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Introduction to the Epic of Gilgamesh
Introduction – Authorship and publication details
Gilgamesh is a long narrative poem that is actually a Babylonian epic. The epic of Gilgamesh essentially focuses on a single hero as its primary theme and narrates the heroic acts of that particular hero. It is a work that can either be written text or an oral narration that was the main source of transition along significant cultural tales prior to the evolution of writing. This epic was translated into English by George Smith and was published for the first time in the year 1876.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is recorded in Akkadian, an inexistent semantic language that is inscribed in cuneiform script. The Cuneiform script is composed with the help of ideograms and phonetic signs similar to that of the Egyptian hieroglyphics. The epic is written on twelve stone tablets that are not totally together, and are essentially an assortment of tales that are combined together to form the epic that is popular today.
Cultural context and comparisons
Unlike the Greek epics Illiad and Homer that essentially focused on mythological heroes Achilles and Odysseus, the epic of Gilgamesh is on the contrary, based on an original historical hero who lived sometime around the mid-26th century B.C. Even though the historical proof about the various events described in the epic of Gilgamesh does not exist, various chronicles about the king Gilgamesh are documented by various sources including a Sumerian list of kings who were believed to be contemporaries of King Gilgamesh.
Gilgamesh is a Mesopotamian hero who was passionate about the concept of impermanence and his own demise. Gilgamesh was the rule of Uruk, a Mesopotamian city. Uruk is called as Erech in the Holy Bible. Also, Uruk is believed to be the name of modern day Iraq, and this is where the ancient city-state was present. Gilgamesh is also the one who has the credit of building the 6 mile long wall that bordered Uruk.
Gilgamesh is the cleverest, strongest, and most fine-looking of mortals, for he is two-thirds God and one-third a man. In the process of building the 6 mile long wall around the city-state of Uruk, Gilgamesh is believed to have overworked the inhabitants of the city cruelly, to the point where the inhabitants pray to the Gods to relieve them from his cruelty.
The God Anu hears the plea of the inhabitants of Uruk, and calls the Goddess Aruru to create another demi-God similar to Gilgamesh so that two heroes might combat with each other and eventually offer peace to the people of Uruk. Aruru fashions a warrior named Engidu with clay and sends him to live along with the animals of Uruk’s hills.
A hunter finds Engidu and in horror reports his presence to King Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh immediately instructs the hunter to take a priest to the watering place Engidu and lure him to the blisses of civilization and shoo him away from the animal life that he was leading. The priest initiates Engidu into the civilization with her body and her bread and wine. Having abandoned his animal life, Engidu and the priest start their journey to Uruk. On their arrival in Uruk, Engidu tells the priest about the strength and wisdom of Gilgamesh and of how Gilgamesh had told Goddess Ninsun about his wish to meet Engidu who is considered as his equal in war.
Engidu challenges Gilgamesh by obstructing his way to the temple. An earthshattering fight follows in which Gilgamesh rests the onslaught of Enigdu. Engidu compliments and lauds the strength of Gilgamesh and the two enemies transform into close friends.
Gilgamesh tells Engidu of his aspiration to surmount the dreadful monster, Khumbaba, and dares him to come along. Engidu tells that the task is extremely perilous for both of them. Gilgamesh retorts by saying that the fear of death the Engidu has is the one that dispossesses him of his strength. Finally, Engidu decides to go with his friend. Gilgamesh then approaches the elders and discusses about his wish to combat Khumbaba. However, even they warn him about the risk involved in this task as told by Engidu. Seeing his willpower, the elders bless Gilgamesh and he then approaches Ninsun, where even she warns him about how dangerous it is to battle Khumbaba. After giving in to Gilgamesh’s wish, she takes Engidu aside and instructs him to offer special protection to Gilgamesh.
Upon ascending the cedar peak to reach Khumbaba, Gilgamesh narrates three dreadful dreams to Engidu, who shores up the spirit of Gilgamesh by employing a encouraging explanation about his dreams. On reaching the cedar wood’s gate, both friends are stopped by the watchman, who has seven magic shrouds. The two heroes successfully overcome the watchmen. In this process, Engidu accidentally touches the cedar gate’s magic portal, after which he instantly faints and becomes weak, and seems to be scared of death. Both the heroes enter the cedar wood and, with the Sun God’s help, kill Khumbaba.
Upon victoriously returning to Uruk from the woods, Goddess Ishtar falls in love with Gilgamesh and asks him to be her consort. However, Gilgamesh refuses her, by disclosing that Ishtar never lives with any man who she makes her husband for very long, and once she is satisfied with them and is no longer interested in them, casts them away.
On being rejected by Gilgamesh, Ishtar becomes furious and so approaches the other Gods and persuades them to permit her to release the bull of heaven on both the heroes. The result of releasing the bull of heaven is that it would bring to earth seven years of famine when it reaches earth. Despite the bull being a formidable beast, Gilgamesh and Engidu, though difficult, successful kill it and eat him.
Ishtar fumes with anger and frustration at yet another offense towards her by Gilgamesh and his friend Engidu, and eventually convinces the Gods that both of them need to be punished for their freedom of choice. The Gods give in to the persuasion of Ishtar that one of them has to die and Engidu is the one whom the Gods choose to kill. Engidu becomes sick and narrates the visions of the underworld to his friend Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh tries to provide the maximum hope to Engidu, but Engidu eventually perishes after too much of suffering leaving Gilgamesh with too much of grief.
Terrified at the prospect of impermanence, Gilgamesh, after seeing his close friend perish in front of his eyes, goes to the forest in search of the Mesopotamian Noah named Utnapishtim, to whom the Gods have incidentally granted immortality after he endured the great flood by constructing a huge ark.
Gilgamesh finally reaches Utnapishtim after an elongated journey through the forests and the underworld, where he sees sunrise and sunset. Utnapishtim states Gilgamesh that it is important the he enjoys his mortal life, and live his mortal life to the fullest, as it is a short life. Before seeing-off Gilgamesh, Utnapishtim is persuaded by his immortal wife to tell Gilgamesh the secret about the sacred plant, which can bring back the youth period of a mortal individual.
Gilgamesh locates the secret water plant that Utnapishtim tells him about; however, it gets stolen from him by a serpent on his way back to his city. The epic concludes with Gilgamesh returning to Uruk and his solace is the reassurance that his worldly endeavours will remain immortal even after his own lifetime. The supplement narrates the story about Engidu’s sprit returning to earth and advising Gilgamesh about the dreadful underworld.
Through the long and deferred recollection, it can be regarded that the epic of Gilgamesh discovers numerous of the anonymities of the human form, probably for the first time in literature. A few such mysteries explored by the epic of Gilgamesh are the complex and dangerous associations between the Gods and human beings and between Mother Nature and the society, the depths of friendship, and the endurance of art, among others. It is both awe-inspiring and exciting to listen to so acquaint a voice from so massive a distance.
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