History of Epic of Gilgamesh Text

History of Epic of Gilgamesh Text


The epic of Gilgamesh first became known to modern scholars in the nineteenth century in copies from the library of Ashurbanipal of the seventh century B.C.E. This epic is the longest and greatest literary composition written in cuneiform Akkadian and it narrates a heroic quest for fame and immortality, pursued by a man who has an enormous capacity for friendship, for endurance and adventure, for joy and sorrow, a man of strength and weakness who loses a unique opportunity through a moments carelessness (Dalley 39). This Babylonian myth has become one of the better-known works in world literature withcopies of the epic being discovered all over the ancient world (Boadt 126). Thus,people can be sure it was an influential and familiar text in the period from 2000-1000 B.C.

This paper presents a historical context of the epic of Gilgamesh. To accomplish this, the essay presents the societal background of the epic highlighting evidence on the time period when the epic could have been based on, its relation and borrowings from Mesopotamian literary traditionsand the factuality or otherwise of the existence of aGilgamesh. It finallypresents the thematic and structural integrity of the epic.


The Epic of Gilgamesh can be regarded as one of the major compositions that have been discovered and reconstructed in the past one and a half century since the excavation of the libraries of ancient Nineveh. The epic narrates the exploits and grapples of Gilgamesh, a king of the city state Uruk in the land of Sumer. The epic is a work of adventure that grapples with issues of an existential nature. Drawing upon earlier Sumerian tales about Gilgamesh, the work was composed in Akkadian during the first part of the second millennium BCE and was then transmitted in changing forms for the next and a half both in Mesopotamia and in other lands of the ancient near east. According to Mooney(1) the epic of Gilgamesh was written by a Babylonian scribe who remained anonymous.

The epic of Gilgamesh is an epic poem covering twelve tablets in its latest version and written in Akkadian, which was the main Semitic language of ancient Babylonia and Assyria. It describes the exploits of Gilgamesh, king of the Sumerian city-state Uruk (Biblical Erech, Gen.10:10).The Epic of Gilgamesh was first unearthed in the mid-nineteenth century; the tablets discovered were from its latest and best-known version that of the first millennium B.C.E. often termed the “Late” or “Standard Babylonian” version. Analysis of this version showed it to be whole, coherent, integrated, and well structured (Tigay 3). However, enough inconsistencies were noted by scholar to hypothesize about diverse origins for the different parts of the epic. In subsequent decades, increasingly earlier forms of the epic and texts of related literary compositions were discovered, until ultimately it became possible to identify several different compositions which appeared to serve as sources for the epic. According to Tigay(5), before any versions of the epic existed, several separate tales about Gilgamesh circulated. The epic was created to oversimplify for the moment, by uniting the previous versions into a single composition. Though it might be expected that the product of such a process would seem disjointed, however, apart from Tablet XII, the epic reads as a consistent and well-ordered whole, with unified structure and themes(Boadt 126).The unity of the first eleven tablets is expressed, among other ways, by their prologue and introductory hymn, which looks ahead to events at the end of the epic.

The Epic of Gilgamesh, which modern authorities aptly call “the most significant literary creation of the whole of ancient Mesopotamia,” was appreciated by the literate people in the Ancient Near East. This can be reflected from the epics’ wide distribution, its long life and its translation into other languages. The first version of the Epic of Gilgamesh to be identified by scholars was The Akkadian version of the first millennium, also referred to as the “Late Version,” discovered during the second half of the Nineteenth Century. It was decrypted from plaques discovered in thevestiges of the library of Ashurbania, who wasan Assyrian king between 668-627 who collected the most comprehensive library in his capital, Nineveh. Other located First-Millennium copies of the epic from Babylonia, from the earlier capitals at Assur and Calah, and from Sultantepe in the north of Mesopotamia were to a large extentsimilar in content to the Nineveh copies. Those discovered from the Second Millennium, while literally and stylistically related to the Nineveh texts, are different from them considerably (Tigay 11).

If ever there was a legendary hero whose existence might be doubted, it was Gilgamesh of this epic. Yet the intervening decades have brought to light considerable evidence which suggests that Gilgamesh did infact exist. Historiographic texts of the Twenty-First or Twentieth centuries mention Gilgamesh as a King of the City Uruk (Biblical Erech) during the Second Early Dynastic Period of Sumer (ca. 2700-2500) and as an approximate contemporary of two other Sumerian Kings, Enmebagaragesi of Kish and Mesannepadda of Ur(Rice 301) Inscriptions of both these kings and two sons of the latter have been discovered, confirming their existence and greatly enhancing the likelihood that Gilgamesh too was a historical person. Later inscriptions credit him with building the wall of Uruk, this is made plausible, though not certain, by the fact that the wall of Uruk was built of Plano-convex bricks, which are characteristic of early dynastic times (Tigay 28). He was also credited with rebuilding a shrine in Nippur. The adventures of Gilgamesh mentioned in the Sumerian stories, and the Akkadian epic are so overlaid with legendary and mythical motif that people can only speculate about their possible historical basis. They may reflect certain aspects of the magical/ priestly and military roles that Gilgamesh would have played as the ruler of Uruk, and conceivably a real preoccupation of his with death. On the other hand, some elements in these stories may be anachronistic projections of later events, and some could be attributed to folkloristic and mythological imaginations.

The Sumerian tales, the earliest known literary embodiments of king Gilgamesh exploits, are disconnected from his lifetime by some centuries. In accordance with the Sumerian King List, Gilgamesh was the fifth king of the first dynasty of Uruk, which has been placed during the Second Early Dynastic Period of Sumer (ca. 2700-2500)(Boadt 127).. The name ‘Gilgamesh’ isalso characteristic of the Second Early Dynastic Period. Notwithstanding, Gilgamesh’s existence not beingcorroborated wholly by any contemporary inscriptions of his own which references him, the chances that there existed a king by this name has been boosted by the finding of inscriptions of concomitant rulers of the cities of Kish and Ur who king Gilgamesh was associated with in epic and historical tradition; their existence has been associated is confirmed (Tigay 13). For the centuries between Gilgamesh’s lifetime (between 2700 and 2500) and the earliest literary texts about him (2100-2000) or their forerunners, the narratives about him are generally presumed to have undergone a process of oral development and transmission. Since the publication of the old Sumerian texts from Abu Salabihk, this presumption seems less self-evident than it once did, for the texts included forerunners, and in at least one case a virtually identical version, of other works previously known only in later copies. But at least for the present, no such narrative texts about Gilgamesh are known, and the traditions about him in this period, whether oral or written, have not been found.

Several separate Sumerian compositions about Gilgamesh are known, four of them highly mythical in character. These four were drawn on in different ways in the course of the development of the AkkadianGilgamesh Epic.The Akkadian epic was given its original shape in the old Babylonian period by an Akkadian author  who took over, in greater or lesser degree the plots and themes of four of the Sumerian tales which are:Gilgamesh and the Land of the Living; Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Netherworld; The Death of Gilgamesh; andGilgamesh and the Bull of Heaven.(Wasilewska 123)Either translating freely from Sumerian or working from available Akkadian paraphrases, the author combined these early stories plots and themes into a unified epic on a grand scale, ending up with the contemporary Epic of Gilgamesh.(Santas, Wilson and Colavito)

The epic of Gilgameshborrowedimmensely on Mesopotamian literary traditions. Not only did the author of the old Babylonian version base the epic on older Sumerian tales about Gilgamesh, but the authors made extensive use of materials and literary forms unrelated to Gilgamesh. The epic opens with a standard type of hymnic-epic prologue, and parts of the introduction and end of the epic are modelled on royal hymns and inscriptions and on hymns in praise of temples and their cities. Royal hymns supplied the model for the description of the creation of Gilgamesh, while Enkidu’s creation was modelled on that of mankind in creation myths. Mythical motifs about primitive man also supplied the model for the description of Enkidu’s early life. The description of how Gilgamesh oppressed Uruk may have been modelled upon folklore motifs or ancient royal practices.Only rarely is itpossible, as in the case of the flood story to point to a particular non-Gilgamesh text as the very source from which the epic of Gilgamesh drew a motif or pattern. The parallels are in some cases too numerous and in most cases insufficiently detailed to permit this. The parallels permit scholars, at most, to identify certain circles of tradition in which particular motifs were at home and from which they were drawn into the epic.

The thematic and structural integrity of the epic is supplemented by a number of motifs and phrases which echo through it. For example, one passage from the “frame” (formed by lines appearing both in the prologue and in tablet Xi), “go up onto the wall of Uruk and walk about” (I, I, 16 and XI, 303) is echoed in VI, 157: “Ishtar went up onto the wall of Uruk the sheepfold.”


The historical background of the epic of Gilgamesh still remains clouded with regards to its specificity on the existence of such a king, such a city or such a story. While most historical documents direct towards and evidence the existence of such a city and such a king, the characterization of Gilgamesh as two-thirds a God and one-third a man makes the epic seem more mythical than an actuality.

In conclusion, the actuality or ‘mythicalness’ of the story notwithstanding, thanks to the ample documentation available for the evolution of the epic of Gilgamesh, interested scholars can trace the steps by which the author of the epic of Gilgamesh transformed anassemblage of conventional tales into a compelling epic that expresses universal aspirations on one hand and fears on the other, so meticulously that the epic of Gilgamesh carried on for several thousand years.


Cited Works

Boadt, Lawrence. Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction. Paulist Press, 1984.

Dalley, Stephanie. Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, The Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others. illustrated, revised. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Foley, John Miles. A Companion to Ancient Epic. John Wiley & Sons, 2008.

Gallery, Maureen. The Epic of Gilgamesh. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1985.

Mooney, Thomas J. Live Forever Or Die Trying: The History and Politics of Life Extension. Xlibris Corporation, 2011.

Rice, Michael. Archaeology of the Arabian Gulf. Routledge, 2002.

Santas, Constantine, et al. The Encyclopedia of Epic Films. Scarecrow Press, 2014.

Tigay, Jeffrey H. Empirical Models for Biblical Criticism. Reprint. Pennsylvania: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2005.

—. The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic. Pennsylvania: Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, 1982.

Wasilewska, Ewa. Creation Stories of the Middle East. Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2000.

Ziolkowski, Theodore. Gilgamesh among Us: Modern Encounters with the Ancient Epic. Cornell University Press, n.d.

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