Week I: The Epic of Gilgamesh


Week One: The Epic of Gilgamesh. Sandars, N.K. Penguin edition.
July 10-14

       Gilgamesh was an historical king who ruled in Uruk in Babylonia, modern day Iraq, on the River Euphrates about 2700 B.C.E.  Unlike many kings of the ancient world who left only their names behind them, there arose around Gilgamesh a mythology, the stories of which were preserved, revised, and copied for thousands of years to this day.  In fact, these stories are the oldest stories we know that obviously existed in an oral tradition, like the later Homeric poems, for many centuries before some of them were written down on clay tablets in a "wedge-shaped" script known as cuneiform.

        Although many of these tablets were discovered around the middle of the nineteenth century, they and the story that would become The Epic of Gilgamesh were neither fully understood nor publicized until near the middle of the twentieth century.  Since our primary concern in this course is what it means today -- and what it has meant in the past --  to be human, the stories of Gilgamesh offer the oldest known depictions of human beings behaving: acting, feeling, thinking, and changing.

        On the opening page of her "Introduction" N.K. Sandars attempts to place the story in an appropriate context:

        "These poems have a right to a place in the world's literature, not only because they antedate Homeric epic by at least one and a half thousand years, but mainly because of the quality and character of the story that they tell.  It is a mixture of pure adventure, of morality, and of tragedy.  Through the action we are shown a very human concern with mortality, the search for knowledge, and for an escape from the common lot of man.  The gods, who do not die, cannot be tragic.  If Gilgamesh is not the first human hero, he is the first tragic hero of whom anything is known."

        Since it is the "quality and character" of "the common lot" of mankind that will concern us in this course, her introduction provides an excellent context for beginning our reading of the epic.

        Although the actual text of the Sandars translation of the story is quite short (its "Introduction" fills half the volume), it is cryptic and fragmented, having been pieced together from numerous revisions over the centuries, so it requires careful study because of its patchwork narrative and style .  Therefore, before going directly to the text, a brief look at the links listed below might be a good idea.  Once one has the general outline of the tale, it's easier to overcome many of the challenges presented by this ancient literary gem.

        [Daily assignment can be found under the "Assignments" bar on the Blackboard opening page.]

Key Links

Mesopotamia Gilgamesh   "This summary is derived from several sources: translations, commentaries, and academic scholarship on the Shin-eqi-unninni tablets.

"Storytelling, the Meaning of Life, and The Epic of Gilgamesh" by Arthur A. Brown

Exploring Ancient World Cultures  "An introduction to world cultures on the World Wide Web."
Epic of Gilgamesh
AUCW 180 Humanities

A Final Assessment of The Epic of Gilgamesh

      “The Gilgamesh epic is a powerful tale in almost any telling.  Rilke once called it the greatest thing one could experience, and many consider it the supreme literary achievement of the ancient world before Homer.  It has something of the qualities Henry Moore once said he admired in Mesopotamian Art – bigness and simplicity without decorative trimming.  It is about nature and culture, the value of human achievements and their limitations, friendship and love, separation and sorrow, life and death.”

       Prof. Tzvi Abusch
       Brandeis University

     In “Ishtar’s Proposal and Gilgamesh’s refusal: An interpretation of The Gilgamesh Epic Tablet 6, Lines 1-79” in History of Religions, Vol. 26, No. 2, November 1986.