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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.