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What is the Epic of Gilgamesh?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Epic of Gilgamesh, often referred to just as Gilgamesh, is an ancient poem which may be one of the oldest stories in the world. It concerns the adventures of a legendary Sumerian king, Gilgamesh, and his companion Enkidu. Evidence seems to strongly suggest that Gilgamesh was a real person who lived around the 27th century BCE, although the exploits documents in this poem are clearly in the realm of the fantastic, not least because Gilgamesh is described as the offspring of a goddess and a king. As with other real figures from this period who have been incorporated into legends, it can sometimes be hard to separate fact and fiction when it comes to Gilgamesh.

Like other stories from the Ancient World, the Epic of Gilgamesh probably started as an orally recited poem in the centuries following the death of the real king. Written editions began to be produced around the 17th century BCE to preserve the legend, and in the 7th century BCE, an Assyrian king collected the story in the Akkadian language, preserving it on tablets which have been used as the basis for modern translations.

This poem was briefly lost to history, which is perhaps not surprising, because of its extreme age. In the 1800s, however, the tablets dating from the 7th century were discovered and translated, bringing the Gilgamesh to the eyes of modern readers. Numerous translations are in circulation today, and the Epic does not appear to be at risk of going out of print.

Gods, goddesses, and fantastic events populate the versus of the Epic of Gilgamesh, but the focal point of the story is a meditation on mortality. Enkidu dies in the tale, leading to reports from the underworld and verses in which Gilgamesh ponders his own life, the nature of death, and what might lie beyond death. Many of Gilgamesh's struggles are accessible to modern readers who struggle with the same issues, which may explain why this work became quite popular after its discovery.

Some of the tablets are damaged or missing, leading to gaps in the story, but the basic idea comes through very clearly, and the Epic of Gilgamesh has been fleshed out with sections from other preserved versions. In the Ancient World, the Gilgamesh was better known as He Who Saw the Deep, referencing the journey into the underworld, or as Surpassing All Other Kings, celebrating the legendary legacy of Gilgamesh and his rule.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon356666 — On Nov 27, 2013

In my opinion by far the most profound, beautiful and inspiring part of the Epic of Gilgamesh was the advice given to Gilgamesh by Siduri: "Gilgamesh, whither are you wandering? Life, which you look for, you will never find. For when the gods created man, they let death be his share, and life withheld in their own hands. Gilgamesh, fill your belly. Day and night make merry. Let days be full of joy, dance and make music day and night. And wear fresh clothes. And wash your head and bathe. Look at the child that is holding your hand, and let your wife delight in your embrace. These things alone are the concern of men"

By ShadowGenius — On Jan 19, 2011

The common belief that the Sun was the source of life naturally led people to believe that it "died" in the sea every night and was reborn on the other side to bring in a new day. Irregularities in the heavens, therefore, scared them very much. Gilgamesh is a tale of such a seaward journey, and an echo of the origins of these common mythologies.

By TrogJoe19 — On Jan 16, 2011

The hero epic is common all over the world, a notable example of a similar hero to Gilgamesh being Beowulf, who lunged deep under the sea to destroy the monster of death and resurrected victorious. Sound familiar?

By Proxy414 — On Jan 14, 2011

In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Ishtar is the seductive goddess of fertility. She is the precursor to the goddess Asherah, Esther, and Eostre, after whom Easter is named, the yearly celebration of fertility and rebirth. There are so many interreligious parallels within this tale that it is a shame not to have read it.

By FitzMaurice — On Jan 12, 2011

Much of the epic of Gilgamesh has various parallels throughout history and mythology. Jung notes that the relationship between the hero Gilgamesh and his brother/companion Enkidu is much like that of Jesus and John the Baptist, or the transfiguration scene with Moses and Elijah. The hero who overcame the flood is also very much like flood mythology all over the world, the most familiar example being Noah.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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