Between 3000 and 1000 BCE, a sophisticated urban civilization developed in a region the Greeks would later call "Mesopotamia," a belt of fertile land stretching between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The first "Mesopotamians" to construct cities were the Sumerians; they coped with the unpredictable nature of their environment by organizing complex social hierarchies in which priests and kings (the Sumerian word for king literally means "big man") provided guidance, order, and a degree of stability. The Sumerians made impressive advances in many areas: their city-states, public law codes, and advances in astronomy, mathematics, and irrigation created what many scholars believe to be the first civilization on the planet. The religious beliefs of these innovative people reflected the harsh conditions that they struggled to overcome. Their deities were vulnerable and often acted capriciously. The Sumerians embraced a pessimistic vision of the afterlife, in which the dead suffered or beleaguered the living.
The historical Gilgamesh ruled the Sumerian city of Uruk sometime around 2700 BCE. This king, or "big man," was worshipped as a semi-divine hero, and his exploits were eventually glorified in a series of tales that were first written down in cuneiform script around 2100 BCE. (The invention of cuneiform marked one of the most profound achievements of the Sumerians, who developed this form of writing primarily to record commercial transactions and religious matters.) Several versions of the poem have survived. The author of this variation, Shin-eqi-unninni, lived around 1300 BCE and wove the various tales concerning Gilgamesh into a single unified epic poem; he is, in fact, the first author in human history whose name we know.
“Supreme over other kings, lordly in appearance,
he is the hero, born of Uruk, the goring wild bull.
He walks out in front, the leader,
and walks at the rear, trusted by his companions.
Mighty net, protector of his people,
raging flood-wave who destroys even walls of stone!
Offspring of Lugalbanda, Gilgamesh is strong to perfection,
son of the august cow, Rimat-Ninsun;... Gilgamesh is awesome to perfection.
It was he, who opened the mountain passes,
who dug wells on the flank of the mountain.
It was he who crossed the ocean, the vast seas, to the rising sun,
who explored the world regions, seeking life.
It was he who reached by his own sheer strength Utanapishtim, the Faraway,
who restored the sanctuaries (or: cities) that the Flood had destroyed!
... for teeming mankind.
Who can compare with him in kingliness?
Who can say like Gilgamesh: "I am King!"?
Whose name, from the day of his birth, was called "Gilgamesh"?
Two-thirds of him is god, one-third of him is human.
The Great Goddess [Aruru] designed(?) the model for his body,
she prepared his form ...
... beautiful, handsomest of men,
He walks around in the enclosure of Uruk,
Like a wild bull he makes himself mighty, head raised (over others).
There is no rival who can raise his weapon against him.”
(Use this for questions 3 & 4)
“Come here, Gilgamesh,” Ishtar said, “marry me, and give me your luscious fruits, be my husband, be my sweet man. I will give you abundance beyond your dreams: […] When you enter my temple and its cedar fragrance, high priests will bow down and kiss your feet, kings and princes will kneel before you, bringing you tribute from east and west. And I will bless everything that you own; […] These are the least of the gifts I will shower upon you. Come here. Be my sweet man.” Gilgamesh said, “Your price is too high, such riches are beyond my means. Tell me, how could I ever repay you, even if I gave you jewels, perfumes, rich robes? And what will happen to me when your heart turns elsewhere and your lust burns out? […] “Which of your husbands did you love forever? Which could satisfy your endless desires? […] Tammuz: you loved him when you were both young, [...] You loved the shepherd, the master of the flocks, […] You loved the gardener Ishullanu, […] then you changed…And why would my fate be any different? If I too became your lover, you would treat me as cruelly as you treated them.” (The Epic of Gilgamesh, VI.7-33, 42-79.1)
Questions from Reading:
1. What do cave paintings, rock art, and The Epic of Gilgamesh tell us about ancient peoples' relationship to nature? How was nature portrayed? What are some possible interpretations of these images?
2. The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the earliest examples of non-commercial writing (i.e., writing not concerned with economic transactions). Why are non-commercial sources important for scholars of ancient societies? What kinds of information about Sumerians might a historian glean from the myth?
3. What kinds of rewards does Ishtar offer Gilgamesh in her proposal of marriage to him? Why does Gilgamesh reject Ishtar's proposal?
4. Describe the interaction between Ishtar and Gilgamesh. What does that relationship reveal about Sumerian views of the connection between the gods and humans?
5. How are gods and humans portrayed in this fragment of the poem? What divides the divine from the human?