The Gilgamesh Epic


Here is the quick summary of the Gilgamesh epic that I promised you last week. As you read it, think about how it compares to the garden of Eden story told in Genesis. To remind you: Genesis was written during the Iron Age, though was told (orally) much earlier. If you choose to believe it was first told/written by Moses, then the date of the Exodus was about 1446 (according to my own calculations).

(The link to my long ramble about when Moses should be dated is here: https://anneethompson.com/2020/09/07/was-moses-real/

https://anneethompson.com/2020/09/07/was-moses-real/)

The Story of Gilgamesh is actually an epic poem, written in Akkadian, about 2000 BCE (so before Moses). It was written in cuneiform script, which simply means it was written in wedge-shaped marks on clay tablets. A chap called George Smith was working at the British Museum in 1872, deciphering things that were stolen/bought/being kept safe (depending on your viewpoint) and he managed to translate a fragment of tablet found in the site that was once Nineveh. (You might recognise Nineveh? Story of Jonah and the whale.) Anyhow, this fragment seemed to have the story of the Genesis flood, and everyone got very excited and sent George back to try and dig up more. I think that this is when Gilgamesh was discovered.

The Story of Gilgamesh

Gilgamesh is the name of a king. He was pretty nasty, so the god Anu decided to create a counterpart, called Enkidu. He is created from clay (similar to Adam in Genesis story) and is made in the image of a god. Enkidu sets off to meet Gilgamesh, but is waylaid by the temptress Shamhat, and they spend a week making love. He is somehow transformed by this, and realises he needs to wear clothes. This frightens the animals (who previously had been his friends) and they run away. He goes off to meet Gilgamesh, they fight and then become friends.

They travel to a forest, which is guarded by Huwawa. They chop down trees, there is a fight, Huwawa is decapitated. The gods are angry and send a bull to punish them, but they kill that too. The gods are more angry, and decide one of the pair should die, so Enkidu is made ill, and then dies, going to ‘the house of dust.’. (There is stuff here about how the gods let him be like a god, but in the end withheld immortality from him, which also mirrors one of the themes in the Genesis story.)

Gilgamesh mourns his friend, and sets off to try and achieve immortality. The poem then has side stories of scorpion people, and lands of darkness, a beautiful garden and a ferryman. He is looking for Utnapishtim, who survived the great flood, as he holds the secret to immortality. As an aside (this story has a lot of asides) Utnapishtim survived a great flood by building a boat, and taking two of every animal inside. They floated until the boat came to rest on a mountain top.

Gilgamesh manages to find Utnapshtim, and asks how he can gain eternal life. At first, Gilgamesh is told not to sleep. He then sleeps for 7 days (not a great start!) He’s then told that he needs to acquire the plant of life (which mirrors the tree of life). He manages to get the plant, but then leaves it by a pool while he swims (as you do) and it is stolen by a snake. The poem then becomes very confusing, but I think that eventually Gilgamesh becomes both wise and immortal. Though in some versions he simply becomes content to be mortal. My Akkadian is non-existent so I can’t confirm either.

(There’s an entertaining video on Youtube if you fancy watching another quick summary of the story:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BV9t3Cp18Rc )

Mesopotamian art has lots of images of Gilgamesh.

So, what are your thoughts? Remember, this epic was written before the Old Testament was written. Though if the events in the Bible are factual, they would of course have happened before Gilgamesh, so you could argue that the Bible events influenced the writer of the epic, which then potentially influenced the writers of the Old Testament. I guess there’s no way of knowing, but it’s worth thinking about, because whatever you believe, you should be able to defend the logic of it.

Next week I’ll tell you about the arguments of James Barr and Joseph Fitzpatrick, who are very convincing. They also don’t think the garden story was about ‘original sin’. Thanks for reading. Take care, and try to avoid talking snakes.
Love, Anne x

Anne E. Thompson
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