Introduction to Western Literature and Arts
Lecture Notes-1: The Epic of Gilgamesh and Sumerian Myth

Gilgamesh.JPG (17024 bytes)

Table of Contents

  1. Some Definitions of Myth
  2. List of Names of the Mesopotamian Mythology
  3. The Epic of Gilgamesh
  4. Website Resources
  5. Quiz-1


Some Definitions of Myth
* Myth is a constant among all human being in all times. The patterns stories, even details contained in myth are found everywhere and among every one. This is because myth is a shared heritage of ancestral memories, related consciously from generation to generation.  Myth may even be part of the structure of our unconscious mind, possibly encoded in our genes. eg. "the Oedipus complex" (戀母情結) and "the Electra complex" (戀父情結).

* Myth is a telling of events that happened before written history, and of a sense of what is to come. Myth is the thread that holds past, present, and future together.

*Myth is a unique use of language that describes the realities beyond our five senses.  It fills the gaps between the images of the unconscious and the language of conscious logic.

*Myth is the glue that holds societies together; it is the basis of identity for communities, tribes, and nations.  (Hero worship and gender, social, national identity)

*Myth is an essential ingredient in all codes of moral conduct.   The rules for living have always derived their legitimacy from their origins in myth and religion.

*Myth is a pattern of beliefs that give meaning to lilfe. Myth enables individuals and societies to adapt to their respective environments with identity and value. ( Joseph Campbell--the power of myth)

Back to Top

List of Names
The Major Gods and Goddess in Sumerian/Babylonian Mythology
Anu - the father of the gods, and god of the sky
Enlil - god of earth, wind, and air, the hurricane and deluge, the source of royal power and dealt out good and evil to human.
Ea (Enki) - the god of the waters and wisdom.
Marduk - god of storm, a fertility god and the principal deity of Babylon. He established lordship over other gods by killing the malevolent and chaotic Tiamet (salt water) and creating the world out of Tiamat's body.
Sin - the moon god, was enemy to the wicked. His children were Shamash (the sun god), and Ishtar (the goddess of love).
Annunaki - gods of the underworld (an image of the underworld)
Irkalla - the queen of the underworld
Belit-Sheri - the scribe for the underworld gods
Namtar - the god of evil fate

Immortals, Heroes, Monsters
Utnapishtim - immortal, survivor of the great flood. (cf. Noah in Hebraic myth)
Gilgamesh - the hero of the Epic of Gilgamesh, 2/3 god and 1/3 human
Enkidu - Gialgamesh's friend and advisor (cf. Hercules in Greek legend)
Humbaba - the great monster in the Epic of Gilgamesh,  a giant who guards the cedar forest.

Back to Top


The Epic of Gilgamesh
I. What is "epic"? (epos = the uttered word, mythos = tale)
     1."An epic is a long narrative poem, on a grand scale, about the deeds of warriors and heroes."
    2. "Epics are often of national significance in the sense that they embody the history and  
          aspiration of a nation in a lofty or grandoise manner."

    3. Primary epic: oral, primitive epic. Such as Gilgamesh
        Secondary epic: written, literary epic. Such as The Aeneid.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is the earliest epic (c. 2150-2000BC). Earlier than the two great Indian epics (Mahabharata, and Ramayana, 1000-800BC) and the two great Greek epics (The  Iliad, and The Odyssey, 900-700BC).

II. The Common cultural heritage of the Mesopotamian tribes (the Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian, A kkadian).

    * Gilagamesh was the Sumerian king around 2700BC.
    * The Epic of Gilgamesh was first written down at about 2000BC in Babylonian language.  It was also found other editions by other languages, such as the Elamite, Hittite, Hurrian, and Summerian--such system of writing was known as "cuneiform" (楔形文字).
    *The inscribed tablets were preserved best in the capital of the Assyrian, Neneveh, in the libraries of Sennacherib and Ashurbanipal.
    *The earliest English translation of this epic was by George Smith, published in 1872-74. The translation of this epic and other archeological discovery in Mesopotamian area readjusted the Westerners' views about Christianity and Hebraic culture. (We may found the Hebraic myth  of creation--the flood and the Noah family was influenced by The Epic of Gilgamesh.  The Pentateuch (摩西五書) was finished at about 400BC.)

III. The Theme of Gilgamesh

1. The distinction among god, man, and animal:
    "Gilgamesh was called a god and man:
     Enkidu was an animal and man,
     It is the story of their becoming human together."
*Gilgamesh was 2/3 god, and 1/3 man. What conflict might derive from such combination?
*What are the differences among gods, human, and animal?
*What are the significance of Gilgamesh's tyranny and his fighting against gods and goddess?
2. The Heroic Quest: Immortality and the Meaning of Life
*The heroic cycle: departure, initiation, return
See a diagram of the heroic cycle based on Joseph Campbell's idea

*What is the significance of Gilgamesh's journey to find Utnapishtim?

*What make a person a "hero"?
    --fighting against fear
    --searching for what other dare not, eg. eternal life
    --facing death
    --unusual lost (suffering) and wisdom
3. Values and Wisdom:
   --Life is a journey toward wisdom, not toward death, nor eternal life.
   --The value of life and of the quest lies in living together and sharing with others.  (Gilgamesh does not have a purpose of life until he met Enkidu. And his humanity was not whole until he suffered for his best friend Enkidu.)

Back to Top

Website Resources:
*If you want to read some English translation of the Epic of Gilgamesh or want to know the cosmogony and theogony of Mesopotamian Mythology:
→Visit Mircer Eliade's webpage From Primitive to Zen and browses through "Myth of  Creation and Origin," "Death, After Life and Eschatology"
* If you want to read the related myth in the Bible, you can visit the website on World Wide Study Bible.  Chose the book (chapter) and section you want to read (eg.  Genesis 1, or Genesis 1:1), and choose the specific version of translation (eg. King James Version), then push "search." You can even find definition of any term in the Bible, and lots of tools for Bible study in the websites linked in this website (such as dictionary, encyclopedia, and commentary).  I have downloaded some texts for your quick reference.
    Genesis 1 (New King James Version): The Creation
    Genesis 1:1 (King James Version with Definitions)
    Genesis 1:26 (New King James Version with Definitions)
    Genesis 1:27 (New King James Version with Definitions) 
    Genesis 2 (New King James Version): Adam and Eve
    Genesis 3 (New King James Version): The Fall of Man
    Genesis 4 (New King James Version): Cain and Abel
    Genesis 5 (New King James Version): The Descendents of Adam
    Genesis 6 (New King James Version): The Flood and the Ark
    Genesis 7 (New King James Version): "
    Genesis 8 (New King James Version): "
    Genesis 9 (New King James Version):  The Covenant with Noah
Back to Top

Quiz : The Epic of Gilgamesh
A diagram of the heroic cycle

Back to Top


Composed and Edited by Chen Chi-szu
Revised: 十月 07, 2003.