Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

The hero of a famous Sumerian epic, one of the oldest surviving Heroic Fantasies (see also Taproot Texts). Gilgamesh was a part-divine, part-human king of Erech, or Uruk (current Warka in Iraq), in the years after the Flood. He deposed Tammuz to recapture the city of his father, Lugulbanda, but his reign was initially cruel. He was befriended by the beast-man Enkidu. While collecting timber for new building projects Gilgamesh defeated Humbaba, the God of the Forest, who breathed fire and had an eye that could petrify. Their actions incurred the wrath of the Gods, particularly En-lil and Ishtar (whom Gilgamesh spurned), resulting in a seven-year drought (see Waste Land). Gilgamesh had to kill the Bull of Heaven to lift the drought. His success led to tragedy, however, as the gods decided that either Gilgamesh or Enkidu must die for their many offences. The two drew lots and Enkidu lost. Griefstricken, Gilgamesh embarked on a Quest for wisdom and Immortality. The latter took him to Heaven to request eternal life from the one human who had been granted that wish, who explained that his immortality was a one-time-only gift from the gods because of his contributions during a universal Flood. The story of Noah in the Bible is generally accepted to derive from this account. Gilgamesh underwent many adventures, some similar to later episodes in Greek and Jewish Legends, before returning home an older and wiser man.

It is almost certain that Gilgamesh was a historical Sumerian hero-king who lived sometime before 2500BC and to whom legends clung. His adventures were recounted throughout the empires of the Hittites, Assyrians and Babylonians. The Epic, in oral tradition from the mid-25th century BC, was probably first recorded on clay tablets during the reign of King Ur-Nammu of Ur around 2100BC. Other stories were added, until brought together possibly by the priest Sin-leqe-unnini, credited as the scribe of the stone tablets found in the library of the Assyrian king Assurbanipal (668-626BC). These were translated by Henry Rawlinson (1810-1895) and George Smith (1840-1876); the first full English translation was The Epic of Gilgamesh (1917 US) by Stephen Langdon.

Gilgamesh is occasionally referred to in fantastic fiction as a heroic Underlier, but rarely figures as a character, though he is the subject of Gilgamesh the King (1984) by Robert Silverberg. Silverberg's contributions to the Heroes in Hell Shared-World series (see Janet E Morris), novelized as To the Land of the Living (fixup 1989), describe the adventures of Gilgamesh in the Afterlife. Andrew Sinclair wrote about Enkidu in Inkydoo, the Wild Boy (1976 chap). [MA]

see also: Mesopotamian Epic.

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.