Invitation to World Literature
The Epic of Gilgamesh The Epic of Gilgamesh – Getting Started
Gilgamesh is considered the first masterpiece of World Literature; in fact it is the earliest known epic narrative we have. At first it may seem intimidating to try to bridge the gap between the twenty-first century and 2800 BCE. After all, we don’t know know what the original readers in ancient Sumeria knew—their legends, their daily lives, what their kings were like, and what their heroes and legends meant to them.
But we do share a key characteristic with them and with readers from any era: we love a gripping story and The Epic of Gilgamesh is just that. Adventure, the quest for immortality, the getting of wisdom, and more than a few life or death battles. Gilgamesh has all of this and more, including reflections on what it means to be alive, in 2800 BCE, no less than in our own time.
Assyriologist, Yale University
“I think what fascinated me about the story most was, how is it that this one ancient text, of all the other thousands of ancient texts that we have, exercises such a hold over the modern imagination.”
Gilgamesh is king
Early Sumerian literature appears and the real Gilgamesh is deified in the gods’ list
Oldest known copy of a Sumerian poem about Gilgamesh
“Surpassing all other kings,” the first epic, is written by an unknown person
The scribe Sin-liqe-unninni edits “Surpassing all other kings” and other materials into the Akkadian epic, “He who saw the deep.” This is one example of how the work circulated around the ancient Middle East.
The story of Gilgamesh is lost as the Assyrian empire falls.
Archeologists find tablets of the Gilgamesh epic in various sites.
Amateur Assyriologist George Smith deciphers the tablets at the British Museum.
Gilgamesh is compiled, translated and published in many editions and languages.
Gilgamesh comes from ancient Sumeria, a region where the first civilizations arose, the site of modern-day Iraq.
The epic refers to a real Sumerian king, who ruled Uruk, around 2800–2750 BCE. His exploits were recognized in poems after his death, but these stories moved from memory to legacy to legend, circulating throughout the region as Sumeria became part of Akkadia, and then the Babylonian Empire. The stories were collected and organized by both Babylonian and Assyrian scribes or poets.
It is to the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal that we owe the story we know today. Copies of the epic were placed in his great library in Nineveh. And although invaders burned the library, the tablets crashed down into the ruined foundations, to be buried as they were built over by later generations.
Gilgamesh was effectively lost until the mid-1800s when British archaeologists uncovered the ruins and the tablets. They were sent to the British Museum in London for study, and gradually scholars deciphered the script and the language; this was chiefly the work of George Smith, whose translations caused a sensation.
Gilgamesh is a document of world history and civilization as much as a masterpiece of literature. Its literary themes—gods and humans, adventure, the quest for immortality, friendship, loss, and the getting of wisdom—show that the earliest stories drew on the same wellspring of human experience that has always inspired writers and readers.
The original language of Gilgamesh was Sumerian, the language of Mesopotamia. Sumerian was written in cuneiform, a system of wedge-shaped marks, which evolved from pictures to abstract signs. Sumerian texts were written on wax or clay tablets with a sharpened reed.
Akkadian later became the preferred spoken language of Mesopotamia, while Sumerian was reserved for literary writing. Gilgamesh poems were still copied in Sumerian for Akkadian-speaking kings and scholars; it was a text used to help student scribes around the Near East learn cuneiform script, and it was translated into several other languages as well.
Today’s version of Gilgamesh—”He who saw the deep”—is compiled from seventy-three different tablets, in various languages.
More discoveries are possible. As noted in the video, gaps remain and future archeological and translation work may fill these in.
The epic has now been translated into every major language in the world, and has become the basis for theatrical, literary, artistic, and musical adaptations.
Gilgamesh, king of Uruk
Gilgamesh’s mother was a goddess, his father a mortal king of Uruk. Gilgamesh is supernaturally strong, but also has the human qualities of fear, anger, jealousy, competitiveness, and ultimately mortality.
Enkidu is a wild man created by the sky god Anu to challenge Gilgamesh, who is abusing his power in Uruk. Enkidu adopts civilization, fights Gilgamesh, and becomes the king’s dearest companion, eventually accompanying Gilgamesh to his most dangerous battle.
A goddess and the mother of Gilgamesh. “Wild-cow Ninsun” is clever and wise, and Gilgamesh, especially in the beginning of the epic, seeks out her knowledge and asks her to translate his dreams. Both Enkidu and Gilgamesh turn to her for guidance about their journey to the Great Cedar Forest.
This mighty guard of the Great Cedar Forest. When Gilgamesh arrives to cut down the great forest to make the gates of Uruk, Humbaba fights him to the death.
A temple harlot in Uruk, sent by the gods to tame Enkidu.
A legendary king who ruled before the flood sent by the gods in ancient times to destroy all of humanity. Gilgamesh seeks him out in his quest for immortality.
Goddess and daughter of Anu the Sky God; Ishtar has taken many mortal lovers and killed them all.
Recommended Translations & Editions
- Andrew George
The Epic of Gilgamesh: A New Translation (Penguin, 2003)
- This is our recommended text. A readable and accurate poetic version by the world’s leading expert on Gilgamesh; with an excellent introduction, and useful selections of the older Sumerian poems as well.
- Benjamin Foster
The Epic of Gilgamesh (Norton Critical Edition, 2001)
- Clear and accurate translation, with excellent introduction and notes, and with a generous selection of Sumerian and other Gilgamesh material, and several modern critical essays.
- Stephen Mitchell
The Epic of Gilgamesh: A New English Version (Free Press, 2006)
- A very readable though loose translation, by a distinguished translator with no knowledge of the original but with a gift for poetic language.
- John Gardner and John Maier
The Epic of Gilgamesh (Vintage, 1985)
- A successful poetic collaboration between a contemporary writer and a specialist in the ancient material.
The Great Cedar Forest
A far-away paradise of scented trees that is guarded for the gods, but which Gilgamesh wants in order to use its timbers for his city gates.
The mountain that guards the rising and setting of the sun.
The home of Gilgamesh, and of all that is good and unique about Sumerian culture. Its protective wall is presented as a wonder of the world, and Gilgamesh’s story is literally embedded in its foundation.
Once a king of a teeming city, only he and his wife survived the great flood sent by the gods to destroy humanity. They now live eternally on an island at the source of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.
Unit 1 The Epic of Gilgamesh
The first known human story is that of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk. Images of artifacts from ancient Iraq mix with beautiful illustrations, dance, and costume to tell of the relations between gods and mortals, the search for friendship, love, and immortality. Featured cast members include Assyriologist Ben Foster, comic book illustrator Jim Starlin, and poet and playwright Yusef Komunyakaa.
Unit 2 My Name Is Red
Both an historical novel and a graphic murder mystery set among the miniaturists of the Ottoman court. With its focus on Istambul, a major crossroads of the world, it tells of the artistic/cultural contest between Europe and the East. Cast members include the book's Nobel-prize winning author, Orhan Pamuk, and its English translator, Erdağ Göknar.
Unit 3 The Odyssey
Odysseus must travel the known and unknown world before he can return home to his beloved island kingdom of Ithaca. What does this ancient story say to readers today? In this program, Odysseus's story is given ancient and modern historical and philosophical context, and illustrated with centuries of art. Featured are theater director Mary Zimmerman, actor-director Tim Blake-Nelson, and psychologist/author Jonathan Shay.
Unit 4 The Bacchae
The city of Thebes is torn apart by the conflicting demands of reason and religion, as the disguised god Dionysus returns to his home town demanding to be worshipped. Opposing him is the young king Pentheus, who is doomed to suffer the ultimate punishment for his disbelief. Featured speakers include world-renowned playwright/author Wole Soyinka, actor Alan Cumming, and Daniel Mendelsohn of Bard College.
Unit 5 The Bhagavad Gita
This epic tale of the warrior-prince Arjuna confronting a life-or-death dilemma during civil war presents a unique and powerful philosophy of duty, discipline, and serving a higher purpose. Beautiful illustrations connect the story with its rich history and culture. Featured speakers include Sheldon Pollock, Professor of Sanskrit Studies and acclaimed composer Philip Glass.
Unit 6 The Tale of Genji
This portrait of court life in medieval Japan follows the life and exploits of the great Genji. Written by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady of the Japanese court, it provides an insider's view of Japanese court life, the official and behind the screen. Art, clothing, music from the time of the novel illustrate the obserations of authors Jane Smiley and Chiori Miyagawa, among others.
Unit 7 Journey to the West
The powerful and mischievous Stone Monkey King brings chaos to heaven and earth. Freed from a mountain prison in order to guard a Chinese monk on his journey to retrieve the Buddhist scriptures from India, Monkey seeks his own spiritual transformation. Modern performance, contemporary art, and Buddhist philosophers provide a rich context to the ancient tale. Featured cast members include playwright David Henry Huang, storyteller Diane Wolkstein, and translator Professor Anthony Yu.
Unit 8 Popol Vuh
The Mayan book of creation, the dawn of life, and the glories of gods and kings. This magnificent epic was saved from destruction at the hands of the Spanish by Quiché chroniclers. Once repressed, the story is now interwoven with the history of today's Mayan people. Featured speakers include archaeologist Richard Hanson, humorist Mo Rocca, and Guatemalan artist Shuni Giron.
Unit 9 Candide
A satirical novel following the travails of Candide, a hopeless optimist whose faith in his tutor's mantra that his is "the best of all possible worlds" is tested beyond all limits. Voltaire's challenge to the aristocracy of his day proves refreshingly amusing and biting today. Original illustrations, songs, and comic book figures plumb the depths of this satire. Featured speakers include director Harold Ramis, actress Kristin Chenoweth, and cartoonist Chris Ware.
Unit 10 Things Fall Apart
In this foundational modern African novel, Chinua Achebe's story follows the lives of people trying to understand which belief systems deserve their loyalty. The protagonist, Okonkwo is a tribal leader who battles neighboring villages, the English, and his own demons in early colonial Nigeria. The perspectives of readers from around the world reveal the novel's universal themes. Cast members include playwright and professor Tess Onwueme and theater director Chuck Mike.
Unit 11 One Hundred Years of Solitude
Gabriel García Márquez's multigenerational saga of the Buendía family in the isolated town of Macondo inaugurated the boom in Latin American literature in the 1970s and marked the beginning of magical realism. Writer Sandra Cisneros and scholar of Latin American literature, Ilan Stavans lend their thoughts and voices to the discussion of this epic novel.
Unit 12 The God of Small Things
Fraternal twins Rahel and Estha struggle to reclaim their lives after their childhood is destroyed by tragic circumstances. As past and present merge in this narrative of Indian society and politics, the many layers of the caste system are mirrored in the poetic and inventive language of the author. Featured speakers include Simon Gikandi of Princeton University, author Evelyn Ch'ien.
Unit 13 The Thousand and One Nights
Shahrazad must hold the interest of her despotic husband the sultan with nightly tales, lest she lose her life in the morning. This wellspring of storytelling, circulating from medieval Persia to Egypt to Iraq, like its wily raconteur lives on in many modern adaptations. Art, performance, and film images are employed to show the collection's broad span of influence. Featured speakers include Marin Alsop, musical director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Aly Jetha and Shabnam Rezai, co-producers of the 1001 Nights animated series.