The Epic of Gilgamesh:  The First Epic, from The First Civilization

What, When and Where:

An epic poem concerning or (very) loosely based on the historical King Gilgamesh, who ruled Sumerian Uruk  (modern day Iraq) in 2700 BC.

This is the oldest written story, period, anywhere, known to exist. The oldest existing versions of this poem date to c 2000 BC, in Sumerian cuneiform.  The more complete versions date to c. 700 BC, in the Akkadian language.  The standard, first "complete" version, which includes the flood myth, is dated to c. 1300-1000 BC (the oldest Babylonian version of this flood story dates to (1646–1626 BCE), so notice that "file sharing" and plagiarism are as old as writing itself).

Civilization itself is believed to have begun in Mesopotamia – the region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (the heart of modern Iraq) – roughly 6,000 BC and the first city states there to have begun in ancient Sumeria, around 4,000 BC.  The invention of writing took place here c. 3500 BC.

By way of comparison: Abraham, the first of the Jewish Prophets (the first "Jew"), is believed to have have lived around 1900-1800 BC.  Moses is believed to have led his people out of Egypt between 1500-1200 BC. 


Although the texts themselves were lost for thousands of years, the story had spread throughout Asia and Europe.  Greeks and Romans continued to refer to King Gilgamesh as late as 200 AD, written versions of the story seem to have disappeared perhaps as early as 500 BC.  The story itself was not unearthed until 1839, by a British archeologist, Austen Layard, who helped rediscovered these lost civilizations.

It’s impossible to know what stories circulated before the advent of writing – and certainly humans were swapping lies around the campfire for the tens of thousands of years before they invented writing, but still: The Epic of Gilgamesh seems, for all practical purposes: the oldest existing story that we have, today, in its complete form; originating in its complete form in the “Cradle of Civilization”; to have had a “literary” impact equivalent to some of the other Sumerian inventions: the wheel, the plow, irrigation and writing.

This influence can be traced most clearly through the two sets of texts that have most influenced our own culture:  the Homeric Epics (The Iliad and The Odyssey) and The Bible. We know that the ancient Greeks originated from the Caucasus region (see map), to the North of Mesopotamia, while Abraham himself – the founding father of Judaism – is believed to have lived in Sumerian Babylon (roughly at the time this story was written down) before heading West, and throughout the Old Testament Biblical period the Israelite’s historical fate will be closely tied to the two most powerful civilizations to their East and South – Sumeria and Egypt).

In fact, the process of writing down and compiling the Hebrew Scriptures is now believed to have been begun in Babylon, after the Babylonian King, Nebuchadnezzar, had captured and then destroyed Jerusalem and driven the Israelites into exile (mainly into Babylon itself) (c586 BCE).  More on when the Bible was written here.

Epic Influence:

More obviously , though, The Epic of Gilgamesh shows us that certain themes and structures have dominated storytelling from the very dawn of civilization itself up to the films and video games still clogging our screens.  See:
The Epic

The Human Experience: Cultural and Personal:

We all live our lives on two simultaneous levels: as members of cultures, with histories and shared behaviors branching out to other cultures and other times; and as individuals living an interior emotional experience.  Archeology, biology, sociology, anthropology and history etc. can help us understand the cultural element of the human experience, but literature allows us to see experience in its totality:
as a simultaneously cultural and personal experience, as one that is at once social and emotional.

We’re interested equally in both elements: I want to understand what Sumerian (and, later, ancient Hebrew, Greek, Medieval etc etc) culture was like, how it so long ago planted the seeds of my own culture and how it radically differed from my own and others, but I also want to empathize with the characters at a human level: I don’t just want to know how Sumerians – or Greeks or Jews etc. – defined concepts like “heroism”; I want to know what it felt like to be alive then, and I want a deeper understanding of what this tells me about being alive now.

In this way, literature can help us understand what is universal in the human experience: what portions of our minds, our psyche, soul or spirit – however you choose to define what it is that makes us each uniquely “us” – constitutes the universal truth of the human experience.

The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Iliad, Genesis can take us back 4,000 years to discover what it means to be alive, not just then, but now, and always.

The questions we ask in this class should help us understand both of these levels of humanity: the culturally unique and its influence on our own culture and personal  values, and the emotionally and psychically universal.

What Is An Epic?