The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest long work of literature that has survived. It is based on a Sumerian mythic cycle which dates to around 2100 B.C., and tells the mythical adventures of a Gilgamesh -- a king of Uruk around 2700 B.C. The versions of the epic which have survived are later Babylonian and Akkadian retellings of the mythic cycle dating from much later. The most complete version we have (the "Standard Edition") was found on twelve clay tablets in the ruins of Nineveh and was composed between 1000 and 1300 B.C.
How much of an influence Gilgamesh was on later Western mythologies is unclear. There are certainly parallels which have been pointed out between the epic and the Odyssey and also between Gilgamesh and the Greek demi-god Hercules. However whether these are the result of a Sumerian/Mesopotamian influence on Greek mythology or simply similar mythic archetypes is unclear.
As you read keep the following general issues in mind:
- What view of Sumerian political organization do you get from Gilgamesh?
- What is the relationship between humans and gods, and what respective places and purposes do they have in the cosmos?
- What is the Sumerian heroic ideal?
Depending on how well you recall the Biblical flood story, you may want to re-read Genesis 6-9 to compare and contrast the Hebrew flood story with the pagan version found in Gilgamesh.
Note:The world's oldest piece of literature also contains the world's oldest explicit sex scene. While some may find the frankness of the epic's approach to sexuality offensive, we suggest this be used as an opportunity to examine the characteristics of an fairly ancient and alien set of attitudes about the nature and purpose of sexuality. Also, if you find this concerning, be aware that Andrew George's translation is much less explicit than Stephen Mitchel's.
Selecting an Edition
We've found two modern translations of the Epic of Gilgamesh that seem suited to the program, and in many ways they represent opposite ends of the spectrum in regards to translational and scholarly approach.
The Epic of Gilgamesh (Penguin Classics) translated by Andrew George
Andrew George takes a highly scholarly approach. He provides separate translations of the two major versions we have of the Gilgamesh epic: the Standard Version (a version in Akkadian found on twelve tables in the ruins of Nineveh and the Old Babylonian Version (an older and more fragmentary version). The Penguin edition is based on the two volume critical edition which Andrew George published earlier. However, while the scholarly value of George's work is unquestionable, that fact that it contains two different version (both of them with at least some gaps) makes it a less fluid and natural read. Read the eleven tablets of the "Standard Version". If you're very curious to read the fragments of the other versions, feel free to go ahead, but the Standard Version is by far the most complete.
Gilgamesh: A New English Version by Stephen Mitchel
Stephen Mitchel's version is not exactly a translation, but rather what is intended to be a blended, readable version based on previous English translations and occasional consultation of scholarly sources over points of question. It is definately a clear and readable edition, but it's important to understand that the author is attempting to create a synthesis, not an original and exact translation. Mitchel's introduction is long (about sixty pages) and essentially retells the entire story along with a lot of Mitchel's opinions on what the story means. We'd strongly suggest you skip the introduction and go straight to the story.