The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest story known to us. It is known as a folk tale, because it contains many individual stories which comprise the whole. It was originally written on Sumerian clay tablets, circa 2700 BC using a type of script called "Cuneiform" which when translated means "wedge-shaped". The story began as five individual narrative poems, and by the old Babylonian period, many additional stories and poems were compiled. It was later reconstructed by Sin-leqe-unninni of Babylon (circa 2000BC) into the twelve tablets we have today. Scholars believe that the events surrounding the Epic occurred somewhere around 3500 BC.
The most complete surviving version is in the Akkadian language, and was found in the ruins of the library of Ashurbanipal, king of Assyria (669-633 BC), at Nineveh. The library was destroyed by the Persians in 612 BC, and all the tablets were damaged. So parts of the story are missing.
The translations I used for the interpretation of the Epic of Gilgamesh are largely from the Akkadian compilation. However, I feel obligated to use as many of the original Sumerian names as possible, so you will find certain character names shown by the Sumerian name first followed by the Akkadian/Babylonian name (i.e.: Inana/Ishtar).
Who were the Sumerians?
Ancient Sumeria was responsible for bringing the invention of the wheel, government, art, mathematics, astronomy (more on that later...) and a form of writing called cuneiform to the world. They lived in what is known as Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates river, where Iran and Iraq are today at circa 3500-3000 BC. Sumeria is known as the "sudden civilization" by scholars because this remarkable culture seemingly appeared out of nowhere.
Where was Sumeria?
Mesopotamia, in general, refers to the area of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Sumeria refers to the southern delta region, whose primary cities included Ur, Uruk, and Eridu. Uruk is the city in which the famous king Gilgamesh lived. Akkad was a region north of Sumer which included the area around modern Baghdad as well as the ancient sites of Babylon, Kish, and Nippur.
What is Cuneiform?
Cuneiform was a writing technique used by Sumerian scribes. They used a stylus with one end slightly flared and a wet slab of clay. By pressing the stylus onto the wet clay at various angles, the scribe was able to produce characters.
When transliterated, these characters form the words, "Enuma Elish" (e-nu-ma e-lis), which is the Sumerian epic of creation (more on that later). There are thousands of these clay tablets that have survived over the years, and it has enabled scholars to get a good idea as to what life was like in Sumeria thousands of years ago.
What is a cylinder seal?
In addition to cuneiform, the Sumerians used cylinder seals to record their history. This clay slab has been created using a cylinder seal. Negatives of the image and text were carved onto a cylindrical stone (we have no idea how this was done), and then rolled onto wet clay to create the scene. Originally, cylinder seals were used by lawyers and professionals to "stamp" legal documents, much as a Notary uses seals today. As the use of cylinder seals became more widespread, they became much more elaborate, depicting important events in Sumerian history.
The object on the left is the cylindrical stone with the negative image "carved" into it. The object on the right is the clay after the cylinder of stone is rolled upon it, creating the positive image from the stone. Pretty strange eh?
Yours truly standing next to the Guardian in the Ashurnasirpal II temple reconstruction at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A most incredible, mind boggling place.
The Sumerian gods enjoyed an extended lifetime - on the average of three thousand years - as compared to our brief mortal existence. This pantheon of gods was the first pantheon, and civilizations that followed (Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Egypt, Greece, Rome etc.) simply made modifications and name changes to these gods. As with these younger cultures, the gods were often affiliated with cities, where special temples were constructed to honor them. For instance, in the Epic of Gilgamesh, Uruk was the city of the goddess Inanna, hence her infatuation with Gilgamesh.
When you begin to look into these incredible cultures, you will find that the gods of Sumeria, Assyria and Babylon are identical except for their names. For instance, the Sumerian goddess Innana is known to the later Babylonian and Akkadian cultures as Ishtar.
The most striking difference between the Sumerians and later cultures lies in the Sumerian concept of the afterlife.
It was not a pretty one.
They believed that when people died, they went to an awful place where the spirits of men ate dust and crawled on their bellies. This place was known as the "house of dust" - and after a years time of ghostly existence, the soul of the deceased would fade away into oblivion.
The Sumerians had four leading deities, known as "creating gods". Here is a brief description of these immortals:
An was the sky god, father and king of the Sumerian pantheon. He was the god of the kings (much like Horus was to the Pharaohs of Egypt) and was not friendly to the common people. He was the son of Anshar and Kishar who were beings who preceded the gods. According to Sumerian legend, An took over Heaven when it was separated from Earth, creating the universe as we know it. Although he was known as the "leader" of the Sumerian pantheon, he was the most obscure of all the gods, with very little information and no images or depictions in the various temples throughout Mesopotamia remaining.
Enlil was known as the"wind/storm-god" and the god of the lands and of the earth. He was initially the leader of the pantheon, but relinquished his position to An. Enlil was the most important god of the Sumerian pantheon, however he had a short fuse and was responsible for the great flood (here is one of the many similarities between the Sumerian mythology and our Bible). He was also credited with the creation of mankind. His wife was Ninlil. He was the "King of the Annunaki", and acted as their counselor warrior.
Inanna was the goddess of love, procreation, and war. She is often accompanied by a lion, and sometimes rides it. She was known to fly around in her "sky chamber" in the cedar mountains. She is a type of "black widow spider" - in that she finds a mate and then kills him when she is finished. She attempts to entice Gilgamesh and is refused by him, at which point she asks her father An to unleash the "Bull of Heaven" upon Gilgamesh and Enkidu. The Sumerian goddess Lillith, draws parallels to the woman who preceded Eve in the Bible. Lillith could also be affiliated with Inanna. She has been resurrected currently as a woman who is independent and not requiring the assistance of a man.
Here is a picture of Inanna. She was often depicted with no clothing, occasionally riding a lion.
Enki was known as the god of the subterranean waters. He was in charge of the bolt which bars the sea. He was the "Lord of Wisdom" and "Lord of Incantations". Enki's words came to life - what he spoke became reality. He was the son of An.
Other Sumerian gods included those in charge of rivers, mountains, and plains; of cities, fields, and farms; and of tools such as pickaxes, brick molds, and plows.
The Sumerians thought that a great domed roof contained the sky, the stars, the moon, and the sun which lighted the cities beneath it; they also believed that below the earth swirled the dim nether world, a fearsome abode of demons and the kingdom of the dead. Enlil and Enki are credited with creating the cattle, sheep, plants, the yoke and the plow to provide sustenance for themselves and less important deities, but these minor gods lacked the resolution to make use of this bounty so man was fashioned from clay and given breath so he might tend the sheep and cultivate the fields for the gods.