This post was originally published for my Introduction to Humanities (HUM120) course blog yesterday. This week on that blog, I am focusing on Ancient Literature to supplement the readings and video lectures. Because I had to reread the texts to write the blog entries, I will be including them on this blog as space is available.
Original Post: One of the earliest known works of literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh dates back to Mesopotamia (geographically near modern-day Iraq) as part of a series of Sumerian legends and poems about Gilgamesh (who is thought to have been a real King / ruler from the Early Dynastic II period, about the 27 century BCE—before common era). The oldest surviving written version of this story dates back to 12 clay tablets in the library of the 7th-century BCE Assyrian king Ashurbanpipal and was entitled Surpassing All Other Kings. The Epic of Gilgamesh is available for free in its entirety in several places on the internet, but the most interactive is probably this one created for the digital library: http://gilgamesh.psnc.pl/.
An epic is a “word story poem” (from the Ancient Greek), a lengthy narrative poem (narrative means tells a story). Usually, epics concern serious subjects with heroic deeds and events important to an entire culture (later this week, I will talk more about the characteristics or conventions of epics). During the ancient times, epics were oral poetry, stories told and passed down for generations before they were actually written (they weren’t written down first until about the time of Virgil; return here Friday for more about Virgil).
In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh is the King of Uruk, and he is 2/3 god and 2/3 man. Despite his physical beauty, he is a very cruel ruler. So, the gods create a friend for him, named Enkidu, to distract Gilgamesh from oppressing the people of Uruk. Together they go on many journeys and adventures, including a trip to Cedar Mountain to take on its monster-guardian Humbaba and to kill the Bull of Heaven sent to punish Gilgamesh for hurting the feelings of the goddess Ishtar. Gilgamesh and Enkidu wrestle the Bull and kill it, and the gods immensely unhappy with them decide to punish them and kill Enkidu.
The rest of the story focuses of Gilgamesh’s grief which he turns into a quest for immortality. He seeks out the Mesopotamian version of Noah, a man who after the great flood was granted immortality by the gods. Utnapishtim thinks Gilgamesh is not ready for immortality and gives him a challenge. When Gilgamesh fails the challenge, Utnapishtim’s wife tells him about a miracle plant that grants eternal life. Gilgamesh loses it to a snake (think serpant from the Genesis story). Beaten and defeated, Gilgamesh returns home to Uruk resigned to his own mortality. He learns a valuable lesson, though: he might not be able to live forever, but humankind will.
The themes of this story include love as a motivating force (platonic friends: Enkidu turns from a wild man into a noble one and Gilgamesh from a cruel ruler to a hero), the inevitability of death, and that gods are dangerous / we are at the whim of the gods.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is important to our study of the humanities because it is probably the oldest example of literature to have survived in its original form. It is important for what it tells us about its originating culture (its values, mythos, beliefs). It is also important because it clearly has similarities to later cultures including the flood story from the Bible.