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A Short Discussion of the Influence of the Gilgamesh Epic on the Bible


Brenda W. Clough

In the course of the research for HOW LIKE A GOD I’ve done a lot of reading on Mesopotamian legend. This is a brief discussion of the Gilgamesh epic as it relates to the Old Testament. It was originally written on the fly in response to an on-line question, and turned out so relatively cogent that I saved it.

The most well-known parallel between the epic and the Bible is of course the story of the Flood, in Genesis 6-7. This is essentially equivalent to the story that Utnapishtim, the Sumerian Noah, tells to Gilgamesh on Tablet XI. Even the way the narrative is laid out is similar – the gods put a bug in Utnapishtim’s ear; a description of how the ark is built (“daubed with bitumen,” a common glue or mortaring agent in Mesopotamia); everyone piles in, and it starts to rain. When it’s over, Utnapishtim releases a dove, then a swallow, and finally a crow, however – an interesting change of detail.

However, the section of the Bible that really seems linked to Sumerian mythology is the book of Ecclesiastes. The writer of that book informs us, in Eccl. 12:9-10, that in the course of composing it he read widely, presumeably everything that he could get his hands on in those days before inter-library loan and the Internet. From internal evidence it’s obvious that he read some version of the epic of Gilgamesh. It’s fascinating to see that the story, already very ancient by Biblical times, circulated so widely in the Middle East.

Ecclesiastes 4:9-10 (in the Revised Standard version) runs, “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up.” This appears in fragmented form in Tablet V column ii of the epic. (If you want to look at the tablets in English translation the best one is by John Gardner.) It was apparently a common proverb in the Middle East, and you can easily find equivalents all over the place in literature. It’s even in KING LEAR someplace. The one that I remember is from BEOWULF, “Bare is back without brother behind it.” (Alliteration’s artful aid, what?)

Does everyone actually know the story of old Gilgamesh? The epic has two main parts. In the first, Gil has a number of the standard Conan-the-Barbarian style adventures, whomping monsters, humping maidens, defying the goddess Ishtar. And he’s king of Uruk, one of mankind’s first cities – all very picturesque, and would make a great cover for a genre paperback. Then, in the second half, Gil has a spiritual crisis and goes on a quest for eternal life.

Well, when he’s wandering around having angst, he meets a Wise Woman, a barmaid – the Sumerians invented beer, too. She advises him to straighten up and fly right: “Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things; day and night dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child that holds yourhand, and make your wife happy in your embrace, for this too is the lot of man.”

Notice how similar this is to Eccl. 9:7-9. The narrator of the book, the Preacher, advises, “Go eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do. Let your garments be always white; let not oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life which he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life.”

Doesn’t a very little verse-by-verse analysis go a long way? Let’s step back and look at Gilgamesh’s spiritual crisis, which revolves around the futility of all life. The crushing awareness of his own pointless existence drives him away from his throne and his kingdom to wear skins and wander the wilderness. This is the entire theme of Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What does a man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” (Eccl. 1:2-3) It is possible that this was an issue that particularly fascinated thinkers of that era, the way that economic justice dominates modern American thought.

And both protagonists arrive at the same solution. The meaning of life is found only in the divine. The Preacher mulls it over for 12 amazingly prosy chapters and concludes, “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw nigh when you will say, I have no pleasure in them.” (Ecc. 12-1) Because he was the world’s first fantasy hero, Gilgamesh comes to the same answer in a flashier way – he undergoes a peril-ridden sea voyage; puzzles over riddling answers from Utnapishtim; dives to the ocean floor to pluck the flower of eteran life; loses it to a snake. He returns to Uruk empty-handed but at peace, and finds that it is the home of his god: “Three leagues and the temple precinct of Ishtar measure Uruk, the city of Gilgamesh.”

©1996,1997 Brenda and Larry Clough Last modified 3 July 1999