The Epic of Gilgamesh
"The Epic of Gilgamesh" is the world's oldest heroic saga and a
of Babylonian mythology. Based on the historical Gilgamesh, ruler of
city of Uruk in ancient Mesopotamia around 2700 BC, the actual "writing
down" of the earliest portions of the story can be dated to 2000 BC in
the Sumerian language. The text of the epic comes chiefly from
of twelve stone tablets found in the library of Assurbanipal, king of
from 668-626 BC, though poems and tales about the hero flourished much
earlier. The twelve tablets themselves represent the assembly of the
stories into one connected narrative; identified within the text as
is the Babylonian priest-exorcist Sin-leqi-unninni.
Each of the twelve tablets describes an adventure featuring
in a major or minor role. Scholars estimate that the complete epic
about 3000 lines, but the tablets' fragmented state leave modern
only about 1500 lines. The first tablet describes Gilgamesh's tyranny
Uruk and the creation and "civilization" of Enkidu. The second tablet
the confrontation between Gilgamesh and Enkidu which ultimately results
in their strong bond of friendship and their determination to seek
The third tablet describes Gilgamesh's appeals to Ninsun and Shamash
help in battling Humbaba. The fourth tablet describes Humbaba, and the
fifth tablet describes Gilgamesh and Enkidu triumphing over Humbaba.
sixth tablet describes Gilgamesh rejecting the advances of Ishtar, her
sending the Bull of Heaven to destroy him, and Gilgamesh, with the help
of Enkidu, triumphing over the bull. The seventh tablet describes
illness, and the eighth tablet describes his death. The ninth and tenth
tablets describe Gilgamesh's mourning and his journey across the
of death" to Utnapishtim. The eleventh tablet describes Utnapishtim's
of the great flood and his intimation of a plant that would renew
which Gilgamesh seeks and finds but cannot hold. The twelfth tablet
the return of Enkidu's spirit and his dreary description of the
Through "The Epic of Gilgamesh," modern readers are introduced to
figures of Babylonian mythology, including:
Anu — father of the gods; god of the firmament, reigns in the uppermost
part of heaven and has an army of stars to destroy evildoers.
Ea — a god of the waters, a benefactor to nature and men by virtue of
all-encompassing wisdom; god of wisdom whose magical intervention
in Ishtar's release from hell, the installation of Tammuz as guardian
heaven's gates, and earth's subsequent change of season from winter to
Enkidu — created by the gods as a foil or counterweight to Gilgamesh;
of human and wild animal; poses a threat to the human community but the
threat is neutralized by his civilization; bent on destroying Gilgamesh
but their encounter results in a deep bond of friendship and they
many heroic achievements.
Enlil — god of wind and storm who is enraged by Humbaba's death and
Gilgamesh and Enkidu, giving Humbaba's seven splendors to others; god
earth, wind, and spirit; god of the hurricane and deluge; also the
of royal power who deals out good and evil to men.
Ereshkigal — queen of the dead who imprisons Ishtar and assaults her
sixty illnesses; during this incarceration the earth withers and become
desolate, and the gods of heaven mourn.
Gilgamesh — King of Uruk; son of Ninsun; more god than man; endowed by
his divine creators with extraordinary strength, courage, and beauty;
the beginning, arrogant, oppressive, and brutal.
Humbaba — terrible giant of the Cedar Forest in the Country of the
slain by Gilgamesh and Enkidu.
Ishtar — one of the most popular Babylonian deities, the goddess of
a potent force among beasts and men; she sanctified temple
desires Gilgamesh as one of her many lovers, but he harshly rejects
she sends the Bull of Heaven to destroy Uruk, but the heroes defeat the
Bull, which action results in the slow and painful death of Enkidu.
Marduk — a fertility god and the principal deity of Babylon;
lordship over all the other gods by killing the malevolent and chaotic
Tiamat (salt water) and by creating the world out of Tiamat's body.
Shamash — sun god whose blessing aids Gilgamesh and Enkidu in their
against Humbaba; a dispenser of light and justice to the world, but
the god of prophecy; endows Gilgamesh with beauty.
Sin — moon god, an enemy to the wicked, shining his nightly light upon
their deeds. His children are Shamash (the sun) and Ishtar (the planet
Tammuz — harvest god, one of Ishtar's lovers; when he dies of her love,
Ishtar mourns bitterly, entering the seven portals of the underworld to
Utnapishtim — the one man who survived the Great Flood; Gilgamesh seeks
the secret of immortality from him.