Gilgamesh was a legendary king of the Sumerian city of Uruk who is celebrated in Sumerian and Babylonian mythology.
Stories about his exploits probably began as oral compositions during the third millennium B.C.E. These stories were first recorded during the third dynasty of Ur, around 2111–2004 B.C.E. In the second millennium B.C.E., Babylonian scribes combined elements of the older epics into a new composition, called He Who Saw the Deep. This work eventually became known as The Epic of Gilgamesh. The epic uses stories about the hero Gilgamesh to illustrate themes about the brevity and fragility of human life and the responsibilities of leaders.

When the stories about Gilgamesh were first recorded, Ur-Namma was ruler of the newly formed city-state Ur. Ur-Namma sought to stress his connections to his capital city as part of his attempt to claim legitimacy for his new dynasty, Uruk. He invoked the city’s gods, built temples in their honor, and claimed to be the older brother of the legendary Gilgamesh. (According to tradition, Gilgamesh was the offspring of the goddess Ninsun.) UrNamma was succeeded by Shulgi, who also claimed to be the brother, friend, and comrade of Gilgamesh.

The Five Existing Tales

It is not known how many tales of Gilgamesh were originally recorded. The five surviving stories were inscribed on cuneiform tablets during the eighteenth century B.C.E. by students who practiced their writing by copying texts. The stories are known today by titles given to them by modern translators.

In Gilgamesh and Aka, Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, triumphed over his overlord and foe, King Aka of Kish. The story begins with Aka sending emissaries to Uruk with the demand that the city submit to him. Gilgamesh initially sought the counsel of the city elders, who recommended submission. He rejected their advice and rallied the support of the city’s young men to prepare for war. Soon after, Aka laid siege and the battle began. Aka’s forces were defeated, and he was captured. The story concludes with Gilgamesh showing magnanimity and setting Aka free, allowing him to return to his city.

In Gilgamesh and Huwawa, also known as Gilgamesh and the Cedar Forest, Gilgamesh sought glory and fame through an expedition to the fabled Cedar Mountain. Gilgamesh and his servant Enkidu traveled to the mountain and encountered the demigod Huwawa, the guardian of the forest. Gilgamesh and Enkidu managed to confound, capture, and eventually slay Huwawa.

A third myth, Gilgamesh and the Bull of Heaven, deals with the antagonistic and perhaps frustrated sexual relationship between Gilgamesh and Inanna, the queen of heaven. Inanna, rebuffed by Gilgamesh, implored her father to grant her control of the Bull of Heaven to kill Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh and his servant Enkidu grappled with the bull. Enkidu seized the bull by its tail while Gilgamesh lifted his mighty axe and killed the bull. Afterward, Gilgamesh gave the meat of the slain bull to the orphans of the city.

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The fourth tale is Gilgamesh and the Netherworld or Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Netherworld. The story begins just after creation, after heaven and Earth were separated, mankind was established, and the overlordship of the universe was divided among the major gods. A great storm blew over a willow tree, which the goddess Inanna then replanted in her garden. As the tree grew, it was inhabited by three beings—the Snake-That-Knows-No-Charm, an Anzu bird, and a Demon-Maiden.

The goddess complained to Gilgamesh, who destroyed the demons, tore the tree out at its roots, and snapped off its branches. Gilgamesh gave some of the wood to Inanna to be made into a bed and throne, and he used the rest to make two playthings, possibly a ball and stick. These playthings fell into a pit that led into the netherworld. Enkidu, Gilgamesh’s servant, volunteered to fetch them.

Upon his return to the world of the living, Enkidu told Gilgamesh about the terrible conditions besetting the dead. He reported that the only way to avoid such misery was to have many sons to provide offerings to the gods. Those who were childless would suffer the most, and those who were burned to death and left no remains would become evil ghosts.

In the fifth tale, The Death of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh lay dying and dreamed that the gods were meeting to review his life and discuss his destiny. The deities discussed his exploits but agreed that no mortal would be granted eternal life. The only exception was Ziusudra, the man who had been chosen to survive the epic flood. Gilgamesh, like all men, would go to the netherworld, where he would be reunited with his family and, as a lesser god, would sit in judgment over the dead.

Babylonian Variants

By the twentieth century B.C.E., if not earlier, Sumerian had ceased to be a spoken language and was studied only in schools. But the Gilgamesh stories continued to circulate and inspire fresh compositions, such as one written by an unknown poet, called Surpassing All Other Kings. It included parts of Gilgamesh and the Bull of Heaven and Gilgamesh and Huwawa, together with new stories about the hero translated into the Babylonian language, Akkadian. Unfortunately, the text survives today only in fragmentary form.

Hundreds of years later, during the second millennium, the epic was revised and expanded into the composition called He Who Saw the Deep. The author of this poem is also unknown, but later tradition attributed it to a scholar from Uruk named Sin-liqe-uninni. This, the most famous version of the story, is known as The Epic of Gilgamesh. It was copied in many cuneiform versions, and parts have been found at Hattusa (modern Bo-azköy) in Turkey, Ugarit (Ras Shmara) in Syria, and Megiddo in Israel.

A nearly complete edition of the epic, the so-called standard version, was recorded on twelve tablets in the seventh century B.C.E. These tablets were discovered by archaeologists in Nineveh at the library of King Ashurbanipal of Assyria, in what is now part of northern Iraq.

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The Epic of Gilgamesh

The epic’s prologue begins at the ramparts of Uruk. King Gilgamesh, born of a human father and a divine mother, had superhuman strength and lorded it over his subjects. The gods decided that the best way to dissipate Gilgamesh’s superhuman energies was to create a companion who would be his equal. The mother-goddess Aruru created the wild man Enkidu. At first, Enkidu lived happily among the wild animals, freeing them from their traps until a frustrated hunter complained to Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh tamed Enkidu by arranging for him to sleep with a prostitute. This encounter awakened in Enkidu the realization that he was human.

Enkidu entered Uruk and engaged Gilgamesh in a fight that ended in a draw. The two men became inseparable friends. Gilgamesh proposed that they seek fame and glory by traveling to the monster-guarded Cedar Forest. Ignoring the advice of the city’s elders, Gilgamesh and Enkidu traveled to the forest. They battled and defeated the monster Humbaba and returned home with cedars and the creature’s head.

Once back in Uruk, Gilgamesh put on his royal robes and crown. The goddess Ishtar (the Sumerian Inanna) became enamored of the king and proposed marriage. The hero refused Ishtar and taunted the goddess about her previous lovers, all of whom had suffered terrible fates. Enraged, Ishtar called on her father, Anu, to send her the Bull of Heaven to kill the king, but Gilgamesh and Enkidu managed to slay the bull. The gods then decided to punish Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s acts of defiance— their killing of the bull and cutting down of the cedars—and they killed Enkidu.

Gilgamesh, inconsolable in his grief, went in search of eternal life. On his quest, he crossed high mountains, encountered men in the form of scorpions, and stumbled upon a garden with trees that contained precious jewels. He finally tracked down the ferryman Ur-shanabi. On a voyage fraught with danger, Ur-shanabi took Gilgamesh across the river of death to Utanapishti, the immortal survivor of the great flood.

Uta-napishti warned Gilgamesh that immortality was reserved for the gods alone, and that it was only because Uta-napishti survived the deluge that they had granted it to him. Uta-napishti then told Gilgamesh where he could find a rejuvenating herb at the bottom of the sea. Gilgamesh dove into the sea, found the plant, and triumphantly set out with it toward Uruk. But along the way, a serpent stole the plant and was promptly rejuvenated, shedding its skin.

Gilgamesh returned to Uruk with the realization that, even though he had failed to attain immortality, his accomplishments as king of Uruk would be his everlasting legacy. Gilgamesh had finally grown up and gained wisdom.