The Epic of Gilgamesh

The Epic of Gilgamesh is an epic poem from ancient Mesopotamia, regarded as the earliest surviving notable piece of literature, and the second oldest religious text, after the Pyramid Texts, dating back to the 18th century BCE.  The first half of the story discussed Gilgamesh, the King of Uruk, and Enkidu, a wild man created by the gods to stop Gilgamesh from oppressing the people of Uruk. In the second half of this epic, distress over Enkidu’s death caused Gilgamesh to undertake a long and perilous journey to discover the secret of eternal life.  Gilgamesh’s fame survived well after his death.  This epic is regarded as a foundational work in religion and in the tradition of heroic sagas, as the prototype for later heroes like Heracles and the Greek Homeric epics.  It has been translated into many languages and is featured in several works of popular fiction.  These Old Babylonian tablets from 1800 BCE are the oldest surviving tablets for a single Epic of Gilgamesh narrative.  The first ten tablets told the story about Gilgamesh and Enkidu.  Tablet eleven, is the “Babylonian Flood Story”.  Gilgamesh observed that Utnapishtim seemed no different from himself, and asked him how he obtained his immortality.  Utnapishtim explained that the gods decided to send a great flood.  To save Utnapishtim, the god Enki told him to build a boat.  He gave him precise dimensions, and it was sealed with pitch and bitumen. His entire family went aboard together with his craftsmen and all the animals of the field.  A violent storm then arose which caused the terrified gods to retreat to the heavens.  Ishtar lamented the wholesale destruction of humanity, and the other gods wept beside her. The storm lasted six days and nights, after which all the human beings turned to clay.  Utnapishtim wept when he saw the destruction.  His boat lodged on a mountain.  Thus, he released a dove, a swallow, and a raven.  When the raven failed to return, he opened the ark and freed its inhabitants.  Utnapishtim offered a sacrifice to the gods, who smelt the sweet savor and gathered around.  Ishtar vowed that just as she will never forget the brilliant necklace that hangs around her neck, she would always remember this time.  When Enlil arrived, angry that there were survivors, she condemned him for instigating the flood and sending a disproportionate punishment.  Enlil blessed Utnapishtim and his wife. He rewarded them with a unique gift of eternal life.  This account largely matched the flood story.  As if to demonstrate this point, Utnapishtim challenged Gilgamesh to stay awake for six days and seven nights.  However, Gilgamesh fell asleep.  Gilgamesh, who was seeking to overcome death, could not even conquer sleep.  Utnapishtim told Gilgamesh that at the bottom of the sea there lived a boxthorn-like plant that would make him young again.  When Gilgamesh stopped to bathe, it was stolen by a serpent, who shed its skin as it departed.  Gilgamesh wept at the futility of his efforts, because he had now lost all chance of immortality.  In 2003, there was a translation of this work by Andrew George.  He held that the Genesis flood narrative matched that in Gilgamesh so closely that few doubt that it was derived from this Mesopotamian account.  What was particularly noticeable was the way the Genesis flood story followed the Gilgamesh flood tale point by point and in the same order.  In a 2001 Torah commentary, released on behalf of the Conservative Movement of Judaism, rabbinic scholar Robert Wexler stated, “The most likely assumption we can make is that both Genesis and Gilgamesh drew their material from a common tradition about the flood that existed in Mesopotamia.  These stories then diverged in the retelling.” Thus, the flood story in Genesis 6–8 matched the Gilgamesh flood myth very closely.  What do you believe about the flood story in Genesis?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.