Gilgamesh, the eternal king
“We read in “Timaeus, by Plato” that time is a
Jorge Luis Borges
four thousand years ago, a king named Gilgamesh was living in Uruk, a city of Mesopotamia…
begin this paper this way.
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”.
Asimov, “The history begins near the year 3100 before Christ, in the land now
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”.
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.
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.
have been a very popular story, because it reached us through Acadian,
Babylonian, Assyrian and Hittite versions.
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.”
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
“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…”
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.
into the forest and pulled down a cedar?”
said an enormous voice.
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.
and his generator organ ended in a serpent head.
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.
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
is about to retire, convinced that his journey was of no utility, when Utnapishtin reveals him the secret:
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.”
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”.
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.
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.
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.”
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).”
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.
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