Gilgamesh

Gilgamesh gĭl´gəmĕsh [key], in Babylonian legend, king of Uruk. He is the hero of the Gilgamesh epic, written on 12 tablets c.2000 BC and discovered among the ruins at Nineveh. The epic was lost when the library of the Assyrian king Assurbanipal was destroyed in 612 BC The library's remains were excavated by British archaeologists in the mid-19th cent., the tablets were discovered, and the cuneiform text that survived was translated by British scholars. Of some 3,600 lines, 3,200, whole or in part remain.

The epic 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 translations and versions by N. K. Sandars (1960), H. Mason (1970), D. Ferry (1993), A. George (2003), S. Mitchell (2007), J. Lewis (2018), P. Terry (2018), and B. R. Foster (2d. ed., 2019); A. Heidel, Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels (2d ed. 1949); D. Damrosch, The Buried Book (2007); T. Ziolkowski, Gilgamesh among Us: Modern Encounters with the Ancient Epic (2011); M. Schmidt, Gilgamesh: The Life of a Poem (2019).

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

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