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The first epic ever to be composed- Epic of Gilgamesh

Humanity owes most of its inventions and discoveries to Sumerian civilization. Things like wheel, law, tax and temples originated in Sumer and spread throughout the ancient world leading humans to where we are today. Sumer also happens to be the place where world's first epic poem was born. Around 2nd century B.C. this great epic was written in cuneiform scripts by various authors in stone tablets. All these individual stories put together made one great epic of Gilgamesh.

Sumerian civilisation is one of the earliest and the greatest of the ancient civilizations. Situated in between the rivers Euphrates and Tigris, the extremely fertile kingdom of Sumer, provided its citizens with enough luxury and leisure that art and science prospered there.

Sumerians went on to invent so many things like law, temples, wheels, chariots, one of the earliest forms of writing In absence of futuristic things like paper, poets of Sumer inscribed their poems onto stone tablets. The epic of Gilgamesh, as a single narrative survives in the form of Old Babylonian stone tablets, from 1800.B.C. These are called Babylonian tablets because they are written in Akkadian/Babylonian. Epic of Gilgamesh originally was composed in Sumerian script by different authors on clay tablets. All these stories were spun together to give the Old Babylonian tablets their final form.

Summary of the epic of Gilgamesh

Gilgamesh was a legendary god-king of Sumerian city Uruk. He was born to the king Lugalbanda and goddess Ninsun. His demigod status and superhuman strength made Gilgamesh very arrogant and rude. He was a tyrant. To teach Gilgamesh a lesson, gods create Enkidu, a wild man. Enkidu possessed strength and valor similar to that of Gilgamesh. Enkidu and Gilgamesh fight a long fruitless battle. At the end of the battle, they forget enmity and become good friends. Enkidu and Gilgamesh slay different monsters together. One such monster was Humbaba, a familiar of goddess Ishtar/Innana. Ishtar falls in love with Gilgamesh and asks him to marry her. But Gilgamesh refuses. This act angered her, so she sent the "Bull of heaven" to kill Gilgamesh. Enkidu slays the bull to save Gilgamesh. This earns him the wrath of gods and he gets cursed. Enkidu succumbs to the curse of gods and dies. Gilgamesh grieves Enkidu for days and in the process starts fearing his own death. He decides to resurrect Enkidu. But he learns that Enkidu's soul has long crossed the spirit realm.

Adventures in underworld : Gilgamesh was told that a man called Utnapistam holds the secret of immortality. Gilgamesh sets out to find Utnapistam to attain immortality. He travels through the Underworld. Crosses oceans. Crosses mountains and reaches Utnapistam. Utnapistam and his wife were the lone survivors from the last great flood. Utnapistam leads an immortal life. After being pleaded repeatedly by Gilgamesh, Utnapistam finally agrees to share the knowledge of immortality with him. But on one condition that Gilgamesh must be awake for six days and six nights. Gilgamesh fails in this challenge. He once again pleads Utnapistam and swears that he will be obedient. Gilgamesh was finally granted the plant that offers immortality by Utnapistam. Merrily, Gilgamesh sets to return to his kingdom. On his way, he dips into the river to bath after a long time. A vile snake sneaks away the godly plant at that time. Gilgamesh is devastated when he learns that all his pain was for naught. He understands that humans can never acquire immortality. He returns to his land empty-handed. He rules over his citizens justly. He dies after living a long life of 126 years. He is buried in the Euphrates' river bed upon his death.

Relevance of Gilgamesh

  • One must note that the Epic of Gilgamesh was the first ever written piece of literature. The oral versions of the epic date way back in time.
  • Various myths and religious books drew references and incidents from the Epic of Gilgamesh. The great flood for example was first described in the Epic of Gilgamesh. The resemblances between Utnapistam and Noah is also a clear indicative that Abrahamic religions drew inspirations from Gilgamesh.
  • Not only there is a huge cultural significance of Gilgamesh but also in terms of literature. Gilgamesh was the first hero. The heros that followed him took upon his characters. The epic of Gilgamesh was rediscovered in 1853 by Hormuzd Rassam. Since then the pop culture adopted various things from the epic. The mythic heros from Greece, India and Rome too share many attributes with Gilgamesh.
  • The epic also helps us figure how ancient Sumer was. Myths from an era, explain the lifestyle of citizens in that era.
  • The moral of this ageless story is just amazing. "Man cannot defeat death even with gods by his side". That is the central theme of the Gilgamesh's plot. The plot was way too advanced for its time
  • The fact that Epic of Gilgamesh was written in Akkadian, tells us that the epic must have spread quite far in the ancient world. Akkadians controlled half of the world at that time. No wonder so many religions have adopted the concepts of Gilgamesh then.
  • The original texts were written in Sumerian around 2600.B.C. Enheduanna, the daughter of Sargon, wrote the Old Babylonian texts. For this, she is titled as the first female poet in the history. She was the daughter of Sargon, the first emperor in known history. This tells us that women enjoyed an equal status as men in ancient Babylonia
  • Turns out that Gilgamesh could have been an actual historic person. His name is mentioned in the Book of Kings alongside the historic kings of Babylonia. It could be possible that he was deified after his death. So a study on his legend would give us the geographic and demographic idea of his time


Such is the summary and significance of the Epic of Gilgamesh which was written 5000 years ago. This was an invisible hand that fared well in shaping literature and religion to its present status.


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