Vengeful goddesses. Rad bromances. Quests for eternal life. Sex, sex, and more sex…
Sounds like The CW, right? Instead, it’s what is likely the earliest surviving piece of literature we have: the Epic of Gilgamesh.
First written in the 18th century BCE, and composed in its present form probably sometime in the 13th century BCE, Gilgamesh was lost to us until 1853, when its tablets were discovered in Ninevah.
That’s right: tablets. Ancient Mesopotamian texts were inscribed by a wedge-shaped stylus onto wet clay tablets. (Bring that out the next time someone starts up the paper vs digital book argument.) And a good thing, too: had the epic been inscribed on parchment, it would be long gone.
But while the text itself was lost to us for millennia, the story left its traces behind. Once the Epic of Gilgamesh was discovered, we could see its fingerprints all over ancient myth and literature, from the Book of Genesis to the Illiad.
As I said, Gilgamesh was inscribed into tablets by wedge-shaped tools. Because of this triangular shape, the form of writing is called cuneiform and was used to record several languages, including Assyrian and Akkadian.
Gilgamesh was most likely a historical king who ruled over the Sumerian city of Uruk in the 27th century BCE. But we have no idea, beyond this basic fact, what the overlap between the historical figure and the mythological one was. Nearly six-thousand years has all but erased his true history.
But the legend survived. The Epic of Gilgamesh tells of a young king who behaved as a tyrant, abusing his people to such an extent that they prayed to their gods for help. That help came in the form of a man, Enkidu, who was strong enough to be Gilgamesh’s match. When they met, they fought, and when Gilgamesh bested Enkidu, they became best of friends. And quite possibly more. Together, they start to cause so much trouble that Ishtar makes them her personal target and the gods decree that one of them must die.
That lot falls to Enkidu. Gilgamesh is so overwhelmed by the loss of his friend that he abandons his kingdom and goes on a quest to find a way to live forever. He does this by consulting the oldest man in the world, Utnapishtim. Utnapishtim had been granted immortality by the gods after surviving a flood that wiped out the rest of humanity. On a boat. With a bunch of animals.
It all sounds familiar; doesn’t it? Over the next few months, we’ll trace through the Epic of Gilgamesh and see what threads we can find there that connect us to such disparate works as Star Trek and the Book of Daniel.
Lesson Number One: Wheaton’s Law really is the oldest one on the books.