The Epic of Gilgamesh or He Who Saw the Deep
c. 2100–1200 BCE
It's an old, old story
It's maybe not the oldest story in the world, as The Epic of Gilgamesh is sometimes called. There had been other stories floating around the ancient world before the various versions of Gilgamesh, and who knows what tales were told even earlier around cave fires. But Gilgamesh is the first story that was written down in a form that has been preserved, which makes it the oldest literature we have.
For about a thousand years before Gilgamesh, records committed by the ancients to papyrus or stone were practical accounts, like inventories, transactions, or lists of kings (including Gilgamesh, by the way).
So what personal issues were the Mesopotamians of four millennia ago so concerned about—enough to address in myths worth setting down on tablets alongside the vital factual matters?
Some of the same things we care about today, to judge by Gilgamesh: honour, sex, friendship, looking good, prevailing over nature, making our mark in the world, leaders' relationship to their people, our relationship to the gods....
It's sometimes been said—starting with the excited poet Rainer Maria Rilke apparently—that Gilgamesh is about the fear of death. There is certainly much of that in the myth: the hero's misery over the death of his comrade and his desperate search for eternal life. Certainly this is also a theme that strikes a chord with readers of any era. And like all the above-mentioned concerns it's repeated throughout ancient and later literature right up to today.
No wonder whole parts of Gilgamesh have been lifted for use in later literature and mythology. For example, the Hebrew Bible story of the flood, complete with an ark to save the family of one man favoured by a god, was obviously copped from the tale related in Gilgamesh, likely picked up by the ancient Israelites during their Babylonian captivity.
But one topic running quietly through Gilgamesh is somewhat unique, appearing only intermittently in later work.
Mesopotamia where Gilgamesh was shaped over centuries (see the Gilgamesh "author" page) is the acknowledged birthplace of civilization. This is the area where both agricultural and urban communities were first extensively developed. The real-life city of Uruk, which the king Gilgamesh is supposed to have ruled, was the first to shelter more than fifty thousand inhabitants within its walls—probably closer to eighty thousand at the time of Gilgamesh's storied reign.
Probably not surprisingly, the authors of Gilgamesh and their protagonist seem a little obsessed with the strength of the city's foundations and ramparts, mentioning them several times, and with the generally impressive appearance of the entire enclosed area of land, shops, temples and palaces.
This is the wonder of civilization at its most elemental. And Gilgamesh, the ruler and builder of its walls, is its representative—its avatar, really, as he goes out into the world to do battle on its behalf with the less civilized.
The story of Enkidu, who becomes Gilgamesh's soul mate, is in part a recapitulation of the journey to civilization, as well as a meditation on what has been lost in that transition.
Enkidu starts, as perhaps humanity was remembered to have begun, as a savage in the forest, running with the animals, scavenging food in the wild, and scaring the local people. But Gilgamesh, who had himself been a sexual predator among his people, traps Enkidu with the enticements of an erotic priestess. What follows is the most explicitly sexual passages of ancient literature as Enkidu has his way with the priestess unrelentingly for days on end (some accounts say for two weeks). As a result, he becomes estranged from nature and the animals. Enkidu is led to engage in the next stage of human development: agriculture. Eventually he comes to the city to challenge Gilgamesh directly—significantly perhaps, as the king is about to exercise his own sexual prerogative with one of the city's new brides.
But Enkidu loses the fight and is subdued into becoming the great friend of the city's defender, thus completing his civilizing evolution.
So then what? Do the dynamic duo spend the rest of their lives ruling over and developing their urban/rural centre? Raising armies in its defence or leading attacks on other cities to extend their empire, like heroes in later ancient history and mythology?
No, instead they go out together, just the two of them, to continue the battle against nature and its demons. They go on adventures to the northern forests and mountains to conquer nature and slay the monsters of the wild.
But as punishment for their killing of one of the gods' creatures, Enkidu is given a slow death, during which he regrets having grown out of his original savage state. Gilgamesh mourns his friend's passing—far more profoundly and at greater length than we might expect of such a stalwart heroic character.
Gilgamesh himself nearly reverts to savagery, wandering the wilderness in animal skins, searching for the secret of immortality. He finds it in nature, of course, in the form of a plant at the bottom of the sea. But it is stolen from him by a serpent (the genesis of another, later allegory?).
Along the way he meets an immortal man, Utnapishtim, and Gilgamesh learns he was given the gift of everlasting life by the gods after surviving a great flood in a boat built to divine specifications. It this sounds like the Bible's story of Noah, written many years later, it's because the Biblical authors likely got it from the Babylonians.
The lesson for Gilgamesh from his quest is that immortality is outside most mortal men's reach. It is more important to appreciate the joys of life.
Chastened by his failures, Gilgamesh finally takes refuge back in Uruk and civilization. And he falls back on the strength of the city walls to protect his people—his one achievement he thinks will endure.
As it turns out, the endurance of his walls is far surpassed by the story that for thousands of years after his death tells of his journey to wisdom.
One variation on the Gilgamesh epic concludes with the king's death but that final chapter is not considered canon in the Gilgamesh that has come down to us. The accepted, well-rounded narrative ends, as it should, with Gilgamesh amid the glories of Uruk.
We find a lot of ourselves in the first great hero—and the first great civilization—of literature.