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Opinion

‘The Epic of Gilgamesh’ offers unique insight into ancient history

Brady Johnson

April 14, 2016

Having been written roughly in 1800 B.C., “The Epic of Gilgamesh” is the oldest surviving piece of literature, at nearly 4,000 years old. Written by the Sumerians in the city state of Ur, in the Dhi Qar province of modern Iraq, “The Epic of Gilgamesh” is a tale of the eponymous god king.

The Sumerians are one of the oldest known civilizations, the earliest people known to have used writing by making marks on stone tablets. The Sumerians were some of the most advanced people for their time and their propensity for writing has left us an illustrative view of ancient Mesopotamia.

“The Epic of Gilgamesh” was written on many different stone tablets, which weren’t discovered until 1853 by famous Assyriologist Hormzud Rassam. The tablets were at the time unreadable as there were no means of translating. There was no knowledge of the ancient Sumerian language. We would have no knowledge of what the stone tablets say without the dedication and hard work of another accomplished assyriologist – George Smith. Sadly, some of “The Epic of Gilgamesh” has been lost to time, however there is ample source material to provide a coherent story. Some translations also fill in the missing sections, as what occurs can often be deduced from the context of the surviving tablets.

“The Epic of Gilgamesh” provides a unique insight to the life of the people of nearly 4,000 years ago. It is thought that Gilgamesh was a real king who lived roughly around the same time. The exploits of Gilgamesh are mythological, as it is said he lived to be hundreds of years old and was 10 feet tall. This was a common practice in these ancient civilizations, to provide legitimacy to the rule of kings, they claimed to be more than a man. Much of “Gilgamesh” is about the different gods and goddesses of the polytheistic religion of ancient Mesopotamia. There is no doubt that “Gilgamesh” had influence on religious texts for centuries to come. The flood parable in the Bible is present in “Gilgamesh,” which predates the tale in the Bible. Historians agree that there was a great flood in Mesopotamia which affected virtually all of the world known to the writers of “Gilgamesh” and the Bible. Instead of Noah the character in “Gilgamesh” is Utnapishtim. As well as the flood story, the tale of Adam and Eve parallels the story of Enkidu and Shamhat, characters in “Gilgamesh.”

Since “The Epic of Gilgamesh” is older than any other piece of literature, it is natural that it is unlike any other story one might read. For an unaware reader, this reading could be rather difficult, even translated to modern English the book is dense and there is reference to much that the average reader would likely not know little about. Despite this, I recommend “The Epic of Gilgamesh” to any reader, but especially those with a penchant for ancient history. My suggestion is to find a copy with annotations, and a well-written introduction. There are many versions of this book accommodating to many different levels of reading proficiency. To read “The Epic of Gilgamesh” is to look as far back in human history as currently possible. Available upon time of writing at the Chalmer Davee Library.

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