Historians know little about the semi-legendary (well, almost completely legendary) Gilgamesh. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, considered the first great work of literature, carved in cuneiform on clay tablets some four thousand years ago, he is a demigod of superhuman strength who happens to be king of the city-state Uruk in the Sumerian civilization. Using those big muscles, he built the high walls of Uruk to defend his beloved people against barbarian incursions. He also put them to use constructing ziggurats scattered about the countryside.
It is generally accepted now that Gilgamesh actually did live and rule in ancient Mesopotamia. There are passing references to him (or at least to names very similar) in a number of non-cuneiform texts that have survived more-or-less intact. In a scroll found at Qumran known as the Book of Giants (c. 100 BC), Gilgamesh appears in the form of one of the antediluvian kings. In a Greek work by the Roman Aelian penned around 200 AD, he is mentioned as the successor to an ancient king of Babylon. Theodore Bar Konai, writing around 800 AD, lists Gilgamesh as last of the twelve kings contemporary with the Jewish patriarch Abraham. And fragments of a text found in the Tell Haddad digs relate that the dead Gilgamesh was buried in the riverbed of the diverted Euphrates by his worshipful Uruk subjects.
And that’s about it for historical evidence of Gilgamesh’s life. So, back to legend, which is much more entertaining...
In the Sumerian tale “Inanna and the Huluppu Tree,” the goddess replants a huluppa tree that had been uprooted in a great storm in her sacred grove near Uruk. She planned for it to grow to the point where she could use it to fashion a chair and a bed. However, the poor tree was beset by a snake “which feared no spell” at its roots, a malevolent female spirit (lilitu) in its trunk, and in its branches the monstrous Anzu bird, which could breathe fire and water. Inanna appealed to her brother the sun god for help in ridding her tree of these pests, but he refused. The mighty Gilgamesh did not, and when he smote the snake, the others fled. Inanna got her bed.
In another tale, repeated in the Epic, Ishtar – fittingly goddess of love and war – upon seeing the hunky Gilgamesh cleaned up and with his hair tied back is overcome with lust. She pleads with Gilgamesh to become her husband, and promises him a “harvest of riches" in return. But Gilgamesh refuses to be her plaything, and she is so angered that she prevails upon her parents Anu and Antum to let her unleash the “Bull of Heaven” so it can gore the demigod to death. All Uruk trembles as the bull comes down bellowing and snorting; hundreds die as the Earth cracks under its hooves. Gilgamesh’s “companion” Enkidu attacks the bull, and Gilgamesh soon joins him. Together they slay the beast. Ishtar, meanwhile, has climbed upon the famous walls of the city and shouts curses at the warriors but flees when threatened by Gilgamesh. While Ishtar and her followers mourn the bull (and Ishtar tries to figure out what she’ll tell her folks), Gilgamesh basks in his people’s adulation.
And then there’s the story of Gilgamesh and the Netherworld. This one opens with Gilgamesh complaining to Enkidu that one of his possessions (exactly what isn’t clear: in one translation a drum, in another a ball – giving some idea of what was important in the childhood of the Earth) has fallen into the underworld. Enkidu volunteers to retrieve it. Delighted that someone else is going to take responsibility for his carelessness, Gilgamesh explains at length what his friend must not do down in the underworld if he is to return. He, of course, does all those things. And so Enkidu is stuck, until Gilgamesh convinces the gods Enki and Shamash to open a crack in the ground. Out jumps his friend’s ghost. But not for long.
In the Epic, stricken by grief over the loss of Enkidu and pondering his own mortality, Gilgamesh travels to meet his ancestor, the sage Utnapishtim who had abandoned his worldly possessions and built a large ship, so surviving the Great Deluge. The old man advises Gilgamesh to abandon his quest for immortality but does inform him of a rare plant that will make the king young again. Gilgamesh finally manages to obtain this plant from the bottom of a river where it grows, but a snake steals it. As the serpent slithers away it sheds its skin and so becomes young again. Disheartened, the king returns to his home.
Nevertheless, Gilgamesh – according to the ancient Sumerian King List – lived to the age of 126 years. Not a bad span even by modern standards, and truly spectacular in an age of famine, war, filth and disease when the merest sniffle could kill. To fill these long years of surviving, Gilgamesh and his son and successor Ur-Nungal rebuilt the temple of the goddess Ninlil in the holy city of Nippur, just down the river from Uruk.
Back to fact... well, maybe. In 2003 AD, a German team of archaeologists claimed to have found the tomb of Gilgamesh, in what was once the riverbed of the Euphrates, buried under the sand of the Iraqi desert. Magnetic imaging equipment, supposedly refined enough to tell the difference between dried sediment and ancient mudbricks, showed garden enclosures, buildings and walls of a palace that includes the demigod’s burial chamber. Military actions since have prevented any attempt at excavation, but it is a fervent hope for all that someday archeologists will dig up mighty Gilgamesh’s bones.