By Dimitris Topalis,
At the fourth millennium B.C. on the region between Tiger and Euphrates, the Neolithic settlements were being evolved into cities/states. The first signs of the epic tale of Gilgamesh were discovered in 1848 from Sir Austen Henry Layard during his discoveries on the library of the king of Assyria Ashurbanipal (668-627 B.C). We know that the epic tale of Gilgamesh is the oldest epic tale in history -even older than the ones Ηοmer wrote! The library of Ashurbanipal was the biggest amongst the libraries on the Middle East as it contained about 25.000 pylon books. Sir Austen Henry Layard during his discoveries on the palace of Sennacherib -the grandfather of Ashurbanipal, that was abandoned in 612 B.C.- brought into light signs in stacks of 35 centimetres. Layard on his book Nineveh And Its Remains mentioned that those signs played a big part in the deciphering of the wedge-shaped characters, in the understanding of the language and the history of Assyria, plus the habits, science and the philology of the people.
The Historic king Gilgamesh
Gilgamesh was a king, according to a catalogue of Sumerian kings that was found in discoveries. Gilgamesh was the fifth king of the first dynasty of Uruk, chronologically placed during the primal dynastic period of Sumer (between 2.700-2500 B.C.). His name, as well as his parents’ (Lugalbanda and Ninsun), are distinctive because they are Sumerian. Gilgamesh was king of Uruk, the city that nowadays is called Warka. Uruk was one of the first, biggest and important cities of Sumer where urban population was developed. The first written mention of the mythical king Gilgamesh is at a sign from the city Ebla in Syria. Apart from the Sumerian list of kings, one inscription from the end of the primal Babylonian period, named “Inscription of Tummal”, reports that Gilgamesh had rebuild the mosque that belonged to the god Enlil in Nippur. Two more texts have come to light: the first is an anthem of Shulgi king of Ur (2094-2047 B.C.) towards Gilgamesh and the second is a description of Gilgamesh.
A Summary of the epic of Gilgamesh
Gilgamesh was the king of Uruk and was considered to be 2/3 god and 1/3 human. At the start of the epic tale, Gilgamesh is giving a hard time to his followers and they reach out for help to the gods. After the gods counsult, they decide to create a primary man who has the same strength as Gilgamesh so he can challenge him. That man was Enkidu, created by soil from the god-mother Aruru. Enkidu is the definition of a primal man: he didn’t have any clothes, but he covered himself with cloth and he was drinking water from the river. Enkindu was living in the wilderness with animals and when a farmer informed Gilgamesh of the power of that primal man, Gilgamesh wanted to face him in battle. So he instructed a woman named Shamhat to make him civilized by making love to him. After that, Enkidu started to speak and understand the human nature and Shamhat lead him to the city Uruk, where he met the king Gilgamesh. The two had a fight which concluded in a draw and afterwards a strong friendship was formed between them.
The failed quest for eternal life
Gilgamesh being consumed by the fear of death, decided that his legacy needed to survive for ever at least with a heroic feat. He began an adventure with Enkidu to travel far to the land of the living, where the forest of Kendrouns was located, and cut the trees. The forest was guarded by a powerful creature humbaba. Gilgamesh achieved his goal and returned with a triumph in Uruk. The goddess Ishtar fell in love with Gilgamesh and proposed a marriage between them, but Gilgamesh rejected her and insulted her about the fate of her former lovers. The goddess angrily asked from her father, Anou, to send the bull of heaven to destroy Uruk. Gilgamesh and Enkidu defeated the bull and threw a booty at the face of Ishtar. The defiance of the two friends couldn’t stay unpunished. Enkidu dreamt his death later that night, he fell sick and eventually died. The death was too cruel for Gilgamesh who thought he was next to die, so he decided to go on a quest to find Utnapishtim, the only immortal man and learn his secrets about immortality. When he found Utnapishtim, the immortal man reminded Gilgamesh that in the human nature nothing is permanent and everything must have an end. Then, in order to test Gilgamesh, Utnapishtim told him to stay awake for a whole week, but the hero, who tried to avoid death, gave in to sleep. The wife of Utnapishtim showed compassion towards Gilgamesh and begged her husband to reveal Gilgamesh his secret about a flower that grows in bottom of the river, that makes a human feel again. Gilgamesh takes the flower and plans to eat it when he is old but in the way a snake steals and eats the flower, thus making Gilgamesh’s quest a fail.
The end of the Epic of Gilgamesh
At the Sumerian poem The death of Gilgamesh, the kingdom of the underworld is being given to Gilgamesh as consolation for his failure to gain internal life. Gilgamesh comes to peace with his mortality and starts to learn about the underworld that he would later rule. Gilgamesh grieves about two objects that fell into the underworld and Enkidu -who is now alive- offers to go get them. However he doesn’t follow Gilgamesh advice and the underworld traps Enkidu. Despite the efforts of Gilgamesh to bring him back the only thing he achieves is to bring his spirit back and give him information about the dead. During the whole Epic tale Gilgamesh changes as a person and the end of it comes with his death.
- The Epic of Gilgamesh (Αυρα Ward 2001, εκδόσεις Ερμής)