Epic of Gilgamesh: The Oldest World Folk-Epic

We take a look at the earliest surviving literature – a world folk-epic with Sumerian poems from ancient Mesopotamia translated from oral tradition to cuneiform tablets.

Historically, world folk-epics are known to be worldviews shared by people following certain teachings and lifestyles. Such was the case with the Epic of Gilgamesh, an ancient oral poem that was later written down as what appears to be the first literary text known to mankind, and the second ever religious text (after the Pyramid Texts). The Babylonian version of the text was found in 1853 by Hormuzd Rassam at the Library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh.

An Overview of the Epic

The Epic of Gilgamesh is estimated to have been written between 2100 – 1200 BC and follows the tale of Gilgamesh, who was the King of Uruk. He was a typically cruel leader in the early days of his reign, and would take advantage of his power. He was known to rape women, sometimes seen as a “lord’s right”, and women were to bed with the king on their wedding night. The men of Uruk were always distracted with difficult tasks,  games, or feats of power around the kingdom. His subjects always felt oppressed. 

Gilgamesh was also described as all-powerful, and was said to have been one-third man, and two-thirds God. He made many magnificent changes to his palace, like building ziggurats, and laying out wonderful orchard fields. All the while, the kingdom’s subjects were only praying for relief from this tyrant. 

God answered the subjects’ prayers and created a wild but equally stunning man called Enkidu, who soon grew to be friends with Gilgamesh. Enkidu was found by a trapper, living in the wild. The man asked for guidance from the sun god Shamash, who would help arrange for Enkidu’s taming, and a sort of education – before he stepped out into the world.

Enkidu is given the role of a night watchman at a shepherd’s site. One night, upon finding out about Gilgamesh (there are discrepancies in the tablet translations due to damage), he proceeds to stop him from entering yet another wedding chamber. They fight, and Enkidu acknowledges Gilgamesh’s power, after which they became the best of friends.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu (Neil Dalrymple) via Medium

They headed to the Cedar Forest together, where they fought the battle with Humbaba, the cedar forest god, establishing their dominance over him for his unwelcoming spirit. They build a raft with cedar trees and travel through the historical river Euphrates to head back home.

Soon after, the goddess of war and sexual love, Ishtar, procures an ancient weapon with the power kill Enkidu. Her attempts with this weapon cause serious destruction, swallowing around 300 men at a time; but the ‘Bull of Heaven‘ proves unsuccessful when Gilgamesh and Enkidu manage to diffuse it and offer its heart to her twin, the sun god Shamash. However, Enkidu is reeling over visions of his failure, as the Gods now need to sacrifice a human to account for the deaths of Humbaba and Gugalanna (believed to be the ‘Bull of Heaven’). 

Enkidu knows he is definitely going to die, and so he curses everyone who helped him in the first place. Shamash makes him understand that he would have never met Gilgamesh if all of this hadn’t happened. Enkidu then repents and blesses everyone in his path. However, he goes deep into a second dream (which can be interpreted as a coma) where he sees an Angel of Death. He is trapped in the Netherworld for 12 days, and his condition only grows worse. He eventually dies after not being able to battle his sickness. One of the epic’s most famous lines is how Gilgamesh clung to Enkidu’s corpse until a maggot dropped out of its nose.

Gilgamesh mourns, and calls for the whole Kingdom to mourn. He is absolutely shattered, and is said to have torn his hair and clothes in grief. He hosts a mighty banquet in his honor, and just before the text could be identified (because of damage), a burial of the riverbed is suggested, just like in the Sumerian poem The Death of Gilgamesh.

The Map of Sumer by P L Kessler from World History

After this, Gilgamesh embarks on a long quest to meet Utnapishtim (or one who is faraway) and his wife, who are the only other known humans to have been granted immortality. Gilgamesh travels through the forests, slaying lions and entering a twin peak gate known as Mount Mashu, where he faces giant scorpions guarding the gate, who eventually let him pass through.

He is lead to a paradise city, from where he would need to take a boat with the ferryman, Urshanabi, to cross over the Waters of Death and meet Utnapishtim. But on the way there, Gilgamesh destroys Urshnabi’s travel stones, and is made to cut 120 trees to reach there. On meeting Utnapishtim, he is advised that he cannot fight fate, or challenge the powers of nature that be, as this doesn’t let you live life to the fullest. 

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Gllgamesh thought Utnapishtim looked just like a normal person, which led him to question Utnapishtim’s source of immortality. Utnapishtim is who the Bible would describe as Noah, builder of the ark. Utnapishtim tells him of the story of the floods (similar to the Biblical story). He continues on to how he was finally safe in the end, when the ship hit a mountain, and he left the rest of the animals to land. Many Gods were enraged at the sight of survivors, but Enlil, god of wind, air, Earth, and storms, blessed Utnapishtim and his wife with eternal life, concluding the Epic of Atra-Hasis. 

Since Gilgamesh was so hellbent to figure out immortality, Utnapishtim challenges him to stay awake for six days and seven nights. However, Gilgamesh fails the challenge. As a parting gift, Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh of a boxthorn-like tree at the bottom of the ocean that can grant him his youth. This is the end of the 11th tablet, where he returns to Uruk after losing the plant on his way back. 

Here’s a sweet summary of the story, along with an overview of Mesopotamia’s cuneiform writing being the oldest in the world:

Co-relations and Variations

There are many correlations to this Epic from many different poems – like the Akkadian poem Hero in Battle, which narrates a story similar to the ‘Bull of Heaven’ part of the epic. There are a few more like these, as well as smaller poems that complete timelines and stories between the main storyline. The Envoys of Akka is a story not included in the main epic, but more of a supporting tale about how Uruk is under attack from King Akka of the Kish army, but Gilgamesh still defeats him, and forgives him too. 

In some variations of the story in older Babylonian versions, much of the stories see a missing link because of gaps, but there are variations of Enkidu still being alive, and some tablets have stories of diverse origins. For example, the Yale tablet III partially matches the standard version of the Babylonian version, but there’s a more detailed story of Gilgamesh wanting to go to the Cedar Forest – involving seeking elders’ advice despite Enkidu’s disproval – and eventually going there. 

There are plenty of correlations between this epic and the Holy Bible, specifically when looking at the Garden of Eden. From how man was created from clay, the similarities between Utnapishtim and Noah, and Ninti, who was created from Enki‘s rib – like Eve from Adam.  There are also traces of Gilgamesh in the Book of Giants, a book very similar to the ancient Hebrew apocalyptic text, the Book of Enoch. 

Through history, the epic has been used to teach valuable lessons about life, mortality, how we should value our lives, and much more. Many psychologists have also tried to analyze why Gilgamesh has certain dreams, with commentary about this from even Freud and Jung.

The epic has been traveling the vast expanse of the Earth, and many versions are seen in neighboring countries and areas. Here’s an interesting Jungian analysis of the epic, if you’re interested in knowing the roles of each character and their psychological impact. 

Even through the stories, we see the character of Gilgamesh being molded by himself, led by parts of his conscience and the external influence of things he cared about, to make decisions and survive successfully. Like what most religious texts aim to do (or so I think), the epic lays out a moral story about ideal archetypes of people, good examples of living, and much more. 

An Interpretation of ‘Best of Friends’ as Lovers

If you read the Epic of Gilgamesh for yourself, you will see how the plot is actually an epic love story that drove a man to madness on losing his loved one. The mentions of Gilgamesh ripping the clothes and hair off his body show the despair of losing someone with whom you’d have a deep connection. He went on a journey to the ends of the Earth.

Gilgamesh mourning Enkidu’s death, image via Learner.

Maybe it hasn’t been interpreted or possibly written the way it should have been. What’s important to note is that we’ve always lived in a patriarchal society since we can remember, and we’re not even sure if ancient Sumerians were open about concepts related to same-sex relationships.

There aren’t any stories in their folklore besides this. In fact, since Gilgamesh met Enkidu the first time, there aren’t even any accounts of Gilgamesh raping women like he used to before. They could have also just had a conversation about what was wrong, and Gilgamesh could have changed his mind for good, but it seems like there’s more to it.

Maybe it wasn’t unusual at the time, that same-sex relationships existed. But the fact that they aren’t written down like stories of love between a man and a woman raises some doubt. Patriarchy has also challenged, and forced the ideologies of strength, masculinity and authority as gender qualities given to men.

For two men to be vulnerable with each other could mean not holding up to those qualities, for which they could also be frowned upon. Gilgamesh was an important person, so the historian would have accounted for keeping his image spotless when noted down. But I guess we’ll never know!


Epic of Gilgamesh Ancient Sumerian feature image Photo by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP (Glasg) -The image Gilgamesh and Enkidu meeting Humbaba in the Cedar Forest, edited for display purposes only.

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