Gilgamesh

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Gilgamesh

(gĭl`gəmĕsh), in Babylonian legend, king of UrukUruk
or Erech
, ancient Sumerian city of Mesopotamia, on the Euphrates and NW of Ur (in present-day S Iraq). It is the modern Tall al Warka. Uruk, dating from the 5th millennium B.C., was the largest city in S Mesopotamia and an important religious center.
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. He is the hero of the Gilgamesh epic, a work of some 3,000 lines, written on 12 tablets c.2000 B.C. and discovered among the ruins at Nineveh. The epic was lost when the the library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal was destroyed in 612 B.C. The library's remains were excavated by British archaeologists in the mid-19th cent., the tablets were discovered, and the epic's cuneiform text was translated by British scholars. It tells of the adventures of the warlike and imperious Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu. When Enkidu suddenly sickened and died, Gilgamesh became obsessed by a fear of death. His ancestor Ut-napishtim (who with his wife had been the only survivor of a great flood) told him of a plant that gave eternal life. After obtaining the plant, however, Gilgamesh left it unguarded and a serpent carried it off. The hero then turned to the ghost of Enkidu for consoling knowledge of the afterlife, only to be told by his friend that a gloomy future awaited the dead.

Bibliography

See verse translations by H. Mason (1970), D. Ferry (1993), and S. Mitchell (2007); prose translation by N. K. Sandars (1960); A. Heidel, Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels (2d ed. 1949); D. Damrosch, The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh (2007); T. Ziolkowski, Gilgamesh among Us: Modern Encounters with the Ancient Epic (2011).

Enlarge picture
A Babylonian relief of God pursuing the demon Gilgamesh. Reproduced by permission of Fortean Picture Library.

Gilgamesh

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Gilgamesh, asteroid 1,812 (the 1,812th asteroid to be discovered, on September 24, 1960), is approximately 14 kilometers in diameter and has an orbital period of 5.2 years. It was named after the Sumerian hero of the Gilgamesh epic. Gilgamesh was a king of Uruk who, after his best friend died, embarked on an unsuccessful quest for immortality. The asteroid represents an interest in death and physical immortality. The sign and house position of Gilgamesh in a natal chart indicates how this interest manifested. If prominent in a chart (e.g., conjunct the Sun or the ascendant), it may show a person for whom this interest is a major life theme.

Sources:

Kowal, Charles T. Asteroids: Their Nature and Utilization. Chichester, West Sussex, UK: Ellis Horwood Limited, 1988.
Room, Adrian. Dictionary of Astronomical Names. London: Routledge, 1988.
Schwartz, Jacob. Asteroid Name Encyclopedia. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 1995.

Gilgamesh

 

the semilegendary ruler of the city of Uruk in Sumer (2800 B.C.).

Sumerian epic songs about Gilgamesh arose in the third millennium B.C. and have survived to our time. At the turn of the second millennium, a major epic poem on Gilgamesh was created in the Akkadian (Assyro-Babylonian) language. It describes the friendship of Gilgamesh with the wild man Enkidu, Gilgamesh’s despair after his friend’s death, his wanderings in search of the secret of immortality, his visit to his ancestor Utnapishtim, who had survived the flood, and so forth. The Gilgamesh legend was also widespread among the Hetts, Hurrites, Palestinians, and other peoples. The best-known version, from the early first millennium B.C., is from Nineveh.

PUBLICATIONS

Epos o Gil’ gameshe (“O vsë vidavshem”). Moscow-Leningrad, 1961. (Translated from Akkadian.)
“Shumerskii geroicheskii epos.” Vestnik drevnei istorii, 1964, no. 3.

I. M. D’IAKONOV

Gilgamesh

(dreams)

Humanity made the transition from tribal lifestyles to the more complex forms of social organization we call civilization along four great river basins—in China, India, Egypt, and the Middle East. The Middle Eastern basin, which runs along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is now modern Iraq, hosted a series of sequentially related civilizations that together are referred to as Mesopotamia. It is the oldest of the four early sites of civilization, predating the high culture of Egypt by thousands of years.

The Mesopotamians wrote on clay tablets, many of which have survived to the present. This ancient literature contains, among other compositions, The Epic of Gilgamesh. Humankind’s oldest recorded hero tale (dating from at least 2000 B.C.E.), the epic is built around Gilgamesh’s quest for immortality and is full of dream accounts. A legendary king who ruled the city-state of Uruk around 2600 B.C.E., Gilgamesh was said to be the son of the goddess Ninsun and the king Lugalbanda. His divine heritage on his mother’s side, however, did not exempt him from mortality.

The first part of the epic relates the events leading up to Gilgamesh’s meeting with a man named Enkidu, beginning with Gilgamesh’s dream predicting that he would find a friend whom he would “embrace as a wife.” Because the dream message was expressed in symbols, Gilgamesh sought out his mother, who interpreted the dream for him. Enkidu, who began life as a naked wild man, is eventually tamed and becomes Gilgamesh’s best friend. Together they travel off and slay Humbaba, the giant of the pine forest. On the way to the forest, Gilgamesh has what he feels may be an inauspicious dream, but Enkidu interprets it for him so that it indicates a favorable outcome to their quest.

Gilgamesh triumphs over Humbaba and is so attractive that the goddess of love herself, Ishtar, proposes that she and the young king become lovers. Gilgamesh responds by recounting the bad ends her partners have met and rejects her proposal. Ishtar is so upset that she persuades the Bull of Heaven to come down from the sky and punish Uruk. Gilgamesh and Enkidu, however, make short work of the bull.

Unfortunately, slaying the Bull of Heaven evokes the ire of the gods, who decide that one of the two friends must die as punishment. They choose Enkidu for this unpleasant fate, and he sickens and eventually dies. (Before falling ill, Enkidu has an omen dream in which he learns that he has been chosen to die.) Gilgamesh is distraught by the death of his best friend, but he also begins to consider his own mortality. In Mesopotamian thought, the gods constructed humans out of clay to be their servants on earth. Pragmatists, they did not bother to include an immortal soul as part of the package. What afterlife there was was a pale shadow of earthly life, much like the Jewish Sheol or the early Greek Hades. Before he dies, Enkidu dreams about the other world, and offers the following description: “There is the house whose people sit in darkness: dust is their food and clay their meat. They are clothed like birds with wings for covering, they see no light, they sit in darkness. I entered the house of dust and I saw the kings of the earth, their crowns put away forever….” (Sandars, p. 92—see Sources). Like other cultures that buried the dead in the ground, the Mesopotamians conceived of the otherworld as being a dark, dusty, unpleasant underworld.

With this frightful prospect before him, Gilgamesh resolves to set out on a quest for immortality. He has heard that the mortal man Utnapishtim, the Mesopotamian equivalent of the Bible’s Noah, was granted immortality by the gods. To discover how Utnapishtim obtained such a favor, Gilgamesh undertakes an arduous journey.

When he finally arrives, Utnapishtim relates how the gods, in a fit of anger, destroyed all of humankind in a great flood. Only the wise divinity Ea had the foresight to warn Utnapishtim, who built a great boat in which he and his family survived. The gods quickly realized the error of their ways, but only after the fact. Human beings “feed” the gods, and, without them, celestial beings will starve. Utnapishtim, however, was able to make the appropriate offerings, and the gods were able to eat. Out of gratitude, they granted immortality to him and his wife.

As for Gilgamesh, Utnapishtim requires that, as a test to determine his worthiness for immortality, he stay awake for a week. Gilgamesh promptly fails the test and, instead, sleeps for a week. Good host that he is, however, Utnapishtim gives Gilgamesh a “consolation prize,” namely, a plant with the powers of rejuvenation (the next best thing to immortality). Unfortunately, on the journey back a snake eats the plant, so Gilgamesh arrives home empty-handed.

As reflected in the Gilgamesh, dreams were highly regarded in ancient Mesopotamia as omens of the future. Dreams were also valued as a means by which the dreamer could penetrate other realities, as when Enkidu gets a glance into the afterlife during a dream. And, finally, dreams were utilized in the Gilgamesh as a literary device, foreshadowing events that had not yet occurred.

Gilgamesh

Babylonian epic of myth and folklore, centered on the king, Gilgamesh. [Babyl. Myth.: Gilgamesh]
See: Epic