
I weep for Enkidu, my friend,
Bitterly moaning like a woman mourning
I weep for my  brother.
O Enkidu, my brother,
you were the axe at my side,
My hand’s strength, the sword in my belt,
The shield before me,
A glorious robe, my fairest ornament;
an evil fate has robbed me……….

This sends him of on a quest in search of eternal life, which leads him into further adventures. In one of these he encounters Utnapishtim “ the faraway”, he regales Gilgamesh of how he survived a great flood ( this bears many resemblances to the Biblical version  of the Flood *)
“lay upon the sinner his sins,
lay upon the transgressor his transgression,
punish him a little when he breaks loose,
Do not drive him to hard or he perishes;

              would that a lion had ravaged mankind
rather than the flood,
               would that a wolf had ravaged mankind
rather than the flood,
               would that famine had wasted the world
rather than the flood,
                  would that pestilence had wasted mankind
rather than the flood.

After hearing Utnapishtim's tale, Gilgamesh learns from him of a plant that can create immortality. Although after he finds this wondrous plant, it’s stolen from him by a snake, whilst he lays asleep, finally exhausted, his quest ended.
“ The King has laid himself down and will not rise again,
The Lord of Kullab will not rise again;
He overcame evil, he will not come again;
Though he was strong of arm he will not rise again;”

The History behind the myth
The epic of Gilgamesh, the renowned king of Uruk in Mesopotamia, comes from an age which had been wholly forgotten, until in the last century archaeologists began uncovering the buried cities of the middle east.  The  epic celebrates the Sumerian king, Uru-inim-gina, as tragic hero. A masterpiece of Mesopotamian literature, it  recounts the pursuit of fame and immortality by the semi-legendary king of Uruk. Based on at least five earlier Sumerian legends, the epic was amalgamated into a unified whole early in the second millennium B.C. Until this came to light, this entire stretch of history, which separated Abraham from Noah could only be located in two chapters of the book of Genesis. From these only two names survived in common parlance, those of the hunter Nimrud and the tower of Babel; but in the cycle of poems which are collected round the character of Gilgamesh we are carried back into the middle of that age.
Many stories and myths were written about Gilgamesh, some of which were written down about 2000 B.C. in the Sumerian language on clay tablets which still survive; the Sumerian language, as far as we know, bears no relation to any other human language we know about. These Sumerian Gilgamesh stories were integrated into a longer poem, versions of which survive not only in Akkadian (the Semitic language, related to Hebrew, spoken by the Babylonians) but also on tablets written in Hurrian and Hittite (an Indo-European language, a familypenguin classic of languages which includes Greek and English, spoken in Asia Minor). All the above languages were written in the script known as cuneiform, which means "wedge-shaped." The fullest surviving version, from which the summary here is taken, is derived from twelve stone tablets, in the Akkadian language, found in the ruins of the library of Ashurbanipal, king of Assyria 669-633 B.C., at Nineveh. The library was destroyed by the Persians in 612 B.C., and all the tablets are damaged. The tablets actually name an author, which is extremely rare in the ancient world, for this particular version of the story: Shin-eqi-unninni. You are being introduced here to the oldest known human author we can name by name!

*In both the Genesis and Gilgamesh stories:
The Genesis story describes how mankind had become obnoxious to God; they were hopelessly sinful and wicked. In the Babylonian story, they were too numerous and noisy.
The Gods (or God)  decided to send a worldwide flood. This would drown men, women, children, babies and infants, as well as eliminate all of the land animals and birds.
The Gods (or God) knew of one righteous man, Ut-Napishtim or Noah.
The Gods (or God) ordered the hero to build a multi-story wooden ark (called a chest or box in the original Hebrew).
The ark would be sealed with pitch.
The ark would have with many internal compartments
It would have a single door
It would have at least one window.
The ark was built and loaded with the hero, a few other humans, and samples from all species of other land animals.
A great rain covered the land with water.
The mountains were initially covered with water.
The ark landed on a mountain in the Middle East.
The hero sent out birds at regular intervals to find if any dry land was in the vicinity.
The first two birds returned to the ark. The third bird apparently found dry land because it did not return.
The hero and his family left the ark, ritually killed an animal, offered it as a sacrifice.
God (or the Gods in the Epic of Gilgamesh) smelled the roasted meat of the sacrifice.
The hero was blessed.
The Babylonian gods seemed genuinely sorry for the genocide that they had created. The God of Noah appears to have regretted his actions as well, because he promised never to do it again.
For more comparisons
Epic of Wikipedia


Mel u said...

Great very educational post-do you think it has had a large impact on the history of literature? I am also enrolled in the Read a Myth Challenge and am glad you are enrolled.

@parridhlantern said...

Hi, Mel, it's hard to decide whether this has any impact, because at what point in it's history would this have happened, there doesn't seem to be any reference that I know of in Greek lit, so whether the likes of Homer, or even Herodotus would have been aware of it, or if aware have the understanding to translate the tablets from the cuneiform characters in which it was written, it's possible there was an aramaic version but if so it's not survived. But for all that there is a possibility for Homer to have heard a version of it, as there were ships trading in and around that aream, making it unlikely but not impossible for it to have been picked up( altho I've now found on wikipedia -According to the Greek scholar Ioannis Kakridis, there are a large number of parallel verses as well as themes or episodes which indicate a substantial influence of the Epic of Gilgamesh on the Odyssey, the Greek epic poem ascribed to Homer).
Then there's the Noah & the Flood, opinion seems divided between whether this is the basis for that tale, or just co-existent(check the more comparison link for more info).
The first modern translation of the epic was published around 1870by George Smith & there have been various versions since, whether these have influenced anyone, I could not say. I've had my copy for about 15 -20 years, & my reasoning on getting it, was that I'd read all the Greek Myths etc. plus books about (Robert Graves)So this seemed a natural point to journey on from(I was more adventurous in my reading then)kind of in search of the source material for Literature, I had such believes when younger(LOL).
Thanks for your comment & sorry for the verbose replyl.

Mel u said...

thanks so much for the reply-I am of the very unlearned opinion that it did not have much influence-the telling of parallel stories in different ancient cultures does not such influence-I think the work was largely unknown until retranslated, as you researched. It is a fascinating look into ancient life.

Hannah said...

I am so glad to have finally caught up on blog reading a little and come across this post. Nice presentation of the history and the links to Genesis!

@parridhlantern said...

thank you, this is such a fascinating tale and one with so many variants throughout the world.

Imogen Walford said...

Hi there, I just wanted to ask a question about the images you've used on your blog on Gilgamesh - do you know in which museum the head of Gilgamesh statue is? I am trying to track down a high-res version of this picture and am hoping you might be able to point me in the direction of the source. With many thanks,


@parridhlantern said...

Hi imogen, Slight confusion & embarrassment as I thought I got these pictures of Wikipedia. but just checked and can't find them. So sorry not much help there. Best of luck with your tracking, as I've done a quick trawl (15mins) and found the head image on several sites but no reference to a musuem.

@parridhlantern said...

Hi Imogen, Possible source for you is the Metropolitan Musuem & try trawling babylonian or Sumerian art.
Best of luck,

Hannah said...

Imogen: I'm not sure, but I think it is the Sargon bust at the Iraq Museum in Baghdad.

@parridhlantern said...

I just googled Sargon bust etc & it's looking like a good possible source, also checked out Iraq Museum.
Thank you Lifetime Reader for your knowledge.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your piece on Gilgamesh. What version do you suggest if I want to read more of the epic?

@parridhlantern said...

The version I have is The Penguin Classics

Nancy @ Simple Clockwork said...

Hi Parrish, thank you for your recommendation. I've put "A brief history of fables by Lee Rourke" under my list of reading goals.

Gilgamesh is a great story. If I have learned of this challenge earlier, I would have joined. Reading your post made me realize I've been listening to my English teacher in college but I haven't read it by heart, just for the sake of passing the subject. Now, I want to read the epic again.

Thank you for this insightful post. I like your blog; I will be following closely.

Your new follower,


@parridhlantern said...

Hi Nancy, Thanks for your comment, I've read this a few times now and still get something from it, as with Homer's work. If your interested in books like the brief history, have you come across Jorge Luis Borges Book of Imaginary Beings, here's my post on this wonderful book if it interests.