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Over 4000 years ago, the Epic of Gilgamesh was first told and written down on clay tablets.

Today, as far as I understand, the story is known from the discovery of those tablets in recent centuries.

Does human knowledge of the Epic of Gilgamesh have a continuous history? Was there ever a time when the story was lost, to all cultures, and it had to be rediscovered from the tablets? Or did knowledge of the story continue, either by oral tradition or by transcription from clay to parchment to paper, through all those centuries?

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  • How much of the story? As D.A. Hosek points out, there's shared material in the Hebrew Bible. Does that count? There's also a strong argument that the Illiad and Odyssey borrowed from the Epic of Gilgamesh; does that count? What about an Arabian djinn known as Jiljamish; would that count? Or do the people who held on to this knowledge need to have been aware of its origin?
    – Juhasz
    Sep 7, 2022 at 21:58
  • @Juhasz Where does the Bible mention Gilgamesh? Where does Homer mention Gilgamesh? The Christian world didn't know about him, the Bible was the word of God, so the flood from the Gilgamesh epic, if it had been known before 1850, could not be considered the source of the Biblical flood.
    – Tsundoku
    Sep 7, 2022 at 22:29
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    @Tsundoku, sorry, I wasn't clear. What you've written is what I meant to imply by "do the people...need to have been aware of its origin". My question was meant to clarify what counts as knowledge of the story. Do people need to know the Sumerian source of the story in order to know the story?
    – Juhasz
    Sep 7, 2022 at 22:42
  • @Juhasz I don't count material which was inspired by something which was inspired by the Gilgamesh story (that could cover a significant subset of all of literature). If people are aware of some of the themes of the Epic of Gilgamesh, but only as parts of completely different stories, then no. If there's enough shared aspects to make it more or less the same story (obviously variations are natural where oral tradition over millennia is concerned), then yes.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Sep 8, 2022 at 5:35

3 Answers 3

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When the Medes and the Babylonians conquered Nineveh in 612 B.C. they also destroyed the "Library of Ashurbanipal". Clay tablets from that library mainly "survived" as fragments. These South-West Palace, which contained the library, wasn't rediscovered until around 1850. This is where the most complete surviving versions of the Gilgamesh Epic were later found.

This does not mean that the epic did not circulate between 612 B.C. and the 1850s. The most recent fragment in cuneiform dates from around 130 B.C. (and the most recent cuneiform text from Ancient Babylonia was dated around 75 AD). However, according to Walther Sallaberger, the Gilgamesh Epic ceased to be part of a scribe's general education during the first millennium B.C. (See Sallaberger: Das Gilgamesch-Epos. Mythos, Werk und Tradition C. H. Beck, 2008.)

The most reliable historian of Babylonia from Antiquity was the Chaldean priest Berossus or Berosus, who wrote his Babyloniaca around 290 B.C. This work has survived only in fragmentary quotations by other authors. One of these was Aelian (or Claudius Aelianus), a Roman author who wrote in Greek and mentioned a Babylonian king named Gilgamos. However, his Gilgamos story has nothing to do with what we know from the epic. The flood story in Berossus's Babyloniaca is very similar to the one from the Gilgamesh epic but with a different protagonist: Xisothros (the Sumerian Ziusudra) instead of Utnapishtim.

The name Gilgamesh, disconnected from the epic, seems to have survived in the Dead Sea Scrolls from Qumran, where glgmyš/s meant "menacing giant". The name Humbabah seems to have survived as Hôbabiš, which also meant "giant". These two names lived on in Manichean literature until the early Middle Ages.

Even though the Babylonian flood story probably predates the Biblical version, people in the late nineteenth-century had great difficulty to accept that this might actually be the case. The flood story known in the West for roughly two millennia was definitely not seen as a Babylonian story for two reasons: (1) the Biblical flood is caused by God and the Bible was seen as the word of God, so any alternative narrative must necessarily be wrong, and (2) the West knew almost nothing about Babylonia from sources other than the Bible (and those other sources were less authoritative for the reason already mentioned).

Using the flood story in the Bible as an argument for the survival of knowledge about the Epic of Gilgamesh has a serious flaw: the flood story is just part of Tablet XI of the epic and does not involve Gilgamesh himself. Knowledge about other parts of the epic evidently did not survive, e.g. how Enkidu came into being, how he became Gilgamesh's servant (in the Sumerian stories) or friend (in the Standard Babylonian version), how both men went to the Cedar Forest, how they fought the Bull of Heaven, how Enkidu died and, rather importantly, how Gilgamesh's quest for immortality. A Gilgamesh epic without the flood story would still be an epic. A flood story without Gilgamesh is just a myth shared by several cultures.

Assyriologists today consider the Epic of Gilgamesh as a story that was rediscovered rather than one that has a continuous cultural history.

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  • I've always felt Gilgamesh's flood story alluded to an earlier and well known story. Whereas the Bible's may be influenced, but is written as it's own. Consider this question on mythology.stackexchange.com/q/305/93
    – user17055
    Sep 9, 2022 at 16:07
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Kind of. The name Gilgamesh and its themes did survive the text's loss. Gilgamesh was mentioned twice in later years, first as one of the giants (along with Humbaba, both names rendered into Hebrew very similarly to their Akkadian counterparts) mentioned in the Book of Giants, and second as a figure in a story told by Aelian. In the former, all we have is a name, a reminiscence of a story, perhaps; in the latter, the story seems to have been mixed up with Sargon's birth legend:

Aelian, De Natura Animalum 12.21:
A love of man is another characteristic of animals. At any rate an Eagle fostered a baby. … When Seuechoros was king of Babylon the Chaldeans foretold that the son born of his daughter would wrest the kingdom from his grandfather. This made him afraid and … he put the strictest of watches upon her. For all that, since fate was cleverer than the king of Babylon, the girl became a mother, being pregnant by some obscure man. So the guards from fear of the King hurled the infant from the citadel, for that was where the aforesaid girl was imprisoned. Now an Eagle which saw with its piercing eye the child while still falling, before it was dashed to the earth, flew beneath it, flung its back under it, and conveyed it to some garden and set it down with the utmost care. But when the keeper of the place saw the pretty baby he fell in love with it and nursed it; and it was called Gilgamos and became king of Babylon.

  • For the rest of the history of Gilgamesh, see Tigay's excellent overview The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic (UPenn 1982).

Besides these references, we're left to speculate. We do however have something stronger than the Genesis flood narrative, but in Greek sources. For example, in the Iliad, Aphrodite comes down to the battlefield at Troy and is subsequently wounded by Diomedes. She then flies up to Zeus, who she says is her father, and complains about her treatment.

This is a close parallel to Ishtar coming down to earth to seduce Gilgamesh, who insults her, whereupon she flies up to complain about her treatment to her father, Anu, who is king over heaven. Ishtar and Aphrodite were both well known for taking mortal lovers whose life ended tragically for them.

  • Charles Penglase's 1994 monograph Greek Myths and Mesopotamia makes a couple further claims along that route.

It might be no more than coincidence that both stories take place in a larger narrative of a great warrior who has a dear friend (Patroclus for Achilles, Enkidu for Gilgamesh), searches for immortality, and eventually accepts death, but the parallel is interesting nonetheless.

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It’s hard to say one way or another. Let’s take the most likely instance of a continuous knowledge of Gilgamesh, the flood narrative of tablet eleven. The parallels with, e.g., the account of the flood in Genesis 6–9, are pretty clear here, but it would be difficult to prove that Genesis was derived from Gilgamesh and not that both have their origins in some common source (the literary equivalent of correlation does not imply causation). It’s worth noting that the Biblical flood narrative is likely a braiding of two distinct traditions (note, for example, that Noah is said to take both single pairs of animals (Gen 6:19–20) and also 7 pairs vs 1 pair for clean vs unclean (Gen 7:12). Likewise, there are other Mesopotamian flood myths that share common narrative strands with both Gilgamesh and the Bible.

I would put it as, the text itself and that particular narrative was lost until the rediscovery of the clay tablets in the 19th century, but elements of the narrative, whether originating in the text or part of a pre-existing tradition, did indeed survive in culture.

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    The flood story is just part of Tablet XI of the Gilgamesh Epic and does not involve Gilgamesh himself. Claiming that knowledge of the Epic of Gilgamesh survived because the Bible also contains a flood story is a rather questionable conclusion.
    – Tsundoku
    Sep 8, 2022 at 11:58
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    @tsundoku There are other elements of the story that appear in other later narratives, I chose the flood narrative as it’s the best-known of these and, to be honest, I wasn’t really up for doing the deep research necessary. But the WIkipedia article on Gilgamesh is a good starting point for those who wish to dive deeper. Sep 8, 2022 at 16:43

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