The Epic of Gilgamesh: The Oldest Documented Story in the History of Humankind

The Epic of Gilgamesh – the Oldest Story in the World
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He also points out that Gilgamesh will become but a shadow of his former self if Enkidu were to die. Nevertheless, the curse takes hold and day after day Enkidu becomes more and more ill.

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He orders the people of Uruk, from the lowest farmer to the highest temple priests, to also mourn Enkidu , and orders statues of Enkidu to be built. The ageless Utnapishtim and his wife now reside in a beautiful country in another world, Dilmun, and Gilgamesh travels far to the east in search of them, crossing great rivers and oceans and mountain passes, and grappling and slaying monstrous mountain lions, bears and other beasts.

Eventually, he comes to the twin peaks of Mount Mashu at the end of the earth , from where the sun rises from the other world, the gate of which is guarded by two terrible scorpion-beings. They allow Gilgamesh to proceed when he convinces them of his divinity and his desperation, and he travels for twelve leagues through the dark tunnel where the sun travels every night. The world at the end of the tunnel is a bright wonderland , full of trees with leaves of jewels.

The first person Gilgamesh meets there is the wine-maker Siduri, who initially believes he is a murderer from his dishevelled appearance and attempts to dissuade him from his quest. But eventually she sends him to Urshanabi, the ferryman who must help him cross the sea to the island where Utnapishtim lives, navigating the Waters of Death, of which the slightest touch means instant death. When he meets Urshanabi , though, he appears to be surrounded by a company of stone-giants , which Gilgamesh promptly kills , thinking them to be hostile.

He tells the ferryman his story and asks for his help, but Urshanabi explains that he has just destroyed the sacred stones which allow the ferry boat to safely cross the Waters of Death. The only way they can now cross is if Gilgamesh cuts trees and fashions them into punting poles , so that they can cross the waters by using a new pole each time and by using his garment as a sail.

Finally, they reach the island of Dilmun and, when Utnapishtim sees that there is someone else in the boat, he asks Gilgamesh who he is. Gilgamesh tells him his story and asks for help, but Utnapishtim reprimands him because he knows that fighting the fate of humans is futile and ruins the joy in life. Gilgamesh demands of Utnapishtim in what way their two situations differ and Utnapishtim tells him the story of how he survived the great flood. Utnapishtim recounts how a great storm and flood was brought to the world by the god Enlil , who wanted to destroy all of mankind for the noise and confusion they brought to the world.

One of the world’s first great stories just got a new chapter

But the god Ea forewarned Utnapishtim, advising him to build a ship in readiness and to load onto it his treasures, his family and the seeds of all living things. The rains came as promised and the whole world was covered with water, killing everything except Utnapishtim and his boat.

The Epic of Gilgamesh

The boat came to rest on the tip of the mountain of Nisir, where they waited for the waters to subside, releasing first a dove, then a swallow and then a raven to check for dry land. Utnapishtim then made sacrifices and libations to the gods and, although Enlil was angry that someone had survived his flood, Ea advised him to make his peace.

Awesome Documentary 2017 GILGAMESH HISTORY ANCIENT Mesopotamia SUMERIANS

So, Enlil blessed Utnapishtim and his wife and granted them everlasting life, and took them to live in the land of the gods on the island of Dilmun. However, despite his reservations about why the gods should give him the same honour as himself , the hero of the flood, Utnapishtim does reluctantly decide to offer Gilgamesh a chance for immortality. First, though, he challenges Gilgamesh to stay awake for six days and seven nights , but Gilgamesh falls asleep almost before Utnapishtim finishes speaking. When he awakes after seven days of sleep, Utnapishtim ridicules his failure and sends him back to Uruk, along with the ferryman Urshanabi in exile.

Gilgamesh obtains the plant by binding stones to his feet to allow him to walk on the bottom of the sea. He plans to use the flower to rejuvenate the old men of the city of Uruk and then to use it himself. Unfortunately, he places the plant on the shore of a lake while he bathes, and it is stolen by a serpent, which loses its old skin and is thus reborn.

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Gilgamesh weeps at having failed at both opportunities to obtain immortality , and he disconsolately returns to the massive walls of his own city of Uruk. Back home, he comforts himself with rejoicing in the magnificence of his city. A final tablet, a kind of appendix, describes how Enkidu once stumbled into the underworld -- the "House of Dust" -- and, after being rescued by the gods, told Gilgamesh everything he saw there. As Damrosch points out, although the epic was lost for millennia, some threads from Gilgamesh's story survived in other myths.

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Enkidu, who loses his ability to commune with the beasts after succumbing to the temple prostitute, is like Adam and Eve cast out of the Earthly Paradise and estranged from the state of nature. But for the Mesopotamians, Damrosch goes on to explain, this didn't constitute a fall from grace; as they saw it, Enkidu graduated from savagery to a civilized existence, a step up.

The friendship of Gilgamesh and Enkidu resembles that of Achilles and Patroklos in "The Iliad," and that's no coincidence, according to the classicist M. West, who has argued that "poet-singers were likely performing 'Gilgamesh' in Syria and Cyprus during the period in which the Homeric epics were first being elaborated. In the Victorian era, however, the most sensational aspect of "The Epic of Gilgamesh," was its description of the "great deluge," a catastrophe occurring on the threshold between myth and history.

When a self-educated assistant curator named George Smith first deciphered these passages in , the cuneiform tablets had already been sitting around the museum's collection for odd years. Although not as dramatic as Carter's opening of Tutankhamen's tomb in Luxor, the moment when Smith first puzzled out the lines is enough to thrill any writer: "I am the first person to read that," Smith said to a colleague, "after two thousand years of oblivion.

The announcement that some of those old, broken slabs of clay seemed to confirm the biblical story of the flood and Noah's Ark made headlines and instantly catapulted the brand-new discipline of Assyriology to public attention. Prime Minister William Gladstone even turned up to hear Smith speak on the subject, "the only occasion," one of the scholars observed, "on which the British Prime Minister in office has attended a lecture on Babylonian literature. Smith, too, seized upon the scenes of the flood as validation of the Old Testament account; many early archaeologists were obsessed with biblical verification.

Not everyone agreed, however. The New York Times suggested that the inscription "may be regarded as a confirmation of the statement that there are various traditions of the deluge apart from the Biblical one, which is perhaps legendary like the rest. Certainly, the epic didn't point to human sinfulness as the cause of the flood, as the Bible does. According to Uta-napishtim, the gods wiped out humanity because the exploding population was making too much noise and disturbing their sleep. It was the excitement over the religious implications of the fragments, though, that helped fund further expeditions to Nineveh, the site of the buried palace of Ashurbanipal, an Assyrian king who had completely vanished from the historical record, largely because he wasn't mentioned in the Bible.

Damrosch describes the unearthing and the translating of the epic largely through the stories of Smith and Hormuzd Rassam, a native of Mosul who fell in love with archaeology while assisting on the first excavations of the ruins of Nineveh, which lay right across the Tigris from his hometown. The working-class Smith and the Iraqi Rassam a Chaldean Christian make appealing underdog protagonists for Damrosch, who takes pains to point out the bias they both faced in a field dominated by well-born European amateurs.

The villain of the piece besides the usual run of unsupportive administrators, and racist explorers is one E. Wallis Budge. Despite his obscure origins, Budge became a kind of celebrity Egyptologist and friend of various aristocrats and literary figures, including H. Rider Haggard and E. Nesbit based a character on Budge in her children's novel, "The Story of the Amulet. Rassam made the disastrous decision to sue Budge for slander after learning that Budge had been blaming him for the disappearance of artifacts from museum digs.

Rassam won his case, but it was one of those lawsuits that proves ruinous even in victory. The book is rich in felicitous parallels or analogies, such as Damrosch's comparison of Smith to Henry Morton Stanley, whose expedition to Central Africa in search of the explorer-missionary Dr.


David Livingstone was similarly championed and funded by London newspapers. Damrosch has a good eye for the details that make his occasionally stuffy material breathe -- like mentioning that Lewis Carroll carefully clipped out a newspaper story about Smith's discovery and pasted it into his scrapbook or that Rassam charmed Arab nomads with a gift of cake, something they'd never tasted before: "they exclaimed to each other, 'bread flavored with sugar and butter!

This knack really comes in handy when Damrosch writes about the reign of Ashurbanipal, the great Assyrian king in whose library the tablets containing "The Epic of Gilgamesh" were found. Assyrian potentates were a boastful lot, but digging beneath all the fanfaronades and self-aggrandizement, Damrosch has found letters that vividly sketch court life in Nineveh. 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, 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 served as the model for any similar tale which has been written since. It was no doubt widely read prior to the fall of the Assyrian Empire in BCE and has become increasingly popular and influential since its rediscovery in CE. Gilgamesh encourages hope in that, even though one may not be able to live forever, the choices one makes in life resonate in the lives of others.

Iraqi Museum Discovers Missing Lines From the Epic of Gilgamesh

These others may be friends, family, acquaintances, or may be strangers living long after one's death who continue to be touched by the eternal story of the hero's refusal to accept a life without meaning. Gilgamesh's struggle against apparent meaninglessness defines him - just as it defines anyone who has ever lived - and his quest continues to inspire those who recognize how eternal and intrinsically human that struggle is.

Editorial Review This Article has been reviewed for accuracy, reliability and adherence to academic standards prior to publication. We're a small non-profit organisation run by a handful of volunteers. Become a Member. Mark, J. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Mark, Joshua J. Last modified March 29, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 29 Mar Written by Joshua J.

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Sandars, N. The Epic of Gilgamesh. Penguin Classics, Wolkstein, D. Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth. Harper Perennial, Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia. University of Texas Press, Black, J. The Literature of Ancient Sumer. Oxford University Press, Dalley, S.