Gilgamesh Biography

Gilgamesh
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Quick Facts

Nationality: Iraqi

Born Country: Iraq

Famous as: 5th king of the Sumerian city-state of Uruk

Emperors & Kings

Family:

father: Lugalbanda

mother: Ninsun

children: Ur-Nungal

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Who is Gilgamesh?

Gilgamesh was the historical 5th king of the Sumerian city-state of Uruk and a superhuman hero in ancient Mesopotamian mythology, who is the protagonist of the 'Epic of Gilgamesh', the earliest surviving epic poem written in Akkadian during the late second millennium BCE. Among the diverse sources of the Gilgamesh story, most notable are the Old Babylonian version, compiled by Sîn-lēqi-unninni in the 18th century BCE, and the standard Akkadian version that dates between 13th and 10th centuries BCE. There are also five earlier Sumerian poems, which existed independent of the epic narrative. The story of Gilgamesh's failure to achieve immortality despite undertaking adventurous quests has been the basis for several later epic poems, including Homer's epic poems, 'Iliad' and 'Odyssey'. However, the epic gained much attention following its rediscovery in the recent times due to its detailed description of the 'Great Flood', which closely matches the biblical account of the same event, but is a much older text.
History & Legend
According to legends, Gilgamesh was the son of Priest-King Lugalbanda, who himself has featured in two Sumerian poems for his magical abilities, and the goddess Ninsun. Historically, he is believed to be the fifth king of the Sumerian city-state of Uruk who reigned in the 26th century BCE.
According to an anecdote from 'On the Nature of Animals' by the second-century Greek writer Aelian, Gilgamesh's grandfather had imprisoned his mother upon learning from an oracle that his grandson would overthrow him. Nevertheless, his mother became pregnant and gave birth to him, following which he was thrown off a tower but was rescued by an eagle and raised by the gardener of an orchard.
The Sumerian King List, an ancient stone tablet recorded in the Sumerian language, mentions that Gilgamesh reined for 126 years, while his father ruled for 1,200 years. King Enmebaragesi of Kish, the earliest ruler on the list whose name is attested directly from archaeology, was also mentioned in the original 'Epic of Gilgamesh' as the father of the Aga, who laid siege to Uruk.
While no contemporary records have been found of his reign, many later Mesopotamian dynasties worshipped him as a god, and King Utu-hengal of Uruk from 21st century BCE, had declared him his patron deity. Most notable among the kings who would invoke his name to assert power was Shulgi of Ur (2029-1982 BCE), the greatest king of the Third Ur Dynasty, who claimed Gilgamesh was his divine brother.
The Akkadian text (c. 1200 BC) of the 'Epic of Gilgamesh', consisting of twelve tablets, was first discovered by archaeologist Austin Henry Layard in 1849 at Nineveh, in the Library of Ashurbanipal. Following its translation in the early 1870s, the story of the great flood in Tablet XI created a huge controversy as it showed that the Old Testament had borrowed it from earlier myths.
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Extraordinary Exploits
In the beginning of the 'Epic of Gilgamesh', Gilgamesh is described as a brutal and oppressive ruler who is confronted by Enkidu, a wildman created by the god Anu to humble Gilgamesh. While some versions portray Enkidu as his servant, in the canonical version they are portrayed as equals, stating how they became close friends after a fierce duel.
Gilgamesh and Enkidu embark on an epic journey across the seven mountains and reach the Cedar Forest, guarded by the ogre Humbaba, where they begin chopping down trees. Gilgamesh prays to Shamash who blinds Humbaba by blowing eight winds in its eyes, following which they behead the ogre without granting mercy.
After he returns to Uruk, the goddess Ishtar (the Akkadian name for Inanna) makes advances towards him, but he declines citing that all her former lovers were treated poorly. Furious, Ishtar goes to her father Anu and asks for the Bull of Heaven, which she sends to attack Gilgamesh.
Together, Gilgamesh and Enkidu are able to kill the Bull, seeing which Ishtar curses Gilgamesh from the wall of Uruk, prompting Enkidu to tear off the Bull's right thigh and throw at her face. As a punishment, Enkidu falls sick and dies, causing immense grief to Gilgamesh, initially for the loss of his friend, and eventually due his realization of his own mortality.
He sets out on another perilous journey to find Utnapishtim (comparable to Noah), who had built a ship to save himself and others from the Great Flood. He first defeats lions in the mountain pass and then convinces a scorpion man and his wife to let him pass the mountain of Mashu.
He journeys through darkness for twelve days before reaching a garden, protected by the divine barmaid Siduri, who tries to persuade him to accept death as inevitable. However, realizing his stubbornness, she sends him to Urshanabi, the ferryman of the gods, who takes him to Utnapishtim's homeland.
Utnapishtim puts Gilgamesh through two trials, first of which was to remain awake for six days and nights, which he fails. He was then tasked with protecting a magic plant with the power of rejuvenating him, but a snake steals it when he goes for a swim in the sea leaving the plant on the shore.
The next part of the epic is taken directly from an earlier Sumerian poem, 'Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Netherworld', which tells of a 'huluppu' tree (possibly oak), growing on the banks of the river Euphrates. Goddess Inanna takes the plant to her garden in Uruk to carve a throne out of it once it is fully grown, but it becomes infested by a snake, the demon Lilitu, and an Anzû-bird.
Inanna asks her brother, sun god Utu, to help her, but he refuses and Gilgamesh kills the serpent and scares away the Anzû-bird and Lilitu. He chops down the tree and gifts Inanna a bed and a throne carved from its wood, following which the goddess rewards him with pikku and mikku (probably a drum and drumsticks respectively).
In one version of the tablet, after he loses the rewards, Enkidu promises to journey to the underworld to retrieve those and dies, following which his shade tells Gilgamesh about the Underworld. Another of the Sumerian poems tells how he learns about gods' plans regarding his fate and accepted death, and was finally buried under the Euphrates.
Later Interpretations
Gilgamesh's quest to find the meaning of life and his failed attempt at attaining immortality symbolize the eternal struggle of every human being. The story has been interpreted by many modern scholars from different fields of study.
The similarities between the 'Epic of Gilgamesh' and several biblical legends prompted German Assyriologist Friedrich Delitzsch to claim that the Hebrew Bible was irredeemably 'contaminated' by Babylonian influence. Another German Assyriologist, Alfred Jeremias, argued that most well-known biblical figures are nothing more than exact copies of Gilgamesh, an ideology that later became known as Panbabylonianism.
German psychologist Sigmund Freud had his own interpretation of Gilgamesh and Enkidu representing "man" and "crude sensibility" respectively. The existential themes of the epic became particularly relevant following the two World Wars, with several different ideological groups interpreting it to fit into their own narrative.
Trivia
The Tummal Inscription, a 20th century BCE historiographic text that was first discovered in 1955, credited Gilgamesh for building the walls of Uruk.

See the events in life of Gilgamesh in Chronological Order

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Article Title
- Gilgamesh Biography
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URL
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