Man, Myth, Legend
Stephen Nicholas Richards
Danielle Elisabeth Samuelson
Thomas Nathan Samuelson
thorough and thoughtful
Gilgamesh may or may not have been born a demigod, as his people believed him to be. He was destined to become a king, but it took a very special friend and a serious of strange events to turn him into the hero he became. He was a man that sought immortality but became an immortal legend instead.
Gilgamesh is believed to have been a real person living sometime between 2700BC and 2500BC in Uruk, which at the time was the largest city in the earliest of all civilizations, Sumer. He is included on the Sumerian Kings List (Black, 1998), as the fifth king during the First Dynasty of Uruk. His father, King Lugalbanda was the third king of Uruk. The first five kings were believed to be born of gods which resulted in reigns lasting 100 years or more. Gilgamesh's reign was said to have lasted 126 years while his father was king for 1200 years. Gilgamesh's mother, Ninsun was said to be a Sumerian goddess. Her father was Anu, the god of the sky while her mother was Uras, goddess of earth. As his mother was a full goddess and his father a demigod, or half-god, Gilgamesh was considered three parts god one part mortal. He was also believed to have been born a giant with superhuman strength. Gilgamesh is credited with building the strong walls that protected his city and its residents from enemies of the day. These walls allowed the city to become one of the greatest.
The story of Gilgamesh and his rise to fame comes from the oldest written story known to man, The Epic of Gilgamesh. One of the most important aspects to consider when reviewing the story is that it was written by the Babylonians and Akkadians, both of whom were enemies of the Sumerians in Gilgamesh's time. Gilgamesh's father was not born into the line of kings but is believed to have been bestowed the honor after assisting King Enmerkar in his conquest of Aratta. Lugalbanda's own glory was told through a series of stories written at some point after the Epic of Gilgamesh.
According to the Epic, a young King Gilgamesh was feared by his people. He was known to have bedded, through force, many young women of Uruk. This included brides on their wedding nights. It is not known why the men were in such distress, as these sections of the Babylonian tablets are missing. It may have been over the treatment of their wives and daughters or some mistreatment to the men themselves. As a result of these hardships, the people of Uruk prayed to their gods for relief from the king. These prayers were said to have been answered in the form of a wild, untamed man, Enkidu.
The City of Uruk worshiped its patron goddess Inanna, also known as Ishtar. She was the goddess of love, war and sex. Her temple was known to be a place of prostitution and it was one of her prostitutes, a woman known as Shamhat, who was assigned the task of transforming Enkidu into a civilized man. Once this was done, Enkidu was so outraged with the king's treatment of women that he confronted the king in what resulted in a brutal fight between the two men. Because Enkidu was the first man that Gilgamesh could not easily defeat, he became fast friends with Enkidu.
Enkidu assisted King Gilgamesh and his army in stopping an attack by King Aga of Kish during his time in Uruk. King Aga was taken captive in the middle of his own army, but was spared by King Gilgamesh (Black, 1998). Following this great victory, the two were sent on a quest by the god Enlil to Cedar Forest, the earthly home of the Sumerian gods. The friends defeated the feared Humbaba, the monstrous, immortal guardian of Cedar Forest who protected the woods from mankind. Once Humbaba was dead, the friends defied the gods by cutting down many trees in the ancient forest to create a raft and returned to Uruk with Humbaba's head.
Once the heroes returned, Inanna (Ishtar) offered herself to King Gilgamesh to become his bride. When he refused her advances, she became enraged and forced her father, the god Anu, to give her access to the Bull of Heaven. She unleashed the great bull on the City of Uruk as revenge. It created much destruction to both the city and the crops needed to feed the people. Gilgamesh and Enkidu had no choice but to kill the Bull of Heaven to save Uruk.
The gods then decided that because Gilgamesh and Enkidu killed Humbaba, killed the Bull of Heaven, and ravaged the virgin timber of Cedar Forest that one of them must die. As Gilgamesh was three-quarter god, Enkidu was shown a dream that he would die. He was so distraught at his own death and leaving his friend that he became sick and died. A distraught Gilgamesh went into the forest to mourn the loss of his friend. He eventually decided to seek Utnapishtim, the only man to have been granted immortality by the gods for his deeds in surviving the great flood.
Gilgamesh faced many trials in his search for Utnapishtim. He singlehandedly killed a pride of lions then took their skins for clothing. He persuaded the guardian man-scorpions to allow him to travel through Mount Mashu, a tunnel that man was prohibited from entering because it was complete darkness for twelve leagues. He persuaded a frightened tavern woman to direct to him to Utnapishtim, however, when she finally directed him to the ferryman Urshanabi Gilgamesh attacked and destroyed two stone beings that according to Urshanabi were the only possible way to cross the waters to reach Utnapishtim. Once Urshanabi explained the dilemma, Gilgamesh cut down many trees and eventually allowed passage of the waters.
Upon arriving at the island of Utnapishtim, Gilgamesh explained his reason for seeking out the immortal man and therefore the secret to immortality. Utnapishtim described to Gilgamesh how he was instructed to create a large boat, collected animals, and ride out the flood with his family. He explained that the god Enlil had sent the flood because humans were too noisy, and when the other gods learned of this, they forced Enlil to grant Utnapishtim and his wife immortality for saving the animals and mankind. As there was no secret to be shared for obtaining immortality, Utnapishtim told Gilgamesh of a unique plant that would restore youth. Gilgamesh obtained this rare plant but had it stolen away by a serpent.
Gilgamesh returned to Uruk empty handed but realized that the great walls of his city were as much his legacy as the killing of Humbaba and the killing of the Bull of Heaven. He provided his people with the greatest of all civilizations, be brought them the story of the great flood, and he befriended Enkidu. All of these things would be the legacy of the great King Gilgamesh of Uruk, son of King Lugalbanda and Lady Ninsun.
Gilgamesh went on to become a great leader for his people. He fathered a son, Ur-Nungal, and a grandson, Udul-kalama, who became the sixth and seventh kings of First Dynasty of Uruk (Black, 1998). Upon Gilgamesh's death, the god Enlil proclaimed that, "of mankind, all that are known, none will leave a monument for generations to come to compare with his," (The Epic of Gilgamesh). Those "generations to come" have now lasted more than four thousand years, as a result of the oldest surviving writings of two of the kings greatest rivals.
The Epic of Gilgamesh, Assyrian International News Agency, Books Online, ( .org)
Black, J.A., Cunningham, G., Fluckiger-Hawker, E, Robson, E., and Zólyomi, G., The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature ( . . ), Oxford 1998- .
Black, J.A., Cunningham, G., Fluckiger-Hawker, E, Robson, E., and Zólyomi, G., The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature ( . . ), Oxford 1998-.