The Epic of Gilgamesh dates back to as early as Bronze Age Mesopotamia, to the people of Sumer that told poems and legends of a great hero-king called Gilgamesh, the demigod ruler of Uruk (around 2500 BCE). The legends and poems were later gathered into a longer epic and written on clay tablets C. 1900 BCE. They were found in the mid nineteenth century and were later deciphered, and eventually published. The story is important not only to the people of the time or historians, but to everyday modern people, to us.
The story revolves around Gilgamesh and his close companion, Enkidu, who is a wild man created by the goddess of creation, Aruru, to be Gilgamesh’s equal. They set out on dangerous quests that displease the gods, which eventually leads to the punishment of one of them having to die. Gilgamesh’s extreme reaction to Enkidu’s death, drives him to realize that he too will suffer the same fate as his dear friend and sets out on a quest for immortality.
After undertaking a long and perilous journey, Gilgamesh finds the immortal flood hero, Utnapshtim, the only man the gods ever granted eternal life. Gilgamesh tells the story of Enkidu’s death and argues with Utnapshtim until he reveals how he received immortality. Eventually Utnapshtim recounts the great flood and the greatest secret hidden from humans. At the end of his story, he gives Gilgamesh a chance at immortality. If Gilgamesh can stay awake for six days and seven nights, he too, will have eternal life.
Just as he accepts the challenge, Gilgamesh falls asleep. Ridiculing him, Utnapshtim orders his wife to bake a loaf of bread everyday Gilgamesh is asleep, so he cannot deny his failure. After waking, Gilgamesh realizes he has fallen asleep and sees the loaves of bread. Utnapshtim’s wife asks her husband to have mercy on Gilgamesh. He does so by telling him of a plant at the bottom of the ocean that will make him young again. Gilgamesh ties stones to the bottom of his feet and sinks to the bottom where he plucks the plant.
Not trusting the plant fully, Gilgamesh plans to take it back to Uruk to test on an old man. On his way back, he finds a well of water and lays the plant down to bathe. Unknowingly to Gilgamesh, there is a serpent in the water and it is attracted to the smell of the plant. The serpent snatches the plant away and dives back deep into the water with the plant. Gilgamesh weeps at his last attempt, for he has now lost all chance of immortality. When he returns to Uruk, the sight of the great walls fill him with pride and he boasts of his work.
Though he was weary after his long journey, he engraved the whole story on stone. His destiny of death was later filled and the entire city mourned his death, for he brought knowledge of mysteries and secret things, and brought a tale of the days before the flood. For historians, the epic gives insight on many things, ranging from ancient religion, thoughts, ideas, and government. For the people of the time it was written, it teaches the important role their gods have in their life. For us, it teaches that you cannot cheat death and to make the best of life with what you have.
The greater detail at the end of the summary indicates the significance of his attempts at eternal life, only to fail. With the story of Gilgamesh and all his triumphs, there is an underlying theme of accepting one’s own morality. The people of Sumer seemed to have a firm grip on this reality, thus thriving as a people and culture. Though the city of Uruk has long been eroded and torn down, and Mesopotamia eventually conquered, the culture is still noted to be one of the greatest civilizations in history.