Gilgamesh, the eternal king



“We read in “Timaeus, by Plato” that time is a movable  image of eternity”.

Jorge Luis Borges



More than four thousand years ago, a king named Gilgamesh was living in Uruk, a city of Mesopotamia

We could begin this paper this way.

We could also say that, and I am referring to what was declared less than two years ago in the BBC, a German archaeological team  ”believes to have found, in Iraq, the grave of Gilgamesh, Sumerian king elevated to legend by the most antic work of history”.


For Isaac Asimov, “The history begins near the year 3100 before Christ, in the land now called Iraq. Along the low course of the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, were living the Sumerian people who invented the writing art”. It seems that these rivers were causing floods like all rivers do; but one especially was so catastrophic as to determine a certain temporal limit: since then, Sumerians refer to all what occurs as “before the deluge” or “after the deluge”.

The cause of a so unusual disaster is not known, but it is highly possible that it was caused by a prolonged and abundant rain. It seems that a Sumerian writer had the idea to tell the story of the deluge, and that he added a dose of dramatic quality when he told that only one man and one woman were saved. The story grew up over the   time until, at about year 2500 before Christ, it was inserted in the Gilgamesh Epic.

This work, written in cuneiform on clay tablets was found in the XIX century by a British archaeologist among the library ruins (around two thousand years after having been destructed) of Ashurbanipal, the last great king of Assyria (to whom it arrived more than two thousand years after having been written). Now the tablets are conserved in the British Museum.

It must have been a very popular story, because it reached us through Acadian, Babylonian, Assyrian and Hittite versions.


Borges commented about it: “Perhaps, and not only chronologically, it is the first epopee of the world. It has been created and written more than four thousand years ago. In the famous library of Ashurbanipal, twelve clay tablets contained the text. This number is not a casual one; it corresponds to the archaeological order of the work.” And he added: “The sad condition of the dead   and the purchase for personal eternity are essential themes. We could say that all is already contained in this Babylonian book.”


Let us have a short look at it. In the first verses, a description of the city or Uruk appears. This city is governed by Gilgamesh, who is known for his cleverness but also for his tyranny. The citizens of Uruk are unhappy with their king’s caprices and their claims reach the gods. Aruru, the goddess who created the mankind, takes clay and creates Enkidu, the inverted image of Gilgamesh: a wild, primitive man that supposedly had to confront him.


“And he, Enriku,

his place of birth was the mountain.

with the gazelles he eat the grass,

with the beasts he drank in their watering-places,

with the cattle he loved playing in the water…”


Nevertheless, the aspect of this man fears a pastor who asks Gilgamesh for help. Gilgamesh sends a prostitute to seduce Enriku who loses his physical strength; he can no more run like the gazelles. But, then, his cleverness begins to awake. He goes to the city, confront himself with Gilgamesh and win. Gilgamesh considers his opponent value and into a friend he converts him; he decides to start a crusade with him against the world whole evil.  Now the heroes are two. They begin to walk together and after a lot of incidents, are able to kill Humbaba, the giant guard of the cedar forest.


Enriku pulled down one of the cedars with his axe.

“Who came into the forest and pulled down a cedar?”

said an enormous voice.

The heroes saw Umbaba coming near:

he had lion nails,

the body covered by rough bronze scales;

on feet, vulture talons,

on the front, wild bull corns.

His tail and his generator organ ended in a serpent head.


Coming back to the city, Gilgamesh rejects the love goddess Ishtar proclaimed to him. Thus the goddess convince god Anu to create a celestial bull to finish with him. On the contrary, the two heroes are soon able to kill the bull. Ishtar curses them and, in an assembly of the gods,   she demands a punishment.   The gods decided to doom Enkidu to suffer a disease that would kill him. And Enkidu also curses; he cannot understand that after having tried so hard to become a civilian person, he had to die so cruelly.

Gilgamesh weeps during seven days and seven nights close to his friend, until he becomes aware of the body decay and of the mortal condition of his own life. Fear enters his soul; he looses his hair, throws away his beautiful clothes, and drapes himself into a lion skin. Looking like the primitive Enkidu, he walks around the steppe meditatively: “When I would die, would I be like Enkidu?” … And he repeats this question to men-scorpions, to Siduru, to Urshanabi, walking the way in search of Utnapishtim, the universal deluge hero, to know the secret of his eternal life. But, in spite of his supplications, Utnapishtin is not ready to reveal it.

Gilgamesh is about to retire, convinced that his journey was of no utility, when Utnapishtin reveals him the secret:


“I will reveal you, Gilgamesh, a secret thing,

an unknown thing I will tell to you:

there is a white plant, similar to the white hawthorn,

its thorn sticks into the hand like a rose;

if you find this plant with your hand,

you will find the life.”


At the end, Gilgamesh obtains the plant but a serpent robs it and his hope to vanquish the death disappears. Thus, involved in a mystical search (that remembers us the one of King Arthur in search of the Holy Grail), he reach the maturity through pain, death and terror. And returns to his kingdom concerned, with the resignation of “whom saw all things and shall tell them to everybody”.


To summarize, this epic is about the mythology of an epopee marking the difference between the wildness and the civilization. Already here, we can see a philosophical attitude, and the image of the double, too. It includes, with the anguish of death, the search for eternity.

We have to emphasize the extraordinary concordance with the biblical story of Noah and the universal deluge: Ea, lord of the waters and guardian of mankind, advised a man, Utnapishtim, about the deluge he was planning to exterminate the humanity. He told him: destroy your house and make a big boat, then put in it a seed of all living creature.” The deluge came with fury, “changed the light of the day into obscurity”. Once all was finished, “the face of the Earth was silent, the whole humanity was returned to mud. The surface of the sea extended completely plane, like a roof…”.  Utnapishtim sent a dove who returned not finding a place to repose; then, he sent a swallow with the same result. Finally, he sent a crow who never returned. The big boat reposed on the heights of a mountain and Utnapishtim offered a sacrifice.


I come back to the words of Borges: “It is like everything is contained in this Babylonian book”. He emphasises on the fact that Gilgamesh and Enkidu “embark in adventures pre-figuring the twelve labours of Hercules. They are also pre-figured in the epopee: the descent to the House of Hades in the Odyssey, the descent of Aeneas and the Sibyl, and the almost from yesterday Comedy of Dante.”

And Isaac Asimov tells us: “If the following names: Anu, Enkidu, Mashu, Uruk, remember you The Silmarillion of Tolkien, you have to know that they belong to the Epopee of  Gilgamesh ”.   He  emphasises  on  the  fact  that  it  was precisely this Epopee that gave birth to the epic that, by definition, tells us about events of people, wars, voyages, battles, and most of the time locates itself on mythical eras (not historical).”


The poem of Gilgamesh acquires, then, a supreme relevance: it begins the literature known as universal, takes us back to the legends that were told to the people of the antique Mesopotamia, leaves its stamp in the Bible, displays the human conflicts and becomes the base of important works that were and would continue to be written.


Many centuries ahead, the cuneiform characters carved the epopee of Gilgamesh, the king that wanted to be eternal. In some manner, he reached his aim: his ventures moved across other lands, other alphabets, other continents, other civilizations… and across the time.


                                Author : Lina Caffarello

                                                     Translated into English by Mariette Cirerol



Exploit of Gilgamesh – Hazaña de Gilgamesh