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Was Gilgamesh Real?

Was Gilgamesh Real?

There are many Sumerian poems that tell the epic tale of Gilgamesh, depicting him as a powerful protagonist. The most popular of these poems is the Epic of Gilgamesh.

This oldest existing version of the Babylonian epic poem was written around 2,000 BC [1]. It predates Homer’s work by over 1,200 years and is considered to be the oldest epic world literature piece.

But was Gilgamesh a real man, or was he a fictional character? According to many historians, Gilgamesh was a real historical king [2]. In this article, we will discuss more about him.

Was Gilgamesh Real? Infographic.

Gilgamesh as a Real Historical King

Many historians believe that Gilgamesh was a real historical king who ruled a Sumerian city called Uruk around 2,700 BC.

Samantha from Indonesia, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

According to Stephanie Dalley, who is a popular scholar of the ancient Near East, it’s not possible to identify the precise dates of his life, but he lived somewhere between 2800 and 2500 BC [3].

In addition, Tummal Inscription, which is a 34-line long historiographic text, also mentions Gilgamesh. It says that he reconstructed an old shrine located in Nippur city [4]. This text is believed to be written between 1953 and 1920 BC during the reign of Ishbi-Erra.

Historical evidence found in ancient inscriptions also suggests that Gilgamesh constructed the great walls of Uruk, which is now the area of modern-day Iraq [5].

His name is also present in the Sumerian king list. Plus, a known historical figure, King Enmebaragesi of Kish, also mentioned Gilgamesh.

He wasn’t a divine or supernatural being, as the stories and tales portray him; he was a real man, as per historical evidence.

Stories of King/Hero Gilgamesh

During the last periods of the Early Dynastic Era, Sumerians used to worship Gilgamesh as a God [6]. A king of Uruk, Utu-Hengal, in the 21st century BC, claimed that Gilgamesh was his patron deity.

In addition, many kings during the Third Dynasty of Ur used to call him their friend and divine brother. Prayers engraved in clay tablets address him as a god who will be the judge of the dead [7].

All these pieces of evidence show that Gilgamesh was something more than just a king for Sumerians. There are several Sumerian poems that narrate his legendary exploits.

Epic of Gilgamesh

The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic is a very long poem that starts by portraying him as a cruel king. The gods decide to teach him a lesson, so they create a powerful wild man called Enkidu.

A fight between Gilgamesh and Enkidu takes place, and Gilgamesh wins. However, the courage and strength of Enkidu impress him, so they become friends and start going on different adventures together.

Gilgamesh asks Enkidu to kill Humbaba, a supernatural entity that protects the Cedar Forest, to become immortal. They go to the forest and defeat Humbaba, who cries out for mercy. However, Gilgamesh decapitates him and returns to Uruk with Enkidu.

Gilgamesh puts on his finest clothes to celebrate his victory, which draws Ishtar’s attention, who desires him, but he rejects her. So, she asks the Bull of Heaven, her brother-in-law, to kill Gilgamesh.

However, the two friends kill him instead, which angers the gods. They declare that one of the two friends must die. The gods choose Enkidu, and he soon grows sick. After some days, he dies, making Gilgamesh fall into deep grief. He leaves his pride and name behind and sets out to find the meaning of life.

Newly Discovered Tablet V of the Epic of Gilgamesh, Old-Babylonian Period, 2003-1595 BCE.
Newly Discovered Tablet V of the Epic of Gilgamesh, Old-Babylonian Period, 2003-1595 BCE
Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg), CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Netherworld

The narrative of this poem starts with a Huluppu tree [8], which is moved by the goddess Inanna to her garden in Uruk to carve it into a throne. However, she finds out that a Mesopotamian demon is living in the tree, making her sorrowful.

In this poem, Gilgamesh is portrayed as Inanna’s brother. He slays the demon and creates a throne and bed using the tree wood for his sister. Inanna then gives a pikku and a mikku (a drum and a drumstick) to Gilgamesh, which he accidentally loses.

To find the pikku and mikku, Enkidu descends to the netherworld but fails to obey its strict laws and gets captured for eternity. The last part of the poem is a dialogue between Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s shadow.

Akkadian Gilgamesh Tales

Other than Sumerian compositions, there are many other stories of Gilgamesh written by young scribes and authors of the Old Babylonian schools.

Neo-Assyrian clay tablet. Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet 11. Story of the Flood.
Neo-Assyrian clay tablet. Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet 11. Story of the Flood.
British Museum, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

One such popular story is called “Surpassing All Other Kings,” which is an Akkadian Gilgamesh story. 

Only some parts of this story survive, which tells us that the story adds the Sumerian narrative about Gilgamesh to the Akkadian tale.

It’s important to note that Nippur and many other regions of southern Mesopotamia were abandoned as the economy collapsed.

As a result, many scribal academies were permanently closed, and under the newly ascendant Babylonian dynasties, a dramatic shift in culture and political power took place.

So, the Akkadian tales are pretty different from the original ones written by Sumerians, as both of these versions reflect the local concerns of their respective areas.

Final Words

Gilgamesh was a legendary king of ancient Sumerians featured in the ancient Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh and many other poems and tales. The epic describes him as a demigod with superhuman strength and courage who built the city walls of Uruk to protect his people.

There is evidence that he did exist, and he is believed to have ruled around 2700 BC. However, it is not known to what extent the legendary accounts of his life and deeds are based on historical fact.

Many of the events and stories described in the epic are clearly mythical, and the character of Gilgamesh is likely a blend of historical and legendary elements.