A Glimpse of Humanity Reaching back to the Ancient Sumerians


The epic of Gilgamesh was found in the mid nineteenth century, written on over twenty five thousand clay tablets. After much studying and deciphering, this ancient Sumerian epic has finally been translated, though many of the tablets have not been found. It appears that all the most important elements of the story probably existed as separate poems when they were first written. One of the oldest pieces of literature found today, Gilgamesh is at least 1,500 years older than Homer's epics, and was probably composed and recited many years, before being written down. According to scientific data, the tablets were probably written down in the first centuries of the second millennium B.C., in Mesopotamia.

The tradition reaches back to the time of the Archaic Sumerian civilization. The Sumerians were the first literate inhabitants of Mesopotamia, so their language is found on the tablets of Gilgamesh. In some other historical material, records have been recorded about several expeditions, many ones similar to the ones taken by Gilgamesh. One example contains a man who made a path into a cedar mountain on which no one had ventured before. According to N.K. Sandars, "Behind the solid fleshly Gudea we may see the shadowy figure of Gilgamesh, a great builder of temples and cities, who ventured into strange forests and brought back precious cedarwood," (16). Even if there was no Gilgamesh, the character is not fully fictitious.

The story of the epic is mostly about the character Gilgamesh who is superior king of Uruk or summer. An extraordinary individual. He was one-third a man and two-third god. For his special abilities he was worthy to be worshiped, therefore he was able to supervise everyone around. Citizens of Uruk were unhappy with his behaviors so they asked the gods for help. The gods respond by sending a man named Enkidu, who was double Gilgamesh. Enkidu lived in the forest with animals and was so wild person. One day Gilgamesh sent a hunter and a beautiful woman to the forest, aiming to engross Enkidu from the animals. The hunter left, and Enkidu and the woman became good friends. Enkidu was turned into a man, and he left with the woman to Uruk. When Enkidu entered Uruk, the citizens there began to glorify him as if he was their king. As son as Gilgamesh heard about Enkidu entrance, he became jealous. After those two men encountered each other they began to fight. As the fight ended, each stood up, and saw themselves in the other's eyes. They embraced and immediately became friends. The two men got to know each other, and then decided to go on a quest seeking fame. Gilgamesh and Enkidu decided to challenge Humbaba, the guardian-demon of the cedar forest. Gilgamesh and Enkidu prepared for their battle against Humbaba. They went to a temple and the god Ninsun performed a ceremony for their protection. As the two heroes left for their journey, the elders of the city turn over Gilgamesh to Enkidu's care. Enkidu and Gilgamesh walked for many days towards the cedar forest. As they were walking Gilgamesh started to have some doubts. However, Enkidu reassured Gilgamesh and encouraged him. As they approached the gates of the cedar forest Enkidu started to feel afraid. This time Gilgamesh insisted on continuing the journey. The men spend a couple of nights wondering through the forest. Finally the men meet Humbaba. As the men strike, Humbaba fights for his life. Enkidu advises Gilgamesh to kill Humbaba. Gilgamesh strikes him, but Enkidu delivers the final blow. The men returned to Uruk pleased with their accomplishments. When they returned the goddess Ishtar spoke to Gilgamesh. She told him that she wanted to become friends with him. Gilgamesh insults the goddess, and refuses his offer. Ishtar is frustrated with Gilgamesh, so she asks her father Anu to send the Bull of Heaven to punish Gilgamesh. Descended from above Gilgamesh and Enkidu immediately began to fight. Much like the confrontation with Humbaba, Gilgamesh and Enkidu defeated the Bull of Heaven. The men briefly celebrated, again happy with their achievements. As Enkidu was asleep that night he had a dream. He dreamed that he was going to be punished severely for the cruel acts that Gilgamesh and he had committed against Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven. The next day Enkidu became extremely sick. Enkidu was slowly dying, but Gilgamesh stood by his side. Gilgamesh supported Enkidu, and was with him every moment of his suffering. Finally, Enkidu dies due to the strange sickness. Gilgamesh was very sad about the death of his friend. He grieved many days afterwards. At the funeral Gilgamesh recounts the wonderful experiences he had with Enkidu, and greatly praises his friend. Gilgamesh dedicates a statue in Enkidu's memory as well as performs a ritual for Enkidu to have a good afterlife. As time proceeds, Gilgamesh becomes scared of his own death. He decides that he is going to take a trip to visit Utnapishtim, a man who is undying. Gilgamesh begins his journey to visit this man, a journey that no man has ever made. As he is traveling, he passes through the Garden of the Gods. He also meets a woman named Siduri. She informs Gilgamesh that the journey is very dangerous and again tells him that no man has ever made the journey. Regardless, Gilgamesh continues on the journey. After a brief amount of time Gilgamesh comes upon the waters of death. At first he is skeptical in being able to cross the waters, however he bargains with the boatman, Urshanabi, who takes Gilgamesh across the waters. Gilgamesh finally meets Utnapishtim. He speaks with him questioning death. Utnapishtim responds by giving Gilgamesh the answer he does not want; he informs Gilgamesh that every man must die, and life is not permanent. Utnapishtim then challenges Gilgamesh to stay awake for six days and seven nights. Gilgamesh fails this challenge, resulting in his having to go home. As he is leaving Utnapishtim gives Gilgamesh a plant called "The-Old-Man-Will-Be-Made-Young". Gilgamesh secures it well, but then loses it when a snake takes it away. Gilgamesh returns home knowing that every man is some day taken from the natural world, and experience the spirits of afterlife.

Who are the Sumerians? Among the earliest civilizations, there was a diverse group of people in the fertile valleys between the Tigris and Euphrates valley called the Mesopotamia. These were known as the Sumerians. The Sumerian civilization has left us with an enduring portrait of their society, philosophy, government, religion, and daily life. Summer was located in the Mesopotamia. Early settlements included Uruk, Ur, and Eridu. They all started as independent cities and then became city-states. The land was rich, but was hard in the summer time. In spring, the rivers would flood and irrigate the fields. The riverbed was unstable and would flood at unexpected times. The river would carry silt down stream, which would help fertilize the land around it. The land was one in which there were few stones or rocks.

The Sumerians had an extremely hot climate. There was little to no rain throughout the winter months. The average summer temperature was about 94 degrees. However, the Sumerians used the climate to their advantage. For instance, they would use irrigation systems to produce a more abundant crop.

The Sumerians developed one of the first systems of monarchy. An individual that was considered to be a priest-king ruled each city-state. He was in charge of leading the military, administering trade, and helping with religious ceremonies. Bureaucrats who surveyed the land aided him. A council of elders ruled each city. Each army was lead by a selected individual called a lugal. Over time, the lugals took over and established dynasties. To record their courts of justice files, they used clay tablets. One clay tablet even recorded the oldest murder trial in history.

The Sumerians believed in justice and mercy, law and order and an organized system of laws. The elders in each city-state generally made the laws. The king was responsible for all law and justice. However, the enis was in charge of carrying out the laws. The courts had a specific order in which things were completed. The written laws were actually some of summer's main legal documents. Sumerians believed that law and justice should be followed. There was no clear punishment for any given crime. The punishment was actually left up to the judge.

Some common Sumerian laws include:

Marriages- were arranged by law. The marriage license was usually inscribed onto a clay tablet. Divorce was common because husbands were allowed to have more than one wife if their first wife had no children. Children could be adopted. The women were able to have rights after being married. They were able to own a business, own property, or even testify in court.

Punishment was common because husbands were allowed to have more than one wife if their first wife had no children. Children could be adopted. The women were able to have rights after being married. They were able to own a business, own property, or even testify in court.

The Sumerians had a polytheistic religion. The gods were considered to be anthropomorphic by the people. The gods were thought to have powers, some of which were related to astronomical bodies. These gods also had characteristics like that of a human. They felt lust, love, anger, etc. The Sumerians did believe in life after death. They had realistic expectations of what their future had in store. They also understood that their gods were not always nice or polite. They did try to understand what the gods had in store for them as well as how they could please the gods. A large number of gods were worshiped with prayers and sacrifices. People would pray to them in both times of praise and misfortune. The most important god was known as Nanna Sin. His son was the son god, Utu, and his daughter was the goddess Inanna. Sacrifices of both oxen and sheep were made for important people. Temples were the center of religious activity within a city. Every temple contained a shrine that was placed in an enclosed room.

The gods were also the subjects of many legends and myths.

"Enlil and Ninlil: the Birth of the Moon-god" "The Creation of the Pickax." Enki: the organization of the earth."

The Sumerians were an agricultural group that depended on their surrounding environmental features. They grew many crops such as peas, corn, wheat, turnips, and they also fished. The Sumerians however had a problem feeding their entire population. They sold their extra grain and other rations for wood so that they could build furniture and ships. The ships were then used for trade with such places as India and Africa. When the ships would return, they would be loaded with various types of wool, exotic foods, unusual fabrics, and precious metals. The craftspeople were also essential to their economy. The metal workers would use copper, bronze, and tin to make industrial and household materials. They also created the weapons. The people would use their animals in various ways to increase their way of life. Donkeys would be used to pull wagons and pigs would be used in many Sumerian dishes. Sumerian astronomers studied the stars and other scientist perfected the calendar. Music was also important to the people and could be heard in various towns. The music was used in various rituals and was also a form of entertainment.

The Sumerians had a unique way of writing and recording events. They used stone tablets with numbers to record their history and everyday events. The people would use a wide variety of pictures and numbers. The writing style was called cuneiform script.

There were many scribes throughout the summer region. Young Sumerians would learn cuneiform script during school. This was usually limited to the wealthier families. The process of learning the way of writing was long and hard. Each individual was required to learn large numbers of symbols and words so that they could be scribes when they grew up. Eventually, scribes enhanced the writing style making it more efficient by creating a shorthand form using wedged lines.

The main character in the epic was Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk. Who is very strong, he bosses people so they complain about him to the gods. Gods will send Enkidu, stronger man to fight Gilgamehs. They will become friends and they search for fame so they decide to fight the giant Humbaba. Finally they were able to kill this giant and returned to Uruk. Ishtar the goddess of love asks Gilgamesh to be her friend but he refuses so she sends the bull of heaven to fight Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh will be able to kill the bull with the help of Enkidu but he losses his friend Enkidu after that. The death of his friend frightened him and he started to look for immortality facing the difficulties but at the last he fails to be immortal and he returns home for waiting death to come. Uruk was one of summer cities that Gilgamesh rolled. The land had two rivers and it was a rich area and it had a few stones and rocks. Priest-king ruled each city-state. He was in charge of leading the military, administering trade, and helping with religious ceremonies. Bureaucrats who surveyed the land aided him. Sumerian believed that law should be followed. Some common laws were about marriage and punishment. They had polysynthetic religions. They grew many crops such as peas, corn, wheat, turnips, and they also fished. They were agricultural. They used stone tablets with numbers to record their history and everyday events. The people would use a wide variety of pictures and numbers. The writing style was called cuneiform script.

Theme of the story

Many themes are incorporated into the story line of Gilgamesh. These include three very important concepts: death is inevitable, immortality is unachievable, and friendship is a necessity.

One of the main themes in the epic is that death is inevitable, which is shown through Enkidu's death. When Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh becomes very worried, because he realizes for the first time that everyone is going to die at some point in time. The fact that Enkidu is a close friend makes it even more visible to Gilgamesh that everyone is mortal. Then, along with this realization, comes the theme of denial. Gilgamesh does not want to accept the fact that he will die. He denies the truth, because he does not want to think about the truth or cope with the tragedy that has struck him.

"And he-he does not lift his head. 'I touched his heart, it does not beat'" (Tablet VIII, Column II, 15-16).

"'Me! Will I too not die like Enkidu? Sorrow was come into my belly. I fear death; I roam over the hills. I will seize the road; quickly I will go to the house of Utnapishtim, offspring of Ubaratutu. I approach the entrance of the mountain at night. Lions I see, and I am terrified. I lift my head to pray to the mood god Sin: For...a dream I go to the gods in prayer: ...preserve me!'" (Tablet IX, Column I, 3-12).

The theme of death being inevitable leads to another theme, similar to the first. This is that immortality is unachievable, shown through similar examples as the first theme. Gilgamesh realizes that immortality is not obtainable after his quest for it. He discovers that the quest was pointless, because he will die regardless of the steps to prevent his death in the future.

"'Never has a mortal man done that, Gilgamesh'" (Tablet IX, Column III, 8).


"'The fate of mankind overtook him... In fear of death I roam the wilderness...Me, shall I not lie down like him, never again to move?'" (Tablet X, Column II, 3, 8, 13-14).


"'From the beginning, there is no permanence'" (Tablet X, Column VI, 32).

The last main concept in the epic is that friendship is a necessity, shown through the bond of Enkidu and Gilgamesh. Both men are supportive of each other, always looking out for and encouraging one another. For example when Enkidu and Gilgamesh are fighting the Bull of Heaven and Humbaba, they work together.


"'Hurry up, step up to him, do not let him go. Climb to the woods, [do not be afraid]'" (Tablet IV, Column V, 43-44).


"They cut off the head of Humbaba" (Tablet V, Column VI, 47).

Dani, Daniel. "Assyrian Page". 1996. <http://www.ing.hb.se/users/kemi/KE9512/homepage/assyrisk.htm> (6. Dec. 1998)

Landau, Elaine. The Babylonians. Brookfield, Conn. : Millbrook Press, 1997.

Landau, Elaine. The Sumerians. Brookfield, Conn. : Millbrook Press, 1997.

Manson, Herbert. Gilgamesh. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1970.

Odijk, Pamela. The Sumerians. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Siver Burdett Press, 1989.

Payne, J. "Backgrounds". 1998. <http://www.graphicstation.communitech.net/mybac.shtml> (5. Dec. 1998)

Payne, J. "Graphics". 1998. <www.graphicstation.communitech.net/graphic1.shtml> (5. Dec. 1998)

Rivera, Larry J. "Four Bees Backgrounds". 1996. <http://web2.airmail.net/lrivera/backs2b.htm > (5. Dec. 1998)

The Epic of Gilgamesh. 17th rev. ed. Translated by N.K. Sanders. New York:Penguin Books Ltd, 1979

Thom, David. "Free Web Art Animated Lines 2". 1997.

(29.Nov. 1998)

Thom, David. "Free Web Art Backgrounds". 1997. <http://www.lisp.com.au/~david_t/back1.htm> (29 Nov. 1998)

Woolley, Leonard. The Sumerians. New York: Norton & Company,1965.