May 11, 2023

From Gerald R. Lucas

Gilgamesh: Prologue[1]

I will proclaim to the world the deeds of Gilgamesh.[2] This was the man to whom all things were known; this was the king who knew the countries of the world.[3] He was wise, he saw mysteries and knew secret things,[4] he brought us a tale of the days before the flood.[5] He went on a long journey, was weary, worn-out with labour,[6] returning he rested, he engraved on a stone the whole story.[7]

When the gods created Gilgamesh they gave him a perfect body.[8] Sha­mash the glorious sun endowed him with beauty, Adad the god of the storm endowed him with courage, the great gods made his beauty perfect, surpassing all others, terrifying like a great wild bull.[9] Two thirds they made him god and one third man.[10]

In Uruk[11] he built walls, a great rampart, and the temple of blessed Eanna[12] for the god of the firmament Anu, and for Ishtar the goddess of love. Look at it still today: the outer wall where the cornice runs, it shines with the brilliance of copper; and the inner wall, it has no equal. Touch the threshold, it is ancient. Approach Eanna the dwelling of Ishtar, our lady of love and war, the like of which no latter-day king, no man alive can equal. Climb upon the wall of Uruk; walk along it, I say; regard the foundation terrace. and examine the masonry: is it not burnt brick[13] and good? The seven sages[14] laid the foundations.[15]


  1. Translated by N. K. Sandars.
  2. This statement introduces the poet’s intention to tell the story of Gilgamesh, the legendary hero-king. It emphasizes the epic’s purpose as a means of disseminating Gilgamesh’s accomplishments and ensuring his legacy. It could be likened to the epic theme of the text. The introduction of Gilgamesh as a larger-than-life figure, possessing great knowledge, wisdom, and undertaking extraordinary feats, aligns with the characteristics of an epic hero. It sets the stage for an epic narrative that will follow Gilgamesh's adventures, achievements, and personal growth throughout the story.
  3. Gilgamesh is a hero with exceptional knowledge and wisdom. He is a figure with extensive understanding, suggesting his superiority and authority as a ruler.
  4. This emphasizes Gilgamesh's wisdom and ability to comprehend hidden knowledge. It alludes to his perception of enigmatic aspects of life and the world, indicating his status as a well traveled and sagacious figure.
  5. Here, the prologue establishes that Gilgamesh’s story transcends his own time and encompasses events that occurred before the great flood. This reference to the flood prepares foreshadows the epic’s exploration of the cataclysmic event told in book 5, which holds significant importance in Mesopotamian mythology and history. The reference to the flood reflects the influence of the Mesopotamian flood myth found in various ancient Near Eastern texts, including the story of Noah in Genesis. The flood narrative held significant cultural and religious importance in Mesopotamia, as it was believed to symbolize divine punishment and the renewal of the world.
  6. This line signifies Gilgamesh’s physical and emotional exhaustion resulting from his arduous journey. It suggests that his experiences and endeavors were demanding and challenging, emphasizing the magnitude of his exploits.
  7. This sentence highlights Gilgamesh's need for repose after his journey. It also mentions his act of inscribing the entire narrative on a stone, underscoring the importance of recording and preserving his story for future generations. The quest for worldly renown is a dominant theme in the epic, and “engraved on stone” suggests something important for the culture that needs to be preserved and shared and remembered.
  8. This line establishes that Gilgamesh was divinely created by the gods. It emphasizes his exceptional physical form, suggesting that he possesses an ideal physique befitting a hero.
  9. Not only is Gilgamesh beautiful and courageous, the comparison to a great wild bull adds a sense of power and dominance to his appearance. In Mesopotamian culture, the bull symbolized both fertility and strength, and it was associated with divinity and kingship. By likening Gilgamesh to a great wild bull, the epic highlights his royal lineage and his divine essence as a hero-king. The bull is both powerful and dangerous, as is Gilgamesh.
  10. This statement highlights Gilgamesh’s semi-divine nature, suggesting that he possesses exceptional qualities that set him apart from ordinary mortals. Like most other epic heroes, Gilgamesh is partially divine, perhaps lending to his overbearing arrogance as king in the following section. This paragraph reflects the ancient Mesopotamian belief in the mingling of divine and human elements within rulers and heroes. The concept of kingship and the association of rulers with divine attributes were deeply ingrained in Mesopotamian culture, where kings were believed to have a close connection to the gods.
  11. Uruk, also known as Erech in some ancient texts, was one of the most important and influential cities in ancient Mesopotamia. It was located in what is now modern-day Iraq, on the banks of the Euphrates River. Uruk was a significant center of political, economic, and cultural activity during the early stages of civilization in Mesopotamia. Uruk played a pivotal role in the development of early urban civilization. It was a hub of trade and commerce, facilitating economic exchange between different regions. The city was also a center of religious worship, with its temples serving as important religious and social institutions.
  12. Eanna is a significant temple complex in Uruk. The term “Eanna” translates to “House of Heaven” or “House of An” in Sumerian, referring to its association with the sky god An or Anu. The temple complex was dedicated to Inanna (Ishtar), the goddess of love, beauty, fertility, and war. Eanna was a prominent religious and cultural center in ancient Mesopotamia. It was one of the most revered and important sanctuaries in Uruk and played a significant role in the religious practices and beliefs of the people. The temple complex was a focal point for worship, rituals, and offerings dedicated to Inanna, and it served as a gathering place for religious ceremonies, festivals, and other communal activities.
  13. The reference to burnt brick as the primary building material reflects the architectural practices of ancient Mesopotamia.
  14. Often referred to as the Apkallu or Abgal in Sumerian and Akkadian texts, the seven sages were believed to be wise and knowledgeable individuals who possessed divine wisdom and served as advisors to both gods and humans. They were believed to have played a role in the shaping of civilization, imparting knowledge, arts, sciences, and various aspects of human culture. Their inclusion in the here emphasizes the epic’s connection to ancient wisdom and the legendary heritage of Mesopotamian civilization.
  15. This passage showcases the epic's descriptive and celebratory tone, glorifying the accomplishments of Gilgamesh as a builder and portraying the grandeur of Uruk. It serves to establish the city as a significant setting within the narrative and emphasizes the theme of human achievements and the imprint of civilization.