By Joshua Mark (edited)
Gilgamesh is the mythic King of Uruk, best known from The Epic of Gilgamesh, the great Sumerian/Babylonian poetic work which pre-dates Homer’s writing. Gilgamesh rescues a powerful & potent woman from a difficult situation and shows his high regard.
The motif of the quest for the meaning of life is first fully explored in Gilgamesh as the hero-king leaves his kingdom following the death of his best friend, Enkidu, to find the mystical figure Utnapishtim and gain eternal life. Gilgamesh’s fear of death is actually a fear of meaninglessness and, although he fails to win immortality, the quest itself gives his life meaning. This theme has been explored by writers and philosophers from antiquity up to the present day.
Gilgamesh’ father is said to have been the Priest-King Lugalbanda and his mother the goddess Ninsun (or Ninsumun). Accordingly, Gilgamesh was to be possessed of super-human strength.
Associated closely with the figure of Dumuzi from the poem The Descent of Inanna, Gilgamesh is alike the 5th king of Uruk whose influence was so profound that myths of his divine status grew and culminated in the tales found in The Epic of Gilgamesh. Shulgi of Ur, considered the greatest king of the Ur III Period, claimed Lugalbanda and Ninsun as his parents and Gilgamesh as his brother to elevate his reign.
Development of the Text
The Akkadian version of the text was discovered in the ruins at Nineveh, in 1849 CE by Layard. Layard’s expedition was funded by european governments to find physical evidence to corroborate events described in the Bible.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is a compilation of tales, which was finally written down 700-1000 years after the mythical king’s reign. The author Layard promoted as the Babylonian writer Shin-Leqi-Unninni (to rival the works of Enheduanna, daughter of Sargon of Akkad). Shin-Leqi-Unninni drew upon diverse sources to create his story and Gilgamesh became a popular hero in european academia.
Gilgamesh shares the tale of Inanna and the Huluppu Tree, in which Inanna plants a troublesome tree in her garden, with the hope of one day making a chair and bed from it, and she appeals to her family for help with it. The tree becomes infested, however, by a snake at its roots, a female demon (lilitu) in its center, and an Anzu bird in its branches.
No matter what, Inanna cannot rid herself of the pests and so appeals to her brother, Utu, god of the sun, for help. Utu refuses but her plea is heard by Gilgamesh who comes, heavily armed, and kills the snake. The demon and Anzu bird then flee and Gilgamesh, after taking the branches for himself, presents the trunk to Inanna to build her bed and chair from.
Gilgamesh was seen as the brother of Inanna. Other tablets address Gilgamesh in the afterlife as a judge in the Underworld comparable in wisdom to the famous church judges of the Underworld, Rhadamanthus, Minos, and Aeacus.
In The Epic of Gilgamesh, the king is thought to be too proud and arrogant by the gods and so they decide to teach him a lesson by sending the wild man, Enkidu, to humble him. Enkidu and Gilgamesh are considered an even match by the people but, after a fierce battle, Enkidu is bested. He freely accepts his defeat and the two become friends and embark on adventures together.
They kill Humbaba, demon of the Cedar Forest, and this attracts the attention of Inanna (= Ishtar). Inanna tries to seduce Gilgamesh but he rejects her, citing all the other men she has had as lovers who ended their lives poorly. Inanna is enraged and sends her brother-in-law, the Bull of Heaven, down to earth to destroy Gilgamesh. Enkidu comes to his friend’s aid and kills the bull but, in doing so, he has offended the gods and is condemned to death.
When Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh falls into a deep grief and, recognizing his own mortality through the death of his friend, questions the meaning of life and the value of human accomplishment in the face of ultimate extinction. He cries:
How can I rest, how can I be at peace? Despair is in my heart. What my brother is now, that shall I be when I am dead. Because I am afraid of death I will go as best I can to find Utnapishtim whom they call the Faraway, for he has entered the assembly of the gods. (Sandars, 97)
Casting away all of his old vanity and pride, Gilgamesh sets out on a quest to find the meaning of life and, finally, some way of defeating death. He travels through the mountains, over vast oceans, and finally locates Utnapishtim who offers him two chances at immortality; both of which he fails. First, he cannot remain awake for six days and six nights and, second, he fails to protect a magic plant; a snake eats the plant while Gilgamesh sleeps. Failing to have won immortality, he is rowed back home by the ferryman Urshanabi and, once there, writes down his story.
Through his struggle to find meaning in life, Gilgamesh defied death and, in doing so, becomes the epic hero. The grief of Gilgamesh, and the questions his friend’s death evoke, resonate with any ruler who has wrestled with the meaning of life in the face of death. Although Gilgamesh ultimately fails to win immortality in the story, his deeds live on, and, thus, does he.
Of the various episodes comprising The Epic of Gilgamesh, several go back to Sumerian prototypes actually involving the hero Gilgamesh. Even in those episodes which lack Sumerian counterparts, most of the individual motifs reflect Sumerian mythic and epic sources. In no case, however, did the Babylonian poets slavishly copy the Sumerian material. They so modified its content and molded its form, in accordance with their own temper and heritage, that only the bare nucleus of the Sumerian original remains recognizable. As for the plot structure of the epic as a whole – the forceful and fateful episodic drama of the restless, adventurous hero and his inevitable disillusionment – it is definitely a Babylonian, rather than a Sumerian, development and achievement. (History Begins at Sumer, 270).
Historical evidence for Gilgamesh’s existence is heavily disputed. According to legend, Gilgmesh was buried at the bottom of the Euphrates when the waters parted upon his death.
The character has taken on a life of his own. At the end of the story, when Gilgamesh lays dying, the narrator says:
The heroes, the wise men, like the new moon have their waxing and waning. Men will say, “Who has ever ruled with might and with power like [Gilgamesh]?” As in the dark month, the month of shadows, so without him there is no light. O Gilgamesh, you were given the kingship, such was your destiny, everlasting life was not your destiny. Because of this, do not be sad at heart, do not be grieved or oppressed; he has given you power to bind and to loose, to be the darkness and the light of mankind. (Sanders, 118)
The story of Gilgamesh’s failure to realize his dream of immortality is the very means by which he attains it. The epic itself is immortality and has become increasingly popular and influential since its ‘discovery’ in 1879 CE. It has served as the model for any similar tale which has been written since.
Gilgamesh’s struggle against apparent meaninglessness defines him, and his quest continues to inspire those who recognize how eternal and intrinsically human that struggle is.