World Literature: The Epic of Gilgamesh
No study of world literature would be complete without The Epic of Gilgamesh which dates back nearly 4000 years ago. It’s a story full of adventure that offers a peek into the lives and views of the ancient Mesopotamians.
If you are a teacher, this study will aid you in bringing The Epic of Gilgamesh to life for your students. If you’re a student, this study will help you gain a better understanding of The Epic of Gilgamesh and possibly offer some insights you haven’t learned in class. You’ll find lots of information, some unique supplemental resources, and activities designed to stimulate interest and broaden understanding of this ancient piece of literature.
While The Epic of Gilgamesh is usually included in literature studies for the high school grades, I’ve included some resources and activities for younger students as well.
Enjoy your study of The Epic of Gilgamesh!
Image of Gilgamesh courtesy of zayzayem on Flickr creative commons
The little that is known
It’s believed that the original Gilgamesh was a king who reigned in Uruk of Sumer somewhere around 2700-2500 B.C. and The Epic of Gilgamesh is a story about him. It’s likely that the story was told orally for centuries before being committed to writing. The cuneiform version lay hidden for centuries until it was discovered by an archaeologist in 1839. The story has changed many times through the years and even today varying versions exist.
A visual resource to help students understand the story
The Epic of Gilgamesh was written a long time ago in a format that most readers aren't used to today. Seeing a visual can really help bring the story to life.
The highlights of the story of Gilgamesh
Gilgamesh is a Sumerian king who is two parts god and one part human. He’s also a strong leader and the builder of a great city. Although he has superhuman qualities and is very brave, he’s plagued by human weaknesses, excessive pride being one of them, and he lacks the one thing he desires—immortality.
On his quest for eternal life, Gilgamesh encounters a lot of obstacles and adventure. In an effort to deal with his overwhelming pride, the gods decide to send a friend who has many of the same qualities as Gilgamesh. His enemy-turned-friend, Enkidu, eventually dies and Gilgamesh is once again faced with the dilemma of the mortality of man. Later Gilgamesh almost has immortality in his grasp but loses it unexpectedly. Thus, he is a changed man and accepts that his fate is death just like any common man.
The Epic of Gilgamesh has remained popular because it addresses so many of the feelings and desires common to man. What person hasn’t been curious about death? Who doesn’t long to cheat it? Which of us hasn’t been prideful or selfish at times? Who hasn’t encountered unexpected and overwhelming obstacles in life or felt that life just isn’t fair? Who doesn’t love a strong hero to save the day? Gilgamesh embodies qualities and desires that are familiar to people of every culture and generation.
For every age and grade level
Captain Jean-Luc Pikard recounts the story.
The culture and people in the time of Gilgamesh
In order to fully understand The Epic of Gilgamesh, it’s imperative to know about his people, the Mesopotamians. Mesopotamia was a region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The people of that region knew both poverty and plenty. The rivers produced frequent floods which made the soil fertile, but those same floods brought great danger to the people. The region was flat which meant that invaders had fairly easy access to the cities. Just like Gilgamesh’s adventure, the people were often faced with unexpected obstacles, danger, and suffering.
Because of their misfortunes, they adopted a religious system of gods and goddesses who were both unpredictable and seemingly unfair. They believed that not only was life on earth difficult, but they held little hope that the afterlife was any better. They were religious pessimists, which might account for Gilgamesh’s search for immortality, a quest to avoid something even more unpleasant than the life he was living.
To learn more about the culture in the Epic of Gilgamesh
Great for oral discussions or written assignments
- What does The Epic of Gilgamesh reveal about the culture and values of the Mesopotamians?
- Why do you think it was important to portray Gilgamesh as a brave hero?
- In what ways is Gilgamesh selfish?
- Proverbs 16:18 says, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” How did this verse play out in the life of Gilgamesh?
- How does the fact that Gilgamesh was two parts god and one part man seem similar to this verse in John 1:14 of the Bible? “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
- What is the irony between what happens to the plant of youth and what you would expect to happen to it?
- Can you name some other real or fictional characters who were on a quest to find the fountain of youth or eternal life?
- In the end, which part of Gilgamesh seems more dominant—his two parts god or one part human?
- How does the style of writing in the story compare to modern adventure stories?
Humbaba image courtesy of seriykotik1970 Flickr creative commons
Like it might have been performed in the time of Gilgamesh
Recitation with accompaniment on a 4500 year old lyre.
The author's tools
Epic: a really long narrative writing or poem that tells the story of a magnificent, almost unbelievable hero who lives out the values of his society.
Archetype: an idea that is seen in the literature of a wide variety of cultures. In The Epic of Gilgamesh the archetype is a hero’s quest.
Hero’s quest: When a hero goes on a mission but suffers much and gains understanding through the suffering that he couldn’t have gained otherwise.
Gilgamesh is the hero who sets out to find something precious, but learns the truth about himself and his mortality through the things he suffers.
Irony: The interesting or amusing contradiction between what is expected to happen and what actually happens. An example from Gilgamesh's story would be what happens to the plant that restores youth to man.
Ideas for teachers
- Write a new ending for The Epic of Gilgamesh.
- Compare and contrast the story of the flood found in The Epic of Gilgamesh with the flood story found in Genesis 6 and 7 of the Bible.
- Compare and contrast two modern heroes- fictional or real.
- Create a hero's quest- a story about a hero who goes on a quest, encounters obstacles, and comes to a new realization.
- Write a story about a modern hero who reflects the values of your country or society.
- Write an editorial or opinion piece about The Epic of Gilgamesh.
- Choose one of the adventures of Gilgamesh and write a newspaper article about it.
- Research and write a report about some aspect of death. The topic might be the fears people have about death, burial customs, near death experiences, religious beliefs about death, how terminally ill people cope with death, or another death-related topic that is broad enough to research.
- Research and write a report about the Sumerian and Babylonian civilization in the time of Gilgamesh.
- Write a short epic.
- Create a skit from one of the scenes in the story.
Lion from Ishtar courtesy of tpholland on Flickr creative commons
Gilgamesh activities for kids
- Act out a skit about one of the scenes from Gilgamesh, preferably a skit that you write.
- Research Mesopotamian art and use clay to create a piece of artwork.
- Draw or paint a picture of how you picture Gilgamesh in your mind.
- Explore this website about Mesopotamia for Kids.
- Enjoy these stories and games of ancient Mesopotamia.
- Make a scrapbook using this Mesopotamia Scrapbook Kit.
- Take a look at this recreation of The Epic of Gilgamesh using Legos.