The Ancient Babylonian Tale: The Epic of Gilgamesh
The Epic of Gilgamesh is an epic poem from ancient Mesopotamia. Dating from the Third Dynasty of Ur (circa 2100 BC), it is often regarded as the earliest surviving great work of literature. The literary history of Gilgamesh begins with five Sumerian poems about ‘Bilgamesh’ (Sumerian for ‘Gilgamesh’), king of Uruk. These independent stories were later used as source material for a combined epic.
The first surviving version of this combined epic, known as the “Old Babylonian” version, dates to the 18th century BC and is titled after its incipit, Shūtur eli sharrī (“Surpassing All Other Kings”). Only a few tablets of it have survived. The later “Standard” version dates from the 13th to the 10th centuries BC and bears the incipit Sha naqba īmuru (“He who Saw the Deep”, in modern terms: “He who Sees the Unknown”). Approximately two thirds of this longer, twelve-tablet version have been recovered. Some of the best copies were discovered in the library ruins of the 7th-century BC Assyrian king Ashurbanipal.
Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, and his companion Enkidu the heroes of this ancient Babylonian poem journey to the Spring of Youth, defeat the Bull of Heaven and slay the monster Humbaba. When Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh’s grief and fear of death are such that they lead him to undertake a quest for eternal life. A timeless tale of morality, tragedy and pure adventure, The Epic of Gilgamesh is a landmark literary exploration of man’s search for immortality.
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