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Transcript
A Journey into
Middle Eastern Literature
THE EPIC OF GILGAMESH
WHAT?
•
•
Tale of the superhuman Sumerian king, Gilgamesh
Painful search for everlasting life
WHEN?
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•
Written over 4,000 years ago; considered the oldest known
piece of literature
Discovered in 1839 by archaeologists
WHERE?
•
•
Ancient Mesopotamia (“Between two rivers” - Tigris and
the Euphrates) - current day Iraq
Versions are found all over the Middle East
HOW?
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•
•
Inscribed in clay, which made the text durable
12 tablets (1-11: Gilgamesh’s life; 12: Gilgamesh in the
nether world)
Many exact copies were made; accuracy was critical
THE EPIC OF GILGAMESH
Background Information
Gilgamesh
•
•
•
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May be a “true” story - a King Gilgamesh is found in the ancient Sumerian records
Two parts god, One part human  Supernatural power, Human weaknesses
Leader of the Sumerian people and builder of a great city
Suffers from excessive PRIDE (what the Greeks would later call “hubris”)
THE EPIC OF GILGAMESH
Background Information
Tablets 1 and 2: Gilgamesh and the Coming of Enkidu
• The epic opens with a description of Gilgamesh, as the ruler of the city-state of Uruk
• Gilgamesh is described as “handsome, courageous, and powerful.”
• In his arrogance, he oversteps the boundaries of his power  people pray to the gods
for relief
• Gods send a wild man, Enkidu, to challenge Gilgamesh to a fierce wrestling match 
Gilgamesh wins
• A friendship blossoms between Gilgamesh and Enkidu
Tablets 3 to 5: The Raid into the Lands of Humbaba
• Gilgamesh and Enkidu destroy Humbaba, the demon who guards the great Cedar Forest
Tablet 6: The Bull of Heaven
• Gilgamesh and Enkidu make the mistake of criticizing the goddess Ishtar
• Gilgamesh rejects Ishtar’s romantic advances and she sends the Bull of Heaven to
destroy the land
• Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill the bull.
THE EPIC OF GILGAMESH
Background Information
Tablets 7 and 8: The Death of Enkidu
• The gods cannot tolerate the disrespect of Gilgamesh and Enkidu and try to kill
Gilgamesh
• However, Gilgamesh is protected by Utu (another god)
• The gods decide that Enkidu must die in his place
• Gilgamesh cannot deal with the mortality of the human race
Tablets 9 and 10: The Search for Immortality
• Gilgamesh journeys to find everlasting life in the Garden of Dilmun and
tells an old, wise man, Utnapishtim, about his quest.
• Utnapishtim’s reply is not what Gilgamesh wanted:
“There is no permanence. Do we build a house to stand forever,
do we seal a contract to hold for all time? Do brothers divide an
inheritance to keep forever, does the flood time of rivers endure? From
the days of old there is no permanence. The sleeping and the dead, how
alike they are, they are like painted death. What is there between master
and servant when both have fulfilled their doom? When the gods
created man, they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their
own keeping.”
THE EPIC OF GILGAMESH
Background Information
Ancient Sumerian and Babylonian Beliefs
Although Sumerian and Babylonian civilizations were advanced for their time, the
people were powerless against ever-present threats of devastating floods, severe
droughts, and belligerent neighbors who sought “the good life” in the Tigris and
Euphrates valley.
The religious beliefs of the Sumerian and Babylonian people were, therefore, pessimistic.
They worshipped a pantheon, or family, of unpredictable gods and goddesses who could
bring about misfortune as well as favor. Regardless of one’s status or how one lived
one’s life, there was no joyful afterlife to which to look forward.
Such beliefs are present in The Epic of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh, in spite of his great
powers, suffers a life-changing loss when Enkidu dies. When the person closest to him
dies, the proud Gilgamesh must come to terms with the reality that he, too, will not live
forever. And because, in the Sumerian view, death offers only emptiness, Gilgamesh
rebels against it, and sets off on a quest to attain immortality.
THE EPIC OF GILGAMESH
SIGNIFICANCE
Why is Gilgamesh’s story important to us?
•
CONCEPTS
Quest for Knowledge and Truth
Friendship
Life and Death
Birth and Renewal (The Flood)
Man V. Fate
•
LITERARY SIGNIFICANCE
EPIC
Definition: a long narrative that recounts the deeds of a larger-than-life hero who
embodies the values of a particular society
EPIC HERO
Definition: Superior human beings with supernatural strength or spiritual powers;
usually mighty leaders of their people; of mixed divine and human
birth, so we admire their greatness but sympathize with their failings
Gilgamesh is the earliest known epic hero
Archetype for future epic heroes, including Homer’s Odysseus
THE EPIC OF GILGAMESH
Cuneiform
Though the tales of Gilgamesh were originally shared
through oral communication, the epic was eventually
written down using cuneiform.
• first form of writing ever developed
• consisted of wedge-shaped characters that were created
using a reed stylus
• characters could represent either words or sounds and were
usually carved into clay that was later baked
http://www.upenn.edu/museum/Games/cuneiform.html
THE END