The Epic of Gilgamesh

13 Jan

Gilgamesh, the famous Mesopotamian hero, is believed to be based on a real person, who was most probably a Sumerian king. The Epic of Gilgamesh, a poem recording the hero’s exploits, was transcribed onto tablets in the second millennium BC. He is portrayed in sculptures and reliefs from every period of the region’s civilisation as a robust, bearded warrior, who struggles with lions, bulls and assorted monsters. He owes his immortality to the great epic poem that was written about him – the very first such literature known to humankind. Far from being a mere relic, the Gilgamesh epic is one of the most dramatic stories ever told. Even today, 3,500 years after its composition, its themes of friendship, loss and the fear of death have profound resonance. In Sumerian times, the epic must have enthralled its readers or, more often, its listeners – for in a society where only a small number were literate this poem was surely written to be read aloud.

Gilgamesh was two-thirds god, one-third man. Despite his heroic stature, he began his reign as a tyrant, whose people were eventually driven to call on the gods for help in subduing him. The deities responded by creating another man called Enkidu, who turned out to be a wild and savage being, even more troublesome than Gilgamesh. Eventually, it was Gilgamesh who helped the people of Uruk to hatch a plot whereby they succeeded in taming the wild being. Enkidu subsequently became Gilgamesh’s friend and constant companion, and the two men lived a life of luxury together. In time, however, Gilgamesh was instructed by the gods to leave his home in order to fight Khumbaba, the horrible monster who lived some 20,000 marching hours away from Uruk at Cedar Mountain. Enkidu and Gilgamesh set off on their quest and, after entering the cedar forest, eventually found Khumbaba’s home, Gilgamesh challenged the monster to battle and, after a fearsome struggle, the two men overcame him, although it was Enkidu’s spear that struck the fatal blow. Soon afterwards, the goddess Inana tried to seduce Gilgamesh. When the hero turned her down, she complained to the god Anu, who was eventually persuaded to give Inana the bull of heaven to send against Gilgamesh. However, Enkidu caught the bull and Gilgamesh stabbed it to death. The gods, outraged that the bull had been killed, took their revenge by striking Enkidu down with illness. After a few days, he died.

Gilgamesh was devastated at the death of his friend, and became terrified at the thought of death. He decided to try and discover the secret of immortality and set out on a quest to find Utnapishtim, the hero who, after surviving the flood, had been granted immortality by the gods. When he reached Mount Mashu, Gilgamesh was confronted by the scorpion men who guarded its gates. However, they recognised that he was in part divine and let him pass by them into the mountain. At last the hero reached Utnapishtim and Gilgamesh told him: “Because of my brother I am afraid of death; because of my brother I stray through the wilderness. His fate lies heavy upon me. How can I be silent, how can I rest? He is dust, and I shall die also and be laid in the earth forever.” The hero of the flood told Gilgamesh that death, like sleep, was necessary for humankind. To prove his point, he told Gilgamesh to try staying awake for six days and seven nights. Gilgamesh agreed, but fell fast asleep almost as soon as he had sat down. The tale ends on a sad note, with the ghost of Enkidu telling Gilgamesh on his return home of the misery of life in the underworld.

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