The celebrated ‘Epic of Gilgamesh’ is well known as one of the earliest real works in literature coming from Mesopotamia almost five thousand years ago. The poems which are written in Sumerian deal with the exploits of Gilgamesh who was the King of the Uruk who was an important figure in the early years of Mesopotamian history.
The story begins by relating an intimate friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu who is a sort of wild man brought to the world by the Gods to distract Gilgamesh from his oppression of the Uruk.
There are also intriguing conflicts with other mythological figures and the story also demonstrates Gilgamesh’s compassion and understanding when he repents of his deeds of oppression. What strikes one in this extremely early story is the compassion shown by Gilgamesh when he seeks to repent from his sins, something which is quite striking given the relative brutality of the period.
The second half of the story deals with Gilgamesh attempting to find a meaning for life, again another important goal for the great King. He comes to understand that the meaning of life is always elusive and far away from what one would desire. The question of the afterlife also comes into the equation with Gilgamesh learning that death is always man’s eternal folly and the Gods give the afterlife to whom they see fit. It is a strong story full of witty alliterations and also demonstrates a certain sense of wisdom. Gilgamesh’s fame outlasted his death and he is even recognised by successive generations as one of the wisest kings of all time. The story is one of the most important in the preservation of history and is an important record of man’s development.
George, Andrew R., trans. & edit. (2003). The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Critical Edition and Cuneiform Texts. England: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-814922-0