What is the oldest story in the world? According to academics and historians alike, it isn’t the bible. It isn’t any of the ancient tales scratched into Egyptian hieroglyphics. Humanity’s single oldest surviving story is the Epic of Gilgamesh, one account of a king’s journey to immortality.
This epic originates from the Mesopotamian city of Uruk, where it was first carved into stone tablets by the ancient Sumerians. Uruk was part of the ancient ‘fertile crescent’ that once existed on the area of land that is now Iraq. According to the carvings, Gilgamesh was the city’s strongest king—so powerful that his subjects cried out to the gods to tame him. In response, the gods sent down Enkidu, a human man who at first behaved like an animal. Enkidu and Gilgamesh fought, then civilized each other, and became friends.
As you’ll know if you’re familiar with this great work of literature, this is where the story takes a darker turn. After the men travel to the forests of Lebanon and slay a monster, the monster’s patron god kills Enkidu in a vengeful rage. Distraught, Gilgamesh becomes obsessed with death and achieving immortality. Ultimately, he resolves to claim everlasting life by making his city the greatest the world had ever seen, thereby living forever in the memories and stories of his people.
Discover How Gilgamesh Lives on in Literature & Great Books Studies
A college with curriculums built on historically-influential primary texts (also known as a great books college) can help curious minds like yours dive deep into great literature. You can come to understand how these texts influence others, shaping our modern literary landscape. Gilgamesh lives on in a range of celebrated modern works of fiction.
It was only in the 1940s that the cuneiform tablets bearing the complete epic were discovered in archaeological digs. Historians are only now piecing together the influence this tale had on ancient literature and culture, but in its fairly short contemporary history, the Epic of Gilgamesh has inspired dozens of writers and artists. These include such influential thinkers as Philip Roth, Charles Olson, and Gregory Corso.
Perhaps most notable is Michael Ondaatje’s award winning novel, In the Skin of a Lion, which borrows its name from Gilgamesh’s own famous words: “I let a filthy mat of hair grow over my body, and donned the skin of a lion and roamed the wilderness.”
The Epic of Gilgamesh & Zombies? This Great Book’s Legacy in Popular Culture
With great books studies you’ll learn to recognize elements of great literature hidden in everything from films to songs to video games. Music fans can find Gilgamesh in the world of opera, musical theater, and contemporary pop music, via artists like Mike Patton and We Might Be Giants.
A popular reference to Gilgamesh in pop culture comes from Star Trek: The Next Generation. In a pivotal episode, Captain Picard deciphers the language of an alien race by finding analogies between their culture and the Epic of Gilgamesh (and saving the universe yet again!).
Most recently, the book, graphic novel, and film Warm Bodies uses Gilgamesh to help illustrate a world of zombies/’undead,’ borrowing its themes to build new interpretations of humanity’s quest for everlasting life.
Wherever there are themes of the wild versus civilisation, humans defying the gods, friendship between rivals, and the quest to conquer death, scholars and readers know: Gilgamesh has a truly enduring presence.
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