The year is 1849, and archaeologists are busy digging up the Iraqi city of Nineveh. There they find a library of clay tablets dating back some 4,000 years ago, and belonging to the ancient Mesopotamian civilisation of Sumer. On these tablets was inscribed The Epic of Gilgamesh – the oldest written story we know of.
The story outlines the accomplishments of the mythical king, Gilgamesh, throughout his life, and centres around his relationship with his best friend Enkidu, meaning that the earliest fictional tale is in fact a bromance.
At the start of the tale, Gilgamesh is the powerful king of Uruk (known today as Warka). He is a tyrannical and immoral figure, best known for crashing weddings and sleeping with the bride.
To balance him out, the goddess of vegetation Aruru creates Enkid – a beast like man who lives with the animals and spirits outside the city walls. However, he is soon rejected by them and wonders into Uruk itself, where he encounters the mighty Gilgamesh.
The two have an epic fight in the street, wrestling for hours. Eventually Gilgamesh emerges victorious, but instead of killing or banishing Enkidu he is humbled by the presence of a being of almost equal strength and greatness.
The two then become inseparable, with Gilgamesh educating Enkidu, transforming him from a beast like state to a noble man. They continue to bond over shared experiences, bridging the gap between them.
With his somewhat newfound look on life, Gilgamesh reforms himself, and decides that instead of stealing brides from weddings, he will spend his life with Enkidu achieving great things.
The two set of for the forest of cedar to slay the beast Humbaba – a man with many faces who kills anyone who comes near, innocent or not.
The heroes of the tale emerge victorious over the beast through teamwork, but not before Humbaba can curse them with his final breath.
Soon after the goddess Ishtar sends the bull of heaven to destroy Uruk’s crops and starve its people.
Gilgamesh and Enkidu manage to slay the best, but as the gods are angered by this they soon kill Enkidu, who dies an inglorious and painful death.
Gilgamesh is stricken by grief, and out of fear for his own life he sets off on a journey beyond the mountains to try to find the secret to immortality. There he reaches the end of the world, and to his joy he finds it has a bar.
He is served by a goddess who tells him that he must give up his quest because all mortals must die, but until death comes, he should enjoy his life. Though Gilgamesh is unconvinced and continues on his quest, he is ultimately unsuccessful and returns home.
Upon seeing the beauty of his city after being away for so long, he decides that instead of searching for personal glory and immortality, that he will spend his life being a good king, trying to improve the lives of his people.
So, what can we learn from this story?
Gilgamesh is first humanised by his bond with Enkidu, emphasising the importance of forming genuine connection with people, as this leads to empathy and understanding.
However, their friendship does have toxic traits, with the two almost egging each other on to have an epic life. However in the end, the pair’s actions force an early death on Enkidu, meaning Gilgamesh is forced to live out the rest of his life alone.
After trying to become immortal, Gilgamesh finally comes to the realisation that the key to life is humility and making the most of the relationships or friendships in your life whilst you can. He also learns that although he is powerful, true meaning comes from being good to those below you instead of searching for personal glory.
If you liked this article then read Toxic Tropes: should bad boys be banned? orFive LGBTQ+ love stores to read (that aren’t tragic) next.
Arthur is a journalism student at The University of Sheffield. As well as being a founding member of BLOT, he has also written for Forge Press, Sheff Central and One2Football. His hobbies include climbing, going to gigs and of course, reading.
Favourite genres: Magical Realism and Historical Fiction.