Clas 3305 Lecture 18 and 19 The Epic of Gilgamesh

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CLAS 3305 Lecture 18 and 19

The Epic of Gilgamesh

Epic Literature
Gilgamesh legends among earliest epics
An epic is a narrative tale in poetic form populated with semi-divine beings based on legends from a Heroic Age

Best-known epics in the Western Tradition are The Ilyiad and The Odyssey

  • individuals and their heroic deeds

  • rooted in history -- but elaborated with unhistorical motifs

  • exaggerated notions of the hero's powers, strength or speed

  • ominous dreams -- portents

  • presence of divine beings (sometimes, as in Gilgamesh, the hero even semi-divine)

Stylistic Characteristics of Epics

  • static epithets (broad-ramparted Uruk; the rosy fingered dawn)

  • lengthy repetitions

  • recurrent formulas

  • unusually detailed descriptions

  • considerable space given to speeches

Nine Sumerian epic tales are known…

  • Gilgamesh and the Bull of Heaven

  • The Death of Gilgamesh

  • Gilgamesh and Agga of Kish

  • Gilgamesh and the Land of the Living

  • Gilgamesh, Enkidu and the Netherworld

  • Four others (about Enmerkar and Lugalbanda)

  • Epic of Gilgamesh
    1500 years older than Homer’s The Iliad and the Odyssey

  • Gilgamesh epic found in the mid-19th C by the English archaeologist, Austen Henry Layard, in the Library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh

Layard didn’t know what he had found, of course…

  • Rawlinson began decipherment of cuneiform…

  • George Smith translated the tablets in (1872) …

  • Layard had found the latest and best known version in the ancient world -- called the late or "Standard Babylonian" version

  • Earlier versions found as late as 1957 (including a fragmentary Sumerian version)

He who saw everything, of him learn, O my land;

He who knew all the lands, him will I praise


…wisdom, who everything…

He saw secret things, and obtained knowledge of hidden things.

He brought tidings of the days before the flood

He went on a long journey, became weary and worn;

He engraved on a tablet of stone all the travail

I think I could turn and live with animals,

They are so placid and self contained.
I stand and look at them long and long.

They do not sweat and whine about their condition.

They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins.
They do not make me sick, discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied,
Not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another,
Nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago.
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.

—-Walt Whitman—-


  • Remember Joseph Campbell's Story of the Hero

  • "The high adventure of the soul“

  • The central motif of the hero's story is always a journey

Gilgamesh is not being the good shepherd to his people…

the taming of Enkidu

  • Woman seducing Man

…and getting him kicked out of the Garden

  • As I look at thee, Enkidu, thou art become like a god;

Wherefore with the wild creatures dost thou range

over the steppe?

Up I will lead thee

To broad-marted Uruk


  • Eat, it is the staff of life

Drink, it is the custom of the land

  • of strong drink, he drank seven goblets

carefree became his mood and cheerful,

his heart exulted and his face glowed

  • He is like Gilgamesh to a hair!

though shorter in stature,

he is stronger of bone

  • Who, my friend, can scale heaven

only the gods live forever under the sun.

As for mankind, numbered are their days;

Whatever they achieve is but the wind!

(Gilgamesh to Enkidu)

Ecclesiastes 1: 2 - 4

  • What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?

Expedition to the Cedar Forest

  • Huwawa

  • Humbaba


  • Should I fall, I shall have made me a name:

  • Gilgamesh,’ they will say, ‘against fierce Huwawa has fallen!’ long after my offspring has been born in my house.

Ishtar’s love….

  • "Come Gilgamesh, be thou my lover.

Do but grant me of thy fruit,

Thou shalt be my husband and I wilt be thy wife."

  • Gilgamesh to Ishtar:

If thou shouldst love me, thou would’st treat me like them.

The Bull of Heaven…

  • Anu says that the Bull of Heaven will cause much destruction

that the people will starve -- there will be seven years of famine

Gilgamesh proclaims his own glory:

  • Who is most splendid among the heroes?

Who is most glorious among men?

Gilgamesh is most splendid among the heroes.

Gilgamesh is most glorious among men.

  • He weeps bitterly…

When I die, will I not be like Enkidu?

Woe has entered my belly.

  • Shamash warns him: Gilgamesh, whither rovest thou?

The life thou pursuest, thou shalt not find.

  • Gilgamesh cries:

Must I lay my head in the heart of the earth?

Let mine eyes behold the sun!

That I may have my fill of the light.

Darkness withdraws when there is enough light!

Siduri, the barmaid…

Gilgamesh, whither rovest thou?

The life thou pursuest, thou shalt not find.

When the gods created mankind,

Death for mankind they set aside,

Life in their own hands retaining.
Siduri’s Advice…
Thou, Gilgamesh, let full be thy belly,

Make thou merry by day and by night.

Of each day make thou a feast of rejoicing,

Day and night dance thou and play.
Let thy garments be sparkling fresh,

thy head be washed; bathe thou in water.

Pay heed to the little one that holds on to thy hand,

Let thy spouse delight in thy bosom!

For this is the task of mankind!

See also, Eccles. 5:18, 8:15, 9:8-9

Behold that which I have seen

It is good and comely for one to eat and to drink

And to enjoy the good of all his labour

That he taketh under the sun

All the days of his life, which God giveth him

For it is his portion

Ecclesiastes 5:18
Then I commended mirth

Because a man hath no better thing under the sun

Than to eat and to drink and to be merry:

For that shall abide with him

Of his labour the days of his life,

Which God giveth him under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 8:15

Gilgamesh explains himself to Utnapishtim the Faraway…
I ranged and wandered over all the lands,

I traversed difficult mountains,

I crossed all the seas!

My face was not sated with sweet sleep,

I fretted myself with wakefulness,

I filled my joints with misery

I had not reached the ale-wife's house

when my clothing was used up.

I slew bear, hyena, lion, panther

Tiger, stag and ibex,

The wild beasts and creeping things of the steppe,

Their flesh I ate and their skins I wrapped about me

Utnapishtim responds with a series of questions for Gilgamesh:


Gilgamesh could not cheat
even a little death…

What then shall I do, Utnapishtim?

wither shall I go?

Now that the Bereaver has laid hold on my members?

In my bedchamber there is death,

and wherever I set my foot, there is death!

Gilgamesh turns his

thoughts towards home…
...this plant is a plant apart,

Whereby a man may regain his life's breath.

I will take it to ramparted Uruk,

will cause [...] to eat the plant...!

Its name shall be "Man becomes young again in Old Age"

Gilgamesh loses the plant…
Thereupon Gilgamesh sits down and weeps,

His tears running over his face.

He took the hand of Urshanabi the boatman:

"For whom, Urshanabi, have my hands toiled?

For whom is being spent the blood of my heart?”
Gilgamesh returns to Broad-ramparted Uruk…

"The true office of any faith is to give life a meaning which death cannot destroy." Tolstoy

The preacher in Ecclesiastes…

tries to figure out what kind of life is worthwhile

he tries: drinking and making merry

it is all vanity

he tries: works of the hands -- building etc.

it is all vanity

he tries: amassing money

it is all vanity

he tries: study and reading

it, too, is all vanity

Themes in Gilgamesh…

  • The quest for immortality

  • The doing of the great deed for fame

  • Personal growth and transformation

  • Reconciling to Death

  • Death is the surety that life is not a game

Gilgamesh as a societal myth…
Societal myths outline rules for communal living

  • advertise social norms

  • teach subordination and cooperation

  • teach acceptable values

  • delineate inclusion and exclusion

  • provide blueprints for milestones such as birth, initiation, marriage, death

  • supply divine sanction for existing social patterns

  • provide sanction for kingship and governance

  • explain why laws etc. are superior to those of other groups

Societal myths teach the values of society

What kind of messages can be gleaned from the Epic of Gilgamesh?


Echoes of the Gilgamesh Epic…
Inlay from the front of the Lyre found by Leonard Wooley in the grave pit at Ur

  • The Gilgamesh motif

  • In the Star Trek universe

  • Odysseus: wanderings compared to those of Gilgamesh

  • Achilles and Patroclus: friendship compared to that of Gilgamesh and Enkidu

  • Achilles and Patroclus: Lament for the dying friend…

In Pseudo-Callisthenes:

  • Alexander the Great journeyed in search of the Waters of Life

  • came to a mountain called Musas or Masis (Gilgamesh's mountain was called Mashu in some versions)

    • passed through the land of darkness

    • crossed the foetid sea

  • In the Dead Sea Scrolls, there was found a possible reference to Gilgamesh and to Humbaba

but in forms without consonants

Glgmys and Hwb bys

  • c 600 mention of Gligmos

  • "as the last of ten kings from Peleg to Abraham and comtemporaneous with the latter" Theodore bar Qoni

  • Claudius Aelianus (ca. 200)

a reference in De Natura Animalium, where he is speaking of how animals love man:

“…an Eagle fostered a baby. And I want to tell the whole story so that I may have evidence of my proposition. When Seuechorus was king of Babylon the Chaldeans foretold that the son born to his daughter would wrest the kingdom from his grandfather.

  • “…now an eagle which saw with its piercing eye the child while still falling, before it was dashed to the earth, flew beneath it, flung its back under it, and conveyed it to some garden and set it down with the utmost care. But when the keeper of the place saw the pretty baby he fell in love with it and nursed it; and it was called Gilgamos and became king of Babylon.”

We’ve seen some of these motifs before…

  • the usurpation prophecy (e.g. Oedipus)

  • danger to the child's mother (and therefore to the child)

  • royal inheritance

  • isolation of the mother

  • impregnation by an unseen father (or at least mystery)

  • casting from a tower

  • rescue by an animal

  • rearing by a gardener

  • ultimate fulfillment of the prophecy

The Legend of Sargon

  • Sargon the mighty king, king of Akkad am I.

My mother was an Entu priestess, my father I knew not (var: a father I had not)

The brothers of my father loved the hills

My city Azurpiranu, which is situated on the banks of the Euphrates

My mother the entu-priestess, conceived me, in secret she bore me.

She set me in a basket of rushes, with bitumen she sealed my lid. She exposed me in the river, which rose not over me.
The river bore me up and carried me to Akkie, the


Akki, the gardener, lifted me out as he dipped his euer.

Akke, the gardener, took me as his son and reared me.

Akke, the gardener, assigned me to gardening for him.

While I was gardening, Ishtar granted me her love,

And for four and . . . years I exercised kingship.
The symbolism of Christ's victory over death helps people…

  • find meaning in life

  • endure suffering

  • understand evil

  • make choices

  • to control private and social behaviour

  • to support the status quo

  • to legitimize social class and power


Themes in Gilgamesh…

  • The good life

  • Friendship and duality

Gilgamesh has been called many things…

  • The first epic adventure

  • A spiritual biography

  • An extended metaphor about the human quest for spiritual understanding


  • The great beauty and depth of the Gilgamesh Epic makes it a unique instrument for learning about the human soul.

H. Yehezkel Kluger 1989

Music: Remember Me 1991

Hasan Al-Madfai

Other Gilgamesh epics …

  • Gilgamesh and Agga of Kish

  • Gilgamesh and the Land of the Living

  • Gilgamesh, Enkidu and the Netherworld

Gilgamesh and Agga

the poem begins with the arrival of the envoys of Agga at Uruk

Gilgamesh and the Land of the Living

Gilgamesh, Enkidu and the netherworld

Advice about the underworld…

  • If now thou wilt descend to the netherworld

A word I speak to thee, take my word

Advice I offer thee, take my advice

Do not put on clean clothes

Lest the dead heroes will come forth like enemies'

Do not anoint thyself with the good oil of the vessel,

Lest at its smell they will crowd about thee.

Do not put sandals on thy feet,

In the netherworld make no cry'

Kiss not thy beloved wife,

Kiss not thy beloved son,

Strike not thy hated wife,

Strike not thy hated son,

Lest the 'cry' of the netherworld will seize thee;
Music: Dr. Ammondt….

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