Epic Poems Epic is the oldest genre of literature. Its history stretches back nearly five thousand years. An epic

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The Epic of Gilgamesh

Witness the Epic of Gilgamesh, a story of adventure, love and friendship. This long poem will help us examine the hallmarks of civilization for a Sumerian and the importance of dreams. We'll also cover the Sumerian contributions to the epic form of literature.

Epic Poems

Epic is the oldest genre of literature. Its history stretches back nearly five thousand years. An epic is a long poem about the exploits of a hero. In the course of their stories epics offer a glimpse into the society that created them.

This lecture is about the Epic of Gilgamesh. Written on clay tablets around 2750 BCE, it is the oldest surviving epic. Parts of the story survive only in later Babylonian tablets. Other parts have been lost altogether. But what remains paints a vivid picture of Sumerian culture: its cities, its heroes and its gods.

Meet Gilgamesh

Gilgamesh is the son of the king of Uruk and the goddess Ninsun. As such he is considered 2/3 god and 1/3 human - this might tell us something about Sumerian concepts of reproduction. Gilgamesh is described as:

A handsome youth, with freshness!

His entire body exudes voluptuousness

supreme over other kings, lordly in appearance, mighty net, a protector of his people

and a raging flood-wave who destroys even walls of stone!

Strong to perfection,

He is the shepherd of Uruk-Haven,

bold, eminent, knowing, and wise,

as Anu, Enlil, and La have enlarged his mind.

Thus, we see the qualities of Gilgamesh. He is mighty. He is beautiful. He is lordly. And he is wise. Seeing that Gilgamesh is unmatched by any other humans, the gods create the mountain man Enkidu to be his equal and companion.

Meet Enkidu

Enkidu is the opposite of civilization:

His whole body was shaggy with hair,

he had a full head of hair like a woman,

his locks billowed in profusion like Ashnan.

He knew neither people nor settled living,

but wore a garment like Sumukan.

He ate grasses with the gazelles,

and jostled at the watering hole with the animals;

as with animals, his thirst was slaked with (mere) water.

With the help of a prostitute named Shamhat, Gilgamesh goes about introducing Enkidu to civilization. Through Enkidu's journey, we come to learn what civilization means to a Sumerian. Apparently for a Sumerian, the first step in becoming civilized is to have sex with a prostitute, which Enkidu does for seven days straight - after which his understanding had broadened. Shamhat then takes Enkidu for a meal. Enkidu is introduced to bread and beer, which he enjoys very much. Shamhat then washes Enkidu, rubs him with oil and gives him clothes to wear. At last, Enkidu is ready to enter civilization. Thus, we see what the Sumerians believe makes a man civilized: Prostitutes, Beer, Bread, Bathing and Clothes.

Shamhat then takes Enkidu to the city of Uruk. She says:

Look about, Enkidu, inside Uruk-Haven,

where the people show off in skirted finery,

where every day is a day for some festival,

where the lyre and drum play continually,

where harlots stand about prettily,

exuding voluptuousness, full of laughter

and on the couch of night the sheets are spread!

Behold the wall of Uruk-Haven,

the wall of the sacred Eanna Temple, the holy sanctuary.

Look at its wall which gleams like copper,

inspect its inner wall, the likes of which no one can equal!

Take hold of the threshold stone--it dates from ancient times!

Go close to the Eanna Temple, the residence of Ishtar,

such as no later king or man ever equaled!

Go up on the wall of Uruk and walk around,

examine its foundation, inspect its brickwork thoroughly.

Is not the whole brick structure, even at its core, made of kiln-fired brick,

and did not the Seven Sages themselves lay out its plans?

One league city, one league palm gardens, one league lowlands, the open area of the Ishtar Temple,

three leagues and the open area of Uruk, the wall encloses.

Here we see what the Sumerians believe is the height of civilization: nice clothes, festivals, music, prostitutes again, a centrally planned city, full of beautiful ancient buildings and towering walls of baked mud brick.

Shamhat brings the freshly civilized Enkidu to Gilgamesh, and the two become instant friends, and perhaps lovers. Gilgamesh repeatedly says he embraced Enkidu as a wife, suggesting that Gilgamesh perhaps swings both ways. Yet there is one step left to make Enkidu a civilized man. Gilgamesh takes Enkidu's weapons of stone and replaces them with weapons and armor of bronze.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu Go on a Journey

So equipped, Gilgamesh and Enkidu go on a quest to cut down the great Cedar, which is guarded by a terrible monster named Humbaba. Humbaba's roar is a flood, his mouth is fire, his breath death! With the help of the sun god Shamash, Gilgamesh and Enkidu slay Humbaba and spread his entrails over the sacred mountain. They cut down the Cedar to make a door for the holy city of Nippur. On their way home, they meet Ishtar, princess of heaven and the goddess of fertility, war and half a dozen other things. Ishtar wants the beautiful Gilgamesh for a lover. Gilgamesh refuses her and recounts the terrible fates of Ishtar's previous lovers.

Spurned, Ishtar runs to her father Anu, the supreme sky god, and asks him to give her the Bull of Heaven that it may trample Gilgamesh to pulp. Anu resists, but eventually relents and gives Ishtar the bull. She has it attack Gilgamesh and Enkidu, who slay the Bull of Heaven and carry its horns home with them. The gods are furious with Gilgamesh and Enkidu for killing the Bull. They must die! Ninsun and Shamash intercede on behalf of Gilgamesh, and the gods take out their rage on Enkidu. Enkidu dies. Gilgamesh, aware of the intercession of his mother, mourns for months that the gods took his friend and not him.

Gilgamesh Searches for Immortality

Suddenly aware of his own mortality, Gilgamesh embarks on a long and dangerous journey to find Utanapishtim, a man who was made an immortal god. He passes through many trials and journeys long through impenetrable darkness before finally coming to the banks of the sea of death. There he finds the ferryman Urshanabi, who carries Gilgamesh across the sea of death to Utanapishtim.

Utanapishtim then recounts the tale of the flood and how he came to be immortal. We have discussed this story in a previous lecture, but it is worth noting that Utanapishtim and his family were fed in their journey by the god Shamash making bread rain from the sky, which is perhaps where the Hebrew people got the idea of manna.

Gilgamesh realizes that he cannot achieve immortality as Utanapishtim did and mourns his fate. He will return home empty handed. Full of pity, Utanapishtim tells Gilgamesh about a sacred plant at the bottom of the sea that will revive him and renew his health. Gilgamesh ties rocks to his feet, sinks to the bottom of the sea, finds and takes the plant.

With his prize in hand, Gilgamesh sets out with the ferry man Urshanabi, who takes him home to Uruk. However, along the way, a serpent comes and steals the plant. Gilgamesh is overtaken with woe, but Urshanabi comforts him. He remarks on the greatness, beauty and majesty of Gilgamesh' city Uruk, which shall last forever. He suggests that the immortality and fame of a man's city is the closest a mortal can come to immortality.

The Importance of Dreams

That is, in short, the Epic of Gilgamesh. Only one thing remains to be discussed, and that is the importance of dreams. Dreams and their interpretations play an important role in the Epic of Gilgamesh as well as in later epics. Gilgamesh and Enkidu are both visited by prophetic dreams. Gilgamesh dreams of Enkidu before they even meet. His dreams are interpreted by his mother the goddess Ninsun to tell him that he will find an equal and a friend in the wild Enkidu.

Later, when on the hunt for Humbaba, Gilgamesh has a series of dreams, which Enkidu interprets as warnings of the danger of Humbaba and guarantees of divine assistance. Yet perhaps the most important dream in the epic is the dream Enkidu has before he dies. In Enkidu's dream we find more than an anticipation of death. We receive a vivid description of the afterlife. This theme will re emerge time after time in the epics to come.

Enkidu dreams of a battle with a giant hawk. In his dream, the Hawk crushes Enkidu, then turns him into a bird:

Seizing me, he led me down to the House of Darkness,

the dwelling of Irkalla,

to the house where those who enter do not come out,

along the road of no return,

to the house where those who dwell, do without light,

where dirt is their drink, their food is of clay,

where, like a bird, they wear garments of feathers,

and light cannot be seen, they dwell in the dark,

and upon the door and bolt, there lies dust.

On entering the House of Dust,

everywhere I looked there were royal crowns gathered in heaps,

everywhere I listened, it was the bearers of crowns,

who, in the past, had ruled the land,

but who now served Anu and Enlil cooked meats,

served confections, and poured cool water from waterskins.

Enkidu's grim description of the afterlife would serve as an enduring theme, surfacing again and again in Epic: in Homer's Odyssey, in Virgil's Aeneid and even in the Christian concept of hell.

With the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Sumerians established the themes that would be repeated again and form the foundation for all future epics:

  • Heroic deeds of demigods.

  • Long journeys through dangerous lands.

  • Confrontations with monsters.

  • Divine assistance as well as divine interference.

  • Prophetic dreams.

  • Descriptions of the afterlife

  • A celebration of the culture from which the epic arose.

  • And the struggle of the individual to find immortality.

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