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Unlike the heroes of Greek or Celtic mythology,
the hero of The Epic of Gilgamesh was an actual
historical figure, a king who reigned over the Sumerian city-state
of Uruk around 2700 b.c. Long
after his death, people worshipped Gilgamesh, renowned as a warrior
and builder and widely celebrated for his wisdom and judiciousness.
One prayer invokes him as “Gilgamesh, supreme king, judge of the
Anunnaki” (the gods of the underworld). Called Erech in the Bible,
Uruk was one of the great cities of ancient Mesopotamia. The historical
King Gilgamesh probably raised its walls, which archaeologists have
determined had a perimeter of six miles. Today its ruins rest near
the town of Warka, in southern Iraq, about a third of the way from
Basra to Baghdad. A team of German archaeologists recently announced
that they’d detected a buried structure there that might be Gilgamesh’s
tomb. Though the military actions of 2003 stopped
their work before excavations could begin, their claim has aroused
Dozens of stories about Gilgamesh circulated throughout
the ancient Middle East. Archaeologists have discovered the earliest ones,
inscribed on clay tablets in the Sumerian language before 2000 b.c.
Other tablets tell stories about him in the Elamite, Hurrian, and
Hittite tongues. Over time, many of those stories were consolidated
into a large, epic work. The most complete known version of this
long poem was found in Nineveh, in the ruins of the library of Assurbanipal,
the last great king of the Assyrian empire. Assurbanipal was undoubtedly
a despot and a warmonger, but he was also a tireless archivist and
collector—we owe much of our knowledge about ancient Mesopotamia
to his efforts.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is written in Akkadian,
the Babylonians’ language, on eleven tablets, with a fragmentary
appendix on a twelfth. The tablets actually name their
author, Sin-Leqi-Unninni, whose name translates to “Moon god, accept
my plea.” This poet/editor must have completed his work sometime
before 612 b.c., when
the Persians conquered the Assyrian Empire and destroyed Nineveh.
Gilgamesh’s fame did not survive Assyria’s collapse. Although
he had been a ubiquitous literary, religious, and historical figure
for two millennia, he would be completely forgotten until Victorian times,
more than 2,000 years
later. In 1839, an
English traveler named Austen Henry Layard excavated some 25,000 broken
clay tablets from the ruins of Nineveh. Henry Rawlinson, an expert
on Assyria able to decipher cuneiform, began the painstaking, difficult work
of translating them, first in Baghdad and then later at the British
Museum. Rawlinson had discovered the Stone of Darius, also known
as the Persian Rosetta Stone, a monument celebrating the Persian
emperor’s conquests in several languages. This structure provided
the key to translating cuneiform’s wedge-shaped alphabet.
When Rawlinson’s student George Smith rendered the eleventh tablet
of the Gilgamesh epic into English in 1872,
it set off an immediate sensation. This tablet contains the Sumerian
story of the deluge, which has so many parallels with the story
of Noah’s ark that many people surmise the author of the biblical
account was familiar with Gilgamesh. Possibly,
both versions hearken back to an even older source. Some scientists
have recently speculated that the basic story reflects a folk memory
of events in 5000 b.c.,
when melting glaciers caused the Mediterranean to overflow, inundating
a vast, densely settled area around the Black Sea and scattering
its survivors around the world.
Their interest roused, Victorian archaeologists dug up
and translated more and more tablets. Within a few years, the broad
outlines of the epic had been reestablished, and many more tablets
have been discovered since. Even so, the poem is still as much as
twenty percent incomplete, and a good part of what does exist is
fragmentary to the point of unintelligibility. The different translations
of Gilgamesh vary widely in terms of details included
and their interpretation, but most of them follow Sin-Leqi-Unninni.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is more than just
an archaeological curiosity. Despite its innumerable omissions and
obscurities, its strange cast of gods, and its unfamiliar theory
about the creation of the universe, the story of Gilgamesh is powerful
and gripping. An exciting adventure that celebrates kinship between
men, it asks what price people pay to be civilized and questions
the proper role of a king, and it both acknowledges and scrutinizes
the attractions of earthly fame. Most of all, Gilgamesh describes
the existential struggles of a superlatively strong man who must
reconcile himself to his mortality and find meaning in his life
despite the inevitability of death.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Epic of Gilgamesh!