The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest story known to us. It is known as a folk tale, because it contains many individual stories which comprise the whole. It was originally written on Sumerian clay tablets, circa 2700 BC using a type of script called "Cuneiform" which when translated means "wedge-shaped". The story began as five individual narrative poems, and by the old Babylonian period, many additional stories and poems were compiled. It was later reconstructed by Sin-leqe-unninni of Babylon (circa 2000BC) into the twelve tablets we have today. Scholars believe that the events surrounding the Epic occurred somewhere around 3500 BC.
The most complete surviving version is in the Akkadian language, and was found in the ruins of the library of Ashurbanipal, king of Assyria (669-633 BC), at Nineveh. The library was destroyed by the Persians in 612 BC, and all the tablets were damaged. So parts of the story are missing.
The translations I used for the interpretation of the Epic of Gilgamesh are largely from the Akkadian compilation. However, I feel obligated to use as many of the original Sumerian names as possible, so you will find certain character names shown by the Sumerian name first followed by the Akkadian/Babylonian name (i.e.: Inana/Ishtar).
Who were the Sumerians?
Ancient Sumeria was responsible for bringing the invention of the wheel, government, art, mathematics, astronomy (more on that later...) and a form of writing called cuneiform to the world. They lived in what is known as Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates river, where Iran and Iraq are today at circa 3500-3000 BC. Sumeria is known as the "sudden civilization" by scholars because this remarkable culture seemingly appeared out of nowhere.
Where was Sumeria?
Mesopotamia, in general, refers to the area of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Sumeria refers to the southern delta region, whose primary cities included Ur, Uruk, and Eridu. Uruk is the city in which the famous king Gilgamesh lived. Akkad was a region north of Sumer which included the area around modern Baghdad as well as the ancient sites of Babylon, Kish, and Nippur.
What is Cuneiform?
Cuneiform was a writing technique used by Sumerian scribes. They used a stylus with one end slightly flared and a wet slab of clay. By pressing the stylus onto the wet clay at various angles, the scribe was able to produce characters.
When transliterated, these characters form the words, "Enuma Elish" (e-nu-ma e-lis), which is the Sumerian epic of creation (more on that later). There are thousands of these clay tablets that have survived over the years, and it has enabled scholars to get a good idea as to what life was like in Sumeria thousands of years ago.
What is a cylinder seal?
In addition to cuneiform, the Sumerians used cylinder seals to record their history. This clay slab has been created using a cylinder seal. Negatives of the image and text were carved onto a cylindrical stone (we have no idea how this was done), and then rolled onto wet clay to create the scene. Originally, cylinder seals were used by lawyers and professionals to "stamp" legal documents, much as a Notary uses seals today. As the use of cylinder seals became more widespread, they became much more elaborate, depicting important events in Sumerian history.
The object on the left is the cylindrical stone with the negative image "carved" into it. The object on the right is the clay after the cylinder of stone is rolled upon it, creating the positive image from the stone.
The Sumerian gods enjoyed an extended lifetime - on the average of three thousand years - as compared to our brief mortal existence. This pantheon of gods was the first pantheon, and civilizations that followed (Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Egypt, Greece, Rome etc.) simply made modifications and name changes to these gods. As with these younger cultures, the gods were often affiliated with cities, where special temples were constructed to honor them. For instance, in the Epic of Gilgamesh, Uruk was the city of the goddess Inanna, hence her infatuation with Gilgamesh.
When you begin to look into these incredible cultures, you will find that the gods of Sumeria, Assyria and Babylon are identical except for their names. For instance, the Sumerian goddess Innana is known to the later Babylonian and Akkadian cultures as Ishtar.
The most striking difference between the Sumerians and later cultures lies in the Sumerian concept of the afterlife.
They believed that when people died, they went to an awful place where the spirits of men ate dust and crawled on their bellies. This place was known as the "house of dust" - and after a years time of ghostly existence, the soul of the deceased would fade away into oblivion.
The Sumerians had four leading deities, known as "creating gods". Here is a brief description of these immortals:
An was the sky god, father and king of the Sumerian pantheon. He was the god of the kings (much like Horus was to the Pharaohs of Egypt) and was not friendly to the common people. He was the son of Anshar and Kishar who were beings who preceded the gods. According to Sumerian legend, An took over Heaven when it was separated from Earth, creating the universe as we know it. Although he was known as the "leader" of the Sumerian pantheon, he was the most obscure of all the gods, with very little information and no images or depictions in the various temples throughout Mesopotamia remaining.
Enlil was known as the"wind/storm-god" and the god of the lands and of the earth. He was initially the leader of the pantheon, but relinquished his position to An. Enlil was the most important god of the Sumerian pantheon, however he had a short fuse and was responsible for the great flood (here is one of the many similarities between the Sumerian mythology and our Bible). He was also credited with the creation of mankind. His wife was Ninlil. He was the "King of the Annunaki", and acted as their counselor warrior.
Inanna was the goddess of love, procreation, and war. She is often accompanied by a lion, and sometimes rides it. She was known to fly around in her "sky chamber" in the cedar mountains. She is a type of "black widow spider" - in that she finds a mate and then kills him when she is finished. She attempts to entice Gilgamesh and is refused by him, at which point she asks her father An to unleash the "Bull of Heaven" upon Gilgamesh and Enkidu. The Sumerian goddess Lillith, draws parallels to the woman who preceded Eve in the Bible. Lillith could also be affiliated with Inanna. She has been resurrected currently as a woman who is independent and not requiring the assistance of a man.
Enki was known as the god of the subterranean waters. He was in charge of the bolt which bars the sea. He was the "Lord of Wisdom" and "Lord of Incantations". Enki's words came to life - what he spoke became reality. He was the son of An.
Other Sumerian gods included those in charge of rivers, mountains, and plains; of cities, fields, and farms; and of tools such as pickaxes, brick molds, and plows.
The Sumerians thought that a great domed roof contained the sky, the stars, the moon, and the sun which lighted the cities beneath it; they also believed that below the earth swirled the dim nether world, a fearsome abode of demons and the kingdom of the dead. Enlil and Enki are credited with creating the cattle, sheep, plants, the yoke and the plow to provide sustenance for themselves and less important deities, but these minor gods lacked the resolution to make use of this bounty so man was fashioned from clay and given breath so he might tend the sheep and cultivate the fields for the gods.
http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/Gilgamesh.aspx ←- nice site
- semi-mythic King of Uruk
- ruled around 2700 BC
- The Epic of Gilgamesh (written in c. 2150 - 1400 BCE)
- it was an oral piece at first, until people created the 12 clay tablets using cuneiform
- oldest piece of epic western literature
Setting: 2700 BC, Mesopotamia
Elements of Poetry
Rhythm and MeterRhythm and meter are the building blocks of poetry. Rhythm is the pattern of sound created by the varying length and emphasis given to different syllables. The rise and fall of spoken language is called its cadence.
Meter is the rhythmic pattern created in a line of verse. There are four basic kinds of meter:
Line and Stanza
Poetry generally is divided into lines of verse. A grouping of lines, equivalent to a paragraph in prose, is called a stanza. On the printed page, line breaks normally are used to separate stanzas from one another.
couplet (2 lines)
tercet (3 lines)
quatrain (4 lines)
cinquain (5 lines)
sestet (6 lines) (sometimes it's called a sexain)
septet (7 lines)
octave (8 lines)
Blending between Fact and Fiction within Gilgamesh
Evidence suggests that one function of the epic is to describe the proper duties of kings, so even though it is a great story it was not simply written 'for entertainment'. There are a couple of stories in Gilgamesh that have echoes in the "old testament", and the Genesis flood story is almost certainly based on the Gilgamesh one, but to assert that the content of the whole Tanakh and the Epic are identical is nonsense. Folk tales, cultural wisdom, perhaps from the same sources from which the Bible originated, thus the common threads between them. Gilgamesh was a real person who ruled over Uruk. Of course, not much is REALLY known about his life, as there was little form of surviving records about him, but he's best remembered in the Epic of Gilgamesh, which is considered one of the oldest surviving works of literature in the world. The Epic of Gilgamesh mixes elements of fantasy, so we can't verify how much of it is fiction and how much is history.
Faction is, indeed a blending of fact and fiction. The term is something we all get confused with because readers don’t know which category the book falls into. Although, blending fact and fiction in literature isn’t uncommon, especially in historical novels. Historical novels, is a fictional account of real events and real people, but in theory. Gilgamesh is said to be a real person who lived around the 27th century BCE, although the exploits documents in this poem are clearly in the world 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’s hard to separate fact and fiction when it comes to Gilgamesh.
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.
Gilgamesh is 2/3rds god. The story of gilgamesh comes from the Sumer on the Persian Gulf. The Sumerians entered southern Iraq in around 4000 BCE with each city state involving 1 king. Gilgamesh was the 5th king in Uruk. Another sumerian text states that there was a conflict between Gilgamesh and Agga, the King of Kish (2700 BCE) Gilgamesh is identified as the Mighty Hunter Nimrod the son of Cush.
Old English epic poems
Alliteration is the repetition of the same sound or letter at the beginning of each or most of the words in a sentence. The easiest way to use alliteration would be to repeat the starting letter of the words. Alliteration is used in poetry to create different effects, either for a reflective description or to create more drama or danger.
Examples – Using alliteration with a letter Anxious ants avoid the anteater's advances.
Squawking seagulls swoop on sunbathers.
The wild winds whisk to the west.
Zany zebras zigzagged through the zoo.
For a more complex form of alliteration you can use the the first syllable of the words, using the same sound to make the alliteration effect.
An important feature of Old English is its use of compounds. Sometimes these are combinations of two words in which one word modifies the other in some way, but often a compound may result from the combination of two words which mean more or less the same thing. These poetic compounds are useful to an alliterative poet who is often in the position of needing many different words to express the same thing, and compounds also help to fulfill the metrical requirements of Old English verse.
Kennings are a particular kind of compound (they can also be phrases) which refer to things metonymically or metaphorically; the use of “hwælweg” (whale-way) in The Wanderer to refer to the sea is an example. Alliterative verse often relies in part on formulae to fill out the lines, and some kennings did become formulaic — but poets could and did also invent their own compounds. Important elements during the ancient era is the view of nature as a place of purity and peace in which God is manifest, an emphasis on dreams and visions, and a focus on emotion and feeling. Supernatural elements also describe and defines the immortality throughout the description placed in The Epic of Gilgamesh.
Simple, Poetic, Repetitive
On the whole, the writing style of the Epic of Gilgamesh is pretty straightforward: it just tells the story, without throwing in too many stylistic curlicues. There is no attempt to build us up to a satisfying climax—we just hear what is happening as it happens in a simple, play-by-play manner. We don't get internal emotional dialogue; we don't have complicated metaphorical descriptions. It is just the facts, ma'am.
Despite this, it is a poem and it can get highly poetic, especially in the dialogue sections. For example, when Enkidu takes back his curses of Shamhat, he doesn't just take them back, he pours blessings on her in a very poetic fashion:
May he who is one league away bite his lip in anticipation of you; may he who is two leagues away shake out his locks in preparation! May the soldier not refuse you, but undo his buckle for you … may the wife, the mother of seven children, be abandoned because of you! (7.143-146, 151)
(Uh, we can't really get behind that one.)
And check out Gilgamesh's lamentation for Enkidu. His language is way over-the-top from the standpoint of how people ordinarily speak, but somehow it still sounds right because it captures the underlying emotion of his speech.
May the pasture lands shriek in mourning as if it were your mother … May the holy River Ulaja, along whose banks we grandly used to stroll, mourn you … May the farmer who extols your name in his sweet work song, mourn you … (8. 13, 16, 19)
You get the idea. Such repetition is super typical of epics, and you can see it all over Gilgamesh, like in the descriptions of the different stages of the journey to the Cedar Forest in Tablet 4. Most scholars think that the repetition was one of the ways that poets remembered these long stories—since for centuries they were recited rather than read.
The Wayback Days
The Epic of Gilgamesh was not written at all—instead it was "pressed" into wet clay tablets, using a system known as cuneiform—meaning "wedge-shaped," after the wedge-shaped tool used to do the pressing. When the clay tablets dried, they became the original "hard copies."
The text of the epic we normally read today, known as the Standard Version, took up 11 such tablets. (There is also a 12th tablet, but most scholars and translators don't consider it part of the original story, and leave it out; Shmoop will too.) According to tradition, the Standard Version of the Epic of Gilgamesh was composed by Sinleqqiunninni, a priest and scholar from Uruk. Sinleqqiunninni wrote in a language known as Standard Babylonian, a distant relative of modern Arabic and Hebrew.
But even though he created the definitive version of the story, Sinleqqiunninni didn't start from scratch. In particular, he relied on one earlier version composed between 1800-1600BCE, in a language known as Old Babylonian. But this version itself drew on even older poems written in a different language: Sumerian, the language spoken by the historical King Gilgamesh. These Sumerian poems may date back as far as 2100BCE.
Knowing about these earlier versions of the epics is actually extremely useful for modern scholars, translators, and even ordinary readers (like us). Because the tablets of the Standard Version are broken in many places, scholars sometimes use pieces from earlier versions to fill the gaps. No two translations of the Epic of Gilgameshfeature exactly the same text. Some translators use brackets, italics, and dots to emphasize the patchwork quality of the text; others, like Stephen Mitchell, use their imaginations to create a smooth, unbroken narrative.
The tale of how this epic was rediscovered is almost as amazing as how it got to be composed in the first place. Believe it or not, this masterpiece of world literature was completely unknown to humankind for about 2000 years, after the cuneiform writing system fell out of widespread use around the 1st century BCE.
That all changed in 1872, when George Smith, a young researcher in the British Museum happened to translate part of Tablet 11 of The Epic of Gilgamesh—though he didn't know what it was at the time. What astonished Smith and the people of his time was this tablet's story of the Flood, which had many striking parallels with the story of Noah in the Biblical Book of Genesis.
After Smith presented a translation of this story at a meeting of the Society of Biblical Archaeology, the editor of the Daily Telegraph newspaper sponsored him to go back to Nineveh and carry out excavations to find the remaining tablets. Smith did so, making him responsible for piecing together the basic framework of the epic we read today—translated into dozens of languages, and inspiring generations of readers. Including, we hope, you.