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Mesopotamian literature

The bulk of discovered Mesopotamian literature comes from the Old Babylonian period, and much of that material comes from Nippur. If it can be divided into genres, Mesopotamian literature typically falls into one of the following: stories about the destruction of cities; mythologies of the gods (mostly Enlil, but also Inanna, Enki and others); wisdom literature, including debate poems (where abstractions such as winter and summer debate their merits and it is decided who wins) and proverbs (examples below); and the Gilgamesh Epic.

The Gilgamesh Epic began as at least five Sumerian stories detailing Gilgamesh's adventures. These stories were about Gilgamesh and Akka; Gilgamesh and Humbaba (two versions); Gilgamesh and the Bull of Heaven; Gilgamesh, Enkidu and the Netherworld; Death of Gilgamesh. The Ur III kings, particularly Ur-Nammu and Shulgi, were perhaps responsible for preserving these stories. Ur-Nammu was a general of Ur under the Urukian king Utu-Hegal; upon usurping the throne, he helped legitimize his rule by venerating the Uruk hero Gilgamesh as his brother.

Wheat and hulled barley was made to taste like honey.
The nomad ate it and didn't recognize what was in it.

When present, it is considered a strip of cloth; when lost, it is considered fine clothing.

For his pleasure he got married. On his thinking it over he got divorced.

Sometime in the Old Babylonian period, the five Sumerian stories were translated into a literary Akkadian dialect but still remained as episodic non-canonical stories. While mere fragments of the Sumerian originals have been found, Akkadian translations have been found from the latter four stories; likely more existed but await discovery.

In the late 2nd millennium, when Kassites ruled Babylonia, these tales remained disparate until a man credited as Sin-leqi-unninni (“Moon god, accept my plea”) united them into a single story. Sin-leqi-unninni translated the Epic into Standard Babylonian, added a prologue and an epilogue, and turned the story into a third-person autobiography (a common Akkadian literary motif). The tone of the Gilgamesh Epic changed from a story of heroism to a more introspective look at mortality and humanness. It spanned twelve tablets, with the first eleven telling a unified story and the last tablet telling a tangential story where Gilgamesh's deceased friend returns to speak of what became of the dead in the underworld.

Tablets of the Standard Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic



Tablet I

Prologue. The setting is Uruk and Hammurabi is introduced as a tyrannical Urukian king. Enkidu's creation is told, including his civilization by the goddess Shamhat who has dreams foretelling Enkidu's arrival in Uruk.

Tablet II

Enkidu prepares for his trip to Uruk, and upon his arrival fights with the tyrant Gilgamesh until they stalemate. They become friends and decide to campaign in the cedar forest. They get ready for their trip.

Tablet III

City elders advise Gilgamesh and Enkidu about the monster Humbaba in the cedar forest. Giglamesh’s mother Ninsun implores Enkidu and also the sun god Shamash to look after him.

Tablet IV

Gilgamesh and Enkidu run three days non-stop at a time (covering the equivalent of a 45-day journey each time) with breaks in between to rest. During these rests, Gilgamesh has nightmares. They finally make it to the Cedar Forest.

Tablet V

Gilgamesh and Enkidu find Humbaba. An argument leads to combat and Shamash aids Gilgamesh. Humbaba pleads for his life until Gilgamesh fatally strikes him.

Tablet VI

When Gilgamesh bathes afterward, Ishtar sees him and asks proposes herself to him. Gilgamesh rejects her, listing how she ruined past lovers. She furiously goes to her father Anu and demands the Bull of Heaven so she can set it upon Gilgamesh to kill him. She threatens to open the underworld if she does not get her way, allowing the dead to rise and eat the living. Anu makes Ishtar promise she has been taking good care of Uruk, then gives her the reigns. However, Enkidu and Gilgamesh cleverly kill the Bull. Ishtar proclaims how heartbroken she is, to which Gilgamesh responds by tearing off one of the Bull's legs and throwing it at her.

Tablet VII

The gods are displeased with Gilgamesh and Enkidu, and decide one of the must die: it will be Enkidu. Gilgamesh weeps. Enkidu curses various people including Shamhat before descending into the netherworld.

Tablet VIII

Gilgamesh continues to lament his friend’s death and prepares a proper burial.

Tablet IX

Gilgamesh wanders and ponders his friend and his own mortality. He has a dream about Ut-Napishtim, a man who gained immortality, and embarks on a journey to find him.

Tablet X

Gilgamesh arrives at the tavern on the edge of the world. The ale-wife Siduri gives Gilgamesh more advice on reaching Ut-Napishtim. He crosses the ocean with the help of a ferryman, finally reaching Ut-Napishtim. The latter gives a long monologue on the duties of kingship, indicating that by wandering around, Gilgamesh is failing those duties. He also tells Gilgamesh that in searching for immortality, he has done the opposite, sapping energy and shortening his own life.

Tablet XI

Gilgamesh asks how Ut-Napishtim how he achieved immortality, and he explains that as a survivor of the Flood he was granted eternal life; this was a one-time event and Gilgamesh can't reach immortality the same way. Before Gilgamesh goes, Ut-Napishtim tells of a magic plant that might help Gilgamesh gain immortlity. Gilgamesh leaves Ut-Napishtim to find the plant and succeeds, but a snake steals it and Gilgamesh sulks back to the ferryman to return to Uruk.

Tablet XII

Almost exact Akkadian translation of the final part of the Sumerian story Enkidu and the Netherworld where Enkidu describes what it is like in the netherworld.

Sumerian Phase of Mesopotamian Literature

Earliest literature is Sumerian, which continues to be copied even after the language ceases to be a living language.



Early Sumerian

Perhaps some examples in Uruk IV, otherwise little until ca. 2600 when some ‘wisdom literature’ is attested.

Classical Sumerian

Temple construction hymns (Gudea).

Post- Classical Sumerian

The majority of our Sumerian literature; mostly from Nippur but also Kish, Ur, and Sippar; myths (mostly about Enlil), hymns to kings (mostly Ur III), wisdom, literary letters.

Late Sumerian

Mostly copied material, sometimes Akkadian translated back into (bad) Sumerian

Akkadian Phase of Mesopotamian Literature

Akkadian material is sparsely seen before the middle of the third millennium. The major source of Akkadian literature is the first millennium ‘Library of Assurbanipal’ in Nineveh.



Early Akkadian

Some rare examples in Sargonic (Old Akkadian) period.

Classical Akkadian

Old Babylonian, including the ‘creation’ epic enuma eliš, Gilgamesh, the flood story inuma ilu awilum (Atrahasis), and others.


Late second millennium, ‘Standard Babylonian’ Gilgamesh, other new compositions.

Late Akkadian

Mostly copied material