The Epic of Gilgamesh

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The Epic of Gilgamesh Study Guide

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Historical Context of The Epic of Gilgamesh
Often known as the “cradle of civilization,” Mesopotamia refers to the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (in Ancient Greek, Mesopotamia means “land between rivers”), which is now split between Iraq, Syria, and Kuwait. The first evidence of agriculture and animal domestication dates back to between 10,000 and 6,800 BCE, while writing developed by the third millennium BCE (centuries earlier than the oldest known appearance of Gilgamesh in legend). Sumer, where the Epic was written, was a large area in southern Mesopotamia and the first known urban civilization. Uruk—the same city portrayed in the Epic—was for centuries the most important city in Sumer. People there spoke Sumerian, but gradually transitioned to Akkadian, the language in which the “standard version” of the Epic is written. Around 3,000 BCE, Uruk was the largest city in the world, with a population between fifty and eighty thousand. According to one list of Sumerian kings written in ancient times, Gilgamesh was a real king who ruled in the 27th century BCE.
Other Books Related to The Epic of Gilgamesh
The presence of a “great flood” and other similarities with the Hebrew Bible have led some to claim that the writers of the Old Testament drew on the text of The Epic of Gilgamesh. Certain scholars have also argued that the epic poems of Homer—The Iliad and The Odyssey—were influenced by the story of Gilgamesh. In the novel The Great American Novel, Philip Roth created a more modern hero inspired by Gilgamesh: an All-Star pitcher named Gil Gamesh.
Key Facts about The Epic of Gilgamesh
  • Full Title: The Epic of Gilgamesh
  • When Written: As far back as the Third Dynasty of Ur (around 2100 BCE), stories were written about the legendary king Gilgamesh. These stories, however, were not unified into a single narrative until the 18th century BCE, in what is now known as the Old Babylonian version of the Epic. This version, however, had major gaps, which were largely filled in by what is now known as the Standard Version. The Standard Version dates from between the 10th and 13th century BCE. Still today, the text is considered incomplete.
  • Where Written: Ancient Sumer / Mesopotamia
  • When Published: The Epic of Gilgamesh was first discovered in 1853, and the first modern translation was published in the 1870s. Since then, various versions have been published.
  • Literary Period: Ancient epic
  • Genre: Epic Poem
  • Setting: Ancient Sumer (modern-day Iraq)
  • Climax: Enkidu’s death
  • Antagonist: Though the epic does not have a single clearly-defined antagonist, pride is Gilgamesh’s main obstacle throughout.
  • Point of View: Third-person omniscient
Extra Credit for The Epic of Gilgamesh

Old School. The Epic of Gilgamesh is the world’s oldest surviving written poem.

Gilgamesh the Boss. In the Final Fantasy series of videogames, a character known as Gilgamesh frequently features as a boss enemy, along with his sidekick Enkidu.