The Epic of Gilgamesh

When I signed up for the Really Old Classics Challenge I had no idea what to read, as I’m completely new to ‘really old classics’. I finally picked The Epic of Gilgamesh, which proved to be the perfect choice because I loved it!

The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the earliest known pieces of literature in the world. It was written on a set of clay tablets from ancient Mesopotamia which were discovered by the archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam in the 19th century and are thought to date from around 2000 BC. It’s fascinating to think that something written so long ago has survived and is still being read today.

The epic tells the story of Gilgamesh, a powerful Sumerian king who is feared by his subjects. The gods respond to the pleas of the people by sending a wild man called Enkidu to be Gilgamesh’s equal. The first half of the epic shows how Gilgamesh and Enkidu form a close friendship and have some great adventures together, including a journey into a cedar forest to slay the monster Humbaba. Later, when Enkidu dies, the devastated Gilgamesh sets out in search of the secrets of immortality.

There have been several different translations of The Epic of Gilgamesh but the one I read was the Penguin Classics version translated by Andrew George. I’m not sure how this would compare to the other translations that are available (this is in verse form and I know that some of the others are in prose, for example); I might try reading a different one at some point in the future to find out.

The story is very repetitive with some verses being repeated two or three times in quick succession, with only a few words being changed each time. I actually really liked this structure, as it produced an almost hypnotic effect, as well as helping to emphasise the points that were being made. I was surprised at how easy it was to read and understand, despite some missing words and disjointed sentences (the Epic of Gilgamesh does not exist in its entirety – the various translators have had to piece it together from the surviving fragments of text). Some parts of the story feel very familiar, such as when Gilgamesh, during his quest for immortality, meets Utnapishtim who tells him about a great flood. This is obviously very similar to the biblical story of Noah.

There are lots of references to Sumerian gods and place names, which I am not familiar with at all, but the book has a lot of helpful extras including a glossary, character list and map. There’s also an introduction which helps to explain the historical context of the epic and describes how the tablets were discovered.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is relatively short in comparison to many other ‘really old classics’, but despite its shortness, it gives us a lot to think about. One thing we can learn from the epic is that although the world has changed in many ways over the last four thousand years, there are some things that are still the same: for example, friendship, love, grief at losing a loved one, fear of death, and every other human emotion you can think of.


19 thoughts on “The Epic of Gilgamesh

  1. Amanda says:

    I think it’s amazing that stuff like this still exists. I read Gilgamesh last year and enjoyed it, especially where the stories were similar to Bible stories.

  2. Jessica says:

    wow that is old and I can’t believe its still around. I think I’d be really intimidated to read something like that just because I’d be worried about how different it might be.

  3. Nymeth says:

    I love Gilgamesh – it’s amazing how fresh and human and universal a lot of it still feels. And like you I didn’t mind the repetitive structure – it gave me a good feel for what the oral version must have been like.

  4. razorface says:

    George’s translation is pretty good – certainly in terms of faithfulness to the original texts. I would also recommend Stephanie Dalley’s translation in “Myths from Mesopotamia”.

    It is worth nothing that there are some “translations around” that either try to fill in the gaps in the text with imaginative reconstructions or paraphrase rather than translate.

  5. Veens says:

    I cannot believe I have not even heard of this book. I really am intrigued with the way it is written, need to check it out.

  6. Charlie says:

    To have survived that long but not discovered until recently! I was wondering if it might be in verse, interesting to read that different translators have set it out differently.

  7. Paul Antony says:

    The Epic of Gilgamesh is a wonderful story about immortality. The flood story on tablet X was the first written and is the basic of the Hebrew Bible borrowed by the Hebrews when they were in captivity in Babylon in 500-600 B.C. They were exposed to Gilgamesh stories in Babylon for over 50 years and liked them so much that they wrote Gilgamesh, Utnapishtim, the ark, and the flood story into their own stories. Of course they changed the names. Wonderful adaptation.

    • Helen says:

      Thanks for the information, Paul. It’s fascinating to think of the same stories being adapted by different cultures and religions over the years.

  8. Adam Stevenson says:

    What I adored about that one was how Gilgamesh was hated by his people when he was hungry to do great things, but loved by them when he gave up on being great. How he could only be a good man when he got over the fact that he would have to die.

  9. ciceroantonius says:

    Check out the Teaching Company at Great and look for Lectures on the Epic of Gilgamesh. They can teach you more about it and its history. It is the foundation literature of all western literature including the religious traditions. All the stories in this book were adapted by other cultures. Noah did not build the Ark, it was Utnapishtim. And it was for very different reasons. So we must really think about what all this means.

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