Simple, Poetic, Repetitive
On the whole, the writing style of the Epic of Gilgamesh is pretty straightforward: it just tells the story, without throwing in too many stylistic curlicues. There is no attempt to build us up to a satisfying climax—we just hear what is happening as it happens in a simple, play-by-play manner. We don't get internal emotional dialogue; we don't have complicated metaphorical descriptions. It is just the facts, ma'am.
Despite this, it is a poem and it can get highly poetic, especially in the dialogue sections. For example, when Enkidu takes back his curses of Shamhat, he doesn't just take them back, he pours blessings on her in a very poetic fashion:
May he who is one league away bite his lip in anticipation of you; may he who is two leagues away shake out his locks in preparation! May the soldier not refuse you, but undo his buckle for you … may the wife, the mother of seven children, be abandoned because of you! (7.143-146, 151)
(Uh, we can't really get behind that one.)
And check out Gilgamesh's lamentation for Enkidu. His language is way over-the-top from the standpoint of how people ordinarily speak, but somehow it still sounds right because it captures the underlying emotion of his speech.
May the pasture lands shriek in mourning as if it were your mother … May the holy River Ulaja, along whose banks we grandly used to stroll, mourn you … May the farmer who extols your name in his sweet work song, mourn you … (8. 13, 16, 19)
You get the idea. Such repetition is super typical of epics, and you can see it all over Gilgamesh, like in the descriptions of the different stages of the journey to the Cedar Forest in Tablet 4. Most scholars think that the repetition was one of the ways that poets remembered these long stories—since for centuries they were recited rather than read.
The Wayback Days
The Epic of Gilgamesh was not written at all—instead it was "pressed" into wet clay tablets, using a system known as cuneiform—meaning "wedge-shaped," after the wedge-shaped tool used to do the pressing. When the clay tablets dried, they became the original "hard copies."
The text of the epic we normally read today, known as the Standard Version, took up 11 such tablets. (There is also a 12th tablet, but most scholars and translators don't consider it part of the original story, and leave it out; Shmoop will too.) According to tradition, the Standard Version of the Epic of Gilgamesh was composed by Sinleqqiunninni, a priest and scholar from Uruk. Sinleqqiunninni wrote in a language known as Standard Babylonian, a distant relative of modern Arabic and Hebrew.
But even though he created the definitive version of the story, Sinleqqiunninni didn't start from scratch. In particular, he relied on one earlier version composed between 1800-1600BCE, in a language known as Old Babylonian. But this version itself drew on even older poems written in a different language: Sumerian, the language spoken by the historical King Gilgamesh. These Sumerian poems may date back as far as 2100BCE.
Knowing about these earlier versions of the epics is actually extremely useful for modern scholars, translators, and even ordinary readers (like us). Because the tablets of the Standard Version are broken in many places, scholars sometimes use pieces from earlier versions to fill the gaps. No two translations of the Epic of Gilgamesh feature exactly the same text. Some translators use brackets, italics, and dots to emphasize the patchwork quality of the text; others, like Stephen Mitchell, use their imaginations to create a smooth, unbroken narrative.
The tale of how this epic was rediscovered is almost as amazing as how it got to be composed in the first place. Believe it or not, this masterpiece of world literature was completely unknown to humankind for about 2000 years, after the cuneiform writing system fell out of widespread use around the 1st century BCE.
That all changed in 1872, when George Smith, a young researcher in the British Museum happened to translate part of Tablet 11 of The Epic of Gilgamesh—though he didn't know what it was at the time. What astonished Smith and the people of his time was this tablet's story of the Flood, which had many striking parallels with the story of Noah in the Biblical Book of Genesis.
After Smith presented a translation of this story at a meeting of the Society of Biblical Archaeology, the editor of the Daily Telegraph newspaper sponsored him to go back to Nineveh and carry out excavations to find the remaining tablets. Smith did so, making him responsible for piecing together the basic framework of the epic we read today—translated into dozens of languages, and inspiring generations of readers. Including, we hope, you.