Composition of the Gilgamesh Epic

The composition of the oldest surviving epic poem captured Sumerian myth and legend and provided significant comparisons with the later Old Testament.

Summary of Event

The Gilgamesh epic (translated into English as Gilgamesh Epic, 1917) is the oldest extant epic poem and Gilgamesh, legendary king of Uruk, the first literary hero in history. Apart from the similarity of the flood episode to the account given in Genesis 7 of the Bible, Gilgamesh is worthy of study because he reveals the typical pessimism and insecurity felt by man more than twelve hundred years before the time of the Greek poet Homer. Ashurbanipal

It has been proved by quotations discovered on early Sumerian tablets of the third millennium that parts of the epic existed then, but the main portion was probably composed around 2000 b.c.e. Episodes are written on a large number of cuneiform clay tablets of varying dates unearthed at various places in the Near East, but an almost complete version, consisting of twelve tablets of about three hundred lines each, comes from the library of Ashurbanipal, king of Assyria from 669 to c. 627 b.c.e. The simplicity and clarity of the tale indicates that it was probably designed for recitation rather than reading, and the Semitic parallelism of phrases is characteristic of the ancient epic style.


(Library of Congress)

In the shadowy political history of early Sumer, it is possible that the Gilgamesh of the epic had a human prototype in Gudea of Lagash. Whoever the prototype may have been, in the epic Gilgamesh is part god and part man, which is the source of his tragic dilemma. His mother is an obscure goddess, from whom he inherits his dynamic qualities of beauty, strength, and restlessness, while his father bequeaths to him mortality. Herein rests the tragedy of the conflict between the desires of the god and the destiny of the man. This theme, and the character of Gilgamesh who portrays it, are what give the work its spiritual unity over so many centuries during which it both grew and underwent revision. In a particularly poignant passage after Gilgamesh has told the wine goddess Siduri about his fear of death and his restless search for immortality, she warns him:

Gilgamesh, where are you hurrying to? You will never find that life for which you are looking. When the gods created man they alloted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping. As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice.

Gilgamesh replies: “How can I be silent, how can I rest, when Enkidu whom I love is dust, and I too shall die and be laid in the earth for ever?” This fatalistic philosophy is the distinctive note of the Mesopotamian epic and along with it goes a vivid conception of hell in striking contrast to the Egyptians’ optimistic preoccupation with an afterlife akin to heaven. The malaise of Mesopotamian psychology lies in insecurity and the lack of a covenant such as the Hebrews had with Yahweh.

The main plot describes how the people of Uruk beg the gods to relieve them of oppression by their autocratic ruler Gilgamesh. Their prayer is answered when Enkidu, the counter-hero, enters the city and wrestles with Gilgamesh. Though Gilgamesh proves his physical superiority over Enkidu, the two become firm friends and inseparable companions. They set out to overcome the giant Humbaba, who has been appointed by the god Enlil to guard the cedar forest. Together Gilgamesh and Enkidu succeed in destroying Humbaba.

On their return to Uruk, the goddess lshtar tries to win Gilgamesh as her lover, but he spurns her. In revenge, she prevails upon Anu, father of the gods, to send on Gilgamesh the Bull of Heaven, which represents seven years of drought. Gilgamesh is thus responsible for bringing destruction on many of his own people. Eventually, Gilgamesh kills the bull, but that same night, he learns in a dream that the gods have decreed that one of the two heroes, Gilgamesh or Enkidu, must lose his life for having slain Humbaba and the bull. The penalty falls on Enkidu, and Gilgamesh loses his inseparable companion. Grieving, he sets out to find Utnapishtim, the only human being who survived the Great Flood. Gilgamesh begs Utnapishtim to share with him the secret of immortality, and Utnapishtim gives him a branch from the plant of life. However, on his way home, a snake steals the precious branch while Gilgamesh stops for a swim. Gilgamesh faces the fact that death is his fate. This episode ends the epic, except for an epilogue in which Enkidu in the underworld tries to retrieve two lost objects of Gilgamesh.

This simple adventure tale both conceals and reveals a number of profound human problems and philosophical questions. It raises the question of the purpose of life, and comes to a conclusion characteristic of Mesopotamian culture in its pessimism. Although the Gilgamesh epic does not see death as annihilation of the person, it views existence after death as essentially gloomy. After death, man dwells in a lower world described as a house of dust, where he is a mere shadow of his former self. Thorkild Jacobsen remarks in The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man (1977) that the Gilgamesh epic does not have a harmonious conclusion; its surging emotions are not alleviated; “nor is there, as in tragedy, any sense of catharsis, any fundamental acceptance of the inevitable.” Its ending is unpleasant and disturbing. “An inner turmoil is left to rage on, a vital question finds no answer.”

Another theme is the struggle of civilization against barbarism. Enkidu is tamed or “civilized” by succumbing to a woman sent to him for the specific purpose of overcoming him by her charms. The Humbaba episode can also be interpreted as representing the clash between civilization and barbarism, inasmuch as it shows the two heroes struggling against a creature who controls the forest essential to the economy of Uruk.


The Gilgamesh epic was forgotten with the decline and disappearance of Sumerian society and its cuneiform writing. It was not brought into view again until the nineteenth century when the ruins of Nineveh were excavated. It is a curious and thought-provoking fact that among the Babylonians themselves the work held no particular position of eminence in literary tradition, as few fragments have been found in Mesopotamia proper and there are few quotations from the epic in other works. After Ashurbanipal’s capital, Nineveh, fell to the Medes and Persians in 612 b.c.e., the epic was all but forgotten except for the flood episode. Yet remnants remained in the memory of surrounding civilizations, for there is unmistakable evidence of Gilgamesh elements throughout the Near East and parts of the area around the Aegean Sea.

The relationship of the Gilgamesh epic to the biblical account of the flood in Genesis 7 has been carefully studied by scholars since the parallel was first revealed by George Smith, an English scholar, in 1872. There are striking similarities in the two accounts. Both tell of widespread destruction and the saving of a single man and his family: Utnapishtim in the Gilgamesh account, and Noah in the Bible. The differences, however, are more significant than the similarities in what they tell us about the two cultures. In the biblical account, the flood is a punishment for sin; in Gilgamesh, humankind is not guilty but rather the victim of the caprice of the gods. In Genesis, humankind is given an opportunity to repent in order to avert disaster; no such chance is offered in the Gilgamesh account. In the Mesopotamian version, the salvation of Utnapishtim is a purely personal boon, while in the case of Noah, the conclusion of the drama is a covenant between God and Noah as head of his descendants. The consensus opinion is that the Hebrew and Babylonian versions may have had a common source, but the account in Genesis does not seem to have depended directly on the Gilgamesh epic.

Further Reading

  • Foster, Benjamin R., Douglas Frayne, and Gary M. Beckman, eds. The Epic of Gilgamesh. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001. Includes a new translation of the epic directly from primary sources, a section on analogues to the myth in other world mythologies, a collection of classic critical essays, a glossary of proper names, and a select bibliography. Illustrated.
  • Frankfort, Henri, et al. The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man: An Essay on Speculative Thought in the Ancient Near East. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977. Includes an essay on Mesopotamia by Thorkild Jacobsen.
  • George, Andrew, trans. The Epic of Gilgamesh: The Babylonian Epic Poem and Other Texts in Akkadian and Sumerian. Reissue ed. New York: Penguin, 2003. An accessible translation with an introduction that places the epic within its historical and cultural contexts.
  • Heidel, Alexander. The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963. The classic work presenting the parallels between Babylonian and biblical myth.
  • Jacobsen, Thorkild. Treasures of Darkness. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986. One of the best guides to Sumerian culture and literature, with a substantial chapter devoted to Gilgamesh.
  • Leick, Gwendolyn. Mesopotamia. New York: Penguin, 2003. A survey of Mesopotamian culture and mythology relying on archaeological evidence.

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Ashurbanipal. Gilgamesh epic