Introduction to the Gilgamesh Epic
by Scott David Foutz
Sometime around 3500 BC the first cities appeared along the banks of the lower Tigris and Euphrates rivers. (The Tigris and Euphrates, as well as the Pishon and Havilah rivers are mentioned as flowing through Eden in Genesis 2:10ff.) These two rivers run a generally parallel course for about 600 miles from their source in the Persian Gulf. The plain between the Tigris and Euphrates is historically known as Mesopotamia (meaning: "between rivers") and is generally deemed by contemporary archaeology to be the "cradle of civilization". This region is located in the heartland of modern day Iraq.
Some time after 3500 BC a people called the Sumerians occupied the southern portion of this plain, nearest to the Persian Gulf. There is no evidence regarding the origin of the Sumerians, but they most likely came as conquerers (rather than passive settlers) from central Asia. They settled a number of agricultural communities, perhaps most notably one at Ur (on the Euphrates). Biblical students will recognize Ur as the hometown of the biblical Abraham about 1500 years later (see Gen 11:31). For over a thousand years these remarkable Sumerians controlled the southern portion of the Mesopotamian Valley and shaped many of the basic institutions and ideas governing later models of civilization throughout the Middle East and later, Europe.
Many scholars believe that the Sumerians invented writing since no earlier archaeological evidence of writing has been found than the written language of the Sumerians dating back to approximately 3200 BC. Initially the Sumerian written language consisted of pictograms (graphic representations of objects) which eventually evolved into a mixed system of simplified drawings, ideograms (symbols for ideas and abstracts such as "power"), and phonograms (symbols for the sounds of words or syllables). The Epic itself refers to "those who first cut into clay his bird-like words". (Tablet 1)
Wedge-shaped marks were used in making each symbol. The term "cuneiform" (from the Latin cuneus for "wedge") was later used to designate this type of writing. This practice of writing apparently proved so practically valuable that other peoples of the ancient Middle East later borrowed cuneiform symbols and adapted them to the sounds of their own languages.
The most impressive surviving literature of the Sumerians are their epic poems recorded on clay tablets concerning the career and discoveries of a legendary king named Gilgamesh. Although Gilgamesh is a semi-divine person in the epic, his principal quest, a quest for immortality, ends in failure. Thus the Epic of Gilgamesh has been said by some to embody the values and aspitrations of the Sumerian people.
The Gilgamesh Epic first became known to 19th century scholars through copies from the library of Ashurbanipal of the 7th century BC. Since that time, considerable archaeological evidence suggests that Gilgamesh did exist. Two historiographic texts of the 21st or 20th centuries BC mention Gilgamesh as a king of the city of Uruk (biblical Erech, see Genesis 10:10) during the Second Early Dynastic Period of Sumer (ca. 2700-2500 BC). According to the same texts, Gilgamesh is a contemporary of two other Sumerian kings, Enmebaragesi of Kish and Mesannepadda of Ur. Separate inscriptions of both of these kings as well as two sons of Mesannepadda have now been discovered, confirming their existence and thus greatly enhancing the likelihood that Gilgamesh was also an historical person.
The value of the Gilgamesh Epic for students of the Bible is truly substantial and multifaceted. Among these facets are the following:
- The Epic is significantly older than the Old Testament and thus provides us with unparalleled insight into the ancient Near East. The most conservative traditional views of biblical authorship attribute the book of Genesis to Moses and thus require a (conservative) date of approximately 1440 BC, whereas the earliest written stage of portions of the Epic are presumed to date from the Ur III period, approximately 2000 BC.
- The Epic contains a Flood Story strikingly similar to that of Genesis 6-9 (see Tablet 12). As mentioned previously, conservative views attribute the commitment of the biblical flood acount to written text (as opposed to oral tradition) approximately 1440 BC with Moses. Thus the textual account of the Flood in the Epic significantly precedes the account in Genesis. (Scholars generally recognize this precedence of the Sumerian flood account based on references to the Flood oon the Old Babylonian versions of the Epic (2000-1600 BC) and the complete flood account's appearance in the older Atrahasis Epic which we know precedes the Old Babylonian version of the Epic.)