Our enjoyment of the story is not seriously affected by whether or not there was a historical Gilgamesh; but scholars have in fact been able recently to establish beyond doubt that a man, a king, named Gilgamesh lived and reigned in Uruk at some time during the first half of the third millennium. Controversy is limited now to whether he lived around 2700 or some hundred or so years later. Names of the forerunners and contemporaries of Gilgamesh have been found written on bricks and vases; while two semi-historical documents, the ‘Sumerian King-List’ already referred to, and the so-called ‘History of Tummul’ give conflicting historical and genealogical evidence. According to the first, Gilgamesh is fifth in line from the founding of the first dynasty of Uruk (after the flood) and reigned 126 years, but his son reigned a mere thirty years, and thereafter kings lived and reigned an ordinary human term. The Tummul document, also dating from the beginning of the second millennium, tells that Gilgamesh rebuilt the shrine of the goddess Ninlil in Nippur, following an earlier restoration by kings of Kish.
The various chronological ambiguities are of minor importance compared to the establishment of Gilgamesh as an historical person: a king who probably led a successful expedition to bring back timber from the forests of the north and who was certainly a great builder. The walls of Uruk were a by-word, but they were not yet of burnt brick; this is an anachronism possibly due to misunderstanding of an earlier text by later redactors.
Remembered was the superior quality of the ‘plano-convex’ bricks used in the construction of the fortifications. Excavations at Warka have shown the magnificence of the temple buildings even in the proto-literate period; but Gilgamesh was also remembered as a just judge, and later report made him, like Minos of Crete, a judge in the Underworld, one to whom prayers were addressed and who was invoked by incantation and ritual. One prayer begins, ‘Gilgamesh, supreme king, judge of the Anunnaki’.
At the beginning of the poem the hero is described. He is two parts god and one part man, for his mother was a goddess like the mother of Achilles. From her he inherited great beauty, strength, and restlessness. From his father he inherited mortality. There are many strands in the story, but this is the tragedy: the conflict between the desires of the god and the destiny of the man. The mother of Gilgamesh was a comparatively obscure goddess who had a palace-temple in Uruk. His father in the King-List is rather mysteriously described as ‘lillu’, which may mean a ‘fool’ or a demon of the vampire kind, as well as being high-priest. Gilgamesh in the Sumerian version is ‘the priest of Kullab’, a part of Uruk, but in moments of stress he calls on Lugulbanda as ‘father’. Lugulbanda reigned in Uruk second before Gilgamesh and third after the flood. He was a guardian and protector of the city, and is called a god; he reigned 1200 years.
In a work which has existed for so long and been subjected to such frequent copying and reshaping, it is no use looking for precise historical events. I have suggested that the political situation in the third millennium provides the most likely setting for the action. More striking is the degree of spiritual unity found throughout the cycle, Sumerian, Old Babylonian and Assyrian alike, which derives from the character of the hero, and from a profoundly pessimistic attitude to human life and the world. This attitude is, at least in part, a consequence of the insecurity of life in Mesopotamia, and of those ‘overtones of anxiety’ which Henri Frankfort described as being due to ‘a haunting fear that the unaccountable and turbulent powers may at any time bring disaster to human society’. In the character of Gilgamesh, from the beginning, we are aware of an over-riding preoccupation with fame, reputation, and the revolt of mortal man against the laws of separation and death. The conflict between savage or ‘natural’ man in the character of Enkidu, and civilized man represented by Gilgamesh, seems less fundamental, though it has been re-emphasized by at least one recent writer.
The story is divided into episodes: a meeting of friends, a forest journey, the flouting of a fickle goddess, the death of the companion, and the search for ancestral wisdom and immortality: and through them all runs a single idea, like the refrain of the medieval poet, ‘Timor mortis conturbat me’.In the episode of the Cedar Forest it is only a spur on the hero’s ambition to leave an enduring name; but after the loss of the faithful companion it is more urgent, ‘How can I rest when Enkidu whom I love is dust and I too shall die and be laid in the earth for ever?’ At the end it turns to mockery with lost opportunity and wasted hopes; till the final scene of the hero’s own death where human ambition is swallowed up and finds its fulfilment in ancient ritual.
The cause of the pervasive pessimism of Mesopotamian thought lay partly in the precariousness of life in the city-states, dependent on vagaries of flood and drought and turbulent neighbours; dependent also on the character of the gods, who were the powers held responsible for such conditions. Since the gods play a considerable part in the Epic it may be well to give some account of these frightening and unpredictable beings. Their names and chief attributes are listed in the Glossary (p. 120), but the few who play a decisive part in the action require rather more detailed description. Their names will seem bizarre and unfamiliar to Western ears, and the topography of their world is superficially so odd that a rather fuller explanation seems necessary. The reader may, however, if he pleases, leave aside the following section until he wishes to know more about the chief gods and their habitations in the heavens or in the underworld.