1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Gilgamesh, Epic of

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GILGAMESH, EPIC OF, the title given to one of the most important literary products of Babylonia, from the name of the chief personage in the series of tales of which it is composed.

Though the Gilgamesh Epic is known to us chiefly from the fragments found in the royal collection of tablets made by Assur-bani-pal, the king of Assyria (668-626 B.C.) for his palace at Nineveh, internal evidence points to the high antiquity of at least some portions of it, and the discovery of a fragment of the epic in the older form of the Babylonian script, which can be dated as 2000 B.C., confirms this view. Equally certain is a second observation of a general character that the epic originating as the greater portion of the literature in Assur-bani-pal’s collection in Babylonia is a composite product, that is to say, it consists of a number of independent stories or myths originating at different times, and united to form a continuous narrative with Gilgamesh as the central figure. This view naturally raises the question whether the independent stories were all told of Gilgamesh or, as almost always happens in the case of ancient tales, were transferred to Gilgamesh as a favourite popular hero. Internal evidence again comes to our aid to lend its weight to the latter theory.

While the existence of such a personage as Gilgamesh may be admitted, he belongs to an age that could only have preserved a dim recollection of his achievements and adventures through oral traditions. The name[1] is not Babylonian, and what evidence as to his origin there is points to his having come from Elam, to the east of Babylonia. He may have belonged to the people known as the Kassites who at the beginning of the 18th century B.C. entered Babylonia from Elam, and obtained control of the Euphrates valley. Why and how he came to be a popular hero in Babylonia cannot with our present material be determined, but the epic indicates that he came as a conqueror and established himself at Erech. In so far we have embodied in the first part of the epic dim recollections of actual events, but we soon leave the solid ground of fact and find ourselves soaring to the heights of genuine myth. Gilgamesh becomes a god, and in certain portions of the epic clearly plays the part of the sun-god of the spring-time, taking the place apparently of Tammuz or Adonis, the youthful sun-god, though the story shows traits that differentiate it from the ordinary Tammuz myths. A separate stratum in the Gilgamesh epic is formed by the story of Eabani—introduced as the friend of Gilgamesh, who joins him in his adventures. There can be no doubt that Eabani, who symbolizes primeval man, was a figure originally entirely independent of Gilgamesh, but his story was incorporated into the epic by that natural process to be observed in the national epics of other peoples, which tends to connect the favourite hero with all kinds of tales that for one reason or the other become embedded in the popular mind. Another stratum is represented by the story of a favourite of the gods known as Ut-Napishtim, who is saved from a destructive storm and flood that destroys his fellow-citizens of Shurippak. Gilgamesh is artificially brought into contact with Ut-Napishtim, to whom he pays a visit for the purpose of learning the secret of immortal life and perpetual youth which he enjoys. During the visit Ut-Napishtim tells Gilgamesh the story of the flood and of his miraculous escape. Nature myths have been entwined with other episodes in the epic and finally the theologians took up the combined stories and made them the medium for illustrating the truth and force of certain doctrines of the Babylonian religion. In its final form, the outcome of an extended and complicated literary process, the Gilgamesh Epic covered twelve tablets, each tablet devoted to one adventure in which the hero plays a direct or indirect part, and the whole covering according to the most plausible estimate about 3000 lines. Of all twelve tablets portions have been found among the remains of Assur-bani-pal’s library, but some of the tablets are so incomplete as to leave even their general contents in some doubt. The fragments do not all belong to one copy. Of some tablets portions of two, and of some tablets portions of as many as four, copies have turned up, pointing therefore to the great popularity of the production. The best preserved are Tablets VI. and XI., and of the total about 1500 lines are now known, wholly or in part, while of those partially preserved quite a number can be restored. A brief summary of the contents of the twelve may be indicated as follows:

In the 1st tablet, after a general survey of the adventures of Gilgamesh, his rule at Erech is described, where he enlists the services of all the young able-bodied men in the building of the great wall of the city. The people sigh under the burden imposed, and call upon the goddess Aruru to create a being who might act as a rival to Gilgamesh, curb his strength, and dispute his tyrannous control. The goddess consents, and creates Eabani, who is described as a wild man, living with the gazelles and the beasts of the field. Eabani, whose name, signifying “Ea creates,” points to the tradition which made Ea (q.v.) the creator of humanity, symbolizes primeval man. Through a hunter, Eabani and Gilgamesh are brought together, but instead of becoming rivals, they are joined in friendship. Eabani is induced by the snares of a maiden to abandon his life with the animals and to proceed to Erech, where Gilgamesh, who has been told in several dreams of the coming of Eabani, awaits him. Together they proceed upon several adventures, which are related in the following four tablets. At first, indeed, Eabani curses the fate which led him away from his former life, and Gilgamesh is represented as bewailing Eabani’s dissatisfaction. The sun-god Shamash calls upon Eabani to remain with Gilgamesh, who pays him all honours in his palace at Erech. With the decision of the two friends to proceed to the forest of cedars in which the goddess Irnina—a form of Ishtar—dwells, and which is guarded by Khumbaba, the 2nd tablet ends. In the 3rd tablet, very imperfectly preserved, Gilgamesh appeals through a Shamash priestess Rimat-Belit to the sun-god Shamash for his aid in the proposed undertaking. The 4th tablet contains a description of the formidable Khumbaba, the guardian of the cedar forest. In the 5th tablet Gilgamesh and Eabani reach the forest. Encouraged by dreams, they proceed against Khumbaba, and despatch him near a specially high cedar over which he held guard. This adventure against Khumbaba belongs to the Eabani stratum of the epic, into which Gilgamesh is artificially introduced. The basis of the 6th tablet is the familiar nature-myth of the change of seasons, in which Gilgamesh plays the part of the youthful solar god of the springtime, who is wooed by the goddess of fertility, Ishtar. Gilgamesh, recalling to the goddess the sad fate of those who fall a victim to her charms, rejects the offer. In the course of his recital snatches of other myths are referred to, including he famous Tammuz-Adonis tale, in which Tammuz, the youthful bridegroom, is slain by his consort Ishtar. The goddess, enraged at the insult, asks her father Anu to avenge her. A divine bull is sent to wage a contest against Gilgamesh, who is assisted by his friend Eabani. This scene of the fight with the bull is often depicted on seal cylinders. The two friends by their united force succeed in killing the bull, and then after performing certain votive and purification rites return to Erech, where they are hailed with joy. In this adventure it is clearly Eabani who is artificially introduced in order to maintain the association with Gilgamesh. The 7th tablet continues the Eabani stratum. The hero is smitten with sore disease, but the fragmentary condition of this and the succeeding tablet is such as to envelop in doubt the accompanying circumstances, including the cause and nature of his disease. The 8th tablet records the death of Eabani. The 9th and 10th tablets, exclusively devoted to Gilgamesh, describe his wanderings in quest of Ut-Napishtim, from whom he hopes to learn how he may escape the fate that has overtaken his friend Eabani. He goes through mountain passes and encounters lions. At the entrance to the mountain Mashu, scorpion-men stand guard, from one of whom he receives advice as to how to pass through the Mashu district. He succeeds in doing so, and finds himself in a wonderful park, which lies along the sea coast. In the 10th tablet the goddess Sabitu, who, as guardian of the sea, first bolts her gate against Gilgamesh, after learning of his quest, helps him to pass in a ship across the sea to the “waters of death.” The ferry-man of Ut-Napishtim brings him safely through these waters, despite the difficulties and dangers of the voyage, and at last the hero finds himself face to face with Ut-Napishtim. In the 11th tablet, Ut-Napishtim tells the famous story of the Babylonian flood, which is so patently attached to Gilgamesh in a most artificial manner. Ut-Napishtim and his wife are anxious to help Gilgamesh to new life. He is sent to a place where he washes himself clean from impurity. He is told of a weed which restores youth to the one grown old. Scarcely has he obtained the weed when it is snatched away from him, and the tablet closes somewhat obscurely with the prediction of the destruction of Erech. In the 12th tablet Gilgamesh succeeds in obtaining a view of Eabani’s shade, and learns through him of the sad fate endured by the dead. With this description, in which care of the dead is inculcated as the only means of making their existence in Aralu, where the dead are gathered, bearable, the epic, so far as we have it, closes.

The reason why the flood episode and the interview with the dead Eabani are introduced is quite clear. Both are intended as illustrations of doctrines taught in the schools of Babylonia; the former to explain that only the favourites of the gods can hope under exceptional circumstances to enjoy life everlasting; the latter to emphasize the impossibility for ordinary mortals to escape from the inactive shadowy existence led by the dead, and to inculcate the duty of proper care for the dead. That the astro-theological system is also introduced into the epic is clear from the division into twelve tablets, which correspond to the yearly course of the sun, while throughout there are indications that all the adventures of Gilgamesh and Eabani, including those which have an historical background, have been submitted to the influence of this system and projected on to the heavens. This interpretation of the popular tales, according to which the career of the hero can be followed in its entirety and in detail in the movements in the heavens, in time, with the growing predominance of the astral-mythological system, overshadowed the other factors involved, and it is in this form, as an astral myth, that it passes through the ancient world and leaves its traces in the folk-tales and myths of Hebrews, Phoenicians, Syrians, Greeks and Romans throughout Asia Minor and even in India.

Bibliography.—The complete edition of the Gilgamesh Epic by Paul Haupt under the title Das babylonische Nimrodepos (Leipzig, 1884-1891), with the 12th tablet in the Beiträge zur Assyriologie, i. 48-79; German translation by Peter Jensen in vol. vi. of Schrader’s Keilinschriftliche Bibliothek (Berlin, 1900), pp. 116-273. See also the same author’s comprehensive work, Das Gilgamesch-Epos in der Weltliteratur (vol. i. 1906, vol. ii. to follow). An English translation of the chief portions in Jastrow, Religion of Babylonia and Assyria (Boston, 1898), ch. xxiii.

(M. Ja.)

  1. The name of the hero, written always ideographically, was for a long time provisionally read Izdubar; but a tablet discovered by T. G. Pinches gave the equivalent Gilgamesh (see Jastrow, Religion of Babylonia and Assyria, p. 468).