The Myth of Gilgamesh, Hero King of Mesopotamia

The slaying of the Bull of Ishtar by Ernest Wallcousins
The slaying of the Bull of Ishtar by Ernest Wallcousins. Illustration from "Myths of Babylonia and Assyria" by Donald A. Mackenzie, 1915.

Historical Picture Archive / Getty Images

Gilgamesh is the name of a legendary warrior king, a figure based on the fifth king of the first dynasty of the Mesopotamian capital of Uruk, sometime between 2700–2500 BCE. Real or not, Gilgamesh was the hero of the first recorded epic adventure tale, told in the ancient world from Egypt to Turkey, from the Mediterranean coast to the Arabian desert for well over 2,000 years.

Fast Facts: Gilgamesh, Hero King of Mesopotamia

  • Alternate Names: King Gilgamesh of Uruk
  • Equivalent: Bilgames (Akkadian), Bilgamesh (Sumerian)
  • Epithets: He Who Saw the Deep
  • Realms and Powers: King of Uruk, responsible for building the city wall, and King of the Underworld and Judge of the Dead
  • Family: Son of the Babylonian King Lugalbanda (also known as Enmerkar or Euechsios) and the goddess Ninsumun or Ninsun. 
  • Culture/Country: Mesopotamia / Babylon / Uruk
  • Primary Sources: Babylonian epic poem written in Sumerian, Akkadian, and Aramaic; discovered at Nineveh in 1853

Gilgamesh in Babylonian Mythology

The earliest surviving documents referring to Gilgamesh are cuneiform tablets found throughout Mesopotamia and made between 2100–1800 BCE. The tablets were written in Sumerian and describe events in Gilgamesh's life that were later woven into a narrative. Scholars believe that the Sumerian tales may have been copies of older (non-surviving) compositions from the court of the Ur III kings (21st century BCE), who claimed descent from Gilgamesh.

The earliest evidence of the stories as a narrative was likely composed by scribes at the cities of Larsa or Babylon. By the 12th century BCE, the epic of Gilgamesh was widespread throughout the Mediterranean region. Babylonian tradition says that the exorcist Si-leqi-unninni of Uruk was the author of the Gilgamesh poem called "He Who Saw the Deep," about 1200 BCE.

Tablet 11 of Gilgamesh Epic
The 11th tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh, in which Utnapishtim tells the story of the Great Flood. CM Dixon / Getty Images

A nearly complete copy was found in 1853 in Nineveh, Iraq, partly at the Library of Ashurbanipal (r. 688–633 BCE). Copies and fragments of the Gilgamesh epic have been found from the Hittite site of Hattusa in Turkey to Egypt, from Megiddo in Israel to the Arabian desert. These fragments of the tale are variously written in Sumerian, Akkadian, and several forms of Babylonian, and the latest ancient version dates to the time of the Seleucids, Alexander the Great's successors in the fourth century BCE. 

Description 

In the most common form of the story, Gilgamesh is a prince, son of King Lugalbanda (or a renegade priest) and the goddess Ninsun (or Ninsumun).

Though he was a wild youth at the outset, during the epic tale Gilgamesh pursues a heroic quest for fame and immortality and becomes a man with an enormous capacity for friendship, endurance, and adventure. Along the way he also experiences great joy and sorrow, as well as strength and weakness.

Drawing of Gilgamesh Statue
Drawing of a statue of Mesopotamian ruler Gilgamesh, as he holds a lion under his arm. Stock Montage / Getty Images

Epic of Gilgamesh 

In the beginning of the story, Gilgamesh is a young prince in Warka (Uruk), fond of carousing and chasing women. The citizens of Uruk complain to the gods, who together decide to send a distraction to Gilgamesh in the form of a large hairy creature, Enkidu.

Enkidu disapproves of Gilgamesh's wastrel ways and together they set off on a journey through the mountains to the Cedar Forest, where a monster lives: Huwawa or Humbaba, a monstrously fearsome giant of immemorial age. With the help of the Babylonian sun god, Enkidu and Gilgamesh defeat Huwawa and kill him and his bull, but the gods demand that Enkidu be sacrificed for the deaths. 

Enkidu dies, and Gilgamesh, heartbroken, mourns by his body for seven days, hoping it will come alive again. When Enkidu isn't revived, he holds a formal burial for him and then vows he will become immortal. The rest of the tale concerns that quest.

Seeking Immortality

Gilgamesh seeks immortality in several places, including the establishment of a divine tavern owner (or barmaid) on the sea coast, across the Mediterranean, and through a visit to the Mesopotamian Noah, Utnapishtim, who obtained immortality after surviving the great flood.

After many adventures, Gilgamesh arrives at the home of Utnapishtim, who, after recounting the events of the Great Flood, eventually tells him that if he can sleep for six days and seven nights, he will obtain immortality. Gilgamesh sits down and instantly falls asleep for six days. Utnapishtim then tells him he must go the bottom of the sea to find a special plant with healing powers. Gilgamesh is able to find it, but the plant is stolen by a serpent who uses it and is able to molt its old skin and be reborn.

Gilgamesh weeps bitterly and then gives up his quest and returns to Uruk. When he finally dies, he becomes the god of the underworld, a perfect king and judge of the dead who sees and knows all. 

Gilgamesh Fights Snakes
Engraved weight depicting the hero Gilgamesh fighting two snakes, steatite or chlorite. Sumerian civilization, 3rd millennium BCE. G. Dagli Orti / Getty Images Plus

Gilgamesh in Modern Culture 

The epic of Gilgamesh is not the only Mesopotamian epic about a half-human, half-god king. Fragments of epics have been found concerning several kings including Sargon of Agade (ruled 2334 to 2279 BCE), Nebuchadnezzar I of Babylon (1125–1104 BCE), and Nabopolassar of Babylon (626–605 BCE). However, Gilgamesh's is the earliest narrative poem recorded. Plot points, heroic aspects, and even whole stories are thought to have been an inspiration for the Old Testament of the Bible, the Iliad and the Odyssey, the works of Hesiod, and the Arabian nights.

The Gilgamesh epic is not a religious document; it is a story of a dimly historical hero who interfered with and was guarded by several gods and goddesses, a story that evolved and was embroidered over its 2,000-year-long existence.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Abusch, Tzvi. "The Development and Meaning of the Epic of Gilgamesh: An Interpretive Essay." Journal of the American Oriental Society 121.4 (2001): 614–22.
  • Dalley, Stephanie. "Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, The Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others." Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.
  • George, Andrew R. "The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Introduction, Critical Edition and Cuneiform Texts," 2 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • idem. "The Gilgameš Epic at Ugarit." Aula Orientalis 25.237–254 (2007). Print.
  • Gresseth, Gerald K. "The Gilgamesh Epic and Homer." The Classical Journal 70.4 (1975): 1–18.
  • Heidel, Alexander. "Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels." Chicago IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1949.
  • Milstein, Sara J. "Outsourcing Gilgamesh." Empirical Models Challenging Biblical Criticism. Eds. Person Jr., Raymond F., and Robert Rezetko. Ancient Israel and Its Literature. Atlanta, GA: SBL Press, 2016. 37–62.