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Gilgamesh- Epic King and Legend

Updated on July 14, 2019


Mesopotamia was home to many of the world's greatest historical figures and leaders. One of these, Gilgamesh, served as Uruk's King for what is said to have been one-hundred and twenty six years. Uruk, one of Mesopotamia's most successful ancient cities (known as Erech in the Bible) was located in Southern Iraq, near the modern day city of Warka (Uruk).

Uruk, from the time of the fifth millennium B.C., was the largest city in the world. Uruk also made use of what was the first colonial system, as both the Uruk and Aanatolian communities made a concerted effort to work together to support their individual goals for the expansion of trade and economic growth. Unification, common interests, and support enabled both of these cities to prosper and grow. They did it together, and they are proof of what can be accomplished when cooperation has no boundaries.

Gilgamesh the King

Gilgamesh is by far the Mesopotamian society's most well known figure. As Uruk's fifth king, Gilgamesh proved to be a great leader, military mind, and visionary. Conflict with Kish, a neighboring city was a constant, and although Gilgamesh proved more than adept at protecting his city; he is remembered more for his contributions to the city itself. Little is known about the real man, but his legacy lives on.

Gilgamesh's city is believed to have been the capital of Mesopotamia at the time of his reign. It is said that Gilgamesh himself described the city of Uruk as a garden, with more than one--third of its land covered by date palm orchards that were irrigated by canals which transported water into the city. The city center stood on a man made hill, a hill created with the placement of new buildings upon already existing structures. Gilgamesh's palace and the city's ziggurat would have been located on higher land; the orchards and gardens would have surrounded them.

Uruk's walls may also have been a source of agriculture. Evidence shows that the walls made of copper and burnt brick were wide enough to walk on, and are determined to have been six miles in perimeter, topped by productive gardens. It seems that Gilgamesh's construction of those walls was a well thought out process; he seems to have understood the value of multi-tasking and dual uses. First and foremost, a city has to eat.

The city's interior has been determined to have covered an area of approximately 2500 acres. As already mentioned, the ziggurat's (temple) location would have taken precedence over all other architecture. Constructed from mud brick and mortared with a combination of mud and straw, the temple of Uruk stood high above the other buildings (the higher the temple, the closer to the gods). Religion was the center of Sumerian life. Thus, the temple's location would be in the very center of the city. Each of the Sumerian cities had a patron God or Goddess; Uruk's patronage was divided between two, the Goddess of Fertility, Innanna, and the Sky God, Anu.

Gilgamesh the Legend

Unlike most other mythological heroes Gilgamesh was a real man. The facts concerning his life are sketchy, many things are unknown, and most of the historical conclusions about his life and rule are subject to the physical evidence that's been unearthed and analyzed over long periods of time.

Gilgamesh's legend has survived for thousands of years. The oration began with the storytellers, with spoken words that were handed down through generations, words that captivated the audience, stories that were told in a way they'd be remembered. Each word was held onto, imaginations were engaged, and mental pictures were wrought and stored within the listener.

Later, came the written word and inscriptions in clay. The most well known of the literature being the Epic of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh's legend inspired dozens of stories throughout the Middle East. The earliest of these written stories came directly from Sumeria dating back to the years prior to 2,000 B.C. Other tales, also recorded on clay tablets have surfaced in the Elamite, Hurrian, and Hittite languages.

The Epic of Gilgamesh we read today is a tasty smorgasbord of all these stories, and the most complete version is the poem discovered in the city of Nineveh in what had been the library of the Assyrian empire's last great king. Assurbanipal was admittedly a tyrant, an oppressor of the empire he ruled, but he was also a collector, and his library contained innumerable documents and collections that have been priceless in obtaining knowledge about ancient Mesopotamia.

The Epic of Gilgamesh

The Epic portrays Gilgamesh as the wisest of the wise; all knowing, a man who understands life's mysteries and secrets. His keen eye enables him to control the things that transpire around him; he has experienced all that Uruk has to offer, and he wants more.

Revered as part god, part man, he is honored by his people and is seen as the ideal man. To his followers he is as a god. Described as being the Kingdom's strongest, fiercest warrior; he is also know to possess superhuman strength, a perfect male form, and a fearless demeanor; his courage knows no boundaries............ at least at the epic's beginnings.

At the outset, we are introduced to Enkidu, the man who will become Gilgamesh's closest friend and companion. Raised by animals, he is ignorant and wild; he knows nothing of human civility. Life amongst the animals was all he'd ever known. He had suckled at their breasts, grazed alongside them in the meadows, and taken sustenance beside them at their watering holes. A chance discovery by a hunter leaves Enkidu vulnerable to the many things he's never experienced. A prostitute is sent into the wilderness to seduce the wild man; her job was to domesticate and to civilize.

The presence of the woman, and the relationship that ensues between the two are the causes of Enkidu's rejection and banishment from the only home he's ever known. He is no longer a creature of the forest, and whether he wished it or not he became a part of the human world. Seduction was an easy feat for the harlot, and at the hunter's urging she tutors Enkidu in human pleasure. Pleasure soon becomes his greatest desire, and when she has him completely ensnared she begins a methodical attack on the King named Gilgamesh. Stories of his excesses, his cruelty, and his neglect are whispered, and flames of anger engulf Enkidu as he hears them.

Brave and confident, Enkidu leaves for Uruk to challenge the King, to kill him. Upon his arrival he finds Gilgamesh to be exactly what he believes him to be; they meet for the first time as Gilgamesh is about to break into a couple's wedding chamber in order to claim the bride for himself. Enkidu stops him by blocking the door, and the two men fight. After a long battle, Gilgamesh prevails as the victor, and the two quickly become best friends in search of adventure. Boys will be boys!


The Journey

Together, our heroes find themselves in a constant state of trouble. They begin their journey by testing the gods, stealing the trees in a faraway forest forbidden to men. Humbaba, a demon, stands guard over the forest for Enlil, god of the earth, wind, and air.

Humbaba is strong and frightening, he has powers that are not possessed by the two friends, and yet together, side by side, they defeat the demon aided by the help of Shamash, the sun god. Not quite satisfied by their conquest, they go on to cut down the tallest of the forest's trees, and build themselves a raft which they use to travel back to Uruk victorious.

Once back in Uruk, Gilgamesh finds himself besieged by Ishtar, the goddess of love. Gilgamesh, being a conqueror, rather than someone easily conquered rebuffs her advances, not immediately realizing that she'd run to daddy, or that her daddy, Anu (god of the sky) would be quick to retaliate. Once again, the two friends find themselves battling an otherworldly beast, the Bull of Heaven, and once again they are victorious, but the gods weren't so forgiving this time.

Anu, calling a council of the gods is intent on seeking the punishment of these two men who have flaunted their human powers in the faces of the gods who control the world. A death sentence is passed, and Enkidu is immediately stricken down by an excruciatingly painful illness. Before succumbing to death, Enkidu shares his visions of what can only be hell, and then he dies.......... leaving behind the best friend he's ever had.............. someone who mourns him whole heartedly, heart broken.

Enkidu's death fills Gilgamesh with fear; he is worried about his own immortality, and the eventual end we all come to. Clothed in animal skins, he travels to the wilderness hoping to find Utnapishtim (Mesopotamia's Noah), and the answer to what has become his quest for eternal life. As he reaches the twin peaks of Mashu, he encounters two enormous scorpions that allow him passage through the tunnels after he pleads with them for entrance.

The tunnel, dark and foreboding, leads to a garden near the sea, and a meeting with the beautifully veiled Siduri, with whom he shares his desires. Her warning of his quest's futility goes unheeded, so she directs him in the direction he wants to go, unwilling to argue with someone who shows no reason.

Her directions lead him to a ferry, and a man called Urshanabi. Urshanabi is the only one who can navigate both the sea and the Waters of Death; Gilgamesh needs him. This simple ferryman is Gilgamesh's only hope of reaching Utnapishim, and as they travel he apprises Gilgamesh of the story of the "flood," the warnings of the gods, and the gathering of every type of life into a boat that should be specially built to carry them all. Gilgamesh sits in wonder at the depth of anger the gods must have felt in order to have destroyed the whole world; he sits in awe at their regret over having done it, and he is amazed at the promise made that it would never happen again. It was then that Utnapishim was granted eternal life by the gods.............. and humanity was promised continuity. Every man would die, but humanity would live on.

Eventually, Gilgamesh gets his wish; he meets the immortal Utnapishtim. Ever confident, Gilgamesh demands immortality. Immortal that he was, Utnapishtim gave Gilgamesh a challenge. It seemed simple enough to Gilgamesh.......... stay awake for a week; that was the challenge. Utnapishtim made it easy, he told Gilgamesh in no uncertain terms that someone who believes themselves capable of living forever should be capable of a week without sleep. Gilgamesh took the challenge and failed miserably, he couldn't do it, and he was told to return to Uruk.

Upon Gilgamesh's departure, Utnapishtim's wife convinces him to share the secret of a "miracle plant" that restores youth. You know, the kind we hear about every day on the news. Gilgamesh, filled with a new sense of purpose searches out the plant and readies it for transport to Uruk, proud that he'll be returning with something of value to share with the elders, not knowing that while resting on the journey home it would be stolen by a serpent. He didn't hear a thing, and he never saw the snake as it slithered away, shedding its skin and reclaiming its long, lost youth.

Gilgamesh's tale ends at the entrance to his city. Urshanabi has accompanied the hero home, and as they gaze at the gates of Uruk, Gilgamesh speaks of the city he rules. He motions towards the great walls, he brags of its masonry, its foundation, and he points out the stone that marks his exploits. An intricately carved lapis lazuli. His accounts were kept; his kingship is remembered, and his journeys.............. they're legends.


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