The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Oldest-Known Work of Literature in World History

You’re prob­a­bly famil­iar with The Epic of Gil­gamesh, the sto­ry of an over­bear­ing Sumer­ian king and demi-god who meets his match in wild man Enkidu. Gil­gamesh is hum­bled, the two become best friends, kill the for­est guardian Hum­ba­ba, and face down spurned god­dess Ishtar’s Bull of Heav­en. When Enkidu dies, Gil­gamesh goes look­ing for the only man to live for­ev­er, a sur­vivor of a leg­endary pre-Bib­li­cal flood. The great king then tries, and fails, to gain eter­nal life him­self. The sto­ry is packed with episodes of sex and vio­lence, like the mod­ern-day comics that are mod­eled on ancient mythol­o­gy. It is also, as you may know, the old­est-known work of lit­er­a­ture on Earth, writ­ten in cuneiform, the old­est-known form of writ­ing.

This is one ver­sion of the sto­ry. But Gil­gamesh beaks out of the tidy frame usu­al­ly put around it. It is a “poem that exists in a pile of bro­ken pieces,” Joan Aco­cel­la writes at The New York­er, “in an extreme­ly dead lan­guage.”

If Gil­gamesh were based on a real king of Ur, he would have lived around 2700 BC. The first sto­ries writ­ten about him come from some 800 years after that time, dur­ing the Old Baby­lon­ian peri­od, after the last of the Sumer­ian dynas­ties had already end­ed. The ver­sion we tend to read in world lit­er­a­ture and mythol­o­gy cours­es comes from sev­er­al hun­dred years lat­er, notes the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art’s Ira Spar:

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…. 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. 

This so-called “Stan­dard Baby­lon­ian Ver­sion,” as you’ll learn in the TED-Ed video at the top by Soraya Field Fio­rio, was itself only dis­cov­ered in 1849 — very recent by com­par­i­son with oth­er ancient texts we reg­u­lar­ly read and study. The first archae­ol­o­gists to dis­cov­er it were search­ing not for Sumer­ian lit­er­a­ture but for evi­dence that proved the Bib­li­cal sto­ries. They thought they’d found it in Nin­eveh, in the exca­vat­ed library of King Ashur­ba­n­i­pal, the old­est library in the world. Instead, they dis­cov­ered the bro­ken, incom­plete tablets con­tain­ing the sto­ry of Gil­gamesh and Utnapish­tim, who, like Noah from the Hebrew Bible, built an enor­mous boat in advance of a divine­ly ordered flood. The first per­son to trans­late the pas­sages was so excit­ed, he stripped off his clothes.

The flood sto­ry wasn’t the knock-down proof Chris­t­ian schol­ars hoped for, but the dis­cov­ery of the Gil­gamesh epic was even more impor­tant for our under­stand­ing of the ancient world. What we know of the sto­ry, how­ev­er, was already edit­ed and redact­ed to suit a mil­len­nia-old agen­da. The Epic of Gil­gamesh “explains that Gil­gamesh, although he is king of Uruk, acts as an arro­gant, impul­sive, and irre­spon­si­ble ruler,” Spar writes. “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.”

Oth­er, much old­er ver­sions of his sto­ry show the myth­i­cal king and his exploits in a dif­fer­ent light. So how should we read Gil­gamesh in the 21st cen­tu­ry, a few thou­sand years after his first sto­ries were com­posed? You can begin here with the TED-Ed sum­ma­ry and Crash Course in World Mythol­o­gy video fur­ther up. Dig much deep­er with the lec­ture above from Andrew George, Pro­fes­sor of Baby­lon­ian at the Uni­ver­si­ty of London’s School of Ori­en­tal and African Stud­ies (SOAS).

George has pro­duced one of the most high­ly respect­ed trans­la­tions of Gil­gamesh, Aco­cel­la writes, one that “gives what remains of Sin-leqi-unnin­ni’s text” and appends oth­er frag­men­tary tablets dis­cov­ered in Bagh­dad, show­ing how the mean­ing of the cuneiform sym­bols changed over the course of the mil­len­nia between the Old Baby­lon­ian sto­ries and the “New Baby­lon­ian Ver­sion” of the Epic of Gil­gamesh we think we know. Hear a full read­ing of Gil­gamesh above, as trans­lat­ed by N.K. Sanders.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Hear The Epic of Gil­gamesh Read in its Orig­i­nal Ancient Lan­guage, Akka­di­an

20 New Lines from The Epic of Gil­gamesh Dis­cov­ered in Iraq, Adding New Details to the Sto­ry

World Lit­er­a­ture in 13 Parts: From Gil­gamesh to Gar­cía Márquez

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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