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The myth known today as the Epic of Gilgamesh was considered in ancient times to be one of the great masterpieces of cuneiform literature. Copies of parts of the story have been found in Israel, Syria, and Turkey, and references to the hero are attested in Greek and Roman literature.

The tale revolves around a legendary hero named Gilgamesh (Bilgames in Sumerian), who was said to be the king of the Sumerian city of Uruk. His father is identified as Lugalbanda, king of Uruk, and his mother is the wise cow goddess Ninsun. No contemporary information is known about Gilgamesh, who, if he was in fact an historical person, would have lived around 2700 B.C. Nor is there any preserved early third-millennium version of the poem. During the twenty-first century B.C., Shulgi, ruler of the Sumerian city of Ur, was a patron of the literary arts. He sponsored a revival of older literature and established academies of scholars at his capital Ur and at the holy city of Nippur. Shulgi claimed Lugalbanda as his father and Gilgamesh as his brother.

Although little of the courtly literature of the Shulgi academies survives, and Sumerian ceased to be a spoken language soon after the end of his dynasty, Sumerian literature continued to be studied in the scribal schools of the following Old Babylonian period. Five Sumerian stories about Gilgamesh were copied in these schools. These tales, which were not part of an epic cycle, were originally oral narratives sung at the royal court of the Third Dynasty of Ur.

“Gilgamesh and Akka” describes the triumph of the hero over his overlord Akka, ruler of the city of Kish. “Gilgamesh and Huwawa” recounts the journey of the hero and his servant Enkidu to the cedar mountains, where they encounter and slay the giant Huwawa, the guardian of the forest. A third tale, “Gilgamesh and the Bull of Heaven,” deals with Gilgamesh’s rejection of the amorous advances made by Inanna, the Queen of Heaven. Seeking revenge, the goddess sends the Bull of Heaven to kill Gilgamesh, but the hero, with the assistance of Enkidu, slays the monster. In “Gilgamesh and the Netherworld,” the hero loses two sport-related objects, which fall into the Netherworld. Enkidu descends into the depths to find them and, upon his return to life, describes the horrid fate that awaits the dead. In the final composition, “The Death of Gilgamesh,” the hero dreams that the gods are meeting to review his exploits and accomplishments. They decide that he, like all of humankind, shall not be granted eternal life.

In addition to the Sumerian compositions, young scribes studying in the Old Babylonian schools made copies of different oral stories about the hero Gilgamesh. One noteworthy tale was sung in Akkadian rather than in Sumerian. Called “Surpassing All Other Kings,” this poem combined some elements of the Sumerian narrative into a new Akkadian tale. Only fragments of this composition survive. By the end of the eighteenth century B.C., large areas of southern Mesopotamia, including Nippur, were abandoned; the scribal academies closed as the economy collapsed. A shift in political power and culture took place under the newly ascendant Babylonian dynasties centered north of Sumer. Hundreds of years later, toward the end of the second millennium B.C., literary works in Babylonian dominated scribal learning. Differing versions of classic compositions, including the Akkadian Gilgamesh story, proliferated, and translations and adaptations were made by poets in various lands to reflect local concerns.

Some time in the twelfth century B.C., Sin-leqi-unninni, a Babylonian scholar, recorded what was to become a classic version of the Gilgamesh tale. Not content to merely copy an old version of the tale, this scholar most likely assembled various versions of the story from both oral and written sources and updated them in light of the literary concerns of his day, which included questions about human mortality and the nature of wisdom. “Surpassing All Other Kings” now became a new composition called “He Who Saw the Deep.” In the poem, Sin-leqi-unninni recast Enkidu as Gilgamesh’s companion and brought to the fore concerns about unbridled heroism, the responsibilities of good governance, and the purpose of life. The new version of the epic explains that Gilgamesh, although he is king of Uruk, acts as an arrogant, impulsive, and irresponsible ruler. Only after a frustrating and vain attempt to find eternal life does he emerge from immaturity to realize that one’s achievements, rather than immortality, serve as an enduring legacy.

The poem begins by explaining that Gilgamesh, although he thought that he “was wise in all matters,” had to endure a journey of travail in order to find peace. Two-thirds human and one-third deity, the hero as king is unaware of his own strengths and weaknesses. He oppresses his own people. In response to complaints by the citizens of Uruk, the gods create Enkidu, a double, who becomes the hero’s friend and companion. Initially described as a wild animal-like creature, Enkidu (“Lord of the Pleasant Place”) has sex with a temple prostitute and is transformed into a civilized being. No longer animal-like, he now possesses wisdom “like a god,” a distinguishing characteristic of humans. After an initial confrontation, Gilgamesh and Enkidu become friends and decide to make a name for themselves by journeying to the Cedar Forest to fight against Humbaba, the giant whom the gods have placed as guardian of the sacred trees. The two kill the monster and take cedar back to Uruk as their prize. Back in Uruk, the goddess Ishtar, sexually aroused by Gilgamesh’s beauty, tries to seduce him. Repulsed, the headstrong goddess sends the Bull of Heaven to destroy Uruk and punish Gilgamesh. But Gilgamesh and Enkidu meet the challenge and Gilgamesh slays the bull. The gods retaliate by causing Enkidu to fall ill and die. Gilgamesh, devastated by the death of his friend, now realizes that he is part mortal and sets out on a fruitless journey to seek immortality.

On his travels in search of the secret of everlasting life, Gilgamesh meets a scorpion man and later a divine female tavern keeper who tries to dissuade him from continuing his search. But Gilgamesh is arrogant and determined. Upon learning that Uta-napishtim (“I Found Life”), a legendary hero who had obtained eternal life, dwelt on an island across the “Waters of Death,” Gilgamesh crosses the sea and is greeted by the immortal hero. Uta-napishtim explains to Gilgamesh that his quest is in vain, as humans were created to be mortal. But upon questioning, Uta-napishtim reveals that he was placed by the gods on this remote island after being informed that the world would be destroyed by a great flood. Building a boxlike ark in the shape of a cube, Uta-napishtim took on board his possessions, his riches, his family members, craftsmen, and creatures of the earth. After riding out the storm, he and his wife were granted immortality and settled on the island far from civilization. Devastated by this news and realizing that he, too, will someday expire, Gilgamesh returns to Uruk and examines its defensive wall. Finally, he comprehends that the everlasting fame he so vainly sought lay not in eternal life but in his accomplishments on behalf of both his people and his god.

Attempts to identify Gilgamesh in art are fraught with difficulty. Cylinder seals from the Akkadian period (ca. 2350–2150 B.C.) onward showing nude heroes with beards and curls grappling with lions and bovines cannot be identified with Gilgamesh. They are more likely to be associated with the god Lahmu (“The Hairy One”). A terracotta plaque in the Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin, depicts a bearded hero grasping an ogre’s wrist while raising his right hand to attack him with a club. To his left, a beardless figure pins down the monster’s arm, pulls his hair, and is about to pierce his neck with a knife. This scene is often associated with the death of Humbaba. The Babylonian Gilgamesh epic clearly describes Enkidu as being almost identical to Gilgamesh, but no mention is made of the monster’s long hair, and although Gilgamesh is said to strike the monster with a dagger, he holds an axe rather than a club in his hand. The scene on the Berlin plaque may reflect the older Sumerian story wherein Enkidu is described as a companion rather than a double of the hero. In this older tale, Enkidu is the one who “severed [Huwawa’s] head at the neck.” Similar images appear on cylinder seals of the second and first millennium B.C.