3. Gilgamesh — literary introduction

Ancient Versions

Separate poems or songs about Gilgamesh were first written in Sumerian, and several of these have been discovered. These songs were probably performed for the entertainment of the king and his guests at the royal court. The material for the poems or songs was probably based on ancient traditions about Gilgamesh that had been passed on for generations. No doubt the oral versions of stories about the famous king continued to circulate throughout the time when the poems were written down.

Ancient Babylonian scribes translated the Sumerian poems into their own language, the Old Babylonian dialect of Akkadian. At some point the poems were joined in a regular order producing the first version of the epic. It became known as the “Cycle of Gilgamesh.” Several tablets of this Old Babylonian have been discovered.

The Standard Version

Ancient scribes who copied cuneiform documents usually gave their name at the end. Sin-leqi-unninni, who produced what became the official standard version, was evidently not just a scribe but an author. Scribes who copied his work included his name as the author with their names as scribes.

Sin-leqi-unninni added the prologue in tablet I, the visit with the survivor of the flood, all of tablet XII, and a few scenes to the old epic. He followed the old stories but composed them in poetic Babylonian. His additions transformed the old epic from an entertaining tale to a serious meditation on the meaning and purpose of life. Thus, he was more than a translator, editor, or scribe. Like all authors of epic literature, he used old material to create his own poem with a unique meaning.

A new critical edition of the Standard Babylonian version was published in 2003 by A. R. George. It includes transcriptions of the cuneiform text, introductions, a translation, and commentaries. This magnificent edition will undoubtedly prompt renewed study of the epic, and the next decade will likely see new translations in English. The editor of our textbook, the Norton Critical Edition, mentions that he was given advanced access to George’s work in preparing his own translation.

English Editions

There have been many translations of the Gilgamesh epic, in English and other languages, since its discovery in the 1800s. George Smith discovered the story among Akkadian tablets that had been excavated and archived. He was first struck by the story of the flood in tablet 11, and translated it in 1880 as The Chaldean Account of Genesis. John Gardner, a notable American writer of fiction and criticism, consulted with Assyriologists to create a new translation, with helpful notes and introductions. It was published posthumously (after Gardner’s death in a motorcycle accident) in 1982. Other recent English versions available on the internet are mentioned below.

On Translating

Translating any poetry is an art. Translating ancient poetry, especially from a lost civilization and language like Akkadian, presents special difficulties. Translations range from scholarly, literal versions to poetic literary renditions. The basic problem is this:

Does the translator try to produce an accurate English word or phrase for each word or phrase in the original, or does the translator seek to provide a version that will give some of the poetic feeling of the original?

How can poetic features such as alliteration and word plays be reproduced without distorting the meaning?

Another issue deals with problems in the text. What does the translator do when words are blurred or when portions are omitted (as when part of a clay tablet is broken)? Does the translator indicate all these difficulties with brackets, ellipsis marks, and footnotes? Or is it better to produce a clean readable text without technical distractions? If the latter course is chosen, does the translator try to compose appropriate words for the missing or obscure original?

Here is one simple example of a translation problem. The opening line of the Standard Babylonian version of Gilgamesh (which was considered the ancient title) in Akkadian is ša naqba imuru, “He who saw the Deep.”

The word “naqba” which means “the deep” can refer to a well or a hole in the ground. Since Gilgamesh was associated with the underworld, however, some believe that is what naqba refers to.

Should it then be translated “the underworld,” “the Netherworld,” “the grave,” or even “hell”? Some translators choose one of these words, others stick with a literal “the deep.”

Another issue in translation deals with matters such as sexual descriptions (i.e., Enkidu’s introduction to Samhitu, the prostitute).

Should a translator use euphemisms, clinical language, or vulgar terms from the English vocabulary?

One part of the issue is the meaning of the original. Would the language have been offensive or shocking to the original readers? Were other terms available to the author? A different issue is the sensibilities of modern readers. Should translators use restraint even if the original is fairly explicit? The Norton Critical Edition uses restrained language, but some modern versions do not.

A less important but potentially confusing issue is the spelling of ancient names. There were variations even in the original. Gilgamesh is actually Bilgamesh in Sumerian, but in Akkadian it was sometimes written Gishgamish and sometimes Gilgamesh. The monster Humbaba is also spelled Huwawa. Other words have sounds with no exact equivalent in English, or sounds that are spelled differently in English. For example, in English ‘q’ is not used without a following ‘u,’ but we find Akkadian words like Naqba. The sound ‘sh’ in Akkadian is one consonant, sometimes represented by š. Should the hero’s name be spelled Gil-ga-meš? Some translators may vary the spelling of the names.

The translation in the Norton Critical Edition is fairly literal. You will notice that it indicates where words or passages are missing in the cuneiform tablets. Others are more poetic. Read the online essay on translating listed below, then compare a few passages from the Norton Critical Edition with the two other translations listed.

Literary Features:

As you read the Gilgamesh Epic, pay attention to the following literary features. It may be helpful to take notes as you read. Also, you may use the Message Board to interact with the instructors and other students regarding questions or insights you may have.


The Standard Babylonian version was carefully composed. It consisted of twelve tablets, each divided into six columns. The twelve tablets correspond somewhat to our idea of chapters; and the columns often reflect logical transitions or separate scenes and episodes.

Tablet twelve is an appendix or epilogue added by Sin-leqi-unninni. It is not a fresh composition by him but a fairly literal translation of the Sumerian Poem, Enkidu and the Netherworld. In many ways, it does not fit into the plot of the main story, and is considered somewhat of a puzzle to many scholars. The Norton Critical Edition does not include tablet Twelve, but it does provide a translation of the Sumerian poem. You should read this and form your own judgment as to whether it belongs. Sin-leqi-unninni evidently considered it essential in some way to the theme he wished to portray.

Without the epilogue, tablet Six forms the center and turning point of the story, with five tablets leading up to it, and five more following it. The composition thus has a symmetry and balance. Note also how themes and passages introduced in tablet One are repeated in tablet Eleven.


The Standard Babylonian Version transformed the Old Babylonian series of heroic episodes into a story of human transformation. Gilgamesh embarks not only on a series of heroic exploits but also in a journey of self-discovery. He seeks immortality but gains wisdom instead. Gilgamesh is also transformed from a narcissistic, tyrannical king into a human being. You may find plot summaries helpful, both as pre-reading preparation and as review for quizzes and tests; but don’t substitute them for actually reading the text. Pay attention to how details and the language advance the plot.


Notice how the characters are portrayed and how they change or develop. In addition to the major characters Gilgamesh and Enkidu, notice the roles of the goddesses Ishtar and Ninsun, the flood survivor Utnapishtim, and the woman Samhat. Consider also unnamed minor characters, for example the victims of Gilgamesh’s oppressions at the beginning of the story. Ask yourself whether and why you feel sympathetic to the characters. Notice their emotions, their motivations, and their roles. Also remember that readers of ancient literature (or rather, listeners to ancient stories) had different expectations than modern readers. In what ways are character development and portrayal different in Gilgamesh than in modern literature?


Get acquainted with the various gods and monsters introduced in the story. Ask yourself what they would have meant to ancient readers. Think of the role mythology had to the ancient Babylonians in explaining and ordering their world, in helping them make sense of life, and in justifying and maintaining the social order.

Social World

As you read the story of Gilgamesh, remember that you are entering the world of the ancient Babylonians and Sumerians. Try to imagine what life was like for a Babylonian king or peasant, a young man, or woman. Observe details of daily life, social roles, values, and activities. Notice also how aspects of ancient social life are questioned, subverted, or transformed in the story.

One area where geography, daily life, the social world, and religion, myth, and ritual intersect is in the area of funerals and observances for the dead. Think of the importance of water in a dry, hot place like Iraq. If the Babylonians believed that life in the underworld was in some ways similar to the present life, can you understand the importance of bringing water to one’s dead ancestors buried beneath the earth? Pouring water on the ground at the graves of one’s ancestors was more than a symbolic ritual, it was meeting an essential need. Notice also the difference in the way funerals were celebrated. Why were wrestling contests an important part of funeral celebrations?

Imagery, symbols, metaphors

All literature uses imagery and symbolism to communicate ideas and emotions. Again, try to remember you are entering an ancient world: learn to appreciate the imagery that is unfamiliar to us. Try to expand your imagination. For example, what desirable qualities would a “wild cow” represent in the goddess Ninsun? Why would Ninsun be an appropriate mother for the Hero Gilgamesh? Why would the morning and evening star (known to us as the planet Venus) represent the goddess of love? Why is the goddess of love also the goddess of destruction?


The meaning of human life is the essential theme of the Gilgamesh epic. Gilgamesh at the beginning of the story is not concerned with such questions; he is a self-absorbed, juvenile, hedonistic bully. What would it take to get such a man to begin asking human questions? Neither Gilgamesh nor Enkidu is fully human when the story begins. Gilgamesh is too absorbed with exercising the privileges of his status in civilization; Enkidu is too wild.

When Gilgamesh is confonted with the problem of death, he begins a quest for immortality. If he learns that immortality is unobtainable, what is left? The answer is hinted in the prologue–leaving behind something that will last for generations: the walls of a city, a story that will continue to be told. In the epilogue another answer is added to the list: the importance of leaving behind children to honor and provide for a person after death.

Another interesting theme is civilization: Gilgamesh’s role in building the walls of the city, Enkidu’s transformation from wild man to civilized city dweller. Yet, civilization comes at a cost. The King who makes the city great oppresses its citizens, the newly civilized Enkidu looses his connection with nature; his animal friends now fear and flee him. It is interesting to compare Genesis 2 and 9 in this connection. In Genesis, the loss of friendship with the animals is clearly a fall from God’s original intention, to be remedied when the Kingdom of God is realized; see Isaiah 11. The text of Gilgamesh does not clearly indicated this note of sadness, and it may be reading biblical or modern sensibilities into the text to see the transformation of Enkidu into a mixed blessing.


Cuneiform literacy was confined to royalty and professional scribes. The scribal art was a trade or craft, often passed on from father to son (or uncle to nephew). Schools were part of the family business. More people heard stories such as Gilgamesh read or “performed” than read them on clay tablets.

Such performances were part of the king’s entertainment, and there may have been festivals for the general public as well. In addition, we can imagine stories being told around the campfires, or at children’s bedsides.

The Sound of Akkadian Poetry?

The public performances were the work of professional singers and were accompanied by musical instruments. Some of the repetition in the poem may be a feature of ancient singing, just as we repeat choruses in songs. Unfortunately, there were no tape recorders or MP3 players in ancient Babylon, so we are left to our imagination (possibly inspired by traditional musical forms that survive in the middle east). But imagination is an important part of reading, and the musical interpretation mentioned below might be helpful.

The phonetics of Akkadian are fairly well established and linguists know pretty accurately how the language was spoken. I don’t know of any recordings of ancient Akkadian poetry, but middle eastern scholars trained in Akkadian (for example Iraqi archeologists and directors of antiquities, if there are any who have survived the war and insurgency) could do a pretty faithful job of reading the poetry.

Look at “A Sample of Akkadian Poetry” and try reading a few lines out loud (you might try lines 7-14).

A Sample of Akkadian Poetry: Gilgamesh I:1-14

1 ša naqba imuru išdi maati

2 ——-ti idu u kalamu haassu

3 Gilgamesh

ša naqba imuru išdi maati

4 ——-ti idu u kalamu haassu

5 —ma mithariš pa-

6 naphar nemeqi ša kalaami ihuz

7 nisirta imurma katimti iptu

8 ubla teema ša laam abubi

9 urha ruqta illikamma aniih

u šupšuuh

10 šakin ina nare kalu manaahti

11 upišu dura ša uruk supuri

12 ša eanna qudduši šutummi ellim

13 amur duuršu ša kima qee niipšu

14 itaplaas sametašu ša la umaššalu mamma

(Adapted from A. R. George, vol. 1:538-539; with minor modifications in the translation and a simplified transliteration of the Akkadian text.)

Who saw the Deep, the foundation of the country,

who knew . . ., was wise in all!


who saw the Deep, the foundation of the country,

who knew . . ., was wise in all!

. . . equally . . .

he learned the totality of wisdom about all.

He saw the secret and uncovered the hidden,

he brought back a message from before the flood.

He came a distant road and was weary

but was granted rest,

he set down on a stele all his labors.

He built the wall of Uruk-of-the-Sheepfold,

of holy Eanna, the pure storehouse.

See its wall which is like a strand of wool,

view its parapet which no one can replicate.


Read the web page on translating Gilgamesh at www.mythome.org/epictranslation.html. Click on the link Explaining Translation

For alternate English translations, go to lexicorient.com/e.o/. Select “Gilgamesh” from the list of topics on the left. Select Read Full Text for an alternate translation of each tablet. (You might also find the plot summaries for each tablet helpful.)

A version by Kenneth Sublett is found at www.piney-2.com/Gil01.html

A musical interpretation of Gilgamesh by Tony Garone is available at www.garone.net/tony/gilgamesh.html. A CD is available for purchase, but you can download two songs, “Uruk” and “The Bull of Heaven” for free. Click on MP3s. Play the song Uruk as you read the opening lines of the Epic.


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