Uruk (modern day Warka) is located in southern Iraq between Basra and Baghdad; photo credit the British Museum
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The epic of Gilgamesh is one of the world's oldest surviving pieces of literature. Only incomplete versions of the  epic survive, with the longest being twelve clay tablet pieces (with cuneiform writing) found in the nineteenth century by Austin Layard (1817-1894) and Hormuzd Rassam (1826-1910) during excavations of the Royal Library of Nineveh.  George Smith (1840-76 ) produced the first translation of a portion of the epic when he deciphered the flood story from one of the clay tablets in 1872. The stories that comprise the epic had long been transmitted orally before being written down sometime in the seventh century bce by one Sin-Leqi-Unninni.  This was before the Persians conquered the Assyrian Empire and destroyed Nineveh.

The epic relates the exploits of Gilgamesh, and between the Sparknotes and the Wikipedia entries on the epic, you will find some pretty good background information--no need for me to repeat all that. There is also a separate entry for Gilgamesh in wiki:  "Gilgamesh was the son of Lugalbanda and the fifth king of Uruk (Early Dynastic II, first dynasty of Uruk), ruling circa 2700 BC, according to the Sumerian king list."  That means that it is generally accepted by historians that Gilgamesh was an actual historical figure, a king who reigned over the Sumerian city-state of Uruk in the third millennium bce and who was probably responsible for constructing the city walls, which archaeologists later determined had a perimeter of almost six miles.

The ruins of Uruk (also believed to be the city of Erech as mentioned in Genesis) lie near the town of Warka, in southern Iraq.  Uruk was one of the most important and powerful of the Mesopotamian city-states before 2000 bce.  (ps.  The modern name "Iraq" is thought by some to come from the name Uruk).  Between 4,000 and 3,000 bce, the city emerged as one of the first major urban cities in the Near East (indeed, in the world), as a shift took place from small, agricultural-based villages to a large urban city with a full-time bureaucracy, priesthood, military, and complex society.  After about 2000 bce, the city entered into a long period of decline, interspersed by an era of prosperity during the Neo-Assyrian and Babylonian periods, but by the eighth century ce, after a shift in the course of the Euphrates River away from the city, Uruk was completely abandoned.

So, do we know a lot of details about Gilgamesh?  No.  We don't know what he really looked like, or how strong he was.  We don't know what kind of ideas he had about being the ruler of a great city.  We don't know what he sounded like when he spoke.  And we don't know what he ate and drank or when he slept or how he interacted with priests, slaves or traders.  As historians, we are always looking for answers to these and other questions.

Let me point out some things for you to consider as you read, analyze and enjoy the epic.

Our information about the historical reality of the time of Gilgamesh, 2700 bce + 2000 ce = almost five thousand years ago, is limited.  We have no paper or even papyrus documents from then.  We have only some cuneiform inscriptions that have survived, and those that have survived are largely at random, by chance.  That lack of documentary material makes it difficult to say with any certainty how the society functioned or was organized.  This leads me to my next point.

Since we are talking about a very long time ago, this means that the fields of history and archeology overlap.  I'm going to simplify a lot and say that history is mostly the study of the past by means of the printed word, while archeology is the study of the past by means of the surviving artifact, which can be either large like buildings and walls or small like tea cups.  In a lot of instances, historians and archaeologists conduct their research in their different academic realms, but they still do cooperate and borrow from one another at times to reach a full understanding of a specific past.  So, in the case of Gilgamesh, this means that to figure out as much as we can about the king and his city, we have to decipher cuneiform inscriptions and also excavate the ruins of the city of Uruk to see what can be determined--and we end up still not knowing a lot.

Finally, students always have trouble with the question of whether the epic of Gilgamesh is a piece of literature or a historical record.  This is partly because it is English teachers, and not history professors, who usually make students read and study the epic.  Well, the epic is both a piece of literature and a historical record, and it is used differently in the academic disciplines of literature and history.  In a literature class, you will ask different questions about the epic and discuss different points, which tend to be contemporary in nature, about what is in there (death, heroes, friendship).  Maybe also in a philosophy class, you will ask different questions that probe the world view of the author and the milieu that produced the epic (the meaning of life).  In this history class, we certainly take a look at those questions, but we also try and find any kind of insight into the society that produced the epic thousands of years ago.  Since we know that Gilgamesh was real, why then is there a story of his struggles with a half-beast from the countryside?  If that didn't really happen, then as a historian, looking for possible fact and understanding, what does that mean?  We can also look at how the society is described in the epic, and what kind of place, for example, women had in that society.  How is the relationship to the gods explained?  Who were the gods?  The epic provides a setting for Gilgamesh and his deeds, and we are going to examine that setting--we are going to examine very carefully because we know the limits of the evidence--to see what we can figure out about Gilgamesh and his society through the prism of the authors of the epic.  BTW, we use a number of pieces of world literature throughout our different history survey courses; all in an effort to achieve a better historical understanding of a past society.

Some recommended online lectures and websites:

  • Watch the short video from Star Trek:  The Next Generation dealing with Gilgamesh.  Log into Blackboard and find the video under Course Materials.
  • There is an online version of Gilgamesh available (Kramer's Translation).  (These online versions seem to pop up and then disappear.  Let me know if this link is not working, or if you can find a better version.)  Another online version of the Epic of Gilgamesh; and also An Old Babylonian Version of the Gilgamesh Epic by Anonymous
  • There is a Youtube version of the poem (The Epic of Gilgamesh #1) that is short and very interesting.
  • You can also find a summary of the epic with some comments by Richard Hooker.
  • Professor Diane Thompson, my colleague at NVCC who teaches world literature, has some good remarks on her Gilgamesh Study Guide.
  • A website with much information about Ancient Sumeria also contains information on Sumerian
    writings, gods, mythology and Gilgamesh.
  • Check out Flood Stories from around the World by Mark Isaak.  Gilgamesh, which you are reading in this unit, includes an early flood tale.  Surprisingly there were a lot of ancient cultures who told tales of a great flood. The wiki entry for Deluge myth also has information of flood myths from around the world.
  • Not surprising that Sparknotes has information on Gilgamesh.
  • My comments (still a bit incomplete) on the Ancient Near East
  • There is an excellent article in the May 2007 Smithsonian Magazine online by David Damrosch, "Epic Hero," that explains how the bits of clay tablet that contain the Gilgamesh epic were translated back in the nineteenth century.  He also has an excellent book, The Buried Book:  The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh (2007)
  • Nozomi Osanai, A Comparative Study of the Flood Accounts in the Gilgamesh Epic and Genesis
  • Iraq:  Archaeological Expedition Mapping Ancient City of Uruk
  • Derivation of the Adam & Eve Story from Epic of Gilgamesh by Peter Meyers mainly outlines the story of Adam and Eve from the Book of Genesis, but the author also included several useful footnotes that compared Adam to Enkidu.
  • Is the Biblical Flood Account a Modified Copy of the Epic of Gilgamesh? by Rich Deem. While there are problems with this website, there are still some interesting comparisons made.
  • For extra credit please suggest to your instructor a relevant website for this unit of the course.  Send the title of the site, the url and a brief explanation why you find the information interesting and applicable to the material being studied in this unit.

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