The Historical Gilgamesh

1429304_origSo for my very first post ever here on Naked History, I would like to discuss one of the oldest literary characters in recorded history: None other than King Gilgamesh of Uruk. When I say “literary” I do in fact mean fictional as the “Epic of Gilgamesh” was written circa 2000 BCE (between c. 2150 and 1400 BCE), predating Homer’s work by roughly 1500 years. According to legend, he was a demigod possessing supernatural powers, such as uncanny strength, exceptionally long life (his reign on the Sumerian King List is cited as lasting 126 years) and the ability to put lions in headlocks (according to the picture included with this post). There is a lot more to say about fictional Gilgamesh as the discovery of his epics had a great influence on the linguistic and archaeological fields, but that isn’t what you’re here to read. YOU want to know more about the HISTORICAL figure Gilgamesh.

I will do my best, but you need to understand there are very few hard facts about the historical figure. The fact that archaeologists even believe he WAS a historical figure is the fact that several individuals that appear in his legend (and in this I mean poems, songs, writings, clay tablets, and other random things written in Cuneiform, compiled over 4000 years of history) also appear in historical documentation. For frame of reference, Gilgamesh was believed to have built huge walls around the city of Uruk in Mesopotamia to stave off the floodwaters… You know THE flood? Noah’s Ark? With references spanning the globe from India, Greece, and even the Lac Courtes Orielles Ojibwe tribe from North America? Yeah, THAT flood. If historical Gilgamesh existed, he was probably king from c. 2800 and 2500 BCE, and is generally accepted by historians as the fifth king of Uruk. And guess what? That’s it. Historically speaking, that is all we got. Pretty much anything beyond that is complete speculation (and honestly, most of THAT is speculation by more learned people than I). So why is this guy so dang important? I’ll tell you why.

There is a story in the “Epic” that talks about Gilgamesh as brother to Inanna, the Mesopotamian goddess of love and war. In the tale, she plants a very troublesome tree with the hopes of one day turning it into a chair and a bed. But the tree becomes infested with a snake, a female demon, and an Anzu bird (think Harry Potter style hippogriff, though it is not really the same critter). Inanna first appeals to her brother, Utu god of the sun, to help her out but Utu refuses. Her loyal brother, Gilgamesh, hears her cries and comes to the rescue, butchering the snake and frightening off the demon and the Anzu bird. You can see that particular story bears similar elements to the Bilical story behind Original Sin.

In another tale the gods thought Gilgamesh, as King, was too vain and prideful, so they sent him the wildman, Enkidu. These guys fought to a standstill, but for all Gilgamesh’s god-like strength, he could not outmatch Enkidu. When it became clear that neither would win, they ceased their fighting and became great friends, like you do. They went on many grand adventures after that, and when Enkidu died, Gilgamesh was stricken with grief and found himself a much humbled man. He returned to his throne a kinder, gentler, less vainglorious guy and the peasants rejoiced!
Okay, I dunno’ about that last bit, but kinder gentler gentry has to be a good thing, right?
All in all, it can honestly be said that we don’t even know if Gilgamesh was a real person. BUT – if he did exist, we can assume one of two things. Either he was a great leader who did great deeds that bespoke legends, tales and songs to be written about him for centuries after his death (or ascension, y’know, whatever) OR he had GREAT public relations. Either way, the real Gilgamesh, like all ancient monarchs, exists somewhere between fact and fiction.

In 2003, a team of German archeologists discovered a site that they now believe to be the remains of the city of Uruk and, in the place where the Euphrates once flowed, a tomb. According to the “Epic”, Gilgamesh was buried at the bottom of the Euphrates – so it is widely believed that the tomb is that of King Gilgamesh himself. Do they know for sure? Certainly not. But the thing you have to remember is that the nation we call Mesopotamia was more or less the cradle of civilization: Everything we know about language, culture, art, EVERYTHING, is believed to have stemmed form that one place, that one time, and that one culture. And the gift that Mesopotamia gave us was the legends of what is, to us, the most famous ancient king in all of history. Everything that followed stands in the shadow of Gilgamesh.

AG

Photo credit: www.ancient.eu/gilgamesh/