Gilgamesh

GILGAMESH gĭl gă’ mĕsh; the name of a legendary king of the Sumer. city of Erech, who was undoubtedly a historical figure who later became in epic and legend the hero par excellence. He must have lived in southern Mesopotamia about the end of the 4th or beginning of the 3rd millennium b.c. It was as the great hero and personification of the human condition in the cuneiform lit. of later ages that he became famous. In the Sumer. lit. he figures as the central character in a great many poetic myths: Gilgamesh and Agga of Kish, Gilgamesh and the Bull of Heaven, Gilgamesh and the Land of the Living, Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Nether World and others. The portrayal of the character of Gilgamesh ascribes to him not only positive heroic virtues, strength, loyalty, etc. but also negative, debased aspects, e.g. trickery, tyranny and the like. This literary tradition passed to the Sem. Akkadians and their Babylonian successors and he is mentioned frequently in Akkad. lit. The greatest cycle of stories woven around him is the Epic of Gilgamesh in twelve tablets. The contents of the twelve tablets are as follows: Tablet I: Gilgamesh has ruled his city of Uruk tyrannically and so the gods prepare a counter protagonist, a wild man, Enkidu. Gilgamesh is warned that Enkidu can be foiled by a prostitute. Tablet II: Enkidu is seduced and becomes like other men; he wrestles with Gilgamesh and the two become fast friends. Tablet III: Enkidu and Gilgamesh go to battle the monster Huwawa, make preparations for the combat and set forth. Tablet IV, Tablet V: the combat. Tablet VI: Ishtar attempts to entice Gilgamesh into an affair and has the Bull of Heaven fashioned to punish him when he spurns her. Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill the Bull. Tablet VII: As a punishment for impiety the gods kill Enkidu by means of a pestilence. Tablet VIII: Gilgamesh’s lament for Enkidu. Tablet IX: Gilgamesh beside himself with grief wanders over the earth seeking immortality. Tablet X: Gilgamesh continues his wanderings and carries on dialogues with various mythological characters about the nature of mortality. He finally comes to the magical land of Utnapishtim, the Sumer. who was destined by the gods to survive the deluge. Tablet XI: The account of the Flood as told in high style epic v. by Utnapishtim. Tablet XII: It has been found to be a direct tr. from an Old Sumer. text and laments for the mortality of Gilgamesh. Although the whole of the poem is of great interest to Biblical students, the Tablet XI with its detailed description of the Flood has been studied for many years. It is a brilliant and gripping tale and is strangely, but not precisely, similar to the account in Genesis. In the 19th cent. some Ger. scholars of the pan-Babylonian school saw this cycle and the character of Gilgamesh as a possible type of Christ and the messianic office. This has been totally rejected by all but a few authorities. A magnificent relief in the Louvre Museum from the palace of Sargon II at Khorsabad is thought to show a gigantic figure of Gilgamesh strangling a lion.

Bibliography

R. C. Thompson, The Epic of Gilgamesh (1930); A. Schott, Das Gilgamesch-Epos (1934); A. Heidel, The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels (1946); Gilgameš et sa légende, études recueillies par P. Garelli (1960); S. N. Kramer, The Sumerians (1963), 45-49, 130, 131, 134ff., 185-205, 255ff.