GILGAMESH BACKGROUND
• World Literature I
• Presentation by:
• Ralph Monday
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Mesopotamia
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Mesopotamia
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The Descent of Inanna
• This journey into the underworld is a
bit older than Gilgamesh.
• It is probably the oldest extant written
story in the world.
• The story can actually be located in
the urban culture of Sumer to 3500
B.C.E.
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• Both Sumer and Egypt developed a
written language at about 3200
B.C.E.
• Mesopotamia and Egypt have the
oldest written literature in the world.
• Urban civilization is thought to begin
with Sumer.
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Ancient Sumer
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Gilgamesh
• The story came to us from 22,000
clay tablets of cuneiform writing from
• modern day Iraq.
• The Akkadian king, Ashurbanipal had
it written down sometime during the
eighth century B.C.E.
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Cuneiform Writing
• Genesis 10:10 And
the beginning of
his kingdom was
Babel and
Erech and Accad
and Calneh in the
land of Shinar
(Sumer) .....
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Language
• Sumerian is a linguistically isolated
and extinct language. All attempts to
connect Sumerian with any other
tongue have so far failed. Sumerian is
preserved only on clay tablets in a
corpus of texts written in cuneiform.
After 2000 B.C.E. the Semitic
language Akkadian became
dominant.
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Cuneiform Script
• The Sumerian
civilization is
thought to be the
earliest culture to
use written
language, in
about 3200
B.C.E.
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Gilgamesh Continued
• The story of Gilgamesh was lost until
1839 when A.H. Layard found the
tablets in Nineveh.
• In 1872 George Smith translated
them into English.
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Present Day Uruk
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Gilgamesh Summary
• The epic begins with a list of
Gilgamesh’s accomplishments.
• We learn that he is self-indulgent and
that he sleeps with all the virgins
before they sleep with their lovers.
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The Coming of Enkidu
• Enkidu is created to be a challenger
to Gilgamesh.
• He is first civilized by a ritual orgy of
six days and seven with a temple
priestess.
• This symbolizes the loss of his animal
nature.
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Seduction of Enkidu
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• Enkidu challenges
Gilgamesh to a
physical battle,
stopping him from
claiming “first night.”
• Gilgamesh wins,
though not easily, and
he and Enkidu
become friends.
• Enkidu can be seen
as a type of double or
foil for Gilgamesh.
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Humbaba
Gilgamesh
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• Gilgamesh wants some of the lumber
of Enlil’s forest, up the Euphrates
River.
• He and Enkidu travel to the forest that
is guarded by a giant, Humbaba.
• When Gilgamesh begins to cut down
trees, Humbaba is enraged.
• Humbaba offers the entire forest if he
can live, but Enkidu persuades
Gilgamesh to kill him.
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Confronting Humbaba
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Ishtar
• The fertility goddess, Ishtar, proposes
to Gilgamesh and wants to make love
to him.
• He refuses and insults her about her
poor record as a lover.
• Whining, Ishtar goes to her father and
asks for the Bull of Heaven so that
Gilgamesh will be destroyed.
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The Goddess Ishtar
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Phoenician Ivory Plaque of Ishtar
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Bull of Heaven
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• Anu grants the bull, but Enkidu and
Gilgamesh kill it, dedicating its heart
to Shamash.
• Ishtar is even more upset.
• Enkidu then dreams that either he or
Gilgamesh must die for having killed
the Bull and Humbaba.
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• Enkidu curses the gate made of the
cedar he stole and the woman who
brought him to civilization.
• Anu reminds Enkidu of how good the
woman was and he retracts the
curse.
• Enkidu can then only speak his
terrifying dreams to Gilgamesh who
watches him die.
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Gilgamesh Mourns the Death of
Enkidu
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Gilgamesh Wanders the Earth
• Alone and terrified of death, Gilgamesh
travels eastward toward the mountain of
Mashu (perhaps in Iran or Kashmir?).
• He kills lions and wears their hides until he
meets dangerous scorpion men who
inquire about his quest.
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Persian impression of a cornelian
cylinder seal
Scorpion men
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• Gilgamesh responds to the Scorpion
men by telling them that he is looking
• For Utnapishtim, a mortal who
became a god, so that he too, can
discover the secret of eternal life.
• They let him pass and he goes into a
tunnel beneath the mountain to
emerge on the other side in the land
of the gods.
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• There he meets Siduri, a veiled bar
maid for the gods.
• She does not recognize Gilgamesh,
for his long journey and mourning for
Enkidu have made him haggard and
emaciated.
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Siduri
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• Siduri reveals to Gilgamesh the
paradox of divinity: because men are
mortal they can at least enjoy life,
• For it is rare and a mysterious gift.
• The gods, however, being immortal
have no need to fear death; life is
nothing to them.
• Life is all the same, one enjoyment
after the other, none spectacular.
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• Gilgamesh asks her for the way to
Utnapishtim.
• She directs him to a forest, and
beyond the forest is a mooring where
• The mysterious boatman, Urshnabi,
stands waiting.
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Urshnabi
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• Gilgamesh smashes a box on the
boat because he is angry and afraid
of death.
• He must supply the ship with poles
painted with tar in order to cross the
sea of death.
• He does so and is taken to meet
Utnapishtim, the Faraway.
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Utnapishtim
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• The conversation they have is similar
to the one that Gilgamesh had with
Siduri and Urshnabi.
• Utnapishtim tells him that there is no
such thing as “permanence,” that
nothing lasts forever.
• However, Gilgamesh wants to know
how Utnapishtim, who once was a
mortal, came to be among the gods.
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• Utnapishtim then tell Gilgamesh the
story of the gods being upset and
• Destroying the world by sending a
great flood.
• All humans were destroyed except
Utnap and his family.
• The story is almost identical to the
one in Genesis.
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• It is time for Gilgamesh to return to
the land of the living.
• Utnapishtim offers him a test: Stay
awake for six days and seven nights,
• And he might just become immortal.
• Gilgamesh fails before he even
begins.
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• He falls asleep and when he wakes
up the baked loaves of bread beside
• His bed tell him that he has slept for
seven days.
• Utnapishtim’s wife wants a going
away present for Gilgamesh.
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• The old man tells Gilgamesh about a
plant growing at the bottom of the sea
that grants immortal life.
• However, a snake steals the plant
away from him and he loses the gift of
immortal life.
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Snake Stealing Plant of Life
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• Gilgamesh arrives as a hero in Uruk.
He then engraves his life’s story on
stones.
• Gilgamesh dies, granted immortality
only through the monuments he has
built and the poem that we read.
• The people praise his deeds and the
greatness of their king.
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Gilgamesh, Immortality Through Art
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GILGAMESH BACKGROUND