Translator: Benjamin R. Foster
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Among the lessor known epics of our world is a piece called the Epic of Gilgamesh or simply Gilgamesh. It is also considered the oldest epic ever found, although the Atrahasis and Enuma Elis are next up. Despite its age and origin, this epic still provides new insights today. The epic is not entirely unique in its story as it tells the adventures of a great hero and shares a history of which we all are a part. Gilgamesh allows the modern-day reader to glimpse at a world we can no longer see. It also gives us a different perspective on events that, as Christians, we know quite well. Though Gilgamesh is not very long, its impact and importance is significant, and so we should read it.
Like most other epics, Gilgamesh is split up into sections that, in general, divide the narrative. For example, the first section of Gilgamesh introduces us to who Gilgamesh is and why this epic was written. The sections of Gilgamesh are mainly separated by the tablets they were written on, of which there are eleven. There is no single, complete, original copy of the epic. In fact, the epic itself says that it was written on a lapis tablet, which has never been found. Additionally, the story has been found in various collections from southern Babylon to Assyria in addition to individual stories unique to those places. One key fact of this tablet is the inclusion of the Deluge. Assyria has a flood story and so does Babylon in addition to the one found in ancient Sumer, which this translation is largely based on.
The Gilgamesh epic was written in the Sumerian language. For some perspective: Ancient Sumer was found on the plain amidst the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and vaguely encompassed an area that included a city called Eridu and a city called Ur (not the same Ur of the Chaldees Abram was from, that was in the north) that later became the city of Babylon, now modern-day Iraq. The plain of Shinar, mentioned in Genesis within the Babel account, is likely on this same plain between the Tigris and Euphrates.
The account begins by telling us that Gilgamesh built the walls of Uruk, but he did not build the city. He is the son of gods and man, so he is a sort of demigod, larger than life. He is the son of a man named Lugalbanda. Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk, is known for his stature (literally) and is the mightiest in the land. He was known as the greatest of kings. And this is typical for an epic – this is about a hero – so they are going to praise him as such. Because of his bragging and desire “to establish eternal fame,” Gilgamesh is often compared to Nimrod.
Cush was the father of Nimrod, who grew to be a mighty warrior on the earth. He was a mighty hunter before the Lord; that is why it is said, “Like Nimrod, a mighty hunter before the Lord.”
~ Genesis 10:8-10 ~
Nimrod built the cities of Babylon, Erech, Akkad, Calneh, Nineveh, Rehoboth Ir, Calah, and Resen (Gen. 10:10-12). The first four cities were roughly on the plain of Sumer and the latter in the north towards the area that became Assyria and later part of Syria. Mostly importantly, Nimrod is also credited for inciting the building of the Tower of Babel. But as I said before, this was likely in the north, not in either Ur or Uruk in southern Babylon.
The Sumerian/Babylonian man credited with building the Tower is named Enmerkar, another sort of demigod. Enmerkar was king of Uruk before Gilgamesh, according to the Sumerian King list but well after the flood. While I will avoid saying either for certain, I am working under the presumption that Nimrod and Gilgamesh are not the same people, however similar they are, though they are probably related. If Enmerkar and Gilgamesh are the same people under different names, which is unlikely, why is Babel not even mentioned in this epic? Perhaps Gilgamesh simply wanted fame like that his ancestor had, but that is where their similarities end.
Gilgamesh includes other places that are also found in Scripture or are at least known in their relation to Scripture. One is just in passing, and this is Elam. While preparing for an epic journey and fight, Gilgamesh packs various weapons, including an Elamite bow. Elam was a people who lived southeast of Sumer in an area that is now part of Iran. In fact, the Persians came from them. Elam was a son of Shem, and he founded Elam. When the Bible talks of the Medes and the Persians, Elam is Persia and Media is Madai, a son of Japheth.
Another land mentioned is Lebanon. At first it is simply called the forest of cedars, but it is eventually called Mount Lebanon, an area known for cedars. Gilgamesh goes here for two reasons: he had to cut down a cedar, marking him king, and kill a monster called Humbaba, furthering his might. Both of these feats must be accomplished so that he might establish “eternal fame,” which is very important to our epic hero. He is reminded a few times not to rely on his own strength and is saved by gods and friends alike, to accomplish his feats. Though he succeeded, he also suffers great loss, sending him on another adventure, but that will be discussed momentarily.
First, who or what is Humbaba? Here is how this thing is described:
The guardian of the forest of cedars […]
Humbaba’s cry is the roar of a deluge,
His maw is fire, his breath is death,
He can hear the rustling for sixty double leagues.
Who can go into his forest?
Adad is first and Humbaba second.
Who, even among the gods, could attack him?
…his features are grotesque,
who is there who could face his weaponry?
He let out a single bloodcurdling cry,
The guardian of the forest shrieked aloud
Humbaba was roaring like thunder.
This creature also had his own river. He is called a monster, a guardian, who makes the mountains of Lebanon quake. What could do this? Perhaps he was a monster or a man. I tend to think more likely he was a dinosaur, or dragon to this Sumerian. How is he described? He is grotesque, he lives in a desolate area – on a forested mountain near a river – and his “maw is fire, his breath is death,” a description used multiple times, that implies the ability to breathe fire. What creature do we know like this? I believe a dragon-like creature, which we would call a dinosaur today, fits this description. In fact, I think the Leviathan is the next closest creature except that the Leviathan seems to be a sea creature rather than a land one. The only odd thing about Humbaba, the guardian of the forest, is that he can talk. However, so can a couple of giant scorpions. Though the talking is doubtful, and this is an epic, no one doubts the reality of scorpions. Why doubt a great beast of old?
And yet, a dragon is not the greatest part of this epic. No, the most fascinating part is the man whom Gilgamesh scours the earth to find. This man is known as the “Distant One,” though he likely lived not far from Gilgamesh. This man is also called a forefather of Gilgamesh, and I believe this to be true. This man is known as both Utanapishtim and Atrahasis in this epic (and others), but to us, he is better known as Noah.
Indeed, the whole reason that this epic is recorded, besides telling of Gilgamesh’s great feats, is to tell the story of the flood. The epic begins by telling us that Gilgamesh brought back “tidings from before the flood” from a distant land. Gilgamesh actually went there, however, to find the secret to eternal life, but he comes back with something much better, which is why this account closes the epic.
Utanapishtim lived in a city called Shuruppak, which was along the Euphrates. We know that two of the four rivers flowing through the Garden of Eden were named the Tigris and the Euphrates. These would have been destroyed in the flood. Why are there still two rivers found today bearing these name? Because the names were preserved by Noah and his sons and they renamed these two rivers after those original ones, a fact also included both in this epic. This was a common practice, and it helped preserve history in some ways.
Utanapishtim was the son of a man named Ubar-Tutu. This name appears in the aforementioned Sumerian King list as an antediluvian king of Uruk. How can this be? Likely, Noah was split into two people – Ubar-Tutu and Utanapishtim – over the centuries of descendants retelling the story of the flood and the founders of their land.
Utanapishtim reveals to Gilgamesh a “secret matter,” which is that a god (it is unclear which god it actually is) tells Utanapishtim that a flood is coming. Now, many of the gods had decided to send the flood, but only one decided to tell a human. He told Utanapishtim this warning:
Wreck house, build boat,
Forsake possessions and seek life,
Belongings reject and life save!
Take aboard the boat seed of all living things…
Unlike the ark the Lord tells Noah to build, the boat Utanapishtim is told to build likely would not float. The boat describe was a cube and divided equally, which is unsurprising considering the shape of Sumerian and Babylonian architecture. This flood story was passed down through the generations and gained cultural influences; it was not preserved as the inspired Word of God is. But like in the Scriptures, this god gives Utanapishtim instructions that he obeys, though instead of warning his neighbors of what is to come, he deceives them. He does say that rain is coming, but that it will be a blessing rather than destruction. Many people helped build this boat, and it only took 5 days! The boat was made of wood and covered in tar and pitch. Many people and creatures boarded the ship as well:
What living creatures I had I loaded upon her,
I sent up on board all my family and kin,
Beasts of the steppe, wild animals of the steppe, all types
of skilled craftsmen I sent up on board.
Then the god comes to him at the appointed time of the flood and tells him to close up the ship.
The appointed time arrived,
In the morning cakes in spates,
In the evening grains in rains,
I gazed upon the ace of the storm,
The weather was dreadful to behold!
The flood is described in more detail in respect to the gods, who regretted sending it. They “tore our the mooring posts (of the world)” and “made the dikes overflow” (XI.106-5). They “set the land ablaze” and “flooded the land … smashed it like a [clay pot]” (XI.110). The flood came down in such a torrent that people could not see one another and the water “passed over the people like a battle” (XI.113). It rained six days and seven nights, a common phrasing in the epic (sets of three are common as well). On the seventh day there was calm again. So not quite the 40 days, but one of these writers had Divine inspiration and the other by word of mouth and placed into an epic!
Utanapishtim then tells Gilgamesh that all people turned to clay, which has also been mentioned multiple times before in the epic. Dust to dust appears to have been accepted by the Sumerians. At this time, Utanapishtim looked to see what remained of the world, and all he saw was water. The boat eventually rested on a Mount Nimush and remained there for a week. On that seventh day, he let out a dove, which returned. Then a swallow that returned. Finally he released a raven that did not return. Then he knew he could open the doors again. Utanapishtim “set up an incense offering on the summit of the mountain” just as Noah made a sacrifice to the Lord after the flood and the Lord made a promise to Noah (XI.161). A similar statement is made by the gods to not destroy mankind with a flood. However, Utanapishtim is also sent to live alone with his wife, which is in part why he is called the Distant One and became like the gods.
It was for this reason, to gain eternal life, that Gilgamesh sought out his ancestor, but he fails the test and loses what could have made him youthful again. But he did gain something greater, and that was the account of the days before and during the flood that was foretold at the beginning of the epic. In fact, this epic ends much the same way that it begins. Our epic hero is still human, but he has returned a changed man with the prize of knowledge that would be passed down to the next generation.
This collection of interesting facts found in Gilgamesh does not tell you the details of the adventure; that is for you to find out for yourself, and I encourage you to do so. Despite it being an epic, it is also rather short, much shorter than Beowulf. This is likely because much of the text has been lost. For example, one adventure is mentioned in passing that does not happen in the epic. But the story is fascinating and the details intriguing. Without reading, you would miss the tale of Enkidu and how he became a friend of Gilgamesh; you would miss the interaction between the gods; you would miss what this world looked like through the eyes of someone who lived thousands of years ago. Much can be learned in this epic in addition to the great flood and our forefather Noah. And like most poetic works, retelling it in prose simply does not do it justice.
Blessings to you and yours,
“Gilgamesh.” Benjamin R. Foster, trans. The Norton Anthology of World Literature. Vol. 1. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. 2009. Print.
The Sumerian King List (For the lineage of Ubar-tutu, Enmerkar, Lugalbanda, and Gilgamesh, go to pages 77-91)