Throughout antiquity around the Aegean Sea, bards recited oral versions of Homer’s Iliad, an epic story of war at Troy in 3,200 BP among Mycenaean Greeks, Hittite Anatolians, and feisty Olympic gods. As the story atrophied into a cultural icon, later bards wrote it down in Greek. The Iliad is translated into modern languages to this day. Similarly, bards likely recited pieces of the story of Gilgamesh, set in the Sumerian city of Uruk around 4,700 BP, and teachers used the episodes in primary schools in preliterate Mesopotamia as memorized frames for lessons. With the dawn of literacy, the pieces were recorded in cuneiform Sumerian, then Akkadian, then Babylonian, but it was buried in the sands for several thousand years, until the past two centuries.
Since the first wave of literacy would certainly have captured the most important legends first, the positioning of Gilgamesh among the first written stories assigns just such an importance to it. Moreover, the longevity of the tale for a couple thousand years should tell us that it contains subject matter important to the essential traditions of Mesopotamia. For this reason, I want to present to you enough material about the epic for you to reach your own conclusions. Moreover, attention to the story will also provide background on the shadowy cultural legacy of large cities that came before the invention of cuneiform writing. We should take note of what is described in the Gilgamesh story about cities, government, kings, councils, customs, gods, and religion.
In the following, I provide you with enough material to understand the story and establish an initial concept of the governance of Uruk, the role of the council in countering the king, and the role of their concept of a creator god, Anu, and barely-subordinated lesser gods who collaborated in restraining Gilgamesh and his excesses at the beginning of the story.
- An overview of the Gilgamesh epic, with enough detail to dig much deeper.
- A major fragment of the Gilgamesh epic written in cuneiform, along with a sample reading in the Akkadian language (one step later than Sumerian).
- A complete written translation of the entire epic. There are many other translations.
- A reading in English of the entire Gilgamesh epic. This is accurate and well-spoken, but I caution it won’t be ennobling for 1st through 8th graders, and most middle-graders.
- A podcast by ASOR (American Schools of Oriental Research) regarding new insights into the Gilgamesh epic, implying ancient criticism of the overreaching of governing Mesopotamian tyrants, and the boomerang effect of destroying what the gods hold dear.
Regardless of whether this is your introduction to the Gilgamesh epic or it fits like an old shoe, when looked at with an analytic eye, the preceding will serve us as an excellent introduction to the setting of 5,203 BP in which the Raising Up Pharaoh epic begins. We have an example of a probably real but mythologized king in late prehistory running amok among his people, their complaints to the city council of advisors, the advisors petitioning the city’s gods, the expectation of a response to their plea, the response orchestrated by their gods, a transgression by the king against the gods, a severe penalty exacted upon the king by the gods (basically Act I in a three act play), and then the king as a classic hero on a quest through Acts II and III. This is the first three act play we know about. And wisdom shines through.