SOAS University of London

Department of History, School of History, Religions & Philosophies

An introduction to Gilgamesh

One of the greatest contributions of Iraq to human history lies in the development there, more than four thousand years ago, of a highly sophisticated written literature. This literature is today being reconstructed from many thousands of clay tablets inscribed in cuneiform script. These ancient tablets have been recovered in the past century and a half from the ruin-mounds that bury the old cities of Babylonia and Assyria.

The undoubted masterpiece of ancient Iraq - and one of the great works of world literature - is the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh. One of the early translations of the epic so inspired the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke in 1916 that he became almost intoxicated with pleasure and wonder, and repeated the story to all he met. 'Gilgamesh', he declared, 'is stupendous!' Its importance was already apparent when the study of Babylonian and Assyrian civilization was in its infancy. In 1872 George Smith gave a public lecture on part of the epic, the famous Babylonian Flood Story, to the Society for Biblical Archaeology in London. What he revealed astonished all present, including the Prime Minister, Mr Gladstone, for he showed that the Biblical story of Noah had a close parallel in ancient Iraq. We now know that the Babylonian legend is undoubtedly older and must have been the original source for the story recounted in Genesis.

The Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh is a long narrative poem which examines the universal human search for meaning and longing for life. In ancient tradition Gilgamesh was king of the city of Uruk. The poem tells the story of his heroic struggle against death. Not content with the immortal renown won by reckless deeds, Gilgamesh seeks immortality itself and journeys to the ends of the earth and beyond. There he hears the tale of how the gods made a great Flood sweep the earth and learns the different destinies of gods and mortals.

Though this great epic is best known from a revised version current in the first millennium BC, it was originally the work of an anonymous Babylonian poet who lived in Iraq more than 3,700 years ago. He composed the epic in the Akkadian language but the literary traditions of Gilgamesh also inform five shorter narrative poems in the Sumerian language, and these are even older.