Australian Lefty on Politics, Governance, Science and Info Management

The first literature, the must-read: Gilgamesh

Posted by Dave Bath on 2007-08-10

If you read only one story to wrestle with your human nature as an ordinary person, or your duties as a leader, it’s a tale from the dawn of writing, uncluttered by the complications we’ve created for ourselves in nearly 5000 years, when you were well-off if you possessed a woven cloth large enough to cover yourself.

My shortened version is below.

Then, the only issues to write about were the fundamentals that still challenge us:

  • Living, only to die
  • The (then relatively recent) separation of humans from nature
  • The role of true leaders
  • Justice, including treatment of prisoners.

It’s also a ripping yarn, the first story of our civilization, the adventures of the first superhero.

If you don’t know what I’m referring to, let me give you a (very) short version of the story of Gilgamesh (or Bilgames), an (exaggerated) account of the 2700 BCE (approx) King of Uruk (in modern Iraq), when writing couldn’t describe action or emotion, merely tally sheep and bricks.  About 500 years later, writing matured, and tales of Gilgamesh formed the standard training of scribes and moral education of middle-eastern rulers for well over a thousand years.

The Short Version

The Young King

Gilgamesh, Uruk’s king,
two parts god, one part man
had superhuman strength,
but was still mortal.

Not an evil king, he didn’t
understand his people couldn’t:
dig canals as fast as he,
play sport as hard as he,
make love all night.

Uruk’s exhausted people
prayed for a saviour.

Man of Nature, Man of Society

Enkidu was very strong,
lived in the wild with animals,
saved them from traps,
ate grass,
knew no speech.

A priestess-prostitute
was sent to "tame" him.
Her perfumes rubbed on Enkidu,
then animals shunned him.

Enkidu, dejected,
returned to the priestess,
shown clothes, beer and bread,
then to Uruk led.

Hearing cries of worn-out townsfolk,
Enkidu long wrestled Uruk’s lord.
The king was delighted
on finding an equal,
took Enkidu as brother,
was gentler to his people.

Adventure, Injustice

Seeking adventure and Lebanon’s cedar,
Gilgamesh and Enkidu travelled long,
skirting flames from dragon’s caves,
(seeping oil, lit by lightning).

Trapping Humbaba, the
demon forest warden,
Enkidu urged death to the
tree-loving monster.

Some say Enkidu
killed the bound captive.
Some say Gilgamesh
followed his friend’s lead.

Home the heroes took the cedars,
dressing them for temple doors.


The Goddess Inanna,
advances spurned by Gilgamesh,
sent a drought, her
"Bull of Heaven", that
dried the rivers,
baked the earth,
killed the crops,
broke the city.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu,
working together,
killed the Bull,
saved the city.

Death, Grief

Angry Inanna, her dear Bull killed,
pleaded with the other gods,
called for death to
Enkidu and Gilgamesh.

They marked only Enkidu,
killer of a captive,
for slow, wasting death,
then dusty shadow.

Enkidu died.

Gilgamesh, grief-stricken,
saw his own mortality,
fled city for the wild.
Long he wandered,
hair became matted,
his only clothes were
dog skin scraps
rudely sewn together.

Quest for Immortality

Fearing death, wanting life eternal
Gilgamesh crossed half the world
seeking the only man
granted immortality for
building an ark,
saving men and animals,
from seven day’s rain
and world-engulfing flood.

"If you can’t conquer sleep
then you can’t conquer death"

the sage said to the wanderer,
then tested the former king.

Gilgamesh failed.

But Utnapishtim softened,
told him of a magic plant,
hiding in sharp shell,
found on ocean’s floor.

Gilgamesh thanked the sage,
searched for the charm,
gained it for a moment,
lost it to a snake.


Finally Gilgamesh,
gaining understanding,
went back to his kingly tasks,
shepherd to his people.

"Only good names
live through eternity.
Look at the walls I built:
long will they guard my city.
Look at Uruk’s central square:
marvel at it’s paving,
not of sun-dried mud and straw
but oven-fired brick."

Archæologists are still finding and translating other parts of Gilgamesh lore, so the Penguin edition is at least twice the size of the 70 page version of my youth.

Another story, not part of the classic 12-tablet version, describes the heroes’ defence of Uruk from the army of a superpower (Uruk was a middleweight).

Gilgamesh captures the enemy king, without a major battle, then offers him friendship, lets the enemy army go home, rather than kill or enslave them.  These supplementary tales were favorites of young scribes for nearly 1500 years: Gilgamesh gained his immortality.


I have not followed the classic 12-tablet structure (which starts and ends with praise for Gilgamesh’s infrastructure and wisdom), and have but hinted at a few episodes (the flood and ark story being the most notable). I’m no poet, my condensation doesn’t parse well, but the short sharp lines and unsophisticated language should give you a hint of the originals and the better translations.

  • Historical titbits
    • In ancient Sumeria, Inanna (a.k.a. Ishtar, a.k.a. E-anna) was usually embodied in the town’s high priestess, with "Inanna " and king consummating the symbolic marriage of church and state once a year.
    • Gilgamesh’s mother, Ninsun, is another "goddess" in the epic, but was probably a retired "Inanna ".
    • Humbaba is sometimes known is Huwawa
  • Useful background
  • Selected translations/reworkings
    There are many translations, many freely available on the internet, but newer ones are more complete. 
    • Kramer’s translation is perhaps the most poetic of the close translations, and the book includes example versions transliterated into our alphabet so you can hear the rythms of the original poetry, but I cannot find a reference on the web.
    • The best widely-available version is the NEWER Penguin edition, translated by Andrew George (Amazon)
    • Stephen Mitchell’s version is discussed, in comic form, book and available free on the web, which includes a comic-strip "essay" speech by the author on the themes and moral subtleties (e.g. "monsters" can have attractive qualities and deserve mercy)
    • A good primary children’s picture-book three-volume series (a few sentences per page, 30 pp per volume) has been written by Ludmila Zeman: Gilgamesh The King covers the story until Gilgamesh and Enkidu become friends, The Revenge of Ishtar, and The Last Quest of Gilgamesh
    • A musical version by Tony Garone, with good summaries of the story and characters, sets of links.


21 Responses to “The first literature, the must-read: Gilgamesh”

  1. Bruce said

    I’ve been reading the bit about the possible shared origins between Noah and Utnapishtim. Not sure what I think yet although I’m entertaining the notion of them being two stories derived from the same inspiration.

    Have to look into it more really, but I’m (vaguely) aware of a paleogeological theory that points to a flood that probably happened at the right time so as to inspire the Noah narrative. Not sure about Utnaposhtim though, would have to check the dates.

    Will pester you with more if I find more.

  2. Dave Bath said

    It’s worth remembering that Abraham left “Ur of the Chaldees” which was another power near Uruk, long after Gilgamesh, and the flood story was old at the time of Gilgamesh.

    The giveaway is that later stories tend to be exagerrated: the 7 days rain (of the Gilgamesh) verses the 40 days rain (of the Jewish tradition) is thus suggestive that the Sumerian tradition is older.

    While the flood stories are the most interesting to the public, I think the focus on basic human questions is the more important, and the more powerful part of the series of poems. The major theme is perhaps the ultimate question facing sapient beings: “I am alive, but will die, so what’s the point? It seems unfair!”

    Personally, I think JWH could learn from Gilgamesh about the importance of infrastructure (what has he done?) and the need for justice even to adversaries (Gitmo, extraordinary rendition, etc).

    The most current theory about the inspiration for the flood story is the inundation of the Black Sea when a wall between the Mediterranean and the valley that was to be the Black see crumbled. From memory, this was about 5000 BCE. There is some evidence of town structures under the black sea, and calculations show that the flood would have risen at something like the speed of a human running. If you were a ultra-marathon runner you might have made it.

  3. Bruce said

    Ahah… You’ve been doing your homework. Although less a crumbling wall and more the movement of the North Anatolian Fault. ;-)

  4. Dave Bath said

    It’s a beauty to scare the fundamentalist Christian door-knockers: sucker them with an “I’m a scientist and look for evidence”, they come out with the flood, and then you go for “reporter closer to the time” argument, and conclude with “so according to your reasoning, we should be worshipping Ishtar, El and Enlil….” and then they run away and never come back!

    The “Black Books” scene where the bookshop owner drags in the christians and corrects them repeatedly is sooooo accurate when it comes to the knowledge of most Christians on theological and Middle Eastern history questions.

    Heh heh heh!

  5. Dave, did you write the short version? Great stuff! I’m bookmarking this.

  6. Dave Bath said

    Yep, I wrote the short version. While I’m moderately happy with it, it still needs work for tighter scanning. Despite that, I think I have captured some sense of the flow of the original with short tight feet and mixed length of stanzas. I’m particularly happy with the 1-liners (“Enkidu died”, “Gilgamesh failed”) for key events.

    If you feel like pointing out where the scanning is ugliest, let me know, and I’ll try to improve things.

    It’s quite an old article, but seems to be getting hits from people generally searching for info on the net rather than blog-readers. I’m chuffed at this.

    Thanks again for the compliment.

  7. I would love to read the gilgamesh epic having just completed the 64 dvd series of the Mahabharat..steeped in ancient wisdoms as well and in stark contrast to modern day story telling…i tried watching TV on sat night and realised that sat nite is murder nite…every channel was obsessed with murder…anyway..its great that these epics have survived and I will be on the look out a copy…here is rhapsodicas wrap up of the mahabharat family tree and the encoded elements

    I recently watched a documentary on Mesopatamia (IRAQ) which claimed it was the place where language was first uncovered challenging by belief that it was in fact in the northern hemisphere the Indus Valley (Rahjistan area)…and it now turns out the rock glyph libraries language sets contain not only specific instructions but also story narrative.

  8. Dave Bath said

    Actually, both Gilgamesh and Indus literature may be more recent than literature encoded on perishable material (e.g. embroidered on cloth) – and mud is more perishable than rock. It will be interesting to see what turns up when the floor of the black sea is properly investigated – there seems to be evidence of VERY old settlements there.

    From my (limited) exposure to the Mahabharata, I couldn’t see anything that was so basic as nature/urban or life/death: the subject matter of the great bharat implies a very complicated social structure that would have needed fairly sophisticated background in writing to survive.

  9. Nature/urban is well covered in the epic, the forest was always the place of retreat for penance and meditation with the sages…so too was life/death…krishna was of course very connected to nature as were those born of the bharat lineage…the most moving image of death was the time of the great battle when arjun is in doubt about his duty to against his own family particularly the great protector of the throne Bishma who was granted the boon of choosing the time of his own death…the recital of the bhagvad gita in the middle of the battle field by krishna was the key point of the story…again highlighting the importance of duty in the face of death on the battle field…the social structure was dynastic but the lesson from the failure of King Dhritarashter to act with honour, was that filial love should never come before the needs of the society (George Bush could be equated to the Duryodhan…the inevitable product of his own fathers lack of adherence to ethics) thankfully the Pandavas prevailed and would once again honour the time honoured lore of the bharat…and everyone lived happily ever after…(the split of bharat in modern times betweens Pakistan and India seems to be the modern day sequel)..lets just hope they have the good sense not to unleash the divine weapons…another moral lesson in that great saga.

  10. Dave Bath said

    Here’s why the nature/urban bit is SO old in Gilgamesh. The Mahabharata (AFAIK) doesn’t go over the issue of someone who is in a STATE of nature – one who doesn’t know speech, eats grass, and that animals treat as another animal.

    The life/death issues in Mahabharata (AFAIK) don’t go into the “I’m alive, and I’m going to die, why? what is death?”

    Krishna’s lessons, and the subject matter, require a much more sophisticated civilization (and language), with the battle dated between around 3.5 to 4 millenia ago, while Gilgamesh the King is dated 4.7 millenia ago. The pantheon is also Aryan (the same basic mob of cow-loving, male-pantheoned horse riders that invaded Europe and destroyed earlier religions dominated by goddesses). In Gilgamesh’s time, only asses had been domesticated – horses were still considered untameable.

    My favorite bit of M is where Yudhishtira won’t enter heaven if he can’t bring the dog.

    As to Dhritarashtra, he just couldn’t see the point of kingship rules ;-)

    Even disregarding actual dates, the value of the Gilgamesh epic is that the culture of the day, while recognizably urban, was still wrestling with basic ideas that were relatively “uncorrupted” by many of the artificialities invented since.

  11. Nigel said

    Well you have inspired me to read the epic so I can get to the core of this and better grasp this raw affinity with nature of which you speak. My enthusiasm with the M epic is also biased on account I have a crush on Draupadi who was so full of fire (well she arrived out of a fire!) representing the pride and honour of the goddess and never let go until justice was done…and she could wash away the insult on her unbraided hair with karnas blood, kindly collected by Bhim. In many ways she was the reminder/inspiration for the Pandavas leading up to the battle…I do recall Yudhishtira going to heaven but in the version I watched he went solo…I suppose 64 hours was the compressed version and unfortunately fido must have been figured out of the story.

  12. Dave Bath said

    (1) Gonna have to borrow the 64 hr version
    (2) No doggie???!!!!???? But that’s critical!!!! When Y refuses heaven because he cannot bear to leave poor little doggie alone, there’s a flash of smoke, dog turns into Krishna, who says what a good boy Y is, having just passed the test of compassion.
    (3) So, …, when is your very very very short version of M appearing on your website?

  13. Nigel said

    You are welcome to the 64 hr version but you need to realise the India Gramaphone Company must have had problems retaining sub-titlers and the ones they did retain always kept between a 30 and 60 second lag between image and sound, meaning what you are reading is not what you are watching…this causes a brain meltdown for approximately 4 hours after which it becomes less of a problem, the brain learns to cope…as long as you are willing to endure the test of the most mis-matched subtitles in the history of film you are welcome to the series.

    I was pipped to the post so will not be crunching the epic – the whole truth has been reduced to its elements post viewing at rhapsodica According to this V, V, V, short version Y was epitimising the element of truth (not compassion) which became a paradox on the battlefield when Krishna convinced Y to lie to sage Drona about the death of Drona’s son. Sahadev was the agent of compassion but I cant remember him making a trip to heaven…let alone without the Krishna canine test of fido-elity!

    …all hands on deck at spontaneous productions to launch the ‘bureau of probable statistics’…after important 911 statistics were leaked by that office to the rosettamoon site!

  14. […] 2008-04-26 — Dave Bath Those who’ve hit one of my most popular posts, a Gilgamesh ultra-short version post might find it interesting that "brand names" started appearing on bottles at the […]

  15. […] and the Chinese reserveCarbon dioxide, blood pH and no time to evolveWhat’s wrong with MBAs? A lot!The first literature, the must-read: GilgameshAdam Smith and the financial crisis3 versions of Medieval Help DeskWargamers view of Shanghai market […]

  16. […] of intimacy between the two, so I’ll refer to one of my all-time big-hitting posts, "The First Literature – The Must Read" (2007-08-10) which introduces Gilgamesh/Bilgames and has a very short rendering (and […]

  17. […] Posts The first literature, the must-read: GilgameshIn the best of 2008… why?Obesity incidence underestimated and threshold overestimatedSign up to […]

  18. razorface said

    I realise it must be very difficult to know what to leave out in your condensed version, but can I make the following suggestions for improving the coverage and accuracy of the text? Incidentally, I suspect some of the minor errors may be due to the translations you’ve used. Andrew George’s translations are among the most accurate, Stephanie Dalley’s is older but very good, and it must be allowed that in many places there are uncertainties about precise meaning.

    The Young King
    Gilgamesh is praised as much for his wisdom, great quests, and building achievements as his strength in the introduction. The idea that Gilgamesh overworked the young men of Uruk digging canals or playing games is an inference only. All the text indicates is that, like the young women, he wore them out. There is some association with wrestling matches and perhaps ball and stick games in the total Gilgamesh corpus so sport is at least a possibility. The citizens of Uruk don’t so much cry out for a “Saviour” as simply complain to the gods.

    Man of Nature…
    A fairly vital plot point is that Enkidu is created by the Gods as a foil to Gilgamesh’s oppression. The specific complaint of the people, and the reason for Enkidu’s fight with Gilgamesh, is that the king exercises the so called “Lord’s right” of deflowering new brides on their wedding night.

    Adventure, Injustice
    There is no reference to flames from dragon’s caves in the text. It might be better to mention the series of ominous dreams that Gilgamesh experiences en route to the forest. In the standard version of the epic it is clearly Gilgamesh who slays Humbaba. Only in the older, stand-alone Sumerian poems does Enkidu perform the deed.

    The Bull of Heaven does indeed dry up vegetation and rivers, but it is too simplistic to interpret the Bull merely as a symbol of drought. The beast also opens up huge cracks in the earth causing hundreds of citizens to fall to their deaths. Using the same reasoning we could claim that the Bull personifies earthquakes. Reference to Ishtar’s former lovers or Enkidu’s insult may be relevant.

    Death, Grief
    The god’s decision to kill Enkidu is not a result of Ishtar’s pleading or merely a punishment for killing the Bull of Heaven. Rather, it is a decision made in council by Anu, Enlil, Ea and Shamash (who opposes it) because Gilgamesh and Enkidu have killed both Humbaba and the Bull. Gilgamesh wears wild animal pelts – particularly lion skins (although bears, hyenas, panthers, deer and others are mentioned), – as he roams the wild. Dogs are not mentioned.

    Quest for Immortality
    The episodes of traversing the path of the sun at Mt Mashu, meeting Siduri, crossing the waters of death, and listening to Utnapishtim’s more philosophical advice about life and death are all absent.

    Nicely restrained on the whole. The word “good” is perhaps a little moralistic – Gilgamesh is praised more for his great deeds than any innate “goodness”.

    ‘Hope this is helpful.

  19. Dave Bath said

    thanks for that razorface… I’ll consider what you’ve written when I get a chance to do a rework.
    But the quest for immortality stuff is tricky, particularly the philosophical bits, and the journey itself has moments I think memorable but incidental (the scorpion men in particular… Cannot figure them out at all).

  20. […] world wiping out the population except for the household of Utnapishtim/Noah – check out the Gilgamesh Epic for the pre-Abrahamic origins of that […]

  21. michael wilson said

    who is this nigel carney, is he real and can he please speak sense or at least english, is he in this world or the next or on a very good drug!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: