Joshua J. Mark
published on 13 October 2010
Gilgamesh is the semi-mythic King of Uruk best known from The Epic of Gilgamesh (c.2000-1400 BC) the great Sumerian poetic work which pre-dates Homer’s writing by 1500 years and, therefore, stands as the oldest piece of western literature. Gilgamesh’s father was the Priest-King Lugalbanda and his mother the goddess Ninsun (the Holy Mother and Great Queen) and, accordingly, Gilgamesh was a demi-god who was said to have lived an exceptionally long life (The Sumerian King List records his reign as 126 years) and to be possessed of super-human strength.
Known as 'Bilgames’ in the Sumerian, 'Gilgamos’ in Greek, and associated closely with the figure of Dumuzi from the Sumerian poem The Descent of Inanna, Gilgamesh is widely accepted as the historical 5th king of Uruk whose influence was so profound that myths of his divine status grew up around his deeds and finally culminated in the tales found in The Epic of Gilgamesh. In the Sumerian genesis tale The Huluppu Tree, in which the goddess Inanna plants a troublesome tree in her garden and appeals to her family for help with it, Gilgamesh appears as her loyal brother who comes to her aid. The historical king was eventually accorded completely divine status as a god. He was seen as the brother of Inanna, one of the most popular goddesses, if not the most popular, in all of Mesopotamia. Prayers found inscribed on clay tablets address Gilgamesh in the afterlife as a judge in the Underworld comparable in wisdom to the famous Greek judges of the Underworld, Rhadamanthus, Minos and Aeacus.
Historical evidence for Gilgamesh’s existence is found in inscriptions crediting him with the building of the great walls of Uruk (modern day Warka, Iraq) references to him by known historical figures of his time (26th century BCE) such as King Enmebaragesi of Kish and, most recently, by the claim of a German team of Archaeologists to have discovered the tomb of Gilgamesh in April of 2003. Archaeological excavations conducted through modern technology involving magnetization in and around the old riverbed of the Euphrates have revealed garden enclosures, specific bulidings and structures described in The Epic of Gilgamesh including the great king’s tomb. According to legend, Gilgmesh was buried at the bottom of the Euphrates when the waters parted upon his death.
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- N.K. Sandars. The Epic of Gilgamesh. Pnguin Books, NY, 1973.
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