This a brief overview — for a longer synopsis click here.
The Epic of Gilgamesh was a great work of ancient literature written in the Akkadian language nearly four thousand years ago, but drawing on earlier tales written in Sumerian.
Gilgamesh is king of Uruk (Biblical Erech), a mighty city on the river Euphrates, and at one time the greatest city in the world. His tyrannical rule causes the city’s inhabitants to pray for protection, and the gods produce a counterbalance — a primeval man named Enkidu, created in the outback from the dust of the earth. Hearing of this immensely powerful man of the steppe, Gilgamesh sends a courtesan to seduce him and bring him into civilization, where the two soon become bosom friends.
After meeting Gilgamesh’s mother, Enkidu feels huge sorrow at his own lack of family, and to take his mind off such thoughts, Gilgamesh proposes a great expedition. They will journey far beyond civilization to the distant cedar forest, guarded by the fearsome Humbaba, a sentinel placed there by the gods.
After killing Humbaba and returning to Uruk, Ishtar the goddess of love proposes marriage to Gilgamesh, but he spurns her, recalling the sorry end of her previous lovers. In fury she brings down the Bull of Heaven to wreak destruction on the city of Uruk, but they kill that too. Such double audacity — first Humbaba then the Bull of Heaven — is an affront to the gods and they take revenge. Enkidu falls ill and dies.
Gilgamesh is utterly distraught, cannot bear to bury the body, and only when decay sets in does he give Enkidu a funeral fit for a great king. Now realising his own mortality, he aims to extract the secret of immortality from the survivor of the great Flood, who acquired it from the gods. This takes him on an epic journey through the mountains where the sun rises and sets, to a strange land beyond the normal world and eventually across the waters of death.
When he finally reaches the survivor of the Flood, this immortal sage tells him he is on a fool’s errand. Mankind is mortal — no one can cheat death. But in return for the extraordinary journey this great king has made he is given two secrets. One is the account of the Flood, prefiguring the Biblical story of Noah, the other is the secret of a plant, growing in underground waters, that will confer eternal youthfulness. Gilgamesh recovers the plant and carries it back to Uruk, but on the journey home, while bathing in a lake, a snake eats the plant and sloughs its skin, rejuvenating itself.
Gilgamesh returns to Uruk, a wiser and better king than the arrogant young man portrayed at the beginning of the epic. For a more detailed synopsis, click here.