Gilgamesh as Historical and Literary Figure

Instructor: Flint Johnson

Flint has tutored mathematics through precalculus, science, and English and has taught college history. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow

The lesson will focus on the historical figure of Gilgamesh, how he related to his contemporary world of pre-historic Mesopotamia, and his impact on literature.

Historical Context

It's kind of neat that we know western civilization came from the area between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, _Mesopotamia. It also sucks that we know almost nothing about them. The earliest person we know anything about is Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh was a historical king who ruled the city-state of Uruk during the Early Dynastic Period of ancient Mesopotamia. The Early Dynastic Period began around 2900 B.C.E. and ended around 2500 B.C.E., with Gilgamesh probably active in the twenty-eighth or twenty-seventh century.

We really don't know much for certain until the end of the period, though, and the political and economic happenings of the time are beyond any recovery. Archeologically, we know the Early Dynastic Period had more warfare than earlier times. In addition to the spear, the axe and an extended dagger (a blade no longer than two feet) were the major weapons. The major cities grew during this era and were first walled, while the smaller villages disappeared. Gilgamesh's city of Uruk was one of eighteen cities in the region. But as far as stories, relationships between kings, or even love the record is barren.

Gilgamesh as King

Gilgamesh was probably the most powerful king of his time and, considering the size of the population in ancient Mesopotamia at the time, he was likely the most feared warrior in the region. There is no evidence of conquests, but he very likely intimidated several of the nearby city-states into paying him a tribute. He is credited with building the walls of his city and was supposedly two-thirds god and possessed superhuman strength.

His success in life caused him to be the center of stories which eventually developed into legends and even myths similar to those endured by more familiar heroes of Western Civilization such as Arthur, Sigurd, and Charlemagne. Eventually, he attracted the names and accomplishments of other kings of the period. With time, all this was formed into a great cycle, or epic.

The Epic of Gilgamesh

Epic of Gilgamesh
Gilgamesh tablet

The story of Gilgamesh is the oldest we have, so it seems fitting it is about one of the oldest subjects - mortality. The first versions of The Epic of Gilgamesh were written in the eighteenth century B.C.E., and it is considered the oldest epic. In simplest form, it relates that Gilgamesh was a powerful king who pushed his people so hard in their labors and was so lustful with his subjects that they begged the gods for a companion to occupy him. This came in the form of Enkidu, a wild man. Once they had became friends they went to a grove of cedar trees, killed its guardian, and cut them down. Then Ishtar, a goddess, saw this and offered herself to Gilgamesh, who refused. The Bull of Heaven was sent to bring famine and revenge, but the companions killed it. At that point the gods decided to kill Enkidu because of the friends' disobedience.

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