Epic of Gilgamesh

Image: Kazimir Malevich


Introduction to the translation of the work of the XNUMXst century BC


Gilgámesh, the Sumerian king of Uruk, a city-state located in southern Mesopotamia (today in Iraq), is the protagonist of heroic narratives dating back to the XNUMXst century BC It is likely that he actually lived around the XNUMXth century before our era , as his name appears, in dynastic lists in the XNUMXnd century (then known as of Ur III or Neosumeria), as the fifth king of the post-Flood era. These lists are the product of fables from remote times, having only relative historical value, but attest, in any case, to the antiquity of the traditions relating to Gilgamesh.

According to them, who first reigned after the flood was Mesh-ki-ang-gasher, son of the god Utu (the Sun), his rule having extended for 324 years; next came his son Enmerkar, builder of Unug (ie Uruk), who reigned 420 years; after him came Lugalbanda, the shepherd, king for 1.200 years; then Dumuzid the fisherman took the throne, remaining there for a hundred years; so comes the turn of Gilgámesh, whose father, according to the lists, would be a specter, exercising power for 126 years.

All this tradition was conserved in texts in cuneiform writing, invented in Sumeria, in the XXXIII century BC, from which thousands of clay tablets were preserved, with works ranging from poems to treatises on divination, medicine and cooking, written in more than one language. dozens of ancient languages ​​spoken in different parts of the Middle East, of which the main ones are Sumerian and Akkadian.

In this documentation, the name of Bilgames / Gilgámesh appears for the first time in texts from the 1821th century BC, when he was considered a god, to whom offerings were made. At the same time, he was also seen as king and judge in the underworld, Ersetu, abode of the dead, a function that continued to be attributed to him for the next two millennia. From the beginning of the Paleo-Babylonian period (1817st century BC), we know of an inscription that states that Gilgámesh rebuilt a sanctuary of the god Enlil, in Nippur, while an inscription, in Sumerian, made by King Anam (XNUMX-XNUMX BC), refers to the construction by him of the walls of Uruk.

The glorification and heroicization of Gilgámesh in literary texts begins around the 2094st century BC, when Shulgi, who reigned in Ur from 2047 to XNUMX, dedicated two brief hymns to him, the first dealing with his victory over Enmebaragesi, king of Kish, and the other on the famous expedition to the Cedar Forest. From around the same time are the five Sumerian poems conventionally titled Bigames and the Land of the Living ( Bigames and Huwawa), Bigames and the Bull from Heaven, Bigames and Agga, The Death of Bigames e Bigames, Enkidu and the Underworld.

Each of them contains a complete account with no direct connection to the others, configuring what could be understood as the first stage of literary traditions about Gilgamesh. In particular, the themes of Bigames and the Land of the Living, the expedition against Huwawa (in Akkadian, humbaba), And Bigames and the Bull from Heaven, the offense to Inanna (Akkadian Ishtar) and the revenge of the goddess, were worked as episodes of Akkadian poems that present longer and more concatenated narratives.

The chronology of the Akkadian narratives presents three phases: the Old Babylonian versions (between 1800 and 1600 BC), the Middle Babylonian versions (between 1600 and 1000) and the Classical Babylonian version (between 1300 and 1200), the latter, in the later times, having become the version standard or vulgate.

From the ancient Babylonian version we have scarce but significant testimonies that allow us to conceive how this first experience of concatenated narrative of the saga of Gilgámesh, with several episodes, should have been. The documents differ from each other in terms of size and the number of columns, which indicates that they must come from different editions of the poem, the main ones being the tablet now at the University of Pennsylvania, whose colophon describes it as the second in a series entitled Prominent among kings (šūturelišarrī), and the Yale University tablet.

The Middle Babylonian version of the poem also seems to provide a multi-episode narrative sequence, attested not only in Akkadian but also in Hittite and Hurrian translations. An important addition to what was known about it happened in 2007, when the manuscripts found in Ugarit, Syria, were published. begins, like that one, with the words “He whom the abyss saw” (šanaqbaīmuru).

Finally, the most recent version, attributed to the wise exorcist Sin-léqi-unnínni, is composed of a series of twelve tablets, constituting the point of arrival of Gilgámesh's literary material: the first eleven bring the king's saga, the twelfth , which is not part of the narrative thread, contains the translation into Akkadian of part of the Sumerian poem Bilgamesh, Enkidu and the Underworld. What we know of it basically comes from the manuscripts found in the library of the Assyrian king Assurbanipal (669-627 BC), in Nineveh, that is, from documents dated before the seventh century, which preserved the poem written about half a millennium before. It was this Vulgate that continued to be copied throughout the first millennium, the last document we have being from the second century BC.

All this shows how the saga of Gilgamesh was told and retold for no less than two thousand years, in a space that extended, from north to south, from Anatolia (today Turkey) to Sumeria (today Iraq), and, from east to the west, from Persia (today Iran) to the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, in Syria, Palestine and Egypt.

In Damrosch's terms, the saga of Gilgamesh is “arguably the first true work of world literature. Gilgamesh it is the oldest literary text we know of to have a wide circulation, far removed from its Babylonian origin, and it is also the oldest text of which we have recovered translations in several foreign languages: parts of translations from the Akkadian original have been found in Hittite and Hurrian – and this “original” is itself an extensive adaptation of an older Sumerian song cycle. Gilgamesh it seems, in fact, to have been the most popular piece of literature written in the ancient Near East; texts from him have been found in no fewer than fifteen locations, not only throughout Mesopotamia, but as far away as Hattusa, the Hittite capital in what is now Turkey, and Megiddo, about fifty miles north of Jerusalem.


The poem presented here in translation is the classic version of the saga of Gilgámesh, written in Akkadian, between 1300 and 1200 BC, by the sage Sin-léqi-unnínni, its ancient title, as is common in literary works of the Middle East, his first words being: He whom the abyss saw. Its reading became possible since when, in the second half of the XNUMXth century, cuneiform writing was deciphered and the Akkadian language became known, which is of the same family as Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic.

It was in 1872 that the English Assyriologist George Smith presented, for the first time, at a conference at the Society of Biblical Archeology in London, an excerpt from this work, namely, the narrative of the deluge, which is found in tablet 11. Since then, other discoveries have it only increased our knowledge of the Akkadian text that a new critical edition, prepared by Andrew George, was published in 2003 by Oxford University Press.

It is on this most recent critical edition that the translation presented here is based, with the additions resulting from two later discoveries: the Ugarit manuscripts, published in 2007, and the Suleimanyiah manuscript, identified in 2011 by the Iraqi Assyriologist Farouk Al-Rawi and published by himself and by Andrew George in 2014. This last finding, in particular, is significant, as it allowed the beginning and end of tablet 5 to be completed in great detail, which narrates the fight of Gilgámesh and Enkidu against Humbaba, the guardian of the Cedar Forest of Lebanon. It is enough to observe these dates to have the perspective that our knowledge about Gilgámesh continues at an increasing pace, and it is to be hoped that new discoveries will allow us to fill in the gaps that still exist in the poems dedicated to him.

In the present edition of the eleven tablets recounting the saga of Gilgamesh, the gaps have, as far as possible, been filled in with testimonies from the ancient and middle versions of the Akkadian poem. The passages added to the classic version are indicated with abbreviations in front of the numbering of the verses, on the right of the page, which the reader will easily identify.

Other additions are presented in square brackets, as they are conjectures aimed at completing the meaning suggested by some fragmented verses. A few notes clarify, when necessary, who are the characters that integrate the plot.

*Jacyntho Lins Brandao He is Professor Emeritus at the Faculty of Letters at UFMG. Author, among other books, of Ancient muse: archeology of fiction (Reliquary).


Epic of Gilgamesh. Translation and notes: Jacyntho Lins Brandão. Belo Horizonte, Autêntica, 2021, 160 pages.

Recommended reading

D'AGOSTINO, Franco. Gilgameš or the conquest of Immortality. Madrid: Trotta, 2007.

DAMROSCH, David. Scriptworlds: Writing Systems and the Formation of World Literature. Modern Language Quarterly, v. 68, no. 2, p. 195-219, 2007.

EPIC of Gilgameš, King of Uruk. Translation and editing by Joaquín Sanmartín. Madrid: Trotta; Barcelona: Publications and Editions of the University of Barcelona, ​​2010.

SIN-LEQI-UNNÍNNI. He whom the abyss saw: epic of Gilgamesh. Akkadian translation, introduction and comments by Jacyntho Lins Brandão. Belo Horizonte: Authentic, 2017.

THE BABYLONIAN Gilgamesh Epic. Introduction, critical edition and cuneiform texts by Andrew R. George. Oxford: Clarendon, 2003.

THE EPIC of Gilgamesh: The Babylonian Epic Poem and Other Texts in Akkadian and Sumerian. Translated with an introduction by Andrew R. George. London: Penguin, 2003.


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