The Epic of Gilgamesh

July 15, 2014

A lot has changed since humans first settled down, but some basic things about who and what we are have not.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is an narrative poem from Sumeria (modern-day Iraq) and is considered the first literary masterpiece. I’ve been learning about early civilizations from Scott Chesworth’s excellent History of the Ancient World podcast, and was curious just what kind of literature a people were capable of who had recently mastered farming and were stumbling their way through political organization. To my surprise, the tale of Gilgamesh reveals a richness of life recognizable to us modern folk. It’s about fate, friendship, the crucial distinction between what we need and what we want, and finding meaning in mortality.

The tale is worth perusing online, so I’ll leave you with just my favorite passage. Following the death of his best friend, Gilgamesh is speaking with Siduri, a goddess of wisdom and fermentation (what a combination), about his plan to travel to the underworld to deliver his friend from death. Gilgamesh:

“…my friend who was very dear to me and who endured dangers beside me, Enkidu my brother, whom I loved, the end of mortality has overtaken him. I wept for him seven days and nights till the worm fastened on him. Because of my brother I am afraid of death, because of my brother I stray through the wilderness and cannot rest…”

She answered, “Gilgamesh, where are you hurrying to? You will never find that life for which you are looking. When the gods created man they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping. As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man.”

The world may have changed unrecognizably in the thousands of years since these words were written, but the human condition has not.