Gilgamesh (gĭlˈgəmĕsh) [key], in Babylonian legend, king of Uruk. He is the hero of the Gilgamesh epic, a work of some 3,000 lines, written on 12 tablets c.2000 B.C. and discovered among the ruins at Nineveh. The epic was lost when the the library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal was destroyed in 612 B.C. The library's remains were excavated by British archaeologists in the mid-19th cent., the tablets were discovered, and the epic's cuneiform text was translated by British scholars. It tells of the adventures of the warlike and imperious Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu. When Enkidu suddenly sickened and died, Gilgamesh became obsessed by a fear of death. His ancestor Ut-napishtim (who with his wife had been the only survivor of a great flood) told him of a plant that gave eternal life. After obtaining the plant, however, Gilgamesh left it unguarded and a serpent carried it off. The hero then turned to the ghost of Enkidu for consoling knowledge of the afterlife, only to be told by his friend that a gloomy future awaited the dead.

See verse translations by H. Mason (1970), D. Ferry (1993), and S. Mitchell (2007); prose translation by N. K. Sandars (1960); A. Heidel, Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels (2d ed. 1949); D. Damrosch, The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh (2007); T. Ziolkowski, Gilgamesh among Us: Modern Encounters with the Ancient Epic (2011).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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