Enkidu and Gilgamesh. Characters out of the earliest Mesopotamian creation story cycle called the Enuma Elish.
Enkidu and Gilgamesh. Characters out of the earliest
Mesopotamian creation story cycle called the Enuma Elish.

Gilgamesh (meaning "the old man is now a young man") is perhaps the greatest hero in ancient Near Eastern literature. The story of this hero is based on a legendary king of the same name who ruled the Mesopotamian city of Uruk sometime between 2700 and 2600 b.c.e.

The name of Gilgamesh appears on the famous Sumerian King List, which dates to the late third millennium b.c.e. Later kings viewed Gilgamesh with great respect; some considered him as their personal god. As of yet, no inscriptions have been found that can be attributed to him.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is the heroic tale of this legendary king. It is a compilation of various preexisting stories, some of which circulated as early as the Ur III dynasty in Sumer (c. 2100–2000 b.c.e.). There are two versions of this epic, the first of which is the Old Babylonian version.

This version dates to the second millennium b.c.e. and lacks the prologue and the famous flood story. The second is the standard version, which was discovered in Nineveh at the royal library of the seventh-century b.c.e. king Ashurbanipal of Assyria.

Tradition states that a master scribe and incantation priest by the name of Sin-leqe-unnini was the author. This version has been found in a variety of areas ranging from Palestine and Syria to modern-day Turkey, in addition to Mesopotamia. There is also evidence that it was included in school writing exercises.

Cylinder seals and statues depict a powerful hero grappling with wild animals, which scholars refer to as the "Gilgamesh figure", though there is no written evidence to connect Gilgamesh with the hero as depicted.

Some examples of this picture occur at times before the historical Gilgamesh ruled the city of Uruk. It is possible that this figure was connected with Gilgamesh at some point in Mesopotamian history. It is also possible that this heroic figure was connected with other Sumerian deities in extreme antiquity.

As the epic opens, Gilgamesh is described as a tyrant. He forces the male citizens to complete his building projects while taking the young women for himself to satisfy his sexual desires. So oppressive is the reign of Gilgamesh that the people of the city cry out to the gods to give them relief.

In response the gods create Enkidu, a being who is part man, part animal to challenge Gilgamesh. After engaging in battle and finding themselves to be near equals, the two become fast friends and adventuring heroes.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu slaying the bull of heaven
Gilgamesh and Enkidu slaying the bull of heaven

On their first adventure together they slay a giant named Humbaba (Huwawa), who is the guardian of a great cedar forest. After returning to Uruk, Gilgamesh is approached by the goddess Ishtar, who wants the hero to become her lover. He refuses her advances, which infuriates the goddess.

She asks An, the father of the gods, to send the monstrous Bull of Heaven to destroy the heroes. After the monster kills hundreds of young men from the city, Enkidu seizes it by the tail, while Gilgamesh plunges a sword into its neck, killing it.

After the Bull of Heaven is dead, Enkidu has a dream in which the council of the gods meets to decide which of the heroes should die for the killing of Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven. They eventually decide on Enkidu, who dies after suffering an illness that lasts for seven days.

Grief stricken, Gilgamesh reflects on his own mortality and decides to search for the secret of eternal life. Gilgamesh hears that a man named Utnapishtim was granted eternal life by the gods. Utnapishtim had survived a great flood that destroyed humanity, after which he was granted eternal life by the gods.

After Gilgamesh finds this man, Utnapishtim tells him that he cannot have eternal life in the same way. Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh of a certain plant that has the ability to make the old young again, and Gilgamesh leaves to find this plant.

After discovering it, Gilgamesh decides to bathe in a pool after his long journey. While he is bathing, a snake comes along and devours the plant, which is an etiological myth explaining why snakes shed their skins.

The hero returns home to his city of Uruk sadder but wiser. He realizes that the only way a person can achieve immortality is by accomplishing great works that will outlive him in future generations. He looks around his city and sees the mighty walls he has built and is satisfied.

If fame is a measure of immortality, then one might argue that Gilgamesh actually achieved it. This outlook is similar to the heroic outlook found in the Homeric epics and in the Greek mythology and pantheon.

There is a 12th tablet, though it contains stories that do not quite fit with the rest of the epic. In this tablet Enkidu is still alive. Gilgamesh accidentally drops two items down a hole, which leads to the underworld.

Enkidu goes to fetch the items but discovers that he cannot return to the land of the living. The Epic of Gilgamesh is famous for its inclusion of the flood story, which resembles the one in Genesis of the Jewish scriptures.

The Old Babylonian version, however, did not contain the flood, suggesting that it was not originally associated with Gilgamesh. The flood story existed in several forms in Mesopotamia including an Akkadian work entitled The Atrahasis Epic.