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Culture is like the sum of special knowledge that accumulates in any large united family and is the common

property of all its members

This is an attempt to shed light on one of the ancient civilizations through analyzing their only surviving piece of writing

This piece we have chosen is the Epic of Gilgamesh And the civilization we will get to know closer is the Sumerian one

The Epic of Gilgamesh: General Introduction The Sumerian civilization may be the first civilization in the world; it was born around 5000 BC and collapsed around 2000 BC. Its very surprising that anything so old as a story of the third millennium B.C. still has power to move, and still attaches readers in the twenty first century A.D. First discovered in 1839 in Mesopotamia (what is now Iraq), the epic was in the form of hieroglyphic inscriptions on tablets of clay, which were transported to the British museum where they were translated. The epic describes a period in the third millennium B.C. (about 2700 B.C.) The epic is a mixture of pure adventure, of morality and of tragedy It describes the human search for knowledge and the concern with mortality Two Englishmen, with the assistant of many scholars in many different parts of the world, have pieced together, copied and translated the clay tablets on which the poem is written.

The epic is still incomplete, and perhaps may remain so, but its a work which continues, and more gaps are being filled in each year. The first publication of the epic was in 1928. The author of the epic is anonymous. Events took place in Uruk in Mesopotamia. The hero of the epic is the son of a goddess and a king, so he is two-thirds human and one third god. Gilgamesh may not be the first human hero, but hes absolutely the first hero of whom anything is known. Gilgamesh is the most typical of individual man in his search for life and understanding.

Summary of the Epic Prologue The prologue of the epic opens with the well-known
statement: I will proclaim to the world the deeds of Gilgamesh, which means that theres an anonymous narrator who is going to tell us the story of Gilgamesh. This narrator starts by mentioning some of the achievements of Gilgamesh: building the great wall of Uruk, rebuilding temples, protecting his people, and going on a very long journey and coming back with wisdom. We are also told that he was given a perfect body, full knowledge, great courage and unequalled beauty.

Narration The narrator starts the narration by revealing the faults of Gilgamesh in the beginning of the story. He is unjust, and he misuses his great power. He rapes women, and rules very savagely. So, people pray for the gods of Uruk to put an end to Gilgameshs arrogance. Gods assemble and agree that Arur, the goddess of creation, should create his equal, thus Enkidu is created. Enkidu lives with animals in the wilderness; he eats grass, plays with his friends the animals, and helps them get out of traps made by hunters. A trapper (a hunter) sees Enkidu while he is searching for game, and goes home very terrified. The trapper figures out a way to get rid of Enkidu; he uses a harlot to overcome Enkidus power, and as a result, Enkidu lays with her for six days and seven nights. When he is satisfied, he goes back to the wild animals; but they reject him and run away; he is so exhausted that he cant even follow them.

Enkidu goes back to the harlot who takes him to Uruk to meet Gilgamesh and convince him to repent and become a good king. Meanwhile, Gilgamesh has several dreams indicating that a brother of him is going to come and live with him. This brother turns to be Enkidu. When Enkidu arrives, he battles with Gilgamesh, but they embrace and become good friends afterwards. The two friends enjoy a strong relationship much like brotherhood and they live happily and peacefully until they decide that they must do something unusual. Thus, the two heroes head towards the cedars forest in Lebanon to get some good wood for building great walls around Uruk. So, Gilgamesh and his friend kill Humbaba, the guard of the forest, get some wood and build the great walls of Uruk. Afterwards, Ishtar, the goddess of love and fertility, offers to marry Gilgamesh, the charming hero, but he refuses and insults her. So, Ishtar sends a heavenly bull to kill Gilgamesh and take revenge, but Gilgamesh slaughters it.

The gods of Uruk assemble again and agree that the two heroes have become so arrogant and are killing the soldiers of the gods (Humbaba and the bull). They decide that one must die, but Gilgamesh is the son of a goddess, so Enkidu is that one. When Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh grows very desperate and starts wandering in the wilderness, mourning and lamenting. Then, Gilgamesh starts on a very long and very difficult journey searching for immortality. He intends to meet a man called Utnapishtim who has gained immortality. After a very hard journey, Gilgamesh meets Utnapishtim who tries to convince Gilgamesh that he cant be eternal; Utnapishtim then narrates how he has become eternal: He states that a flood has been sent to kill the people of Shurrupak, a city on Euphrates. However, Utnapishtim and his wife rescue themselves, along with other animals, and as a result, the gods grant them eternity for their courage and goodness. Gilgamesh, however, insists that he deserves to be immortal, so he is given two chances to gain immortality.

He loses his first chance when he is defeated by sleepiness And he loses the second when a snake eats the plant of eternity while he is swimming. Finally, Gilgamesh accepts his destiny and returns to his people in Uruk with an unparalleled wisdom. He rules wisely and becomes a beloved king.

Commentary The poem belongs to the art of Epic: It is a long narrative poem Recounts the deeds of a great past hero: Gilgamesh Elevated style Description of battles, weaponry, acts of extreme violence Heroes who are larger than life (or at least unusual) Participation of supernatural beings: gods, demons, beasts, etc.. Occurrence of extraordinary events The hero appears as a rescuer for his people against great dangers in difficult times Its an oral/folk tradition, it was written afterwards on clay tablets.

What can we learn from the epic?

The need for a good ruler: Gilgamesh is first very rash, unjust and careless: he rapes women on their wedding night, and he blindly follows his lust. So, his people hate him. When he starts killing every one who challenges him, he appears very arrogant and he is punished When he comes back at the end of the journey, he becomes a good king and his people love him and keep his name alive forever.

The futility of life: Gilgamesh appears as a typical man in a continuous search for a better life; yet he faces many hard situations. The death of his intimate friend is a misfortune that we all may experience. He keeps searching for an everlasting life which is absolutely one of the hopes of human nature. He crosses great distances and overcomes many obstacles to reach his goal, yet he finally realizes that it is impossible. When he has his last hope of gaining youth through the plant of eternity, he loses it while he is swimming. This disappointment reminds us of our own life experiences.

The concept of immortality:

Gilgamesh first forgets that he is mortal; he remembers this when Enkidu dies. He then thinks that he deserves immortality At last, he learns that he is a human being who sleeps everyday and this indicates his morality Real immortality is that of fame and of good name. Gilgamesh has indeed gained immortality and he is now famous for his wisdom and his love for his people.
Human need for adventure: the epic emphasizes that men always feel that need for discovering the unknown, for taking risks, and establishing our name by great achievements. Gilgamesh and Enkidus long journey through the forests reminds us of our attempts to explore the oceans and space.

Insights gained concerning the Sumerian culture Gods: Sumerians believed in the existence of too many gods; each one has a limited responsibility (god of sky, goddess of creation, goddess of love and fertility, god of water, etc....) Gods appear much like human beings: They marry, conceive and get children (Ninsun married a man and gave birth to Gilgamesh) They are not very brave (they felt terrified when the flood is sent, they even hid in the corners) They make mistakes (the flood got out of their power and was so extreme and unusually destructive) They feel sorry (they regretted sending the flood) They are sometimes unjust (They decided to kill Gilgameshs brother) They curse and insult (Ishtar for example)

But people still seek their help, and gods do respond When people get tired of Gilgameshs bad behavior Harlots: these were respected, they symbolized fertility and culture. They served in temples and were sacred. However, Sumerians felt jealous and annoyed if their women had an affair with other men; for example, people of Uruk felt angry when Gilgamesh raped women on their wedding nights, and they prayed for the gods to put an end to their kings behavior. Sumerians were very superstitious: they believed that Gilgamesh was a combination of a divine nature and a human one. They also believed in the existence of certain creatures who are neither animals nor human, but still can talk and think (like Humbaba, and other beasts) Sumerians didnt believe in a good life after death, thats why they extremely feared death and considered life on earth their only happy one. So, they tried to enjoy this life as much as possible.

Writing Style
Repetition of several phrases and numbers: For six days and seven nights (Enkidu slept with the harlot, Gilgamesh wandered in the forest, the flood lasted, Gilgamesh slept,.... ) Six and seven are holy numbers related to religious thoughts, mentioned repeatedly in Quran and Bible. a king should be a shepherd to his people : this statement emphasized that people of Uruk needed their kings to rule with justice and wisdom. They hated Gilgamesh when he had a bad behavior and they eternalized his name when he became good and fair. Describing the journey of Gilgamesh in his search for eternity: the darkness was thick and there was no light, he could see nothing ahead and nothing behind him: repeated about six times, to indicate that Gilgamesh was on a very difficult and challenging journey.

Using words or descriptions related to the epic nature of the poem: Names of weapons and metals: armors, copper, spears, axes, swords, blades, arms, etc... When Enkidu and Gilgamesh quarreled: they shattered the doorposts and the walls shook Description of Humbaba, the guard of the cedars: When he roars, it is like the torrent of the storm, his breath is like fire, and his jaws are death itself. Exaggeration: Gilgamesh was so attractive that Ishtar who was a goddess couldnt resist his beauty and offered him too many gifts to marry her. Gilgamesh was terrifying like a great wild bull: he was unusually strong.

Similarities between the epic and Quran: The story of the flood: very similar to that of Noahs flood The method of creation: she the goddess of creation- dipped her hands in water and pinched off clay, she let it fall in the wilderness, and noble Enkidu was created. Repetition of the numbers six and seven.

Do you agree to all the ideas of the epic? (to the thoughts of Sumerians) Gods:
The Sumerian view of gods is not consistent with our contemporary beliefs. Whatever is our religion, no one among us believes that there are tens of gods controlling the world. Moreover, if we do believe in the existence of several gods, it seems illogic that these gods are as weak as children, and this notion opposes the word god. One similarity between Sumerian beliefs and ours is the existence of some common rites: like sacrificing our goods or animals for God.

Life after death:

Strikingly, Sumerians believed that all of them were destined to go to the underworld and serve the gods there, no matter how good or bad they were. This is very different from our common belief that our life after death depends greatly on our deeds and misdeeds on earth, so it may be either a punishment or a reward.

Supernatural events:
The supernatural events that occurred in Gilgamesh and other ancient epics seem very trivial today. Men no longer believe in the existence of beasts, dragons, or immortal people. On the contrary, Sumerians were very superstitious and they believed in the existence of great forces visualized as gods who could decree human fate.

Quest for immortality:

The epic describes the human attempt to escape from the common lot of men. We all feel this tendency to life, and fearing death is common to all human beings, although with different degrees. When all the hard attempts of Gilgamesh turn to be fruitless, and after Gilgamesh loses his final hope which was the plant of youth, he smiles at himself and accepts his human nature. This resembles our comical situations when we try hard to reach our goals, then realize that it was foolish to think of achieving such impossible aims.

Questioning your colleagues:

Do you know that there are 2 kinds of epic? Written/ Literary epic : written by someone and transmitted through the medium of writing Oral/ Folk tradition: transmitted orally from generation to another, storing the beliefs and ideas of a people or nation.
Which type is the oldest? Of course it is the Oral To which type does The Epic of Gilgamesh belong? Its an Oral Epic. It was transmitted orally among the people of Uruk, until it was preserved later on tablets of clay.

Can you name some well-known epics? Homers Iliad and Odyssey: Greek Beowulf (the one recently enacted as a film by Angelina Jolie): AngloSaxon culture Mahabharata (Indian epic) Cid: in French culture John Miltons Paradise Lost (Literary epic)

Do you think Gilgamesh was a real king who ruled Uruk? Whether Gilgamesh was a real king or not is a controversial issue that is still to be settled.

Do you think this epic is a pure fiction? If yes, then how come that the story of Noahs flood is mentioned with many similarities to the true narrative that we know? And how come we have found the great walls of Uruk in Iraq? If no, what do you think the aim of telling too many lies that cant be believed and trying to achieve credibility at the same time? Dont you think the epic contradicts itself? Do you think our translation has come up with exactly what Sumerians meant? And dont you think British scholars might have modified it?

Best of Luck