Beginning of Epic Poetry: Gilgamesh and the Land of Living
The earliest known surviving epic poems come from Sumer in southern Mesopotamia. The hero of several of these epics is Gilgamesh, a king of the Sumerian city of Uruk.
Twenty-seven lines of the epic Gilgamesh and the Land of the Living (written before 2000 BCE) are recorded on the tablet. The story recounts the hero’s ferocious battle with the monster Huwawa, guardian of the Great Cedar Forest, known as the Land of the Living. In the passage on our tablet, Gilgamesh complains that he is oppressed by the presence of death all around him. He asks permission from the Sungod, Utu, to go to the Cedar Forest to make a name for himself. This older Sumerian epic was later adapted and incorporated into the famous Akkadian Gilgamesh epic, written about 1800 BCE.
Cuneiform Tablet Inscribed with Lines from the Epic Poem Gilgamesh and the Land of the Living
Babylonia, modern Iraq, 19th–17th c. BCE. Earthenware.
Edgar J. Banks Collection
The following translation of the cuneiform tablet on exhibit begins with the words of Gilgamesh’s servant, Enkidu, as Gilgamesh deals with his mortality and his desire to journey to the Cedar Forest, the Land of the Living.
“O my master, if you wish to enter that land, inform Utu (the sun god),
Inform Utu, the hero Utu.
The land is in Utu’s control.
The Cut-Cedar Land is in the hero Utu’s control; inform Utu.”
Gilgamesh laid his hands on an all-white kid,
A brown kid as an offering he held to his breast,
The silver staff in his hand he held at his nose.
He said to Utu of heaven,
“ O Utu, I want to enter that land—be my helper;
I want to enter the Cut-Cedar land—be my helper.”
Utu answered him from heaven,
“ Young man, in your own place you are a nobleman,
but in that land, what would you be?”
Gilgamesh answered, “O Utu, let me speak a word to you; listen to what I say.
Let me tell you something; please give thought to it.
In my city a man dies, and the heart is stricken;
A man perishes, and the heart is heavy.
I climbed upon the rampart
And saw a corpse drifting down the river, floating on the water.
I too shall become like that, just so shall I be!
Even the tallest man cannot reach the sky,
Even the largest man cannot encompass the earth.
Since no one can escape life’s end,
I want to enter that land and set up my name.
Where names are set up, I want to set up my name,
Where names have not been set up, I will set up the names of the gods.”
Utu accepted his tears as a gift.
Like a compassionate one, he showed him pity.
— Gilgamesh and the Land of the Living, Lines 9–36