When Gilgamesh Grew Up (The Epic of Gilgamesh)

So now that I’ve read through translations of the Epic of Gilgamesh for the third time, and for the first time on my own, it’s still awesome. Granted, it’s still a bunch of tablet fragments from who knows how many city-states in the fertile crescent, but even so, it tells an epic and tragic tale that, in spite of his apparently godly heritage in the story, is unquestionably human.

For reference I’m using the Penguin Classics version translated by Andrew George, but the story as we know it, has been collected from fragments of tablets over the course of decades of Mesopotamian archaeology. As such, dating from when it has its exact origins is very difficult. According to the experts, it is very possible Gilgamesh himself may have been a real person. He appears in the kings lists of the area for Uruk, in Sumeria, and as we’ve seen in The History of the Tummal, he does seem to have some building credits to his name. If it is indeed the case that he actually existed, he is believed to have ruled Uruk sometime between 2800 BC and 2600 BC. He later achieved legendary status in Sumeria and the surrounding areas, even acquiring a cult following (in fact the last poem in the book deals with his mythological uplifting to the status of a minor death god upon reaching the end of his mortal life). His stories were believed to have survived in oral form for the next couple of centuries, and the first written evidence of his epic start appearing around the 2100s BC, in Sumerian, though other fragments show up later in the territories of Akkad and Babylon.

Through all of these fragments that have survived to today, we’ve managed to glean a large amount of the original epic, as well as a number of poems dealing with various parts of the story. And what a story it is, dealing with themes such as growing up, death, and what it means to be a good king… Okay, so the being a good king part is a little less important to us today, but the ideas of taking responsibility for your own stuff and making your legacy last are definitely there.

The epic starts in most versions, by opening on Gilgamesh being king of Uruk, and in his capacity as a king, he’s really a total jerk. He’s taking advantage of his position in every way conceivable (even said to be exercising droit du seigneur in later passages {word of the day for you logophiles, it’s French and means a practice whereby a ruler/king/lord intervenes in a wedding by taking the bride’s virginity before handing her over to the groom. There’s some debate how prevalent this actually was, or if it was actually practiced in places, but it seemed to be a thing frowned on at least.}) and generally not serving his people very well, in spite of having been mothered by a goddess and selected by the gods to rule the city. The gods take exception to this and thus they create a wild man named Enkidu to try and show him what’s what. They plop Enkidu down in the middle of nowhere to be raised by the local wildlife, and after encountering a prostitute, and being civilized by her feminine whiles (along with some of the intimate activities for which prostitutes are typically known) Enkidu travels to Uruk where Gilgamesh is still being a jerk, in order to get him to knock it off. They fight it out for a little bit and then they literally kiss and make up and become SUPER AWESOME BEST FRIENDS FOREVER! The bromance is so powerful, Gilgamesh’s goddess mom even adopts Enkidu into the family.

They have a few adventures, going to slay a monster called Humbaba to get cedar he’s been tasked with guarding, and killing the Bull of Heaven together after Gilgamesh ticked off Ishtar (Inanna in the Sumerian/Akkadian traditions), before the gods get tired of the bromantic love-fest and decide “Okay, you like having a best buddy so much? Now we’re taking him away from you!” At which point Enkidu promptly dies. That’s it. The gods say it, and he goes. It’s a bit traumatic and painful, but it’s made worse by its complete inevitability. And Gilgamesh is decimated by this loss. He wanders the wilds trying to figure out what to do and completely lets himself go in his depression to the point where he’s scaring people away from him.

Eventually he gets word there’s this guy, Ut-Napishtim who survived the great flood, and who might have the secret to living forever, and so he decides to go after that so he won’t die himself, and the rest of the story is more or less how he tries and fails and has to figure out how to protect his legacy by more mundane means, like being a better king, and building cool stuff for his city.

There are other bits and pieces from other works, such as Agge of Kish laying siege to Uruk, and the poem I mentioned where he is formally installed as a minor death god, but the importance of this work is that it is in effect one of the earliest known epics in human history, and, crazy mystical monsters and ancient gods aside, I think it holds up.

Gilgamesh, for all that he starts as a king, definitely has a lot of growing up to do before he can become a good king, and he needs the people he bumps up against to learn those lessons. Enkidu, for the time Gilgamesh has him, is just as human, looking out for the people he cares for though not being immune from the bitterness towards his ultimate fate, even at one point during his death throes, having to be talked down by Shamash, the sun god because he curses out the prostitute for taking him out of the wild. But the sun god does point out that being civilized opened the door to so many good things as well. The last few scenes before Enkidu passes are quite sad, because you know you are watching Gilgamesh lose a brother, and Enkidu dealing with the inevitability and ever nearing proximity of his own mortality, both of which should be relatable to anyone who’s lost a family member or dear friend, or who themselves are dealing with a terminal illness. There’s really quite a bit of metaphor to be unpacked here, regarding humanity’s uplifting to civilization, the idea put forth by a bartender later in the story that you should value the people around you more than great feats or immortality, and the idea that the feminine is required for civilization. Also of interest is the inclusion of Ut-Napishtim, a man Gilgamesh later sees in the story (also known as Atra-hasis, or for early readers of this blog, also Zius-sudra of Shurrupak fame whose father instructed him on how to be a good king in the very first written work on record.) who’s personal experience prior to Gilgamesh’s interaction with him reflects a number of later flood myths found throughout human history, from Greece, to India, and perhaps most famously Noah’s weathering of God’s great flood in the bible.

There’s a lot of readable material in the Fertile Crescent, but out of the tablets I’ve read, these have thus far been some of my favorites. If you choose to read one thing from Ancient Sumeria, or Akkad, or Babylon, read the Epic of Gilgamesh.

One thought on “When Gilgamesh Grew Up (The Epic of Gilgamesh)

  1. Pingback: More Sumerian Mythological Exploits – Break-Action Books

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