The Epic of Gilgamesh Introduction
In A Nutshell
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A man tragically loses his best friend and goes on a journey to find the secret of immortality. You can't get a more classic story than that.
No, literally. You can't. Because The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest surviving work of literature in the world. Yes, you got that right: the epic tale of action and adventure you are about to read is really, really, really old. The version you're reading was composed around 1200 BCE (that makes it about 400 years older than Homer's Iliad and Odyssey); but the story of Gilgamesh dates back nearly 3,000 years—when a man named Gilgamesh was actually king of Uruk, a magnificent Sumerian city-state in what is now Iraq.
As far as we know, Gilgamesh—the historical king of Uruk—was just a regular guy, albeit probably a pretty stinkin' good king who did lots of important stuff. You know, featured on the Uruk equivalent of Mt. Rushmore. But the Gilgamesh featured in The Epic of Gilgamesh is a bit more sensational: he is part man and part god; he opts out of being a goddess' boy-toy; he then goes to the ends of the earth and finds the secret of eternal life.
In other words, the text you're reading is sort of the equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster that claims to be "based on actual events"—something that wants to seem like the real deal when it really isn't.
So, how did we get our hands on this fantastical story? Okay, picture this: two archeologists (perhaps wearing Indiana Jones-like hats) go digging in the city of Nineveh (along the Tigris River in Mesopotamia). They uncover the library of the last great Assyrian king. Jackpot, right? Problem #1: this library isn't full of books. It's full of clay tablets inscribed using a writing system known as "cuneiform," just like this one.
All eleven tablets of what we know as the Standard Version of The Epic of Gilgamesh were found in the ruins, but—as you might imagine—anything found "in the ruins" isn't going to be in great condition. Problem #2: all of the tablets of The Epic of Gilgamesh are broken or worn in many places. Some tablets are mostly complete, while some are mostly unreadable.
Solution: we know the author of the Standard Version was a scribe named Sinleqqiunninni—but we also know he based his work on lots of earlier poems about Gilgamesh (he lived about 1500 years after the real king Gilgamesh). So, when producing translations, scholars sometimes use pieces from earlier versions to fill in the gaps in the Standard Version.
Since this is a matter of choice, no two translations of The Epic of Gilgamesh feature exactly the same text. Some translators use brackets or blanks to identify the gaps in the original text. Some use their imaginations (a.k.a. making stuff up) to create a smooth, unbroken narrative. At Shmoop, we are using a translation by Maureen Gallery Kovacs to find a happy medium between these styles.
But whichever one you choose to read, think about this: from cuneiform and clay tablets to binary code and Shmoop. If that doesn't give you chills, Shmoopers, we don't know what will.
Why Should I Care?
This is humanity's oldest story. And, not to ruin every other work of literature and film for you, but The Epic of Gilgamesh is pretty much the foundation of all those other stories. Sure, it has sex, monsters, gods, death, adventures to the end of the world. But, the big things that Gilgamesh cares about are the same things you care about: having somebody—anybody—in this world who really "gets" you; and trying to make your time on this earth meaningful and as long as possible. (But not, it turns out, forever.)
Gilgamesh may be part god, he may have goddesses throwing themselves at him, and he may be the king of the most civilized and technologically advanced place on earth—but he doesn't have a friend. Sure, he probably has guys in his kingdom to play ball with after work, but he doesn't have anyone who gets him. You know, nobody who understands what it's like to be part man and part something else.
Then, along comes Enkidu: part man, part beast. The two have a knockdown, drag-out fight; but when they emerge from their scuffle, they have a true respect for one another's strength and passion. Next thing you know, they're BFF.
As buddies often do, Gilgamesh and Enkidu set off on some adventures and get into some trouble—wicked, bad trouble (think The Hangover circa 5000 years ago). Ol' Enkidu dies, and Gilgamesh doesn't go for all that "it's better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all" business. So, a very bereft and broken-hearted Gilgamesh sets off in search of the secret of eternal life. What he finally finds is that humans just can't live forever—but we can find peace in the legacy we leave behind after death.
Okay, not as fail-safe as becoming a vampire. But, probably more realistic.