Gilgamesh Cylinder Seal Impression
Gilgamesh Cylinder Seal Impression
Photo: Tom Jensen. The Schoyen Collection.


Gilgamesh (around 2700/2600 BC)

Gilgamesh lived sometime around 2700 to 2600 BC and was the king of Uruk, a

major city in ancient Mesopotamia.

This makes Gilgamesh a Sumerian.

Go here for
more about the Sumerians.

What Does the Name Gilgamesh Mean?

Ten people, ten opinions.

Let's say Gilgamesh means The Old One Who is Youthful because Maureen Kovacs thinks this might be the case. And this lady's opinion scores higher than yours unless you are also able to provide us with a translation of the Gilgamesh Epic.

Here you can read Kovacs' English translation of the Epic of Gilgamesh.


Gilgamesh's Family

According to legend, Gilgamesh's father was Lugalbanda, a mortal.

His mother was divine. Her name was Ninsun.

Apparently, this made Gilgamesh one-third human and two-thirds divine. Welcome to Babylonian mythology.

About the Image at the Top of This Page

Gilgamesh Cylinder Seal Impression.

Illustrated is the scene during which Gilgamesh and Enkidu are slaying the Bull of Heaven.

The good people at The Schoyen Collection tell us:

Enkidu is wearing a short kilt decorated with rosettes, hair and beard in curls, an axe in one hand, holding the tail of the Bull of Heaven in the other, the winged human-headed bull crouches down on its foreleg, in front Gilgamesh, wearing long fringed robe with rosettes, a double horned headdress, long curled hair and beard, holding one of the bull's horns while plunging his sword into its neck.


And here is a picture of the Gilgamesh cylinder seal:

Gilgamesh Cylinder Seal
Gilgamesh Cylinder Seal
Height: 3.9 cm, or 1.54 in; Diameter: 1.6 cm, or 0.63 in
Photo: Tom Jensen. The Schoyen Collection.


This piece is one of five surviving cylinder seals with this motive. Neo-Assyrian style on brown agate. Made in Assyria, around the 7th century BC.

Here is the full view of the photo above:

Gilgamesh Cylinder Seal Impression
Gilgamesh Cylinder Seal Impression
Photo: Tom Jensen. The Schoyen Collection.



Uruk — City of Gilgamesh and Ishtar

Uruk, also called Erech, was the metropolis of ancient Mesopotamia.

Ishtar, also called Inanna, was the goddess of choice. And rightly so, as she was responsible for love, sex, and war. Veneration also went to Anu, also called An, the god of the sky. The third most important god was Ea, also called Enki, the god of water.

The city of Uruk had solid city walls that run 6 miles or 10 kilometers long and which, so it is said, were built by Gilgamesh himself.

Uruk is today's Warka in southeastern Iraq, located approx. 300 kilometers south from Baghdad. Here is a photograph from the city ruins at Warka:

Ruins of Uruk  The New York of Ancient Mesopotamia
Ruins of Uruk The New York of Ancient Mesopotamia
Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft

ne of the oldest cities ever, the ruins of Uruk cover an area of 550 ha, or 5.5 square kilometers, or 2.1 square miles. Back in the days, the Euphrates River supplied the city with water. The Euphrates since has changed its course and runs now 20 kilometers or 12 miles further to the west.


Here is a sketch of downtown Uruk, back in the days. Areas of the city had monumental mud brick platforms and temple buildings.

Massive Buildings at Uruk
Massive Buildings at Uruk
Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft


And here is ancient Uruk on a map:

Map Location of Uruk in Ancient Sumer / Ancient Mesopotamia
Map Location of Uruk in Ancient Sumer / Ancient Mesopotamia
Click map to enlarge


The Gilgamesh Epic

Why Do the Gilgamesh Poems Qualify as an Epic?

A.R. George at Cambridge University tells us:

The name Epic of Gilgamesh is given to the Babylonian poem that tells the deeds of Gilgamesh, the greatest king and mightiest hero of ancient Mesopotamian legend.

The poem falls into the category 'epic' because it is a long narrative poem of heroic content and has the seriousness and pathos that have sometimes been identified as markers of epic.

There we have it.


When Was the Gilgamesh Epic Composed?

Recording of the Epic probably already begun during Gilgamesh's lifetime. By 2100 BC, the tale was huge, both, in length and distribution.


The Gilgamesh Epic is the longest piece of literature in the Akkadian dialect (the language of Babylonia and Assyria.)

"In its complete state the Epic comprises about 2,900 lines written on eleven clay tablets." (Kovacs)


Tales of Gilgamesh circulated in abundance and in translation.

What all did the archaeologists find? And where?


The Gilgamesh Epic and Archaeology

In Akkadian:

It was Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, who kept the largest archaeological record in existence under his roof. Twelve tablets that contain the Gilgamesh Epic were found in his personal collection at his palace in Nineveh.

King Ashurbanipal ruled Assyria 668-627 BC, or 669 to 631 BC, depending on whom you ask.

Go here fore more about King Ashurbanipal.

Ashurbanipal's library contained thousands of cuneiform tablets - letters, legal texts, texts regarding science, and, of course, mythology.

Now, about these tablets.

Unfortunately, the tablets are incomplete. But because the tale was widespread, the incomplete parts could be filled by fragments that were found in other locations.

This Nineveh version of the Epic has been found all across Mesopotamia, in Palestine, in Syria, and today's Turkey. It was even used in schools as writing exercise.

In Sumerian:

Another set of tablets were found in the Sumerian language, written during the first half of the second millennium BC. This Old Babylonian version lacks the prologue and the famous flood story.

These tablets have five short poems and are titled:

Gilgamesh and Huwawa

Gilgamesh and the Bull of Heaven

Gilgamesh and Agga of Kish

Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Netherworld

The Death of Gilgamesh


Kovacs tells us:

The tablets from Nineveh and Babylon are now in the British Museum and provide the bulk of the text. But many other fragments are discovered since then.

The tablets so far recovered represent some eight to twelve copies of the Epic, most found in the palace and temple libraries at Nineveh.


The Gilgamesh Epic in a Nutshell

Gilgamesh ruled harshly and the people cried to the gods for help. The gods replied by creating Enkidu, who was to challenge Gilgamesh. Enkidu was created part animal, part human, just to change things up a bit.

Enkidu met Gilgamesh at Uruk, where the two had a wrestling contest. Gilgamesh won, but only by a narrow margin. Gilgamesh and Enkidu realized they weren't that different after all, and became best friends forever.

Hanging out together was fun, but both guys felt that eternal fame would be so much sweeter. And off they went to cut down the Sacred Cedars, which would bring them instant stardom.

However, this meant that they had to overcome Huwawa (Humbaba) first. Huwawa was the divinely appointed guardian of the Sacred Cedar Forest, and a giant not by coincidence.

The giant was beheaded, the cedars were cut, and Gilgamesh and Enkidu shuffled back home to Uruk.

Mask of the demon Humbaba, whose "mouth is fire and breath death." Images of this figure were used as lucky charms.
Mask of the demon Humbaba, whose "mouth is fire and breath death." Images of this figure were used as lucky charms.
Sukkalmah Dynasty, early 2nd millennium BC. Susa, Iran. Terra-cotta.
Excavations led by Roland de Mecquenem, 1927
Photo RMN / F. Raux. Louvre, Paris.

The next challenge presented itself when Ishtar, the goddess of love and war, ambushed Gilgamesh with a marriage proposal. Gilgamesh declined. Ishtar snapped and sent the Bull of Heaven to destroy everything in and around Uruk. 

The Bull killed hundreds of young men from the city, until it encountered Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Enkidu grabbed the Bull's tale, Gilgamesh put his sword into the Bull's neck, and that was the end of the Bull.

The episode with the slaying of the Bull of Heaven is treated in tablet VI:

"Gilgamesh, like an able slaughterer, strikes with his sword the Bull of Heaven forcefully and precisely between shoulders and neck."

This adventure became quite famous and the motive for many artistic renderings (see image at top of the page.)

Taking a slightly darker turn, the tale now describes how Enkidu had nightmares because the gods decided that either he or his companion had to pay for the killing of Humbaba and the Bull. The verdict was death for Enkidu.

And so it happened. After seven days of severe illness, Enkidu dreamed of the "house of dust" that awaited him, and kicked the bucket accordingly.

Gilgamesh was very much in mourning and threw Enkidu a state funeral.

This incident prompted Gilgamesh to reflect on his own mortality and he panicked. Word had it that a man named Utnapishtim had survived the Flood and was granted eternal life by the gods.

Gilgamesh tracked U. down in order to learn the secret of eternal life.

U. tells him all about the Flood, and that he received eternal life because of his piety. Gilgamesh then tried to go without sleep for a certain amount of time, a test that would have been proof of his potential for immortality. But Gilgamesh failed this test. Long face. As consolation, U. told Gilgamesh of a "plant of rejuvenation."

Gilgamesh managed to find the plant and was thrilled. At this point he realized that he urgently needed a shower. Unfortunately, while Gilgamesh was taking a bath, a mischievous snake devoured the plant.


Back at Uruk, Gilgamesh arrived with newly acquired wisdom: Real immortality is to accomplish great things.


The Twelfth Tablet

The 12th tablet seems to be an addition to the original 11 tablets.

On it, Enkidu was still alive. Gilgamesh accidentally dropped pukku and mikku, whatever that was, into a hole that lead to the underworld. To make matters worse, the items were given to him by Ishtar. And the fool lost it. Enkidu promised to recover the items. He went direction underworld but could not return to the living.



If you are enjoying a decent joint, you might find several points in this Epic interesting enough to reflect upon.

These might be three of them:

Gilgamesh's divine nature and Enkidu's animal nature: Gilgamesh and Enkidu, originally opposed, then glued to the hip, and finally defeated and devastated by the concept of mortality.

Gilgamesh's determination in all his adventures.

Gilgamesh's conclusion as to what life is really all about.


One of the most popular parts of the Gilgamesh Epic is of course the flood story, which resembles the one in Genesis.

Just like Noah in the Bible, Utnapishtim had been forewarned of a plan by Heaven to send a great flood. He built a boat, maxed out the overhead bins, and survived the Flood and the destruction of Earth's entire populace.

And finally, here is one of the tablets, written in cuneiform, that brought us The Gilgamesh Epic.

Flood Tablet - The Gilgamesh Epic
Tablet Number Eleven: The Flood Tablet
Length: 15.240 cm; Width: 13.330 cm; Depth: 3.170 cm
Excavated by A.H. Layard. British Museum, London.

By the way,
What is cuneiform?


And here is the excavator himself, Sir A.H. Layard (1817-1894):

A man of passion: Sir Austen Henry Layard prior massive beard.
A Man of Passion: Sir Austen Henry Layard (prior massive beard)
Chalk on Paper, circa 1852, by George Frederic Watts, National Portrait Gallery London

Layard was a busy archaeologist and a politician. But he was a romantic, a lover of art, and an adventurer at heart.

In 1877, Benjamin Disraeli made him ambassador at Constantinople, a position he lost due to his habit of talking bluntly and sometimes maybe too hastily.

Layard bought a splendid home in Venice where he spent his remaining years thoroughly enjoying his retirement. His archaeological work was crowned with remarkable success.

Back to the Gilgamesh Epic.


The Gilgamesh Epic - What is Fact? What is Fiction?

According to the so-called Sumerian King List, which lists the rulers before and after the Flood, Gilgamesh of Uruk existed.

The following is from the California State University, Northridge:

The Sumerian King List

The surviving clay tablet was dated by the scribe who wrote it in the reign of King Utukhegal of Erech (Uruk), which places it around 2125 B.C.

"After kingship had descended from heaven, Eridu became the seat of kingship. In Eridu Aululim reigned 28,800 years as king. Alalgar reigned 36,000 years. Two kings, reigned 64,800 years. Eridu was abandoned and its kingship was carried off to Bad-tabira. . . .

"Total: Five Cities, eight kings, reigned 241,200 years.

"The FLOOD then swept over. After the Flood had swept over, and kingship had descended from heaven, Kish became the seat of Kingship. In Kish .... Total: twenty-three kings, reigned 24,510 years, 3 months, 3 1/2 days. Kish was defeated; its kingship was carried off to Eanna.

"In Eanna, Meskiaggasher, the son of (the sun god) Utu reigned as En (Priest) and Lugal (King) 324 years--Meskiaggasher entered the sea, ascended the mountains. Enmerkar, the son of Meskiaggasher, the king of erech who had built Erech, reigned 420 years as king.

Lugalbanda, the shepherd, reigned 1,200 years. Dumuzi the fisherman, whose city was Kua, reigned 100 years. Gilgamesh, whose father was a nomad (?) reigned 126 years. Urnungal, the son of Gilgamesh, reigned 30 years. Labasher reigned 9 years. Ennundaranna reigned 8 years. Meshede reigned 36 years. Melamanna reigned 6 years. Lugalkidul reigned 36 years. Total: twelve kings, reigned 2,130 years. Erech was defeated, its kingship was carried off to Ur...."


Regardless whether Gilgamesh was an actual person or just a legend, later kings showed great respect for him.


More on the Subject

For periods and eras of the Sumerian civilization, and their kings, check  Governments of Sumer.

And here is much more on the Sumerians provided by CSUN





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