A Threshold to the Great Chronicle of Utnapishtim: The Epic of Gilgamesh

Bhavyashree GNS

Great mythologies and epics are a part of every society’s rich culture.

Epics in the broader sense reflect the perception of a specific community with regard to the space around them. The Mesopotamian civilization, as we know it now, is one of the oldest civilizations of the world. In the modern political boundaries, the sites of the civilization lay in the region of Iraq. Similar to the development to its erstwhile contemporaries, the Mesopotamian civilization developed along the Tigris and the Euphrates River systems which nurtured the needs for sustaining life. The region was also geographically gifted as a part of the Fertile Crescent, harvesting a surplus, further leading towards a chance for civilization. Furthermore, the Mesopotamian civilization has produced a script of its own kind which is known as Cuneiform. It derived its name from the ‘wedge-shaped’ writing which was achieved as a result of the use of reed stylus by the scribes. The script provides the oldest recorded epic of the world- the Epic of Gilgamesh. The epic of Gilgamesh is a story that follows the adventures and experiences of the King of Uruk, Gilgamesh. Recorded in twelve tablets, the story can be divided into two parts. The first part highlights Gilgamesh’s encounter with Enkidu, their adventures together, and the associated legend of the Sumerian Goddess Ishtar. The second part of the epic occurs after the death of Enkidu. In the seventh tablet, a sick Enkidu during his final days describes to Gilgamesh his nightmares of witnessing before Irkalla (Ereshkigal), the Goddess of Kur- the land of the dead or underworld. Enki describes the underworld as a dark place where those who enter do not return, where light does not reach, and where ‘they’ drink dirt and eat clay, where only dust lies. Upon hearing the vivid descriptions of Enki, Gilgamesh was horrified and made his mission to overcome death. While the following tablets note the milestones during his expedition, the Eleventh tablet comprises the flood myth. In a series of events, Gilgamesh crosses the Waters of Death with the help of Urshanabi (the ferryman), directing him to Utnapishtim, who was granted eternal life by the gods. As Gilgamesh questioned Utnapishtim regarding his secret to immortality, Utnapishtim explained to him the event of a great flood sent by the gods which would potentially wipe out the whole population of earth. But, the god Enki, in order to prevent this catastrophe, ordered Utnapishtim to build a boat as he gave him the precise dimensions 200 feet in length, width and height, with a floor-space of one acre. The boat was built of equal dimensions in length and width and was made out of timber.
A Threshold to the Great Chronicle of Utnapishtim: The Epic of Gilgamesh
Gilgamesh, Sumerian King dives to get the Flower of Life

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In the ship embarked his entire family, along with his craftsmen and all the animals of the field.

Finally, the day of the flood came in as Ishtar unleashed destruction. The storm that lasted six days and nights turned all life on earth into clay and the intensity of the storm even petrified the gods. Further, Utnapishtim boarded his boat on a mountain and sent a dove, a swallow, and a raven. When the raven did not return, he opened the boat, freed all the creatures, and performed a sacrifice to the gods. After he recounts the story, Utnapishtim puts Gilgamesh to a test- the latter needs to stay awake for six days and seven nights. As Gilgamesh failed to stay awake, a crucial part of the narration was directed towards the fact that granting eternal life to Utnapishtim was a unique gift. It was thus concluded that Gilgamesh who could not conquer his sleep is not capable of conquering death. In our sphere of understanding, the history of humankind is divided into phases based on aspects like cultural, socio-economic, political, and ideological changes that occurred in a certain period of time. However, in a rudimentary sense, it can be classified as the study before and after the evolution of ‘writing’, further, the development of a script. The act of ‘writing’ per say, has been a significant milestone marking an important phase of the evolution of modern humans or homo sapiens. While the epic is recorded in c. 2150-1400 BCE, scholars have postulated that the Flood Myth was much older and passed down through oral traditions. This is a crucial case in understanding the development of writing systems and their significance in ascertaining the important events of history. With archaeological and geological studies, scholars have hypothesised that the occasional flooding of Tigris and Euphrates might have served as the memory for the story. The Sumerian Flood Myth marked the oldest of the deluge records which transcended cultures throughout the world.
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A Threshold to the Great Chronicle of Utnapishtim: The Epic of Gilgamesh

Bhavyashree GNS

Bhavyashree GNS is a history enthusiast pursuing Masters of Arts in Ancient Indian History Culture and Archaeology from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, India. She holds a Bachelors in History and Political Science. Her areas of interest lie in the fields of anthropology and pre-history, and she wishes to pursue the respective disciplines for her research projects in the future.
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