Gilgamesh, the legendary king of Uruk who wanted to be immortal

In the mid-19th century, archaeologists unearthed in the ancient city of Nineveh (present-day northern Iraq) a set of clay tablets, some dating more than 4,000 years old. Found on that clay tablet was a story dating back to ancient Mesopotamia.

In what is perhaps the oldest known written story in human history, the Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh, king of the ancient city of Uruk, sets out on an adventure to discover the secret of eternal life. After slaying many beasts and roaming the earth, from one adventure to another, Gilgamesh comes to a conclusion and accepts his limitations as a mortal. He returns to Uruk a changed man as he truly understands the meaning of life. From then onward he rules in a more benevolent, fair and just manner.

Below World History Edu explores the life, adventures and tribulations of Gilgamesh, a semi-mythical Sumerian hero-king who not only rejected the Mesopotamian goddess of love Ishtar but also tried to conquer death.

The semi-divine birth of King Gilgamesh

Gilgamesh is portrayed as an extraordinary man with superhuman abilities. However, he begins his reign in a very awful manner, almost acting as a tyrant to his people, the Sumerian city of Uruk. It is said that he had semi-divine abilities because he was two-thirds god/or immortal and one-third man. In the story, his father is the Lugalbanda, a priest-king in the city of Uruk. His mother, on the other hand, is Ninsun, an ancient Mesopotamian goddess who was also known as the Holy Mother or the Great Goddess Queen.

In the tale, Gilgamesh’s divine birth meant that he could do things beyond what the strongest or wisest human in the city could do. It also meant that he lived a very long life, as written records stated that his reign lasted for about 126 years.

The little mortal blood, however insignificant, that flowed in his veins meant that he was destined to die one day. According to the myth, this thought scared the living daylight out of him.

Gilgamesh the tyrant

Gilgamesh

Gilgamesh’s oppression causes his people to be extremely unhappy. In addition to being a serial rapist, he is also openly disrespectful to the gods. Gilgamesh is anything but villain at the start of the story. | Image: Ancient Assyrian statue currently in the Louvre, possibly representing Gilgamesh

The Epic of Gilgamesh opens by describing King Gilgamesh of Uruk as anything but a tyrannical ruler who goes about gate crushing every wedding the city of Uruk. To add insult to injury, the king passed a decree commanding every bride in the land to sleep with him before she slept with her husband. Proud, arrogant and boastful of his divine nature, Gilgamesh had no equal in the land. Frustrated by the despotism in the land, the people of Uruk cried to the gods, who sent a rival called Enkidu.

Gilgamesh spars with Enkidu

According to the epic, Enkidu was created by the goddess Aruru to end the tyranny of Gilgamesh. Enkidu was a powerful and uncivilized being who lived in a region beyond the walls of the city of Uruk. His dwelling was one full of chaos and evil spirits.

After Enkidu is seduced by one of the priestesses of the goddess Ishtar, he becomes civilized and decided to travel to the city of Uruk to duel with Gilgamesh. Due to their similar abilities and strength, the fight ended in a stalemate. In some accounts, Gilgamesh emerges victorious.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu slay Humbaba

Gilgamesh and his best mate Enkidu journey into the Cedar Forest where they kill Humbaba the Terrible as well as cut down many trees in the forest | Image: Gilgamesh and Enkidu slaying Humbaba at the Cedar Forest. From Iraq; purchase. 19th-17th century BC. Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin

Following the fight, Enkidu and Gilgamesh developed a strong respect for each other’s skills and abilities. They became good friends and set out to take down the thousand-face creature named Humbaba who stood guard at the Forest of Cedar.

The two men followed the creature until finally ambushing him. In spite of Humbaba cries for his life to be spared, Gilgamesh and Enkidu slayed Humbaba, who cursed them as he laid on the ground gasping for air.

Gilgamesh versus the Bull of Heaven

In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar is unsuccessful at seducing Gilgamesh. Image: Ishtar on an Akkadian Empire seal, 2350–2150 BC.

Gilgamesh’s exploits and abilities caused the goddess Ishtar to fall head over heels. However, Gilgamesh rejected her as Ishtar was known to quickly discard and devour her former lovers. Irritated by Gilgamesh’s rejection, Inanna unleashed the Bull of Heaven on the city of Uruk. The fierce beast, who by the way is Inanna’s brother-in-law, left a trail of destruction and death in its path. Gilgamesh and Enkidu once again sprang to action and defended the city by killing the Bull of Heaven.

Epic of Gilgamesh. Ancient Mesopotamian terracotta relief (c. 2250 -1900 BC) showing Gilgamesh slaying the Bull of Heaven, which was sent by the goddess Inanna to unleash misery and pain on Gilgamesh and the city of Uruk. The episode is described in Tablet VI of the Epic of Gilgamesh

The death of Enkidu

Offended by what they perceived as hubris of mere mortals, the gods kill Enkidu for his involvement in the death of the Bull of Heaven. Enkidu then steps into the House of Dust, the Mesopotamian term used to describe the underworld. The spirits of the dead in the House of Dust are forced to kneel and feed off the dirt on the land and drink stone.

Enkidu’s death not only causes Gilgamesh to be depressed, but it also forces him to think of mortal limitations as well as question the purpose and meaning of life.

Epic of Gilgamesh

After the gods kill his best friend, Enkidu, Gilgamesh goes out on an adventure to secure the secret to an immortal life. Hopes to use the knowledge gained to not only keep him immortal but to also bring Enkidu back from the dead. | Image: Representation of Enkidu (2027-1763 BCE), a creation by the gods to King Gilgamesh from treating his people cruelly.

Following the death of his dear friend Enkidu, Gilgamesh puts aside his hubris and seeks to find the meaning of life, which he believed would be attained when he discovers the secret to immortality.

The death of Enkidu in the Epic of Gilgamesh

Early on in the story King Gilgemesh is bent on avoiding death, least he be sent to the House of Dust, a shadowy Mesopotamian Underworld where spirits of dead kneel eternally and feed of the dirt and stones on the ground.

Gilgamesh’s palpable fear of death and a meaningless life

The death of his friend Enkidu caused Gilgamesh to seek out into the vast wilderness in search of immortality. He hoped to use his findings to not only make himself immortal, but to also bring Enkidu back to life.

In his journey to find the secret to immortality, he encountered several challenges, including passing a race of creatures known as the scorpion people. He search took him beneath the mighty mountains. In the myth, he is said to have outran the rising sun until he a place where the world ended. There, he met a bartender, the goddess Shiduri, who warned Gilgamesh of the dire consequences of his quest. Shiduri told Gilgamesh that death came for all mortals, and that he should rather aim to live a worthwhile and joyful life.

Gilgamesh rejected Shiduri’s claims and insisted that the goddess helped him in his quest. In the end, Shiduri caved into the demands of Gilgamesh, giving the Uruk king further directions. She ordered him to go past the Waters of Death, where an immortal man Utanapishti (Utnapishtim) resided. Urshanabi is the ferryman who takes Gilgamesh across the Waters of Death to meet Utnapishtim.

Gilgamesh and Utanapishti

Utanapishti had received the gifts of immortality for his heroics during the Great Flood that saw him build a big boat to save two of every animal.

Utnapishtim narrates to Gilgamesh the story of the great flood—how the gods met and decided to wipe humans off the face of the planet. However Ea, the god of wisdom, warns Utnapishtim about the genocidal plans of the gods. Ea tells Utnapishtim to build a gigantic boat in which his family and two of  every living creature might escape. After the great deluge, the gods regret their actions and agree never to destroy the world again. For his heroism, Utnapishtim is rewarded with eternal life.

Similar to the warnings given by the goddess Shiduri, Utanapishti entreated Gilgamesh to accept his mortality. He told the king of Uruk that death comes for everyone. Undeterred, Gilgamesh pestered Utanapishti until the latter gave in. Utanapishti told Gilgamesh that the gods would bestow the gift of immortality upon him if he could conquer sleep for six days and seven nights. Gilgamesh’s quest to conquer sleep was a fiasco as he fell asleep immediately.

Gilgamesh then approached Utanapishti who told him that the secret to immortality lay in a magical plant that flourished at the bottom of a deep ocean. Gilgamesh was able to dive into the ocean by fastening stones to his feet.

Although Gilgamesh is able to secure the secret plant for rejuvenation, he loses it on his way back home to Uruk. While taking a bath, a snake creeps up on him and then curls around the plant. Thus, Gilgamesh, disappointed and beaten down, must return to Uruk empty-handed.

Lesson learnt

Upon reaching the mighty gates of his city, Gilgamesh, the mighty warrior who slayed countless monsters, comes to terms with human limitations and the fact that death comes for everyone. He had embarked on a life-changing journey which saw him accrue as many successes as defeats, he ultimately lost his prized treasure, the secret to immortality, and finally, he made peace with his mortal life. The King of Uruk proceeded to use his power and wisdom to make not only his life better but the lives of his people.

Epic of Gilgamesh

Semi-mythical king of Uruk Gilgamesh, a demigod with extraordinary abilities, sought to break free from the limitations as a mortal. He journeyed to the end of the world to get answers to questions beyond him. He instead secures a hard-learnt lesson after returning from his adventure.

His journey and misadventures can be seen as symbol of the innate human condition and the universal human quest to grow past mistakes and accept our limitations. It also highlights humanity’s age old struggle to find the meaning of life and how all of that affects the way we see death.

Desiring to share his life experience with future generations and civilizations, Gilgamesh put down his story on a tablet which he later buried under the walls of his city.

Shin-Leqi-Unninni, possible author of the Akkadian version

Epic of Gilgamesh

Shin-Leqi-Unninni is acclaimed as the ancient Babylonian writer who put into words the version of the Epic of Gilgamesh found by Layard and his team in 1849 in Iraq. | Image: Fragment of Tablet II of the Epic of Gilgamesh, Sulaymaniyah Museum, Iraq

The tablet that was found in the mid-19th century by Layard in Iraq is estimated to be about 2000 to 2300 years old. It was written in cuneiform by a Babylonian writer named Shin-Leqi-Unninni. It was initially thought that Shin was history’s first known writer, until archaeologists unearthed the works of an ancient Akkadian priest named Enheduanna (c. 2284- c. 2245 BC), the daughter of famous Akkadian king Sargon of Akkad.

Considering the fact that the Epic of Gilgamesh had been passed orally between the cultures of ancient Mesopotamia, it is not surprising that different gods from Sumerian and Akkadian pantheons appear in the various versions. It’s a classic case of where two religious traditions get combined over time. In Shin’s version, it is apparently clear that even though he was an Akkadian he was inspired by a number of Sumerian sources.

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Significance of Gilgamesh, the semi-mythical hero-king of Uruk

In an ancient Sumerian story about the goddess Inanna and the Huluppu Tree, King Gilgamesh is described as the brother of the goddess. In that story Gilgamesh helps Inanna fell a demon-infested tree that had been causing a lot of havoc in the kingdom. In addition to having a troublesome female demon (lilitu) at the center, the tree was also infested with snakes and other malicious rodents. Gilgamesh slays the demon and then chases the snakes away. After keeping the branches of the tree for himself, he presents the trunk of the tree to Inanna, who uses it to make a number of home furniture for herself.

In other accounts, he was seen as a very important judge in the afterlife, determining whether the dead gets to spend an eternity in blissful conditions or torturous conditions. In that capacity, parallels could be drawn to ancient Greek mythical heroes and kings such as Rhadamanthus, Aecus and Minos, three men who were judges in the underworld.

Although Gilgamesh’s story is more than 4,000 years old, it’s themes of growth and self-development have had an immense historical value. The character in the story influenced later ancient Greek heroes such as Hercules, Perseus and Odysseus. Without the Epic of Gilgamesh there most likely wouldn’t have been Homeric epics and other stories of the ancient era. Even to this day, the story echoes in the works of poets, philosophers and authors across the world.

Discovery of cuneiform clay tablets

Under the ruins of the famous Library of Ashurbanipal, English archaeologist Austen Henry Layard and his team of researchers discovered about 15,000 fragments of Assyrian cuneiform tablets, including ones that contained the Epic of Gilgamesh. Image: (L-R): English archaeologist and historian Austen Henry Layard (1817-1894),  Iraqi-Assyrian Assyriologist Hormuzd Rassam (1826-1910), and British archaeologist W.K. Loftus (1820-1858)

The clay tablet that contains the mythical story of Gilgamesh was found in the ruins of the Library of the 7th-century BC Assyrian king Ashurbanipal. The library is considered one of the oldest libraries in human history. The discovery was made in 1849 by English historian, archaeologist, and cuneiformist Austen Henry Layard in the ancient city of Nineveh in northern Iraq. Layard and his team of archaeologists were conducting research in the area to find evidence to prove that the stories in the Bible were true.

More Epic of Gilgamesh facts

The Epic of Gilgamesh talks about the story of an ancient Mesopotamian king known as Gilgamesh who goes on a dangerous journey to seek immortality.

  • The tablet that was found in the mid-19th century by Layard in Iraq is estimated to be about 2000 to 2300 years old. At that staggering age, the Epic of Gilgamesh comes in at number two on the list of oldest known religious texts in world history. The number one spot is occupied by the Pyramid Texts of ancient Egypt.
  • The Sumerian name of Gilgamesh is Bilgamesh.
  • In 2003, a German-led group of archaeologists claimed that they had unearthed the tomb of King Gilgamesh.
  • In one of the mythical accounts, Gilgamesh was laid to rest at the bottom of the Euphrates River. It was believed that waters parted into two, allowing his subjects to bury him at the bottom of the river.
  • In some regard, Gilgamesh truly defied death as his story has remained timeless since it was first narrated back in 2000 BCE, perhaps even longer. His story makes him the first known epic hero in world history.
  • The fact that the story of Gilgamesh has remained relevant all these millennia in itself means that the mythical hero Gilgamesh attained some bit of immortality.
  • In the Akkadian/Babylonian version of the story, rather than the goddess Inanna, the goddess Ishtar is the one who sends the Bull of Heaven down to the city of Uruk.

Just how old is the Epic of Gilgamesh?

To put into perspective just how old the Epic of Gilgamesh is. Gilgamesh’s story is more than 1500 years older than poems written by the ancient Greek poet Homer.

Archaeologists estimate that the story was most likely passed orally from one generation to another until it was finally written down around 2150 BC. It is also possible that the story even predates the Sumerian civilization. Thus, it is undoubtedly the oldest known written story in human history.

Was Gilgamesh a real king of Uruk?

Gilgamesh’s story echoes in literature to this day even after several thousands of years since it was first written down. However, was Gilgamesh a real king of Uruk? The answer to this question remains unknown.

It’s been stated that the story of Gilgamesh was put down in writing about 800 to 1000 years after the death of the historical king.

There were several stories based perhaps on that historic King Gilgamesh. It was said that the king was so powerful and beloved by his people that many stories portrayed him in an almost god like manner. Archaeologists and scholars believe that those stories gained popularity several centuries after the death of the king, who was considered on many instances a hero of divine birth and a sibling of many Mesopotamian gods and goddesses.

In one of the story, the real King Gilgamesh is credited with building Uruk’s great walls (located in present day Warka, Iraq). A number of early Mesopotamian kings, like King Enmebaragesi of Kish, sought to boost their reputation by invoking his name on many occasions. Some of those kings even tried to link their lineage to Gilgamesh. Rulers like Shulgi of Ur (c. 2029-c. 1982 BC), perhaps the greatest king of the Ur III Period (2047-1750 BCE), described himself as the son of Lugalbanda and the goddess Ninsun. That will mean that Shulgi was portraying himself as the brother of Gilgamesh.

Epic of Gilgamesh

The Epic of Gilgamesh was narrated orally long before it was put in writing on clay tablets. | Image: Tablet V of the Epic of Gilgamesh

Bibliography

  • Black, J. et. al. The Literature of Ancient Sumer. Oxford University Press, 2006.
  • Dalley, S. Myths from Mesopotamia Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and others. Oxford University Press., 2000.
  • How To Read “Gilgamesh” Accessed 20 Oct 2021
  • Gilgamesh Accessed 25 Oct 2021.
  • The Epic of Gilgamesh Accessed 24 Oct 2021
  • Jacobsen,T. The Treasures of Darkness. Yale University Press, 1978.
  • Kramer, S. N. Sumerian Mythology. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.
  • Sandars, N.K. The Epic of Gilgamesh. Penguin Classics, 1960.
  • Wolkstein, D. & Kramer, S. N. Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth. Harper Perennial, 1983.

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