The Epic of Gilgamesh is from Babylonia, dating from long after the time that king Gilgamesh was supposed to have ruled. It was based on earlier Sumerian legends of Gilgamesh. The most complete version of the epic was preserved on eleven clay tablets in the collection of the 7th century BC Assyrian king Ashurbanipal.
The earliest Akkadian versions of the epic are known, from its incipit, as surpassing all other kings and dates back to the first half of the second millennium B.C. The "standard" version, carrying the incipit He who saw the deep, was composed by Sin-liqe-unninni sometime between 1300 B.C. and 1000 B.C.
The earliest Sumerian versions of the texts date from as early as the third dynasty of Ur (2100-2000 BC.), or to ca. 400 years after the supposed reign of historical Gilgamesh.
A 12th tablet sometimes appended to the remainder of the Epic represents a sequel to the original eleven continuing the epic added at a later date. This tablet has commonly been omitted until recent years for containing explicit references to male homosexuality between the characters Gilgamesh and Enkidu.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is widely known today. The first modern translation of the epic was in the 1870s by George Smith. More recent translations include one undertaken with the assistance of the American novelist John Gardner, and published in 1984. Another edition is the two volume critical work by Andrew George whose translation also appeared in the Penguin Classics series in 2003. More recently the scholar Stephen Mitchell released an edition in 2004.
Contents of the twelve clay tablets
- Introducing Gilgamesh of Uruk, the greatest king on earth, two-thirds god and one-third human, the strongest super-human who ever existed. But his people complain that he is too harsh, so the sky-god Anu creates the wild-man Enkidu, a worthy rival as well as distraction. Enkidu is tamed by the seduction of a female harlot Shamhat.
- Enkidu challenges Gilgamesh. After a mighty battle, Gilgamesh breaks off from the fight (this portion is missing from the Standard Babylonian version but is supplied from other versions) and some scholars argue that they even become lovers. Gilgamesh proposes an adventure in the cedar forest to kill a demon.
- Preparation for the adventure of the cedar forest; many give support, including the sun-god Shamash.
- Journey of Gilgamesh and Enkidu to the cedar forest.
- Gilgamesh and Enkidu, with help from Shamash, kill Humbaba, the demon guardian of the trees, then cut down the trees which they float as a raft back to Uruk.
- Gilgamesh rejects the sexual advances of the goddess Ishtar. Ishtar gets her father, the sky-god Anu, to send the "Bull of Heaven" to avenge the rejected sexual advances. Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill the bull.
- The gods decide that somebody has to be punished for killing the Bull of Heaven, and it is Enkidu. Enkidu becomes ill and describes the Netherworld as he is dying.
- Lament of Gilgamesh for Enkidu.
- Gilgamesh sets out to avoid Enkidu's fate and makes a perilous journey to visit Utnapishtim and his wife, the only humans to have survived the Great Flood who were granted immortality by the gods, in the hope that he too can attain immortality. Along the way, Gilgamesh encounters the "ale-wife" Siduri who attempts to dissuade him from his quest.
- Completion of the journey, by punting across the Waters of Death with Urshanabi, the ferryman.
- Gilgamesh meets Utnapishtim, who tells him about the great flood and gives him two chances for immortality. First he tells Gilgamesh that if he can stay awake for six days and seven nights he will become immortal. Gilgamesh fails, but Utnapishtim decides to give him another chance. Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh that if he can obtain a plant from the bottom of a sea and eat it he will become immortal. Gilgamesh obtains the plant, but it is stolen by a snake. Gilgamesh, having failed both chances returns to Uruk, where the sight of its massive walls provoke Gilgamesh to praise this enduring work of mortal men.
- Sumerian texts: ETCSL
Translations for several legends of Gilgamesh in the Sumerian language can be found in Black, J.A., Cunningham, G., Fluckiger-Hawker, E, Robson, E., and Zólyomi, G., The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature (http://www-etcsl.orient.ox.ac.uk/), Oxford 1998-.
Mitchell, Stephen (2004). Gilgamesh: A New English Version. New York: Free Press. ISBN 0-7432-6164-X.