Archive for March 6, 2014

The most well-known of the epics is that of Gilgamesh. Like Attrahasis a significant number of tablets were discovered at Nineveh, which date from the six or seventh century BCE. In addition copies or partial copies have also been found at a number of other sites within the Assyrian Empire and some of these have been translated into local languages – Hittite, Hurrian and Elamite.
The hero of the epic is Gilgamesh, the King of Uruk (sometimes listed as Erech). Gilgamesh is a ‘historical’ character appearing in the Sumerian Kings list from around 2600BCE where he is assigned a reign of 126 years.

sumerian-king-list

sumerian-king-list

His father was a King and a high priest, whilst his mother is listed as the goddess Ninsun. As a result Gilgamesh had a semi-divine nature.

Gilgamesh

Gilgamesh

The epic opens with the introduction to Gilgamesh and his deeds. There are many aspects of the story which record the nature of his reign as King. He is portrayed as a man of wisdom and knowledge, but also of tyranny and trickery. The inhabitants of Uruk petition the God Aruru to rescue them from Gilgamesh’s rule, and Aruru sends a warrior, Enkidu, to challenge him. However, Gilgamesh and Enkidu end up as friends and partners and set off on an adventure to kill a giant. When they encounter the giant, Gilgamesh despairs of killing him, but by the intervention of the sun god, they are able to overpower him and the giant has to plead for his life. In the next section Gilgamesh refuses the advances of the goddess Ishtar and she sends the ‘Bull of heaven’ to Earth in order to punish Gilgamesh for his rejection. However Gilgamesh is able to kill the bull, but not before the animal has killed Enkidu. Gilgamesh sets off on another adventure to find Ut-napishtum, the son of King Ubara-Tutu, a man who has been granted immortality following his survival of a great flood. He undergoes a long and difficult journey but eventually he finds Ut-napishtum, who tells him the story that the gods decided to send a great flood to wipe out humankind.

tablet from the epic-of-Gilgamesh detailing the flood story

tablet from the epic-of-Gilgamesh detailing the flood story

However, the God Ea had warned Ut-napishtum in time for him to build a large boat and fill it with precious metals and set sail with his family, craftsman and wild beasts. At the end of the flood he sent out a dove and a swallow but both returned having been unable to find land. Subsequently he sent out a raven which did not return. He left the boat and performed sacrifices to the gods, who decide to make him and his wife immortal. Gilgamesh then asked how he too can obtain immortality. Ut-napishtum tells him that he does not know, as it had been a gift to him from the Gods. Some versions report that Gilgamesh is set a task to stay awake for six days and seven nights, as a test of whether he is worthy of immortality, but Gilgamesh fails to complete it. He abandons the quest and returns to Uruk.