Gilgamesh was an historical king of Uruk in Babylonia, on the River Euphrates in modern Iraq; he lived about 2700 B.C. Although historians (and your textbook) tend to emphasize Hammurabi and his code of law, the civilizations of the Tigris-Euphrates area, among the first civilizations, focus rather on Gilgamesh and the legends accruing around him to explain, as it were, themselves. Many stories and myths were written about Gilgamesh, some of which were written down about 2000 B.C. in the Sumerian language on clay tablets which still survive; the Sumerian language, as far as we know, bears no relation to any other human language we know about. These Sumerian Gilgamesh stories were integrated into a longer poem, versions of which survive not only in Akkadian (the Semitic language, related to Hebrew, spoken by the Babylonians) but also on tablets written in Hurrian and Hittite (an Indo-European language, a family of languages which includes Greek and English, spoken in Asia Minor). All the above languages were written in the script known as cuneiform, which means “wedge-shaped.” The fullest surviving version, from which the summary here is taken, is derived from twelve stone tablets, in the Akkadian language, found in the ruins of the library of Ashurbanipal, king of Assyria 669-633 B.C., at Nineveh. The library was destroyed by the Persians in 612 B.C., and all the tablets are damaged. The tablets actually name an author, which is extremely rare in the ancient world, for this particular version of the story: Shin-eqi-unninni. You are being introduced here to the oldest known human author we can name by name!
After you have read a summary of the story of Gilgamesh mentioned in your text, please pick two of the following topics to write about. Please write a 400 word paper addressing the questions. Cite your sources.
1. The biblical story of Job from the Old Testament is a story of a man who suffers terribly because God allows him to be tested by Satan. Job passes every test, but in the process he loses everything dear to him, including his family. God rewards him in the end by giving him new property and a new family. Compare this conception of divine power with that of the gods in Gilgamesh, who are irritated with human beings and decide to destroy them all. What kind of “progress,” if any, can you see in the idea of the divine as “caring” for human beings? You might look at the nature of Utnapishtim’s reward in the end, and of Job’s. Moreover, human suffering is a major theme in the Hebrew Bible and in Gilgamesh. Through suffering, human beings can learn about the nature of reality and their place in it. Compare Job and Gilgamesh as suffering heroes, as they search for understanding, and come to accept the limits of their human condition. Use specific examples from both stories to support your ideas.
2. Compare the biblical story of The Expulsion from Eden from the Old Testament with the episode of how Enkidu becomes fully human (by means of the harlot) in Gilgamesh. In both stories a woman is instrumental in causing a man to become fully human, and eventually to die, the fate of human beings. Moreover, how are women treated in the story of Gilgamesh? Discuss the similarities and the differences between the two stories, using specific examples from both to support your ideas.
3. Compare the Biblical story of the flood with the version of the flood told by Utnapishtim in Gilgamesh. Now, identify several ways in which the two floods are similar and several ways in which they are different. What do you think is the most striking difference between them? What was the purpose of the flood in Gilgamesh? What was the purpose of the flood in the Hebrew Bible? What do these different purposes tell you about the relationship of human beings to divinity in each? Use specific examples from both stories to support your ideas.
4. Discuss the themes of Mortality, Permanence, and Fame that are all addressed in the story of Gilgamesh. Why is the fear of death so great? Why doesn’t their religion comfort them, bring them hope? Is the lesson that nothing is permanent a lesson that mortals can never learn; perhaps it’s not in our nature; perhaps it’s not a good lesson to learn? Why is it so important for Gilgamesh to achieve fame? Does this have anything to do with religion? Use specific examples from the story to support your ideas.