Gilgamesh was a Real Historical Figure

Was Gilgamesh a Real Person?

Scholars have undertaken research to ascertain the argument of whether or not the legend of Gilgamesh is real. The question has become intriguing with some scholars making comparisons between the King that Gilgamesh was and the epic accounts that have been discovered about the legend. The work of Haubold, (2014) notes that most scholars agree that the legendary accounts developed surrounding Gilgamesh have been largely fictionalized. However, historians are in a position to justify that Gilgamesh existed as a king in his time. Gilgamesh is a significant literary character in most literature works whose origin is Mesopotamia. Works of poetry mention a rival king in the Sumerian Gilgamesh and the work is documented to have been created in the late third millennium BCE. Most of the poetry works dated in the late third millennium BCE have been verified by archeology. However, the history, myths and legend that surround Gilgamesh as a king and his contribution to his society raises enquiries on whether or not he is a real historical figure. Most scholars have explored the composition and meaning of the epic of Gilgamesh. According to Foster, (2014), most scholars who have encountered sources on the life and legend of Gilgamesh, use different approaches. Further, the essay will give a summary of the eleven tablets and provide a justification to support the thesis of the paper. The paper will argue that Gilgamesh was a real historical figure and provide sufficient evidence to support the argument.

Gilgamesh was a legendary hero who was considered as such during the time he lived in 2700 BC. He was the fifth ruler of Uruk dynasties in Sumerian city which is the modern-day Iraq (Villiers, 2005). Lugalbanda, his father was king of Uruk while his mother Ninsun ruled as an intelligent cow goddess. In the King list of the Sumerians, he records an era of 126 years. Gilgamesh had a son, Urlugal whom together they rebuilt Ninlil a goddess sanctuary in Tummal, in the sacred city of Nippur (Villiers, 2005). He is the significant character revolving around Epic Gilgamesh which a substantial existing works in the early literature of Mesopotamia. According to Jones, (2011), in the Mesopotamian mythologies, he is recognized as a demigod with extraordinary strength that built Uruk city walls to defend the Sumerians from threats and external conflicts. Gilgamesh emphasis as a historical figure is further justified as he fought against Sargon of Akkadian’s military in a conflict that lasted for ages destroying the walls of Uruk (Jones, 2011). The Sumerians recognize him for travelling to meet Utnapishtim the sage that overcame the Great Deluge. Interestingly Gilgamesh is described as a one third of a human being and two thirds of a god (Villiers, 2005).

The presence and significance of Gilgamesh as a historically significant figure is evident in the multiple historical accounts that make a direct or implied refence to the king or his reign. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh is illustrated as a young, athletic, handsome king of the Uruk city. In Mesopotamia, the tales of Gilgamesh are exploited in narratives in five poems existing among the Sumerians (Jarman, 2014). Most Sumerian texts have identified Gilgamesh by the name Bilgrames. Some of the epic fragments found in Tell Haddad demonstrate Gilgamesh burial. Uruk people diverted river Euphrates with the objective to bury the king under the river bed (Villiers, 2005). The evidence of existence of Gilgamesh was recorded on twelve clay tablets in cuneiform that are dated between 1000 and 1300B.C. (Foster, 2014). The Epic of Gilgamesh describes the adventures of Enkidu and Gilgamesh who is reported to have killed and conquered Humbaba, the monster set over by the gods in Forest of Cedar.

Gilgamesh is recognized as a historical king among the people of Uruk and an epic hero who is featured in archeological inscriptions and contemporary letters (Haubold, 2014). The Epic of Gilgamesh illustrates numerous themes that are significant in understanding the culture of Mesopotamia and the heredity of kings (Caputo, 2016). The role of the king, immortality, civilization, enmity and the relation between gods and human are themes that have been exemplified in the Mesopotamian mythology (Ilnitzki, n.d.). In the poems Gilgamesh faced various challenges that have shaped the culture of Mesopotamia. The manifestation of numerous events provides proof of the existence of kings and gods in the past that defined human civilization (Gadotti, 2005).

The success of Gilgamesh has led him to be featured in narratives that have developed to myths and legends that are similar to historical heroes such as Charlemagne, Arthur and Sigurd in Western Civilization (Putra, 2013). Moreover, Gilgamesh attracted accomplishments and names of various kings that existed during the period.

The Epic of Gilgamesh

The Epic of Gilgamesh since reconstruction and rediscovery has created controversy among historians. The narrative is contrary to the Bible exemplifying 4,000 years in the society of Mesopotamia (Heidel, n.d.) The tale manifests religious and cultural heritage of the people of Mesopotamia in world literature. Throughout the religion and culture of Mesopotamia, that is reflected in the contemporary society. The existence of council of elders and firm male leader as well as the aspect of gender division in culture and religions is essential in contemporary societies (Haubold, 2014).

Mesopotamia was religiously a polytheist society that is linked to natural phenomenon and the existence of gods is personified heavily (Ilnitzki, n.d.). In his life Gilgamesh encounters gods, creatures and kings who are vital enhancing human feelings, friendships, fear of death and relationships (Villiers, 2005). The people of Uruk believe and pray to the god of Anu to liberate them from the harsh rule of Gilgamesh. The gesture demonstrates the existence of religion among the people of Mesopotamia (Haubold, 2014).

According to Jarman, (2014), in the events of Gilgamesh, death has been portrayed as a symbol relative to the epic and culture. The culture of Mesopotamia death exemplifies strange images of a dangerous and dark underworld where deceased souls are trapped underground (Heidel, n.d.). In Epic, death occurs as Enkidu and Gilgamesh are killing the Bull of Heaven and when Gilgamesh kills Humbaba. In the culture of Mesopotamia, the people of Uruk find peace in death (Caputo, 2016). Similarly, in contemporary religious beliefs, people find peace through transition of death.

Although historians pay more attention on Hammurabi and his code of law, other civilizations account like that of the Tigris -Euphrates and other first civilizations explain their existence by focusing on Gilgamesh and other prominent legends (Villiers, 2005). From the multiple accounts documented on Gilgamesh as a Legend, are characterized by mythical accounts and were written about 2000 B.C (Foster, 2014). The writings were on clay tablets and in Sumerian language. History shows that Sumerian language does not reflect any similarities to any other known language. The writings were in cuneiform whose translation means ‘wedge-shaped’. The twelve tablets that have been retrieved and translated by historians contain a chronological account originally written in Akkadian language (Jones, 2011).  In most of the accounts presented by the tablets, Gilgamesh is accorded a heroic nature and a superhuman presentation.

Gilgamesh is presented as two-thirds god and one-third human. He is said to be the greatest king on earth. However, Gilgamesh is described as a young ruthless king who oppresses his people. The people are helpless and call to Anu, the sky-god to rescue them (Ilnitzki, n.d.). As a response to their prayers, Anu created and sent a wild man Enkidu from the wild forests of Gilgamesh’s land. Enkidu is created with wild powers and exceptional abilities and his purpose is to salvage the subhuman citizens who have been oppressed by the superhuman Gilgamesh (Jarman, 2014). The news spread rapidly from the first time that a trapper’s son encounters Enkidu running with the wild animals. Upon his father’s advice, the son takes Shamhat, a temple harlot to Enkidu as a test to see if the wild man would succumb to sexual desires. Even though he succumbs and loses his strength and wildness, he gains understanding and knowledge. Shamhat offers to take Enkidu to the city and show him Gilgamesh, whom she argues is the only one deserving Enkidu’s friendship (Foster, 2014).

At the same time, Gilgamesh dreams twice with the first dream showing meteorite fall on earth. Gilgamesh is unable to overpower its might and his people celebrate around it. Although Gilgamesh is open to embrace it as though it were his wife, his mother forces a coemption between the meteorite and Gilgamesh (Ilnitzki, n.d.). The second dream portrays an axe on Gilgamesh’s door and still he is unable to turn or lift it. Again, people gather and celebrate it and Gilgamesh is willing to embrace it. However, his mother forces Gilgamesh to compete with the axe. Gilgamesh seeks explanation about the dreams from his mother who informs him that a great man would come into Uruk (Jones, 2011). Gilgamesh will collaborate with the mighty man and accomplish great deeds.

Enkidu is introduced to civilization by receiving education and apprenticeship on tending flocks, civilized eating, wearing clothes and speaking properly. Enkidu’s formal introduction into Uruk happens on a day of great celebration (Villiers, 2005). The encounter between Gilgamesh and Enkidu happens when Gilgamesh is about to claim his self-declared right to have sexual intercourse with a new bride on her wedding night. Enkidu is infuriated by the abuse and prompts the two into a furious fight. Gilgamesh gets the upper hand as the fight resolves and the two embraces a sign of their devoted friendship. The two friends become weak with time and grow lazy living in the city. Gilgamesh proposes that for their friendship, they should take an adventure and journey through great Cedar Forest and cut all cedar trees (Ilnitzki, n.d.). However, they would have to kill the guardian of the forest first who is believed to be a Humbaba the Terrible. Enkidu is aware of the powers of Humbaba and tries to convince his friend not to undertake the adventure.

It is important to note that most contents on tablets were not in existence. The salvaged information reports that the elders of the city undertook a protest against Gilgamesh’s but eventually agree (Haubold, 2014). The elders assigned Enkidu the responsibility to protect the king and required that the Enkidu takes the forward position in the battle. The king’s mother laments her sons’ fate asking the sun-god Shamash why he gave Gilgamesh a restless heart (Gadotti, 2005). The sun-god promises to watch over the king’s life. After being commanded by the queen mother to protect her son, Enkidu panics and tries to convince Gilgamesh to quit the adventure without success.

The tablets explain the tale of the voyage to the cider forest. In the six-day voyage, Gilgamesh prayed to Shamash who sends oracular dreams to Gilgamesh in the night to respond to his prayers.  In another dream, Gilgamesh wrestles a bull that breaks the earth (Gadotti, 2005).  The dreams are ominous creating fear to Gilgamesh. The interpretation of the dream by Enkidu reveals Shamash protection. The revelation of Enkidu on his dreams illustrates success to his coming battles. The tablet exemplifies the unity between Enkidu and Gilgamesh to fight the demon of Humbaba. As Gilgamesh enters Cedar Forest, he shakes with fear praying and reminding Shamash of the promise of safety he had on Ninsun (Jarman, 2014). Shamash directs Gilgamesh to kill Humbaba when he is not wearing his armor of seven coats.

The tablet provides an account of the two friends entering the magnificent Cedar Forest. Gilgamesh and Enkidu begin to cut the trees and Humbaba, the guardian, hears the sound and comes running with a roar to warn them off (Haubold, 2014). Enkidu tries to defend the king and warned Humbaba that the two are stronger that a mere demon. Overlooking Enkidu, Humbaba taunts the King for taking orders from nobody. Humbaba begins a fight with the two when he turns his face into a hideous form. Although Gilgamesh is too frightened and goes into hiding, Enkidu inspires courage and the two friends fight against Humbaba (Jarman, 2014). The sun-god intervenes in favor of Gilgamesh and Enkidu who acquire victory against Humbaba. Humbaba begs for his life as Gilgamesh holds a sword to his head. However, Enkidu convinces him that he would gain renowned fame across time and lands if he kills Humbaba. Gilgamesh succumbs to the yearning of such power and cuts Humbaba’s head (Ilnitzki, n.d.). Unfortunately, before dies, Humbaba curses Enkidu to never find peace and not live longer. Nevertheless, the two friends accomplish their adventure, cut down cedar trees even the tallest cedar tree and make a magnificent gate for the city

Sumerian Poems of Gilgamesh

In ancient writings from Mesopotamia, the name of Gilgamesh appears in different forms like Bilgames. Through history, five Sumerian poems have been copied about Bilgames on the varying degree of popularity in Babylonian schools with greater improvements on particular translations. The texts were collected to facilitate the epic Babylonian standard with other materials illustrated by Akkadian (Caputo, 2016).

In the Babylonian epic, Gilgamesh Sumerian poems play the role of reconstruction and recovery from pieces of clay tablets preserved in museums in various countries. With increased text discovery, it is possible to observe and compare between Babylonian epic and Sumerian poems (Caputo, 2016). It enables people to appreciate the skills portrayed by Old Babylonian poets who expressed traditional stories and themes as primary materials in literature (Gadotti, 2005). However, it is difficult to determine if the knowledge used was derived from individual experience or written existing traditions in scribal schools or even knowledge from oral Sumerian traditions presented in Akkadian. According to Jones, (2011), the evident borrowing is present in adaptation of the story of Sumerians’ Huwawa and Bilgames that furnish elaborate narrative Expedition in Tablets III- V in the Babylonian epic. The simple efforts demonstrated by the Bull of Heaven and tale of Sumerian Bilgame’s achieve episodes of Tablet VI Bull of Heaven and Ishtar (Caputo, 2016).

Recent discoveries have been revealed in the Akkadian tale in Tablet VIII of Enkidu’s funeral which is closely related to Bilgame’s funeral and the traditional customs where Gilgamesh acquired the knowledge of Flood Heroes that restore cultic life practices of the land (Jones, 2011). The historical origin of the Sumerian poems is briefly covered. Ideally, the language of the Sumerians is used figuratively in expressing Akkadian that makes an abrupt opaque passage (Jones, 2011). The existing translations are aimed at presenting an original version to produce clear texts that have limited liberties on occasional phrasing. The five poems have survived numerous recessions with relative periodical intervals. In some cases, the texts can be repetitive as tablets have shared passages or abbreviated versions. The adopted policies provide a translation producing texts in the simplest form.

Gilgamesh reigned between 2500 B.C with most historians agreeing that he ruled for about 126 years in Sumerian king List. Legendary accounts that surround his existence present Gilgamesh as a son of goddess Ninsum born to the king who reigned before him. Gilgamesh is a significant historical figure and this position is justifiable through multiple arguments. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the king is the center character. The epic provides a chronological account of Gilgamesh. Having been written originally on stone tablets provides a confirmation that the Epic of Gilgamesh is an account of a king who had existed. A historical figure is justified to have multiple accounts written in his name or about him.

In his own right, Gilgamesh is a historical figure. Being studied alongside other figure of importance in history, Gilgamesh represents a concept of true devotion of a leader and his commitment to expansion of his territory. Through such ambitions, Gilgamesh triggered wars and his quest to conquer new territories present a historically significant aspect.

The other aspect of significant is that account that has been discovered containing documented information about Gilgamesh. However, the accounts provide more information about Sumerian kingdom, its people and development. For instance, in one of the tablets is an account about when Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu set off to an adventure into the Cider Forest to cut cider trees. The information in the tablet informs of the society’s religious beliefs, political order and economic status. Through studying information about Gilgamesh, scholars are able to acquire information that helps them patch-up other semi-reconstructed works of history. As such, Gilgamesh is a relevant historical figure in the contemporary society. Gilgamesh might fail to meet the requirements for a hero according to the contemporary standards but it is with no doubt he is a sign of historical significance for the society.


Caputo, D. (2016). From Sumerian tales to Babylonian epic: an interdisciplinary student guide to Gilgamesh. The International Journal of Literary Humanities, 14(4), 39-54. doi: 10.18848/2327-7912/cgp/v14i04/39-54

Foster, B. (2014). A new edition of the epic of Gilgamesh | Review by: Benjamin R. Foster | download. Retrieved from

Gadotti, A. (2005). A. R. George: The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Introduction, Critical Edition And Cuneiform Texts. 2 vols. xxxv, 741 pp., iii, 743–986 pp., 147 plates. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. £175. Bulletin of The School of Oriental and African Studies, 68(01). doi: 10.1017/s0041977x05260056

Haubold, J. (2014). Gilgamesh among Us: modern encounters with the ancient epic by theodore ziolkowski. American Journal of Philology, 135(4), 669-672. doi: 10.1353/ajp.2014.0045

Heidel, A. The Gilgamesh epic and old testament parallels [Ebook]. London: The University of Chicago Press.

Ilnitzki, M. Gilgamesh and the Quest for Immortality [Ebook] (pp. 5-9).

Jarman, M. (2014). When the light came on: the epic gilgamesh. Retrieved from

Jones, S. (2011). Review of the buried foundation of the gilgamesh epic: the akkadian huwawa narrative. Journal Of Hebrew Scriptures, 11. doi: 10.5508/jhs. 2011.v11.r21

Putra, J. (2013). Gilgamesh among us: modern encounters with the ancient epic. English, 62(237), 218-220. doi: 10.1093/english/eft012

Villiers, G. (2005). Understanding gilgamesh: his world and his story (Masters). University of Pretoria.

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