Classic Court

The Beginnings of Literature: The Epic of Gilgamesh

Neo-Assyrian, from Nineveh, northern Iraq, Tablet Relating Part of the Epic of Gilgamesh (The Flood Tablet). Clay, 7th century BCE. The British Museum, London. © Trustees of the British Museum

Written around 2000 BCE by an anonymous author in ancient Sumer, the Epic of Gilgamesh survives today as one of the earliest works of literature. Adapted and re-told by subsequent Mesopotamian cultures, the epic has had a huge influence on the development of literature with its universal themes of friendship, the struggle with mortality, and the unpredictable nature of the gods. Parallels can be found in the Greek Homeric epics The Odyssey and The Iliad, the stories of the demi-god Herakles, and the Hebrew Bible (story of the Flood)—even in modern literature such as The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter novels.

Neo-Assyrian, Impression from The Gilgamesh Cylinder Seal: Gilgamesh and Enkidu Slaying the Bull of Heaven. Seal: brown agate, 7th century BCE. The Schøyen Collection.

The tale begins with the unlikely friendship between Gilgamesh (the tyrannical king of Uruk) and Enkidu (the wild man created by the gods to oppose Gilgamesh). When Enkidu is killed on one of their journeys, Gilgamesh is heartbroken and harrowed by the concept of death. He sets off on a quest to find the survivor of the Great Flood, Utnapishtim, and unlock the secret to immortality. Ultimately unsuccessful, Gilgamesh returns home to Uruk and has his story written down, finally attaining his immortality through a fame that continues today.