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Gilgamesh

Gilgamesh was a legendary king and hero of the city-state of Uruk. The historical Gilgamesh was a Sumarian king of Uruk around 2700 BC. According to the Sumerian king list, Gilgamesh was the fifth king of Uruk (Early Dynastic II, first dynasty of Uruk), the son of Lugalbanda. Legend has it that his mother was Ninsun, a goddess. Sumarian fragments of the legend that grew up around him have been found dating back to about 2000 BC.

The Gilgamesh Epic is the most notable literary product of Babylonia discovered in the mounds of Mesopotamia. In the epic named after him, Gilgamesh, the Sumerian king of Uruk, seeks to escape death, but ultimately concludes this is futile and turns to lasting works of culture to achieve immortality. The Babylonian king Gilgamesh was said to be one-third human and two-thirds god. He ruled the city of Uruk on the Euphrates River more than four thousand years ago in what is now Iraq. According to legend, the gods sent him a series of ordeals, starting with the wild man Enkidu, who challenged the king and reformed his abuses of power. Once reconciled, the two embarked on a quest to fell all the cedar trees of southern Iran and slay Humbaba, the demon residing there. So begin the tales of Gilgamesh.

The Gilgamesh Epic includes the story of the flood. The gods have resolved to destroy mankind, but when it comes to the execution of the decision, the gods, and especially the goddesses Innanna and Nintu, are filled with terror and the latter with repentance for the great calamity which they have caused. But it is only Enki, the god of wisdom, who is able to devise a plan to save at least one of the doomed race, Ziugiddu / Utanapishtim [which means "he has found everlasting life"], the tenth and last of the prediluvian kings, who like Noah in the Bible was a pious man. In accordance with the older Biblical account it is caused only by a strong rain or, in the Babylonian expression, the rain demon, not as in the later Biblical account also by the waters from underneath the earth. The duration of the rain is seven days and seven nights. After the rain has ceased, the sun-god appears from behind the clouds and is the first to observe Ziugiddu / Utanapishtim in his boat which is floating on the waters.

The similarities between the flood episode in Gilgamesh and the account from Genesis are striking. When George Smith of the British Museum rediscovered the Epic of Gilgamesh in the nineteenth century, its flood story became a sensation. Tablets had been arriving from archaeological expeditions near the Tigris river since 1854, and Smith, a bank note engraver and self-trained Assyriologist, had been working to decipher them. The London Daily Telegraph got wind of Smith's efforts and sponsored an archaeological expedition to find the fragment that would complete the account of the deluge. In 1873, on the fifth day of excavation, Smith found the fragment. He published his findings--including a description of creation, the deluge, the tower of Babel, and the destruction of Sodom--in Chaldean Account of Genesis, which became a best seller.

The most complete version of the story comes from twelve clay tablets in Akkadian copied by Shin-eqi-unninni around the seventh century B.C. They were found in the ruins of the Library of Ashurbanipal of Nineveh and, like the earlier Sumerian tablets, were written in the "wedge-shaped" script known as cuneiform. It recounts the exploits and adventures of a favorite hero, and in its final form covers twelve tablets, each tablet consisting of six columns (three on the obverse and three on the reverse) of about 50 lines for each column, or a total of about 3600 lines. Of this total, however, barely more than one-half has been found among the remains of the great collection of cuneiform tablets gathered by King Ashurbanapal (668-626 BC) in his palace at Nineveh, and discovered by Layard in 18541 in the course of his excavations of the mound Kouyunjik (opposite Mosul). The fragments of the epic painfully gathered - chiefly by George Smith - from the circa 30,000 tablets and bits of tablets brought to the British Museum were published in model form by Professor Paul Haupt; and that edition still remains the primary source for our study of the Epic.

A didactic character was given to ancient tales that were of popular origin, but which were modified and elaborated under the influence of the schools which arose in connection with the Babylonian temples. The twelfth tablet is almost entirely didactic, intended to illustrate the impossibility of learning anything of the fate of those who have passed out of this world. It also emphasizes the necessity of contenting oneself with the comfort that the care of the dead, by providing burial and food and drink offerings for them affords, as the only means of ensuring for them rest and freedom from the pangs of hunger and distress.

The remarkable address of the maiden Sabitum, dwelling at the seaside, to whom Gilgamesh comes in the course of his wanderings. From the Assyrian version the hero tells the maiden of his grief for his lost companion, and of his longing to escape the dire fate of Enkidu. In the old Babylonian fragment the answer of Sabitum is given in full, and the sad note that it strikes, showing how hopeless it is for man to try to escape death which is in store for all mankind, is as remarkable as is the philosophy of "eat, drink and be merry" which Sabitum imparts. The address indicates how early the tendency arose to attach to ancient tales the current religious teachings.

The desire for eternal life is a driving force in the Epic of Gilgamesh. After many adventures, the king's companion Enkidu provokes the wrath of the deities and is sent to the House of Dust. Gilgamesh, in deep mourning, sets off alone to seek immortality. On his journey he encounters a siren-like innkeeper, a demon, a mysterious ferryman at the Waters of Death, and finally, Utanapishtim, the one man to survive the Great Flood--and the keeper of the secret of eternal life. Utanapishtim offers Gilgamesh the secret to immortality on the condition that the king pass a trial. The king fails, but Utanapishtim takes pity on him and gives him a plant of rejuvenation that will return his lost youth. When Gilgamesh hesitates to eat the plant, a snake makes off with it, shedding his skin as he slinks away, and the king must return home empty-handed. The epic concludes in a cyclical fashion, reiterating the verses with which it begins: adulating Gilgamesh's achievements, the walls of the city, and the words of the epic.

That such a personage as Gilgamesh once existed there is every reason to believe. The theory of creatio ex nihilo will not suffice for the rise of legendary lore. Next to Gilgamesh, the most prominent figure in the epic is Eabani. He is introduced in the second tablet of the epic, and the manner in which he is brought into association with Gilgamesh reveals at once the original independence of the Eabani episode. Gilgamesh has taken possession of the city of Uruk (or Erech) and probably of the district of which Uruk was the capital.



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