The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the world’s oldest and most human texts. Approximately, it was written in 2000 BCE by an anonymous author in ancient Mesopotamia. It predates even more commonly referenced works like the Bible and Homer’s poetry. The legacy of The Epic of Gilgamesh is plainly observable through the examination of parallels present in the mythology and literature of Ancient Greece.
How Did The Stories Of The Epic Of Gilgamesh Spread?
Many ancient Mesopotamian stories show up in the mythological canon of Ancient Greece, such that it is clear that the Greeks pulled heavily from Mesopotamia. The Greeks themselves have a complex pantheon of gods and heroes (who are also worshipped). That mythological canon of the Greeks is expansive and syncretizes gods from other cultures as well, such as the earlier Myceneans and Minoans. These cultures influenced the religion of the Ancient Hellenes when they conquered the civilizations, but the Mesopotamian influence was not born of conquest.
Through routes spanning the long distances, Mesopotamia traded with other civilizations—such as Ancient Greece. The two civilizations exchanged goods like raw metals, agricultural products, and, as evidenced by their shared stories, mythology.
Parallel One: The Great Flood(s)
Have you ever wondered where the flood story came from?
The myth of the Great Flood drives the story of Gilgamesh. After the god Enlil decides to destroy humanity for their boisterousness, Utnapishtim builds and boards a great boat with his family and a host of animals. When the water recedes, Utnapishtim sacrifices to the gods and releases the animals to repopulate the earth. In reward for his loyalty and obedience, the gods grant Utnapishtim eternal life. He recounts the story of the deluge’s destruction to Gilgamesh, who comes to him seeking the key to his immortality.
In Ancient Greek mythology, Zeus sends the great deluge to exterminate humanity for their impiety and violence—reasoning which sounds familiar. Yet just before the flood, the Titan called Prometheus speaks to his son Deucalion to warn him of the coming disaster. Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha board a large chest that they built in preparation and find high ground atop a mountain, most often said to be Mt. Parnassus.
When the flood finally subsides, Deucalion and Pyrrha repopulate the earth by throwing stones over their shoulders, in accordance with a riddle given to them by the Delphic Oracle.
The theme of divine genocide due to poor behavior is present in both the deluge myth of Ancient Greece and in The Epic of Gilgamesh. Each man builds his own vessel on the warning of a god, and both Utnapishtim and Deucalion repopulate the earth once the floodwaters subside, though albeit through their own unique methods.
So luckily there was a happy end for these couples, if not quite for everyone else.
Parallel Two: A Dearest Companion
The story of Achilles and Patroclus is one of the most well known in the Western canon but its roots are much older even than the Ancient Greek civilizations. Prior to the Iliad, which scholars date to the eighth century BCE, was The Epic of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh, by best estimation, predates the Iliad by approximately one thousand years.
Though the epics are not carbon copies, the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus parallels that of Enkidu and Gilgamesh. Even the language used to describe these men’s relationships mirror one another. After the death of Enkidu, Gilgamesh refers to his lost companion as “[he] whom my soul most loves” and in relation to Achilles, Patroclus is referred to as πολὺ φίλτατος; in English, “the very dear.”
It’s easy to believe that these are their most beloved companions when death arrives. Their respective heroes are almost directly responsible for the deaths of Enkidu and Patroclus. Enkidu is killed by the goddess Ishtar in retribution for Gilgamesh’s slaying of the Bull of Heaven. Patroclus is killed by Achilles’s mortal enemy, the Trojan hero Hector when Achilles himself refuses to fight in the battle.
Both heroes mourn their companions with equal, gut-wrenching heartbreak. Gilgamesh sleeps with Enkidu’s corpse for seven days and seven nights until “a worm drops from his nostril” and he begins to rot. Achilles keeps Patroclus with him in bed every night for a week, only surrendering his body when the shade of his companion comes to him in a dream, demanding his proper death rites.
It is this resonant humanness that makes the love of Achilles and Patroclus so unmistakable as identical to that of Enkidu and Gilgamesh.
Parallel Three: The Sacrificial Bull
To both the Ancient Greek and cultures of Mesopotamia, bulls had great significance.
The Bull of Heaven is one of the most important characters in The Epic of Gilgamesh; its slaying and sacrifice prompt Enkidu’s death, an event that alters Gilgamesh as a hero. Gilgamesh cuts out the Bull of Heaven’s heart to sacrifice to the sun god, Shamash. Later, he offers the Bull’s horns, filled with oil, to his divine father, the culture hero Lugalbanda.
The Cretan bull is closest to the Bull of Heaven in the canon of Ancient Greece. It stars specifically in the labors of Theseus. He captures the bull and delivers it home to King Aegeus, who sacrifices it to the god Apollo upon Theseus’s suggestion, thus stretching the theme of posthumous, bovine sacrifice across civilizations.
The Legacy Of The Epic Of Gilgamesh After Mesopotamia and Ancient Greece
The Epic of Gilgamesh has endured even into modern culture, though perhaps more discreetly. Yet one has only to examine present-day culture with a finer eye to uncover the ways in which the stories of Mesopotamia shape it.
The flood myths of The Epic of Gilgamesh influenced not only the Ancient Greeks but the Hebrews as well. For example, the story of Noah which modern people are so familiar with is pulled directly from Gilgamesh, with Noah as Utnapishtim and the ark as his boat.
Joseph Campbell, a prominent scholar of comparative mythology and religion, wrote extensively on the Hero’s Journey, and one cannot deny that Gilgamesh is surely the earliest literary example of such a hero. Gilgamesh and The Epic of Gilgamesh have guided, in ways invisible and visible alike, what present cultures think of when they imagine a hero and his story.
Like its hero sought so fervently to become, The Epic of Gilgamesh is immortal.