Statue of Gilgamesh and the lion. Photo by Samantha licensed CC BY 2.0
Today, superheroes are more popular than ever, with comics, movies, TV shows, and even cakes starring these popular characters. But where do they all come from? The Epic Of Gilgamesh is the world’s earliest known myth, and stars what many people consider to be the world’s first super powered hero!
Gilgamesh and lion (left) and a human-headed winged bull from Assyria, Louvre Museum. (Photo by Ninara licensed CC BY 2.0)
The Epic of Gilgamesh is a poem from ancient Mesopotamia (that's where Iraq and parts of Syria and Turkey are today) that was written as early as 2,100 B.C. — that's over 4,000 years ago! It’s considered the oldest surviving example of great western literature. It tells the story of an ancient king and his many amazing feats, but experts believe it may have been based on an actual person. The real Gilgamesh was thought to have ruled the city of Uruk, in modern day Iraq, sometime between 2,800 and 2,500 B.C. Over hundreds of years, legends and myths were built up around his actual deeds, and these became the Epic of Gilgamesh!
Gilgamesh’s father was a king named Lugalbanda, and his mother was a goddess named Ninsun. Because of his mother’s divine heritage, Gilgamesh was considered a demigod (someone born of a human and a god, like Perseus from Greek legend or Maui from the film Moana), and had powers beyond those of ordinary men. These included super strength, great courage, and a much longer lifespan!
Photo is a fragment of a relief dedicated to the goddess Ninsun, mother of Gilgamesh.
At the beginning of the Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh is considered a harsh king by his people. The gods hear their complaints, and the goddess of creation, Aruru, creates the wild man Enkidu and sends him to Earth. After being raised by animals, he eventually meets Gilgamesh, and they engage in a wrestling match. Although they’re equals in strength, Gilgamesh eventually wins the contest, but spares Enkidu. They soon become great friends, and consider each other brothers. Enkidu and Gilgamesh then go on a number of adventures together.
Gilgamesh had many adventures both with and without Enkidu. During one of his solo journeys, he tried to find a way to live forever. He found a man named Utnapishtim, who, along with his wife, had survived a mighty flood and been granted immortality by the gods. Utnapishtim told Gilgamesh of a magical immortality plant that grew at the bottom of the sea. Gilgamesh tied stones to his feet and sank to the seafloor and found the plant. However, when he returned to shore it was stolen by a serpent and he lost his chance to live forever.
Gilgamesh's story is so popular that you can find books and comics at your local library or bookstore. Here are a couple that you might find interesting:
The Gilgamesh Trilogy by Ludmilla Zeman
Gilgamesh the Hero by Geraldine McCaughrean and David Parkins