1. Sumerian king of the Early Dynastic period who appears in the Sumerian King List as a king of Uruk. There is as yet no contemporary evidence for his reign, but Gilgamesh is mentioned among the deified rulers in the Shuruppak tablets from the 25th century B.C.
   2. Eponymous hero of several Mesopotamian literary compositions, the best known of which is the Epic of Gilgamesh (see below). One Sumerian narrative that was not incorporated into the epic concerns Gilgamesh’s fight against Agga of Kish, whose historicity is assured by a short inscription on a vase discovered at Kish.
   The forerunners to the epic are preserved in four Sumerian versions:
• “Gilgamesh and the Land of the Living” describes the journey Gilgamesh undertakes with his servant Enkidu. They go to the Cedar Forest, which is sacred to the god Enlil and protected by a demonic creature called Huwawa. The heroes cut down the cedar trees and kill the captured Huwawa.
• “Gilgamesh and the Bull of Heaven” is preserved only on fragments. The goddess Inanna proposes marriage to Gilgamesh. When he rejects her offer, she sends the mighty Bull of Heaven to avenge the insult, but the beast is killed by Gilgamesh.
• “Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Netherworld” begins with an account of the sacred huluppu tree that Inanna had planted in her garden at Uruk. She wants to use its wood to fashion a bed and a throne but is unable to fell the tree. Gilgamesh manages to drive out its demonic squatters (a snake, a lion-headed eagle, and a female demon), and as a token of gratitude the goddess gives him two magical objects made from the timber. These objects happen to fall into the underworld, and Gilgamesh’s servant Enkidu offers to descend in order to retrieve them. He is given detailed advice on how to behave in the underworld, but he fails to adhere to it and is therefore doomed to remain there forever. Gilgamesh manages to persuade the god Enki to summon the shadow of his servant, who tells him of the conditions in the underworld. Those who have many sons fare well, but those whose bodies lie unburied have no rest (see FUNERARY AND BURIAL PRACTICES).
• “The Death of Gilgamesh” is very fragmentary, and it is not clear whether Gilgamesh’s or Enkidu’s death is described. The oldest version of the Epic of Gilgamesh dated from the Old Babylonian period. Numerous fragments and excerpts from later periods have been discovered in many different parts of the Near East, from Palestine to Anatolia. The most extensive source is the so-called
   Ninevite version, discovered in the library of Ashurbanipal’s royal palace. It contains some 1,500 lines and is divided into 12 tablets. Most of the themes of the Sumerian versions (except for the Agga of Kish story) have been worked into the epic, as well as other narratives, most notably that of the flood. Gilgamesh is portrayed as two-thirds man and one-third god, endowed with supernatural strength. He so oppresses the citizens of Uruk that they pray to the sky god Anu to help them. Anu responds by ordering the mother goddess to create Enkidu, a wild man who roams the uncultivated lands in the steppe, where he runs with the animals and frees them from the hunter’s traps. News of this strange and entirely hairy being is brought to Gilgamesh, who sends a prostitute to charm him. Her mission is successful; after a week of ardent love-making, Enkidu tastes human food and finds himself alienated from his former companions, the animals of the steppe. He follows her to Uruk, where he meets Gilgamesh, who had portentous dreams about him. After a bout of wrestling, they become the best of friends. Then follows the story of the expedition into the Cedar Forest, more or less as told in the Sumerian narrative of the Land of the Living, where they cut down the cedars and kill the demon Humbaba ({{}}Huwawa).
   When they return in triumph to Uruk, the goddess Ishtar appears and invites Gilgamesh to become her consort. As in the Sumerian tale, he rejects her offer with frivolous taunts. The Bull of Heaven, sent down to avenge her wounded pride, is killed by the heroes. Enkidu now falls sick and dies, which deeply affects Gilgamesh: he is so overcome with grief and fear of his own death that he renounces the exercise of kingship.
   Dressed only in a lion skin, he roams the wilderness, hoping to find Utnapishtim, the man who survived the flood and whom the gods had granted eternal life. He passes mountains and strange lands and eventually arrives at a garden of precious stones, where the ale-wife Siduri lives. He tells his story, and although she advises him to abandon his futile quest and enjoy the simple pleasures of human life, she tells him how to proceed.
   Gilgamesh arrives at the river, where he finds a ferryman who after some pleading agrees to ferry him across. Utnapishtim then tells him the story of the flood, which only he and his wife survived. He puts Gilgamesh to a test to refrain from sleep for seven nights. The hero falls fast asleep. Utnapishtim gives him clothes that won’t wear out, and Gilgamesh decides to return to Uruk, accompanied by the ferryman. As a final gift, Utnapishtim presents them with a plant that makes the old young again. It so happens that a passing serpent eats the plant, shedding its skin as it slithers away. With empty hands Gilgamesh returns to Uruk. He makes the ferryman climb the ramparts of the city and surveys his domain. The 12th tablet adds the story of the encounter between Gilgamesh and the spirit of Enkidu, who tells him about conditions in the underworld.

Historical Dictionary of Mesopotamia. . 2012.

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