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Gilgamesh: Babylonian clay tablets older than the Bible

Gilgamesh: Babylonian clay tablets older than the Bible 1

For centuries, European students have been reading the ancient myths about Hercules and Odysseus , amazed at the exploits of the ancient heroes. Christians knew the story of the Old Testament strongman Samson, who tore lions to pieces with his bare hands. Artists wrote hundreds of canvases about these heroes, sculptors sculpted dozens of statues, but no one knew that both biblical and ancient heroes go back to the same character!

In 1849, British archaeologist Austin Henry Layard excavated the Middle East. He wanted to find evidence of the events described in the Old Testament. At that time, the Bible was believed to contain the oldest texts in the world. However, Layard’s excavations undermined this version. The stone tablets he found from the library of King Ashurbanipal in Nineveh turned out to be much older than the most ancient biblical texts.

The tablets were urgently copied and sent to England, where the best specialists of the British Museum took up the translation. It took many years, and the first more or less complete English version was ready only in 1870. The first to attract attention was the story of the global flood, which is very similar to the biblical one. In the tablets, the ancient immortal sage spoke of the flood to King Gilgamesh. The European scientific world has exploded, debating whether this event coincides with the biblical, and if so, whether it is possible to establish its date.

One of the tablets with the myths of Gilgamesh.
One of the tablets with the myths of Gilgamesh. Source: wikipedia.org

Scientists tried to establish the time of the reign of Gilgamesh first. According to archaeological sources, it was possible to find out that such a king really existed. He ruled the city of Uruk in the 3rd millennium BC. In one of the texts found during excavations, it was possible to read that Gilgamesh built the walls of Uruk. This made it possible to somewhat narrow down the estimated years of life of the legendary king, but to establish them more accurately than “between 2800-2500 BC. e. ” failed.

Sumerian mythology: a bunch of heroes with creepy names

For non-historians, the myths about Gilgamesh are interesting. And not only because of the exciting adventures of the ancient king, but also because of his similarity with other famous heroes of antiquity. Gilgamesh was a two-thirds god and a terrible tyrant, actively practicing the right of the first night and driving people to meaningless work. The subjects of the cruel king prayed to all the gods for deliverance from such a ruler, and the heavenly rulers, after consulting, created a wild man Enkidu, “equal to Gilgamesh”. This mighty “Mowgli” lived in absolute harmony with nature. He had to be tamed with the help of the priestesses of the goddess of love, whom the savage did not attack. The tamed savage was explained that he must defeat the king and showed the way to Uruk.

The messenger of the gods arrived in the city and immediately grappled with Gilgamesh. After a long battle, the king won, but, recognizing the strength of his opponent, he invited him to become his friend and assistant. Suddenly, Enkidu agreed. To celebrate, the king offered to go to perform the feat – to kill the terrible demon Humbaba. The new friend was somewhat surprised at this turn of events, but nevertheless agreed.

Enkidu is a Sumerian sculpture.
Enkidu is a Sumerian sculpture. Source: wikipedia.org

When Gilgamesh went to ask the blessings of his mother, the goddess Ninsun, she adopted Enkidu, making him the half-brother of the king himself. Having received their mother’s advice, Gilgamesh and Enkidu went to the forest where Humbaba lived. At the halt, the king had nightmares about rockfalls, terrible thunderstorms, wild bulls and giant fire-breathing birds. Enkidu optimistically interpreted them as predicting the coming success of the campaign.

Reaching the forest where Humbaba lived, the king was frightened when he saw a terrible giant, but Enkidu managed to restore his brother’s courage, and he rushed into battle. Even Gilgamesh’s strength was not enough to defeat the terrible demon. Then the god of justice and the sun, Shamash, watching what was happening, sent a hurricane to interfere with the huge Humbaba. When the king defeated the demon, he prayed for mercy, assuring him that he would become a loyal servant of Gilgamesh. Enkidu declared that he did not trust the demon and offered to finish him off, thereby strengthening his authority. And so they did.

The king, who returned with the head of a terrible monster, was honored as a hero. Even the goddess of love Ishtar became interested in Gilgamesh in every sense. But the king knew about her frivolity, so he immediately stopped all possible inclinations against him. The offended goddess went to her father, the supreme god Anu and begged him, sent the Heavenly Bull to Uruk, who set floods, trampled the fields and killed people. Gilgamesh and Enkidu defeated the monster, and without any divine help.

Gilgamesh fights the Heavenly Bull.  Sumerian bas-relief.
Gilgamesh fights the Heavenly Bull. Sumerian bas-relief. Source: wikipedia.org

This overflowed the cup of heavenly patience, and the gods decided to kill Enkidu, who did not fulfill their will. The poor man immediately fell ill, and when he realized that the gods were to blame for this, he cursed them for 12 whole days. When Enkidu passed away, Gilgamesh was so grief-stricken that he refused to believe in his brother’s death until the first larva fell from the corpse’s nose.

The king arranged a funeral of the highest order. The whole city and the inhabitants of the surrounding villages were invited to the feast, the king himself shaved his head as a sign of mourning and prepared untold riches from his treasury to bury with Enkidu. For the grave, they even blocked the river, dug the grave at the bottom, buried it, and then let the water again so that the king’s brother would rest at the bottom, where no one could get to him.

After the death of his brother, the king realized that more than anything in the world he was afraid of his own death. Gilgamesh’s new goal was the search for immortality. For this, he decided to go to Utnapishtim, whom the gods granted immortality. On his way, he met lions, of which he made new clothes for himself, met two scorpion people, whom he persuaded to let him pass in peace, and walked a mountain path where the sun had never been. So he got to the ever-flowering Garden of the Gods.

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Gilgamesh fights with lions.  Sumerian figurine.
Gilgamesh fights with lions. Sumerian figurine. Source: en. wikipedia.org

To the wanderer’s surprise, Utnapishtim looked like an ordinary person. Gilgamesh tried to find out how he achieved immortality. The long-liver said that when the gods informed him of the flood and provided everything he needed to build the ark, he escaped with his family, workers and animals. As a reward for strictly following the instructions, when the flood ended, the gods granted him and his loved ones immortality. Gilgamesh continued to insist that there was still a secret of eternal life. Then the sage suggested that the hero try not to fall asleep for six days and seven nights: after all, sleep is a small death, but how he wants to overcome death if he cannot overcome sleep. Naturally, Gilgamesh did not cope with the test.

Before parting, the wife of Utnapishtim said that she had heard about a plant that does not give immortality, but can return youth once. Delighted, Gilgamesh set off on a new quest and even managed to find a magic flower. He did not use the plant right away, but decided to return to Uruk, study the miracle flower there and prepare an elixir of youth from it. On the way back, the king wanted to swim. While he was washing, the magic flower was eaten by a snake crawling by. She rejuvenated, shedding her skin, and crawled away. In frustrated feelings, Gilgamesh returned to his native Uruk, not knowing what to do next.

An endless story is a story whose end has not been found

This broke off the text that had been engraved on eleven stone tablets found by British archaeologists. Despite the fact that the twelfth also spoke of Gilgamesh, scholars believe that this is not a continuation of the epic, but a kind of “spin-off”: Gilgamesh again meets a living and healthy Enkidu. Together they travel to the afterlife to recover something stolen from the king. But because of the lost fragments, it is very difficult to understand which part of the story this fragment belongs to.

When the epic of Gilgamesh was translated and published in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it inspired many authors of a wide variety of genres – from fantasy to historical novels. The ancient character became the hero of anime and computer games. Even in Muslim countries, this story is very popular. For example, Saddam Hussein was a great lover of stories about the great king of the ancient Mesopotamia. Probably, the mustachioed tyrant of Iraq considered himself in some way the heir of Gilgamesh – the winner of everything.

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