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Epic of Gilgamesh

Based on the actual Sumerian king Gilgamesh and written nearly 5,000 years ago, The Epic of Gilgamesh chronicles the friendship and journey of Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Currently the oldest known written literature in existence, the antiquity of this heroic poem does not diminish its relevance to the contemporary world.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is a worthy representative of Western Literature, where themes of immortality and a quest for significance are commonplace.
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Themes and Facts

  • Most scholars believe the epic was written around 3,700 B.C.
  • The Epic of Gilgamesh was written in Akkadian (on various stone tablets).
  • The story was forgotten for thousands of years and not rediscovered until the early 19th century.
  • As the oldest literary relic in the Western literary world, Gilgamesh is typical of stories that involve both a physical and spiritual or emotional journey.
  • In addition to his physical journey, Gilgamesh struggles to come to terms with the death of his close friend as well as his own mortality.
  • Although Gilgamesh ultimately learns that mortality is his destiny like his friend Enkidu, the emphasis on affirming life and making the best of this world contributes to his legacy as a great king.

Study Questions

  • What is the relationship between the "natural" world and the "cultured" world? How does the journey of Enkidu demonstrate the differences between the two? Does his enculturation weaken or strengthen him?
  • How would you describe the differences between Gilgamesh and Enkidu?
  • What is ironic about Gilgamesh's quest for immortality?
  • How would you compare and contrast the journey of Gilgamesh and Odysseus?
  • How does Gilgamesh fit the mold of what you might typically call a "hero"? Between Enkidu and Gilgamesh, whom do you find more "heroic"?
  • What growth do you notice in Gilgamesh throughout the story?

Despite its vast distance from us in both space and time, the Epic of Gilgamesh addresses issues of ultimate concern that speak to the human condition, such as the meaning of friendship, love, justice, and mortality.