I’ve finally read Gilgamesh.  Three times.


This is not Gilgamesh but Ashurbanipal, but that’s fine: the best copies of the epic are from his library. Really!

News to me department: apparently you say gil-GA-mesh.

First, who was Gilgamesh? Well, he’s listed on the Sumerian King List as one of the kings of Uruk. The King List says that he ruled for 126 years, while his grandfather Lugalbanda ruled for 1200 years and his son Ur-Nungal for 30 years. Scholars tend to believe that these numbers are a bit exaggerated. He probably ruled sometime between 2800 and 2500 BCE.

And that’s about it for history. Oh, and his real name was Bilgames. More on that later.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is not Sumerian, but Akkadian. Akkadian was the Semitic language that took over from Sumerian by 2000 or so, and was spoken by both the Assyrians and Babylonians. It was spoken and written for 2000 years, though in the last centuries of that period the spoken language gave way to Aramaic. The epic was also translated into Hittite and Hurrian. There are two major Akkadian versions, the “Old Babylonian” version from around 1800 BCE, and a longer “standard version” from about 1000 BCE, the one in Ashurbanipal’s library. We even have the name of the compiler, Sîn-lēqi-unninni.

Here’s the basic story:

Gilgamesh is the mighty king of Uruk, whose massive brick walls (which the king had built) the reader is invited to examine. He is, strangely, “two thirds divine and one third human”. This is because his mother is the goddess Ninsun. In the epic Lugalbanda is his father rather than his grandfather.

However, he has a deplorable habit of bothering the young men and women of the town. They complain to the gods, who decide that he needs a companion.

They create Enkidu, a shaggy-haired wild man who lives with the beasts outside the civilized world. A hunter complains that he is undoing his traps, preventing him from getting food. His father sends him to Gilgamesh with a plan: send a temple prostitute, Shamhat, out to civilize the wild man with sex.

This works.  After making love for a week, Enkidu is no longer attuned to the natural world (the beasts flee from him), but more reasonable. He talks with Shamhat, who convinces him to come to Uruk. There’s an amusing moment when she gives him bread and beer to eat, and he doesn’t know what they are.  

After a quick fight, Enkidu and Gilgamesh become fast friends. Ninsun adopts him as a brother to Gilgamesh. 

They decide to find and kill Humbaba, a monster who guards a forest in Lebanon. Before doing so, they ask for the counsel and blessings of the elders of Uruk, the young men of Uruk, and Ninsun. The elders at first counsel against the attempt, but relent; Ninsun also wonders why her son has such a “restless spirit.”

They travel to Lebanon and fight Humbaba, who is defended by multiple auras; but the sun god Shamash comes to their aid, sending the winds to strip off the monster’s auras, allowing the heroes to kill him.

Now Ishtar, the goddess of love and war, asks Gilgamesh to be her consort. He refuses contemptuously, pointing out that most of her previous consorts have ended up dead or miserable. Angrily, she asks her father Anu to send the Bull of Heaven against Uruk. It kills several hundred of Uruk’s warriors, but the two heroes manage to kill it.

This, however, is too much for the gods. They decree that Enkidu should die, and they send him a sickness that kills him. Gilgamesh mourns him, refuses to bury him “until a worm dropped out of his nose”, and decides that he must defeat death itself.

He leaves Uruk, letting his hair grow and wearing hides, and wanders in search of Uta-napishti, who survived the Flood and became immortal. A theme of this section of the epic is self-sabotage. He keeps coming close to the secret of immortality, and messing up. E.g. Uta-napishti asks him to stay awake for a week, and he falls asleep immediately. He is shown where a plant grows that regains one’s youth and grabs it– but loses it to a snake. (On the plus side: now we know why snakes can shed their skin, rejuvenating themselves.)

Uta-napishti narrates the story of the Flood. Another myth makes the Akkadian notion of the Flood clearer: the gods sent the Flood not because of human sin, but because humans, being immortal, were too numerous. After the Flood they revoked the gift of immortality, except for Uta-napishti and his wife, and also made sure to keep human numbers in check with wild animals, plagues, and famine. 

There’s not much epilogue: Gilgamesh returns home, and shows Uta-napishti’s boatman the walls of Uruk, echoing the beginning of the epic. The idea seems to be that he has given up on deification, and will be satisfied with lasting renown as a great king.

So, how is it and should you read it?

If you like fantasy, mythology, or epic, I think you’ll find it interesting. It’s not as polished as the Iliad or the Ramayana… but you’d be kind of surprised and disappointed if it were, wouldn’t you? This is early stuff, from a culture we don’t entirely understand.

The text makes a lot of choices we wouldn’t. E.g., it relies heavily on repetition: on the way to Humbaba’s forest, Gilgamesh has ominous dreams– five of them. The language is highly repetitive and yet breezy; a modern writer would surely be content with one dream, more vividly realized. There are a lot of details about Gilgamesh’s consultations with the assemblies, Ninsun’s prayer before the heroes’ trip, Enkidu’s funeral, that take a surprising amount of the text. On the other hand, the actual fights are not described in much detail, and the ending is very abrupt.

What easily sticks in memory is the friendship of the two heroes, and Gilgamesh’s bitter grief over his loss. He doesn’t seem to recognize that taking on divine monsters was a bad idea… but arguably the text does. Gilgamesh is a big unthinking bruiser, exploiting his people until Enkidu comes along, then ignoring the duties of kingship to undertake various unnecessary quests. Pretty much everyone who talks to him explains with more or less politeness that he should be doing something else instead.

It’s striking that, after all, Gilgamesh fails in his quest for immortality.  At the same time, the original audience presumably knew that Gilgamesh did end up with a semidivine role: he was a judge of the dead in the Underworld.

Western readers may be surprised to see, in polytheistic form, a version of the Genesis Flood story. Some literalist Christians might get a little excited about this: ooh, confirmation that the Flood happened!  Others might be disturbed, because the story starts to seem less like divine inspiration than a borrowing from a common stock of Semitic folklore.

Which version should you read? I started with a “rendering” by David Ferry, from 1992. Ferry knows no Akkadian; he’s a poet, working from scholarly translations. His aim was to create a poetic version that would be readable and coherent in English. In this he succeeded; I don’t think you’ll go wrong reading it. I should note that it’s barely a hundred pages– Sîn-lēqi-unninni was no George R.R. Martin. But it may leave you wondering if you’ve read the original epic, or a retelling.

I wanted to know what those scholarly translations were like, and I read two: The Epic of Gilgamesh, translated by Andrew George, from 1999; and Myths from Mesopotamia, translated by Stephanie Dalley, from 2000. Both are very good and I can’t recommend one over the other. Both come with plentiful explanations, and include the earlier Old Babylonian version of the epic. George also includes five Sumerian myths about Bilgames. These did not form a connected narrative for the Sumerians, but they were obviously a source for the Akkadian epic, and they have some interesting variations. E.g., in the Sumerian myth, Bilgames defeats Humbaba by trickery: he persuades him to give up his protective auras by offering him a succession of gifts.

(If you’re deciding between the two, I should note that, as the title indicates, Dalley includes a few other myths too, including a separate, longer version of the Flood story.)

The major difference between Ferry and the scholarly translations is that the latter respect the fragmentary nature of our text. There are a lot of gaps, from single words to entire columns… we have perhaps only 80% of the original text. There are also uncertain translations, or words we don’t quite understand.

(Avoid translations earlier than these: we’re always learning more about Akkadian, and getting better and more complete texts, so earlier translations will not be as complete or as reliable.)

As a comparison, here’s a part of the first tablet, first in Dalley’s version:

Look for the copper tablet-box,
Undo its bronze lock.
Open the door to its secret,
Lift out the lapis lazuli tablet and read it.
The story of that man, Gilgamesh, who went through all kinds of sufferings.
He was superior to other kings, a warrior lord of great stature,
A hero born of Uruk, a goring wild bull.
He marches at the front as leader,
He goes behind, the support of his brothers.
Son of Lugalbanda, Gilgamesh, perfect in strength,
Son of the lofty cow, the wild cow Ninsun.


[See] the tablet-box of cedar,
[release] its clasp of bronze!
[Lift] the lid of its secret,
[pick] up the tablet of lapis lazuli and read out
the travails of Gilgamesh, all that he went through.

Surpassing all other kings, heroic in stature,
brave scion of Uruk, wild bull on the rampage!
Going at the fore he was the vanguard,
going at the rear, one his comrades could trust!

Wild bull of Lugalbanda, Gilgamesh, the perfect in strength,
suckling of the august Wild Cow, the goddess Ninsun!


This is Uruk, the city of Gilgamesh
the Wild Ox, son of Lugalbanda, son

of the Lady Wildcow Ninsun. Gilgamesh
the vanguard and the rear guard of the army. 

Open the copper chest with the iron locks:
the tablet of lapis lazuli tells the story.

You could write an epic, at least as long as that of Gilgamesh, about how we came to have the epic of Gilgamesh. The first tablets were dug up in 1853, at a time when Akkadian couldn’t even be read.

The key to reading it was the trilingual inscriptions at Persepolis, from the period of the Persian Empire, written in Old Persian, Elamite, and Akkadian. They were known to Europeans from the 1500s. All are cuneiform, but it was noticed in the late 1700s that there were three languages, and the first (using only a couple dozen symbols) was alphabetic. By the end of the century the Avesta was studied, giving scholars an understanding of Old Persian. By 1850 the Old Persian could be read.

The next step was to understand the Akkadian. Progress was made rapidly during the 1850s, and received a big credibility boost when a new text was discovered and sent to four different scholars; their translations were close enough that it seemed like the project was on firm ground.

Sumerian, by the way, was discovered at the same time. Many tablets were obviously themselves bilingual: Sumerian-Akkadian vocabulary lists and interlinear translations. Later, it was recognized that some tablets, the oldest ones, were in Sumerian only.

George gives an example of the enormous difficulty of getting Akkadian texts. One particular tablet is broken in three pieces. They were discovered separately: one piece in 1850, one in 1874, one in 1878. It was not until the 1920s that someone realized that two of the pieces fit together, and the third wasn’t fitted to them until the 1980s.

And that’s just one tablet! He shows a photograph of it– it’s still a mess, with a huge chunk missing. Only the left part of the column of text is readable. Fortunately there are other tablets that include the same text… one includes just the right-hand portion; another shows about 3/4 of the column, missing just the right-hand side. The texts have to be painstakingly collated, glyph by glyph, before you can even read the text.

By now we have over 80 versions of the epic. That still isn’t enough to restore the whole text; nor do they all belong to the standard version, that of Sîn-lēqi-unninni. Not infrequently, to get a coherent story we have to consult the Old Babylonian version, or even the Hittite translation.