Major figure of Mesopotamian myth, somewhat certainly identified as an historical king of Uruk dating to around the Early Dynastic Period (roughly 2750-2600 B.C.).
The name itself can be transcribed roughly in its earliest forms as dGISH.BIL.PAP-ga-mesh or bìl-ga-mesh - translated from the Sumerian, roughly, "The Old Man is Young". Even so, the explanation is far from certain, and the name may originate in an earlier, pre-Sumerian language. The only historic elements identified with the figure are a reference in the legends to a victory over King Agga of Kish, and a sherd from the Early Dynastic period bearing an inscription with his name - the Tummal Inscription. The Sumerian King Lists placing him as the fifth King of Uruk are at the earliest from the Ur III period, and may have been influenced by the already flourishing mythic tradition.
Gilgamesh is the son of Lugalbanda (sometimes of a wind-demon) and the goddess Ninsuna (a goddess of cattle) - two-thirds divine, one third human - born in Kulaba, a suburb of Uruk. According to tradition, he became King of that city, and, despite heavy oppression and enforced rights of prima nocte, raised the city to a major power, building the city walls which have been archaeologically dated to the same period. By the Ur III period - some 500 years after his supposed reign - he is already mentioned by the Kings of Ur, who ascribe to him kingship over a third of the underworld.
Whether he was an historic figure or not, the story of Gilgamesh was very early incorporated into the corpus of Mesopotamian mythology and literature. Six epics or fragments have been found containing Gilgamesh stories:
- Gilgamesh and Agga of Kish, recounts Agga's siege of Uruk and Gilgamesh's eventual victory with the help of the wild man, Enkidu
- Gilgamesh and Huwawa, in which Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and 50 warriors travel to the Cedar Forest to fight the giant Huwawa, the later Humbaba
- Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Bull of Heaven
- Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Underworld
- The Death of Gilgamesh
Each of these stories represents only a fragment of what would later become the complete epic of Gilgamesh. Each fragment thus formed only a part of a most likely oral tradition
of Gilgamesh, solidified only piece by piece in writing
. For the next 1000 years or so, this process continues - there are countless Old Babylonian fragments (most famously, the Pennsylvania Tablet
and the Yale Tablet
), as well as other, much smaller and only partly coherent writings.
The most famous version of the Gilgamesh cycle, however, is the 12-tablet epic from the library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh, compiled, according to a final subscript, by the scribe Sin-leqe-unnini. The first half tells the story of Gilgamesh's encounter and friendship with the wild man Enkidu, and their subsequent travels to kill the giant Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven sent by the scorned Ishtar. After Enkidu is killed by the sun-god Shamash as punishment, Gilgamesh wanders the world in search of Utnapishtim, the Mesopotamian equivalent of the biblical Noah, to find the secret of eternal life. The hero, of course, eventually fails, only to return to Uruk. The moral? As recounted by a bar-wench in the 10th tablet: "Why search for eternal life and happiness in the hereafter, only to be disappointed. Drink, celebrate, and enjoy life now".