In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Gilgamesh

  • Introduction
  • The Name “Gilgamesh”
  • Bibliographies
  • The Hittite Translation
  • In Other Ancient Writings
  • Gilgamesh in Mesopotamian Iconography
  • Gilgamesh Outside of Academia

Biblical Studies Gilgamesh
by
Martin Worthington
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 February 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0325

Introduction

Known to many from a Babylonian poem that is widely regarded as a classic of world literature, Gilgamesh was a legendary king of Uruk, a city in southern Iraq. He appears in multiple narrative sources and poems from ancient Mesopotamia. There was a cycle of five poems about him in Sumerian, which early in the second millennium BCE were blended into a Babylonian poem. They were written on manuscripts (clay tablets) in cuneiform script. While the Sumerian poems are only known from Mesopotamia, the Babylonian poem (sometimes said to be in “Akkadian,” an umbrella term for Babylonian and its sister language Assyrian) made it as far as Ugarit and Megiddo, and it was also translated into Hittite. The Babylonian poem thus circulated in multiple versions and recensions, of which the most famous today is known as the “Standard” version, known from manuscripts of the first millennium BCE. This work has achieved “classic” status, and is often regarded as the masterpiece of Mesopotamian literature. It is also by far the best preserved of the different Babylonian versions (about three-quarters of which are recovered). How far other versions differed from it is hard to gauge, since they are very fragmentary. Thus, it is impossible to prove whether early Babylonian versions already included an account of the Flood, such as appears in the Standard version’s Tablet XI. The author(s) and redactors of the poems—Sumerian and Babylonian—are unknown, though we sometimes, through “colophons,” know the names of the people who inscribed the extant manuscripts. Mesopotamian tradition associated the Babylonian poem with the name Sîn-lēqi-unninnī (The Moon God is one who accepts prayers), a name typical of the late second millennium BCE. There is so far no evidence contemporary with himself for his intervention in the poem, and his role is elusive. As with most topics in Mesopotamia, much about Gilgamesh is still in flux: new manuscripts are being found, and their language is becoming better understood (this is especially true of Sumerian). Gilgamesh scholarship thus becomes outdated faster than would be the norm in most fields in the humanities, and older publications can end up in retrospect as a mix of the brilliant and the untenable. Finally, though Gilgamesh is chiefly known to us today through narrative poems, Sumerian and Babylonian, he was not confined to them. As a (mythical) king of Uruk, he made it into the “Sumerian king list.” He was also invoked in Mesopotamian rituals as an underworld deity. His name (and, probably, names associated with him) further appear in Aramaic texts. There are many different ways in which the present bibliography could have been structured, I have simply aimed for something practical.

The Name “Gilgamesh”

Owing to the complexities of cuneiform spelling, it is not obvious from the writing how the name should be pronounced. The first editors thought it was “Izdubar.” The pronunciation “Gilgamesh” was found by Pinches 1889. Some scholars think that the name was “Gilgamesh” also in Sumerian (see Rubio 2012)—a position contested by Keetman, who instead belongs to those who think it was “Bilgamesh” (see Keetman 2014). See discussion of the name in George 2003 (pp. 71–90; cited under Babylonian Poems). The name “Gilgamesh” being used here for both Sumerian and Babylonian owes more to convenience than conviction.

  • Keetman, J. “Der altsumerische Name /PA.GBILGA-MES/ = GILGAMEŠ.” Bibliotheca Orientalis 71 (2014): cols. 30–40.

    Argues in response to Rubio 2012 that “Bilgamesh” is a plausible form of the Sumerian name.

  • Pinches, Theo G. “Exit Gišṭubar!Babylonian and Oriental Record 4 (1889): 264.

    Was the first to show that the name of the protagonist was to be read “Gilgamesh” (not Izdubar and similar).

  • Rubio, Gonzalo. “Reading Sumerian Names, II: Gilgameš.” Journal of Cuneiform Studies 64 (2012): 3–16.

    DOI: 10.5615/jcunestud.64.0003

    Argues, against George 2003 (cited under Babylonian Poems), that “Gilgamesh” was called thus (not “Bilgamesh”) already in Sumerian.

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