What does the Epic of Gilgamesh tell us about the religion and philosophy of ancient Mesopotamian culture?
What are the similarities and differences between the ancient Mesopotamian flood literature as ecorded in the Epic of Gilgamensh and the Biblical account of Noah given in the Book of Genesis?
Part II: Original Source Material and Class Notes (textbook supplement page 35) The transition from writing to literature probably required many hundreds of years. For centuries writing was a tool of commerce, a matter of contracts and bills, of shipments and receipts; and secondarily, perhaps, it was an instrument of religious record, an attempt to preserve magic formulas, ceremonial procedures, sacred legends, prayers and hymns from alteration or decay. Nevertheless, by 2700 BC, great libraries had been formed in Sumeria; at Tello, for example, in ruins contemporary with Gudea, DeSarzac discovered a collection of over 30,000 tablets ranged one upon the other in neat and logical array. As early as 2000 BC Sumerian historians began to reconstruct the past and record the present for the edification of the future; portions of their work have come down to us not in the original form but as quotations in later Babylonian chronicles. Among the original fragments, however, is a fragment found at Nippur, bearing the Sumerian prototype of the Epic of Gilgamesh, which we (shall now) study in its developed Babylonian expression.
Durant, Our Oriental Heritage, pgs. 131-132
The Epic of Gilgamesh is the most famous relic of Mesopotamian literature; what we know is based on 12 broken tablets from the library of Ashurbanipal (King of the Assyrians Born ca. 669 BC and founder of one of the world’s best-preserved ancient libraries)
Comparable to the Iliad of Homer—it is a collection of loosely connected stories going back to Sumeria (ca. 3000 BCE); part of it is the Babylonian account of the flood. Gilgamesh was a legendary ruler—a descendent of a race that had survived the flood.
Gilgamesh, ruler of Uruk, is described as follows: “Two thirds of him is god, One third of him is man, There’s none can match the form of his body…All things he saw, even to the ends of the earth, He underwent all, learned to know all. He peered through all secrets, Through wisdom’s mantle that veileth all. What was hidden he saw, what was covered he undid; of times before the stormflood he brought report. He went on a long far away, giving himself toil & distress; wrote then on a stone the whole of his labor.” Fathers complain to Ishtar (the principal, whimsical goddess of the Babylonians) that “he leads their sons on exhausting toils, building the city walls throughout the day and night” and husbands complain that “he leaves not a wife to her master, nor a single virgin to her mother.”
Ishtar begs Aruru (Gilgamesh’s grandmother) to create another son equal to Gilgamesh in strength & cunning, so that the husbands may have peace because Gilgamesh will be kept in constant conflict. Aruru creates Engidu, a man with the strength of a boar, the mane of a lion, and the speed of a bird. He hates the society of men, preferring to “browse with the gazelles, sport with the creatures of the water, and quench his thirst with the beasts of the field.”
A hunter tried to capture Engidu with nets but failed. So, he went to Gilgamesh and requested a priestess from the temple who he would use to ensnare Engidu using sex. “Go, my hunter” replied Gilgamesh. “Take a priestess, when the beasts come to the watering place let her display her beauty’ he will see her, and his beasts that troop around him will be scattered.” When the hunter & the priestess find Engidu, the hunter says: “There he is, woman! Loosen they buckle, Unveil thy delight, That he make take his fill of thee! Hang not back, take up his lust! When he sees thee, he will draw near. Open thy robe that he rest upon thee! Arouse him in rapture, the work of woman. Then he will become a stranger to his wild beasts, who on his own steppes grew up with him. His bosom will press against thee.” Then the priestess loosened her buckle, unveiled her delight, for him to take his fill of her. She hung not back, but took up his lust. She opened her robe so that he rest upon her. Engidu forgot where he was born.”
Engidu stays with the woman for 6 days/7 nights but then tires of her. He awakens to find all the beasts with whom he grew up gone, and he grieves greatly. But the priestess tells him: “Thou art superb as a God, why dost thou live amongst the beasts of the field? Come—I will conduct thee to Uruk, where is Gilgamesh, whose might is supreme.” Engidu replies: Lead me to the place where is Gilgamesh. I will fight him and manifest to him my power, so that the Gods and the husbands will be well pleased.”
Gilgamesh overcomes Engidu, first with strength, and then with friendship. They become devoted friends, and defend Uruk during war, from which they return with glory and victory.
Ishtar, seeing Gilgamesh in victory, falls in love, saying: “Come, Gilgamesh, be my husband, thou! Thy love, give it to me as a gift; though shalt be my spouse, and I shalt be thy wife.” Gilgamesh rejects her, noting that her previous lovers, once she tired of them, had terrible fates. Having been rejected by Gilgamesh, Ishtar asks the great God Anu to create a wild beast to kill Gilgamesh. Anu relents after Ishtar threatens to suspend the impulses of love and desire throughout the universe, thus eventually ending all life. But Gilgamesh, with Engidu’s held, kills the beast, and when Ishtar curses Gilgamesh, Engidu throws a severed limb of the beast into her FACE. In revenge, Ishtar afflicts Engidu with a fatal illness.
The remainder of the epic relates the mourning of Gilgamesh over the death of Engidu. Gilgamesh becomes obsessed with death and how it could be defeated. One man—Shamash-napishtim—had eluded it—and so may hold the secret of deathlessness. HIS STORY: Marduk, the Babylonian God of creation, fashioned man from a lump of clay. However, the Gods became dissatisfied with the men whom he had created, so they sent a great flood to destroy them along with all their works.
Ea, the God of Wisdom, took pity on humankind, and decided that at least one man and his wife. This man was Shamash-napishtim, who built an ark, survived the flood, sent out a dove to see if the waters had receded, and landed the ark on top of a mountain. He then offered sacrifices to the gods, who desperately missed the offerings of the men whom they had destroyed, and so “snuffed up the odor—the gods snuffed up the excellent odor, the gods gathered like flies above the offering.”
Gilgamesh decides to seek out Shamesh-napishtim, regardless of what it takes to find him. After many trials and much suffering, he reaches the Happy Island where Shamesh-napishtim—the possessor of ETERNAL life—lives. Gilgamesh asks him the secret of immortal life. The answer: the story of the flood is told at great length; the Gods made him and his wife immortal because they had saved the human race. He gives Gilgamesh a plant that will extend life, but the plant is stolen by a snake during Gilgamesh’s return trip.
When Gilgamesh returns to Uruk, he prays that Engidu would appear to him. He does, and Gilgamesh inquires about the state of the afterlife. The response: “I cannot tell it thee; if I were to open the earth before thee, if I were to tell thee that which I have seen, terror would overthrow thee, thou wouldst faint away.” Gilgamesh responds: “Terror will overthrow me, I shall faint away, but tell it to me.” Engidu describes the miseries of Hades, and here the fragmentary epic ends.
INDEPENDENT SCHOLARSHIP CHALLENGE: Read the Epic of Gilgamesh (we have a copy available or find the full text online) and make a table that compares/contrasts the details of the Genesis account of the flood and the Babylonian account as given in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Note: we do have a Septuagint (Greek copy of the Old Testament based on the work of 70 ancient translators) available if you wish to study the original Greek Genesis text—see me for help on this!!!