The Epic of Gilgamesh was originally a Sumerian poem, later translated into Akkadian, and first written down some 700 – 1000 years after the reign of the historical king in the cuneiform script. The poem was known originally as Sha-naqba-imru (He Who Saw The Deep) or, alternately, Shutur-eli-sham (Surpassing All Other Kings). The fullest surviving version, in the Akkadian language, was found on twelve stone tablets in the ruins of the ancient library of Ashurbanipal, king of Assyria, at Nineveh in 1849 by the English explorer Austen Henry Layard. The first eleven tablets relate the standard version of the Epic while the 12th tablet narrates an older Sumerian poem, Bilgames and the Netherworld. As this tablet contradicts the story told in the first eleven, it is not included in most standard versions of the tale. The author/editor/translator of the Epic is named in the tablets, one Shin-Leqi-Unninni (whose name translates as `Moon god, accept my plea’) who wrote c. 1300-1000 BCE and who has been cited as the first writer of literature in the western world (though that honor is rightly accorded to Enheduanna, daughter of Sargon of Akkad, who lived 2285-2250 BCE). According to the scholar N.K. Sandars, the work is “the finest surviving epic poem from any period until the apperance of Homer’s Iliad; and it is immeasurably older”(Sandars, 7).
The hero of The Epic of Gilgamesh is the half-legendary King of Uruk who, according to the poem, felled the great trees of the Cedar Forest with his friend Enkidu to build the mighty gates of the city and journeyed far to find the secret of eternal life from the seer Utanapishtim. It is generally accepted that Gilgamesh was the historical 5th king who ruled in Uruk, widely regarded as the birthplace of writing in the west, circa 2500 BCE. Archaeological finds of letters and inscriptions attesting to his deeds, and those of his son, provide no reason to doubt such a man existed (in 2003, a team of archaeologists claimed to have found Gilgamesh’s tomb in the old riverbed of the Euphrates) yet, in time, the human king was transformed from a mere mortal to a god. His father is said to have been the Priest-King Lugalbanda and his mother was the goddess Ninsun (also known as Rimat-Ninsun, the Holy Mother and Great Queen, whose name is interpreted as `August Cow’ or `Wild Cow of the Enclosure’) thus making Gilgamesh a demi-god of extraordinary endurance and strength but, also, mortal. While Gilgamesh could, and did, perform many great feats, he could not finally realize his greatest desire to conquer death, to live eternally – or could he?
According to The Epic of Gilgamesh, the great king, arrogant and cruel among the lesser beings he ruled, was sent a strange gift from the gods: the wild man Enkidu who would be a challenge to Gilgamesh’s strength and, perhaps, teach him humility. Enkidu, originally without law and running wild in the forests, is seduced and thereby tamed by the temple harlot Shamhat, and is brought to Uruk where he, as intended, challenges Gilgamesh. After they fight, and Enkidu is bested, the two vow eternal friendship to each other and Gilgamesh’s mother Ninsun adopts Enkidu as her own.
Following the battle of the Cedar Forest in which they defeat the demon Humbaba the terrible and, soon after, the Bull of Heaven (insulting the goddess Inanna-Ishtar along the way) the gods decree the death of Enkidu, claiming that someone must pay the blood price for such presumptuous deeds. Enkidu dies and, in that moment, Gilgamesh realizes that he, too, will die and this knowledge torments him. He cries, “How can I rest, how can I be at peace? Despair is in my heart. What my brother is now, that shall I be when I am dead. Because I am afraid of death I will go as best I can to find Utnapishtim whom they call the Faraway, for he has entered the assembly of the gods” (Sandars, 97).
After a journey across the Land of Night and the Waters of Death, Gilgamesh finds the ancient man Utanapishtim, the only human being to survive the Great Flood who was, afterwards, granted immortality. Utanapishtim tells Gilgamesh the story of how he was warned by the god Ea of the coming deluge, followed his command to build an ark and place assorted animals inside and so save himself and his family from death (and humanity from extinction). He then tells Gilgamesh eternal life will be granted if the great king can stay awake for the next six days. Gilgamesh fails in this and fails in his next attempt (to bring back a magic plant which will make one young again. The plant is eaten by a snake while Gilgamesh sleeps; thus explaining why snakes shed their skins) and, having failed to win immortaity, is brought back to Uruk by the ferryman Urshanabi where, once home, he writes down his great adventure.
According to the historian D. Brendan Nagle, “This magnificent poem, which deals with such eternal human problems as sickness, old age, death, fame and the craving for the unattainable, can be considered a metaphor for Mesopotamia’s own heroic struggle to resist decay and leave a name for itself among the peoples of Earth” (Nagle, 16). However true that may be, the Epic is, at heart, the eternal struggle of the individual to find meaning in existence. Sandars writes, “If Gilgamesh is not the first human hero, he is the first tragic hero of whom anything is known. He is at once the most sympathetic to us, and most typical of individual man in his search for life and understanding” (Sandars, 7).
While Gilgamesh may have failed in his quest for immortality in the Epic and the historical king is known only through passing references, lists and inscriptions, he lives on eternally through the work of Shin-Leqi-Unninni and the many other, now nameless, scribes who wrote down the orally transmitted tale and translated the story laboriously generation to generation. These scribes attribute the original source of the story to Gilgamesh himself who, allegedly, inscribed his great deeds and adventures on a huge stone by the gates of Uruk. In the words of the anthropologist Gwendolyn Leick, Gilgamesh thus “became immortal by making a significant contribution to the greatness of his city by availing himself of the city’s ultimate cultural invention: writing” (Leick, 56). Through the written word, the story of Gilgamesh and his pride, his grief for the loss of his loved friend, his fear of death and quest for eternal life, the great king does, in fact, conquer death and wins his immortality each time his tale is read.