Week 1: Gilgamesh


The course begins with some of the world’s earliest poems, the epic of Gilgamesh and the Psalms. It looks at how these very early poems establish a sense of the art of poetry as an art of recording, or of documenting. Students can see in these early works the impact of cuneiform, the wedge-shaped characters used in the ancient writing systems of Mesopotamia, Persia and Ugarit, which were stamped into clay tablets. The language used in Gilgamesh is a literal stamping of someone’s name into the poem, the branding of a name into a brick. This in turn can lead students to think about the idea of the poem as a carved object, an attempt at creating permanence, at naming, or at building a monument.

In addition, there are two other big ideas which come out of these early poems, which students can find and then track through the history of poetry, up to and including contemporary examples. Firstly, there is the technique of parallelism, the use of successive verbal constructions which correspond in grammatical structure, sound, metre or meaning. By studying these early poems, students can see how parallelism developed as a literary technique, and then compare this to later poets who have used parallelism in different ways. Secondly, there is the idea of the poem as a song of praise or, alternatively, a song of mourning. Students can be asked to identify the function of these texts, whether they attempt to mourn or praise, and then to connect to more contemporary examples.



2800–2500 BCE — Gilgamesh, also called Bilgames, reigns for 126 years as king of the city-state Uruk, according to the quasi-historical Sumerian list of kings.

2500–2300 BCE — Gilgamesh becomes a cult figure, a divinity, among Sumerians.

  1. 2300 — The first poems about Gilgamesh are thought to be passed around orally in Mesopotamia, dominated by the city-states of the Sumer people.
  2. 2100–2000 — First written (or chiselled, rather) poem about Gilgamesh is produced in Sumerian, the world’s oldest known writing.
  3. 1800–1700 BCE — Copies of poems about Gilgamesh are flourishing in Sumerian and Akkadian, the language of the early Babylonian successors to the Sumerians. They include the Old Babylonian version of the Gilgamesh epic, known as Surpassing All Other Kings.
  4. 1500–1300 BCE — Middle Babylonian versions of the Gilgamesh epic appear throughout the Middle East.
  5. 1200–1000 BCE — Babylonian priest Sin-liqe-unninni edits the Babylonian epic into what’s come to be known as the Standard Version of The Epic of Gilgamesh, also called He Who Saw the Deep. He created eleven tablets, plus a twelfth tablet based on the earlier Sumerian poem “Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Netherworld”.

1000–130 BCE — Copies of the Standard Version epic appear throughout the Middle East in various languages.


Translated by Andrew George

Climb Uruk’s wall and walk back and forth!
Survey its foundations, examine the brickwork!
Were its bricks not fired in an oven?
Did the Seven Sages not lay its foundations?

[A square mile is] city, [a square mile] date-grove,
a square mile is clay-pit, half a square mile the temple of Ishtar:
[three square miles] and a half is Uruk’s expanse.

[See] the tablet-box of cedar,
[release] its clasp of bronze!
[Lift] the lid of its secret,
 [pick] up the tablet of lapis lazuli and read out
the travails of Gilgamesh, all that he went through.

Surpassing all other kings, heroic in stature,
brave scion of Uruk, wild bull on the rampage!
Going at the fore he was the vanguard,
going at the rear, one his comrades could trust!

More can be read in alternate translations here and here.


Students can begin by exploring the idea of the poem as a monument. The opening imagery of foundations, of bricks fired in an oven, of a tablet-box and a clay pit, can be used to introduce the idea of how a poem might be thought of as something crafted, built, chiselled and constructed. This idea of chiselling the words can be compared to Pound’s idea of the poet as a sculptor. Students can also explore how the poem looks like a monument, using blocks of text and gaps to recreate the look of a clay tablet.

Note that the material in square brackets are the guesses of the translator. In addition to this being suggestive of the gaps in a clay tablet, it also introduces the idea of material being lost, and thus the idea of the poem as an act of recording, of attempting (and, at least partially, failing) to record and make permanent. In turn, this leads, later on, to the idea of the poem as a song of mourning, or as an elegy.


Translated by N.K. Sandars

The eyes of Enkidu were full of tears and his heart was sick. He sighed bitterly and Gilgamesh met his eye and said, ‘My friend, why do you sigh so bitterly?’ But Enkidu opened his mouth and said, ‘I am weak, my arms have lost their strength, the cry of sorrow sticks in my throat, I am oppressed by idleness.’ It was then that the lord Gilgamesh turned his thoughts to the Country of the Living; on the Land of Cedars the lord Gilgamesh reflected. He said to his servant Enkidu, ‘I have not established my name stamped on bricks as my destiny decreed; therefore I will go to the country where the cedar is felled. I will set up my name in the place where the names of famous men are written, and where no man’s name is written yet I will raise a monument to the gods.

Because of the evil that is in the land, we will go to the forest and destroy the evil; for in the forest lives Humbaba whose name is “Hugeness”, a ferocious giant. But Enkidu sighed bitterly and said, ‘When I went with the wild beasts ranging through the wilderness I discovered the forest; its length is ten thousand leagues in every direction. Enlil has appointed Humbaba to guard it and armed him in sevenfold terrors, terrible to all flesh is Humbaba. When he roars it is like the torrent of the storm, his breath is like fire, and his jaws are death itself. He guards the cedars so well that when the wild heifer stirs in the forest, though she is sixty leagues distant, he hears her. What man would willingly walk into that country and explore its depths? I tell you, weakness overpowers whoever goes near it: it is not an equal struggle when one fights with Humbaba; he is a great warrior, a battering-ram. Gilgamesh, the watchman of the forest never sleeps.’

Gilgamesh replied: ‘Where is the man who can clamber to heaven? Only the gods live forever with glorious Shamash, but as for us men, our days are numbered, our occupations are a breath of wind. How is this, already you are afraid! I will go first although I am your lord, and you may safely call out, “Forward, there is nothing to fear!” Then if I fall I leave behind me a name that endures; men – will say of me, “Gilgamesh has fallen in fight with ferocious Humbaba.” Long after the child has been born in my house, they will say it, and remember.’ Enkidu spoke again to Gilgamesh, ‘O my lord, if you will enter that country, go first to the hero Shamash, tell the Sun God, for the land is his. The country where the cedar is cut belongs to Shamash.’


Following on from the ideas of failure in the first tablet, students can find, in Tablets 2 and 3, the beginning of a tragic feeling, a sense of human limitation: ‘I am weak, my arms have lost their strength, the cry of sorrow sticks in my throat, I am oppressed by idleness.’ This is something that can be followed through many of the other poems studied on the course – the idea of human frailty, and of poetry as something which attempts to counter that by creating something permanent, resistant, and lasting. This sense of poetry’s permanence is something felt throughout the poem, contrasting the human frailty: ‘I will set up my name in the place where the names of famous men are written’. The act of naming might be seen to be the fundamental core of what poetry is. A poem names; it records; it says, this is what was here, and this is what it was like.

In addition, students can be asked to compare the effects of this prose translation to the verse translation of Tablet 1. What is lost by writing in prose rather than poetry? Conversely, what is gained?


Translated by Andrew George

‘Hear me, O young men, hear [me!]
Hear me, O elders [of teeming Uruk,] hear me!
I shall weep for Enkidu, my friend,
like a hired mourner-woman I shall bitterly wail

‘The axe at my side, in which my arm trusted,
the dirk at my belt, the shield at my face,
my festive garment, my girdle of delight:
a wicked wind rose up and robbed me.

‘O my friend, wild ass on the run, donkey of the uplands, panther of the wild,
my friend Enkidu, wild ass on the run, donkey of the uplands, panther of the wild!
Having joined forces we climbed the [mountains,] seized and [slew] the Bull of Heaven,
destroyed Humbaba, who [dwelt in the] Forest [of Cedar.]

‘Now what is this sleep that has seized [you?]
You’ve become unconscious, you do not [hear me!]’
But he, he lifted not [his head.]
He felt his heart, but it beat no longer.

He covered, like a bride, the face of his friend,
like an eagle he circled around him.
Like a lioness deprived of her cubs,
he paced to and fro, this way and that.

His curly [hair] he tore out in clumps,
he ripped off his finery, [like] something taboo he cast it away.


This is a great poem to introduce students to the concept of parallelism. It can be seen in throughout, being used to different effects: the repeated ‘hear me, O…’ at the opening, with its sense of invocation; ‘I shall weep… I shall bitterly wail’, with its sense of continued mourning; the repeated line ‘wild ass on the run, donkey of the uplands, panther of the wild’, which forms a part of the naming of Enkidu, of his aspects and his monikers; the way that ‘like a bride… like an eagle… like a lioness’ throws these different comparisons into relief against each other.

Students can also see here the use of natural imagery in Gilgamesh, as in these comparisons to different animals. They can compare this to the use of natural imagery in earlier tablets, such as the comparison of Gilgamesh to a bull in Tablet 1. This use of natural imagery, particularly of the nature simile, is something which is picked up again later in week 3 on the epic simile.


From the King James Bible


Give unto the Lord, O ye mighty, give unto the Lord glory and strength.
Give unto the Lord the glory due unto his name; worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.
The voice of the Lord is upon the waters: the God of glory thundereth: the Lord is upon many waters.
The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.
The voice of the Lord breaketh the cedars; yea, the Lord breaketh the cedars of Lebanon.
He maketh them also to skip like a calf; Lebanon and Sirion like a young unicorn.
The voice of the Lord divideth the flames of fire.
The voice of the Lord shaketh the wilderness; the Lord shaketh the wilderness of Kadesh.
The voice of the Lord maketh the hinds to calve, and discovereth the forests: and in his temple doth every one speak of his glory.
The Lord sitteth upon the flood; yea, the Lord sitteth King for ever.
The Lord will give strength unto his people; the Lord will bless his people with peace.


Translated by Sir Philip Sidney


Ascribe unto the Lord of light,
Yee men of pow’r ev’n by birth-right
Ascribe all glory and all might.

Ascribe due glory to his name;
And in his ever-glorious frame
Of Sanctuary doe the same.

Hys voice is on the waters found,
His voice doth threatning thunders sound,
Yea, through the waters doth resound.

The voice of that Lord ruling us
Is strong, though hee be gratious,
And ever, ever glorioues.

By voice of high Jehova we
The highest Cedars broken see,
Ev’n Cedars which on Liban be;

Nay, like yong calves in leapes are borne,
And Libans self with natures skorn;
And Shirion, like yong Unicorn.

His voice doth flashing flames devide;
His voice have trembling desertes tride;
Ev’n deserts, where the Arabs bide.

His voice makes hindes their calves to cast:
His voice makes bald the forrest waste:
But in his Church, his fame is plast.

He sitts on seas, he endlesse raignes,
His strength his peoples strength maintaines,
Which, blest by him, in peace remaines.


The same techniques of parallelism and natural imagery that are used in Gilgamesh to craft a song of mourning are here used to craft a song of praise: ‘the voice of the Lord breaketh the cedars’, ‘the voice of the Lord shaketh the wilderness’. Discuss with students the differences between the parallelism here and in Gilgamesh, and the idea that the same technique can be used for opposite effects.

Another piece of interesting context to discuss is the importance of cedars for building. Cedars are a wonder of that world: found both here and in Gilgamesh’s journey to the cedar forest in Tablets 2 and 3. Again, discuss with students the different ways in which the same technique – or here, the same image – is used in the two different poems.

Finally, compare the King James Version with Sidney’s translation, which reveals how ideas from ancient poetics – parallelism, the poem as an object of permanence, the song of mourning or of praise – come into the Elizabethan poetic. How does Sidney incorporate these techniques? In what ways is his use of them different? How does the change in meter affect the meaning of the Psalm?

Contemporary Examples

To finish the week, contemporary examples can be brought in of poems of mourning and poems of recording, so that students can see how the ancient techniques found in Gilgamesh translate to contemporary practice. Some possible ideas might be:

  • Jill McDonough’s Habeas Corpus, a collection of sonnets about capital punishment in the U.S.A., each detailing legal execution in American history.
  • Roy McFarlane’s The Healing Next Time, which includes a sequence about deaths in custody; another example of poetry recording, memorialising.

There are, of course, countless other examples, and these should be chosen based on both the teacher and the students’ own interests.