For other uses, see Gilgamesh (disambiguation).

Louvre Museum
Abode Earth
Symbol Bull, Lion
Parents Lugalbanda and Ninsun

Gilgamesh (/ɡɪlˈɡɑːmɛʃ/;[1] 𒄑𒂆𒈦, Gilgameš, originally Bilgamesh 𒄑𒉈𒂵𒈩) is the main character in the Epic of Gilgamesh, an Akkadian poem that is considered the first great work of literature,[2] and in earlier Sumerian poems. In the epic, Gilgamesh is a demigod of superhuman strength who builds the city walls of Uruk to defend his people and after the death of his friend Enkidu[3] travels to meet the sage Utnapishtim, who survived the Great Flood. His name means something to the effect of "The Ancestor is a Young-man" (J.L. Hayes "A Manual of Sumerian Grammar and Texts"), from = Ancestor, Elder (J.Halloran Sum.Lexicon p. 33) and Mes/Mesh3 = Young-Man (Halloran Sum.Lexicon p. 174). (See also The Electronic Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary)[4]

Gilgamesh is generally seen by scholars as a historical figure, since inscriptions have been found which confirm the existence of other figures associated with him in the epic. If Gilgamesh existed, he probably was a king who reigned sometime between 2800 and 2500 BC.[5] The Sumerian King List claims that Gilgamesh ruled the city of Uruk for 126 years. According to the Tummal Inscription,[6] Gilgamesh and his son Urlugal rebuilt the sanctuary of the goddess Ninlil in Tummal, a sacred quarter in her city of Nippur.

Cuneiform references

The story was discovered in the nineteenth century, and allows us to take a glimpse into the cultures and people of the region.[7] The earliest cuneiform references to Gilgamesh on clay tablets relate (according to the Encyclopædia Britannica) to the discovery of the library of Ashurbanipal[8]

The Gilgamesh story was written over a millennium by no specific author but was a culmination of many different people adding their own part to the epic.[9] This epic poetry is a cycle of Sumerian recordings, probably of an earlier oral tradition in which he appears under the name "Bilgamesh" (spelled in Sumerian cuneiform as 𒄑𒉈𒂵𒈩 BIL4.GA.MESH3 or 𒄑𒉋𒂵𒈨𒌍 BIL3.GA.MESH[10][11]). These poems include many of the stories that would make up the later, more famous Epic of Gilgamesh, written in the Akkadian language. The latest and most comprehensive telling of the Gilgamesh legend was the twelve-tablet Standard Babylonian Version, compiled circa 1200 BC by the exorcist-priest (mašmaššu) Sîn-lēqi-unninni.

Tablet V of the Epic of Gilgamesh. The Sulaymaniyah Museum, Iraq.

Fragments of an epic text found in Me-Turan (modern Tell Haddad) relate that at the end of his life Gilgamesh was buried under the river bed. The people of Uruk diverted the flow of the Euphrates passing Uruk for the purpose of burying the dead king within the river bed. In April 2003, a German expedition claimed to have discovered his last resting place.[12]

Some of the Sumerian texts spell his name as Bilgamesh. Initial difficulties in reading cuneiform resulted in Gilgamesh's name being initially given as "Izdubar" when parts of the epic were first published in English in 1872.[13][14]

Although Gilgamesh was originally considered by scholars to be a semidivine hero, he is now generally regarded as a historical king. In most cuneiform texts, the name of Gilgamesh is preceded with the star-shaped "dingir" determinative ideogram for divine beings, but there is no evidence for a contemporary cult, and the Sumerian Gilgamesh myths suggest that deification was a later development (unlike the case of the Akkadian god-kings). The earliest datable cuneiform tablet bears the name of Enmebaragesi of Kish; he and his son Aga of Kish are associated with Gilgamesh in the epic, as well as appearing in the kinglist and Tummal Chronicle. If Gilgamesh was a historical king, he probably reigned in about the 26th century BC.

Over the centuries there may have been a gradual accretion of stories about Gilgamesh, some possibly derived from the real lives of other historical figures, in particular Gudea, the Second Dynasty ruler of Lagash (2144–2124 BC).[15]

Later (non-cuneiform) references

In the Qumran scroll known as Book of Giants (ca. 100 BC) the names of Gilgamesh and Humbaba appear as two of the antediluvian giants, rendered (in consonantal form) as glgmš and ḩwbbyš. This same text was later used in the Middle East by the Manichaean sects, and the Arabic form Gilgamish/Jiljamish survives as the name of a demon according to the Egyptian cleric Al-Suyuti (ca. 1500).[16]

The name Gilgamesh appears once in Greek, as "Gilgamos" (Γίλγαμος), in Aelian's De Natura Animalium (On the Nature of Animals) 12.21 (written ca. AD 200).[17] In Aelian's story, the King of Babylon, Seuechorus or Euechorus, determined by oracle that his grandson Gilgamos would kill him, so he threw him out of a high tower. An eagle broke his fall, and the infant was found and raised by a gardener, eventually becoming king.

Theodore Bar Konai (ca. AD 600), writing in Syriac, also mentions a king Gligmos, Gmigmos or Gamigos as last of a line of twelve kings who were contemporaneous with the patriarchs from Peleg to Abraham; this occurrence is also considered a vestige of Gilgamesh's former memory.[18][19]

Family tree

born to Namma
born to Namma
born to Uraš
maybe daughter of Enlil
maybe son of Enki
maybe born to Ninḫursaḡ
born to Uraš
maybe daughter of Enki
maybe son of Enki
married Nergal

See also


  1. A. R. George, The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic, p. 163.
  2. Keys, David (16 November 1998). "First lines of oldest epic poem found". The Independent. Retrieved 20 August 2014. The beginning of the world's first truly great work of literature - the 4,000-year-old Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, the poem on which the story of Noah and the Flood was probably based - has been discovered in a British Museum storeroom.
  3. Herbert Mason,Gilgamesh: A verse Narrative (Mariner books, 2003), pg.49-55
  4. "ePSD".
  5. Dalley, Stephanie (2000). Myths from Mesopotamia (Revised ed.). Oxford University Press. p. 40. ISBN 0-19-283589-0. Precise dates cannot be given for the lifetime of Gilgamesh, but they are generally agreed to lie between 2800 and 2500 BC.
  6. The Tummal Inscription, an expanded king-list based on the standard Old Babylonian copy-texts, which exist in numerous examples, from Ur and Nippur.
  7. The Norton Anthology of World Literature 3rd edition Volume A, 2012 W.W. Norton & Company pg. 95
  8. Encyclopædia Britannica: Gilgamesh Mesopotamian mythology
  9. The Norton Anthology of World Literature 3rd edition Volume A, 2012 W.W. Norton & Company pg. 95
  10. gilgameš, gilgameš2, and gilgameš3 in the Pennsylvania Electronic Sumerian Dictionary
  11. The Epic of Gilgamesh, translated by Andrew George 1999, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, p. 141, ISBN 978-0-14-044721-7
  12. "Gilgamesh tomb believed found", BBC News, 29 April 2003
  13. Smith, George (1872). "The Chaldean Account of the Deluge", in Transactions of the Society of Biblical Archaeology, Volumes 1-2, pp.213–214. Society of Biblical Archæology; London.
  14. Alfred Jeremias, Izdubar-Nimrod, eine altbabylonische Heldensage (1891).
  15. N.K. Sandars, introduction to The Epic of Gilgamesh (Penguin, 1972:16).
  16. A. R. George, The Babylonian Gilgamesh epic p 60.
  17. Walter Burkert: The Orientalizing Revolution; 1992, p. 33 note 32.
  18. George, The Babylonian Gilgamesh epic p. 61
  19. Tigay, The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic p. 252.


  • Damrosch, David (2007). The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh. Henry Holt and Co. ISBN 0-8050-8029-5. 
  • Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, “Narratives featuring… Gilgameš”
  • George, Andrew [1999], The Epic of Gilgamesh: the Babylonian Epic Poem and Other Texts in Akkadian and Sumerian, Harmondsworth: Allen Lane The Penguin Press, 1999 (published in Penguin Classics 2000, reprinted with minor revisions, 2003. ISBN 0-14-044919-1
  • George, Andrew, The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic - Introduction, Critical Edition and Cuneiform Texts, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2 volumes, 2003.
  • Gmirkin, Russell E, Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and Exodus, New York, T & T Clark International, 2006.
  • Foster, Benjamin R., trans. & edit. (2001). The Epic of Gilgamesh. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-97516-9. 
  • Hammond, D. & Jablow, A. [1987], “Gilgamesh and the Sundance Kid: the Myth of Male Friendship,” in Brod, H. (ed.), The Making of Masculinities: The New Men's Studies, Boston, 1987, pp. 241–258.
  • Kovacs, Maureen Gallery, transl. with intro. (1985,1989). The Epic of Gilgamesh. Stanford University Press: Stanford, California. ISBN 0-8047-1711-7.  Check date values in: |date= (help) Glossary, Appendices, Appendix (Chapter XII=Tablet XII).
  • Jackson, Danny (1997). The Epic of Gilgamesh. Wauconda, IL: Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers. ISBN 0-86516-352-9. 
  • Mitchell, Stephen (2004). Gilgamesh: A New English Version. New York: Free Press. ISBN 0-7432-6164-X. 
  • Oberhuber, K., ed. (1977). Das Gilgamesch-Epos. Darmstadt: Wege der Forschung. 
  • Parpola, Simo, with Mikko Luuko, and Kalle Fabritius (1997). The Standard Babylonian, Epic of Gilgamesh. The Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project. ISBN 9514577604. 
  • Pettinato, Giovanni (1992). La saga di Gilgamesh. Milan, Italy: Rusconi Libri. ISBN 978-88-18-88028-1. 

External links

Media related to Gilgamesh at Wikimedia Commons

Preceded by
Aga of Kish
King of Sumer
ca. 2600 BC
Succeeded by
Preceded by
Dumuzid, the Fisherman
Ensi of Uruk
ca. 2600 BC
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