The ''Epic of Gilgamesh'' is an epic poem from ancient Mesopotamia. Dating from the Third Dynasty of Ur (circa 2100 BC), it is often regarded as the first great work of literature. The literary history of Gilgamesh begins with five Sumerian poems about 'Bilgamesh' (Sumerian for 'Gilgamesh'), king of Uruk. These independent stories were later used as source material for a combined epic. The first surviving version of this combined epic, known as the "Old Babylonian" version, dates to the 18th century BC and is titled after its ''incipit'', ''Shūtur eli sharrī'' ("Surpassing All Other Kings"). Only a few tablets of it have survived. The later "Standard" version dates from the 13th to the 10th centuries BC and bears the ''incipit'' ''Sha naqba īmuru'' ("He who Saw the Deep", in modern terms: "He who Sees the Unknown"). Approximately two thirds of this longer, twelve-tablet version have been recovered. Some of the best copies were discovered in the library ruins of the 7th-century BC Assyrian king Ashurbanipal.
The first half of the story discusses Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, and Enkidu, a wild man created by the gods to stop Gilgamesh from oppressing the people of Uruk. After an initial fight, Gilgamesh and Enkidu become close friends. Together, they journey to the Cedar Mountain and defeat Humbaba, its monstrous guardian. Later they kill the Bull of Heaven, which the goddess Ishtar sends to punish Gilgamesh for spurning her advances. As a punishment for these actions, the gods sentence Enkidu to death.
In the second half of the epic, distress about Enkidu's death causes Gilgamesh to undertake a long and perilous journey to discover the secret of eternal life. He eventually learns that "Life, which you look for, you will never find. For when the gods created man, they let death be his share, and life withheld in their own hands".〔James Thrower "The Alternative Tradition: A Study of Unbelief in the Ancient World" 1980, Mouton Publishers, The Hague, The Netherlands〕〔Jacobsen, T. (1949) Mesopotamia: The Good Life. ''Before Philosophy; :The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man" by Frankfort, Wilson and Jacobsen, Penguin Books, Baltimore, Maryland'', Chapter VII, Page 226. Retrieved 2013-09-11.〕 However, because of his great building projects, his account of Siduri's advice, and what the immortal man Utnapishtim told him about the Great Flood, Gilgamesh's fame survived his death. His story has been translated into many languages, and in recent years has featured in works of popular fiction.
Distinct sources exist from over a 2000-year timeframe. The earliest Sumerian poems are now generally considered to be distinct stories, rather than parts of a single epic. They date from as early as the Third Dynasty of Ur (circa 2100 BC).〔 The Old Babylonian tablets (circa 1800 BC),〔 are the earliest surviving tablets for a single Epic of Gilgamesh narrative.〔T.C. Mitchell. ''The Bible in the British Museum'', The British Museum Press, 1988, p.70.〕 The older Old Babylonian tablets and later Akkadian version are important sources for modern translations, with the earlier texts mainly used to fill in gaps (lacunae) in the later texts. Although several revised versions based on new discoveries have been published, the epic remains incomplete.〔George, Andrew R., trans. & edit. ''The Epic of Gilgamesh'', Penguin Books, 1999, ISBN 0-14-044919-1〕 Analysis of the Old Babylonian text has been used to reconstruct possible earlier forms of the Epic of Gilgamesh.〔Abusch, T. Gilgamesh's Request and Siduri's Denial. Part I: The Meaning of the Dialogue and Its Implications for the History of the Epic. |11.05 MB ''The Tablet and the Scroll; Near Eastern Studies in Honor of William W. Hallo'', 1–14. Retrieved 2014-06-02.〕 The most recent Akkadian version (circa 1200 BC), also referred to as the "standard" version, consisting of twelve tablets, was edited by Sin-liqe-unninni and was found in the Library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh.
The ''Epic of Gilgamesh'' was discovered by Hormuzd Rassam in 1853. The central character of Gilgamesh was initially reintroduced to the world as "''Izdubar''", before the cuneiform logographs in his name could be pronounced accurately. The first modern translation was published in the early 1870s by George Smith. The most definitive translation is a two-volume critical work by Andrew George.〔A book review by the Cambridge scholar, Eleanor Robson, claims that George's is the most significant critical work on Gilgamesh in the last 70 years. See: http://bmcr.brynmawr.edu/2004/2004-04-21.html〕 George discusses the state of the surviving material, and provides a tablet-by-tablet exegesis, with a dual language side-by-side translation. This translation was published by Oxford University Press in 2003. Stephen Mitchell in 2004 supplied a controversial translation that takes many liberties with the text and includes modernized allusions and commentary relating to the Iraq war of 2003.〔http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/30044781?uid=3739728&uid=2&uid=4&uid=3739256&sid=21101352909941〕 The first direct Arabic translation from the original tablets was made in the 1960s by the Iraqi archeologist Taha Baqir.
The discovery of artifacts (ca. 2600 BC) associated with Enmebaragesi of Kish, mentioned in the legends as the father of one of Gilgamesh's adversaries, has lent credibility to the historical existence of Gilgamesh.〔
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