If, for some reason, you wanted to pinpoint the exact starting-point of all western literature, the ancient Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh would have a reasonable claim to be it. It follows the legendary career of an irrepressible demi-god, king of the city-state of ancient Uruk, as he fights monsters (such as the entrail-faced demon Huwawa), engages gods and goddesses in battles of wit and will, and finds true friendship with a wild man, Enkidu, who has been tamed and brought into the city. Most famously, when Enkidu dies, the grief-stricken Gilgamesh goes on a world-spanning search for immortality – and finds it (perhaps). Short though it may be relative to some other epics, the story of Gilgamesh, written by an Assyrian scribe on twelve clay tablets in Biblical times, deals authoritatively with themes of life, death, love, grief, growing up, the nature of the world, and the place of human society in it. It is one of the most ambitious and complete works of narrative art in existence.

Gilgamesh himself is a kingly hero on the old legendary pattern, but there is an appealingly tricksterish quality to his naivety and boundless energy. The story begins with an appetising description of the magnificent city of Uruk, the kingdom of Gilgamesh, the son of the human king Lugulbanda and of the cow-goddess Ninsun. The basic problem is that Gilgamesh is so invincible that he is causing trouble around Uruk, randomly bullying all the men and seducing all the women. The chief mother-goddess Aruru (or Ninhursag) creates a wild man, Enkidu, who wanders the countryside outside Uruk, keeping company with the wild beasts, until a humble hunter spots him. Word comes to Gilgamesh, who sends Shamhat, a priestess of the goddess Ishtar, to tame the wild man by sleeping with him. Since Ishtar is one of the patron-gods of Uruk itself, her priestess, by implication, is the channel of the core values and wisdom of the civilisation, and after seven nights’ lovemaking, Enkidu has indeed acquired human wisdom, and, seemingly in consequence, the wild animals are beginning to give him a wide berth. Enkidu is far from happy, but recognising his changed state, from beastlike to fully human, he asks Shamhat to take him to Uruk. She does so, and, in fulfilment of Gilgamesh’s own prophetic dream, he and Gilgamesh meet and become the closest of friends.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu now form one of the oldest buddy double-acts in recorded world literature, and proceed to tackle and kill a series of monsters, including the forest-demon Humbaba (Huwawa in the older Sumerian). All goes well enough until Gilgamesh refuses a marriage-proposal from the goddess Ishtar, rather tactlessly pointing out the misfortune which she has always ended up inflicting on her previous lovers. Rejected and furious, Ishtar runs to her father, the sun-god Anu, who reluctantly releases one more monster, the Bull of Heaven, into her keeping. As if to prove Gilgamesh right, the vengeful Ishtar unleashes the Bull of Heaven at Gilgamesh and Enkidu, but they manage to kill it as they have killed all the other monsters. Affronted at the slaughter of the symbol of their surpreme power, the gods decide on another attempt to rein in the irrepressible Gilgamesh, and decree that either he or Enkidu must die.

At this point the tone of the epic changes. Up till now everything has gone Gilgamesh’s way, but now he is increasingly powerless, the plaything of terrible events and forces beyond his control, and the story becomes, not one of his heroic triumph over adversity, but his growing realisation of his own tragic helplessness in the face of it. Enkidu and Gilgamesh have premonitions of disaster, and Enkidu curses the priestess Shamhat, presumably for tangling him up in the fate of civilised humanity. But the gods point out the positive side of his experiences, and Enkidu resigns himself to the inevitable, blesses Shamhat, falls sick, and dies.

The suddenly terrified and grief-stricken Gilgamesh has an image made of his dead friend, but when this fails to console him, he resolves to seek out the immortal sage Ut-napishtim in order to prevent his own death. Ut-napishtim is the supremely good and wise survivor of the Great Flood, related in storytelling tradition to the Noah of the Bible, and although he has been gifted with immortality by the gods, he lives in the land of the dead. Gilgamesh sets out to find him. He meets with Siduri, the innkeeper along the road to the land of the dead, and Ur-shanabi, the ferryman who sails across the river of death, and advises him how to cross it. Finally, Gilgamesh comes to Utnapishtim, who advises him not to seek to avoid death, and tells him the story of the Flood to illustrate his point. Gilgamesh insists, and Utnapishtim tells him that to avoid death he must go seven nights without sleep. He fails. Utnapishtim gives him a second chance, telling him of a herb which confers immortality. Gilgamesh scours the cosmic ocean for this herb, and finds it. Returning jubilantly to Uruk with the herb, he stops to wash himself in a pool, and a snake eats the herb. Gilgamesh observes the snake shedding its skin as it slithers away, and realises that his quest has been in vain. He consoles himself with boasting to Urshanabi the ferryman about the strength and beauty of the walls of Uruk, and so the whole story ends where it began – with a vision of the magnificence of humanity and its achievements – but seasoned with the bittersweet hindsight which tells us that no-one, not even the invincible Gilgamesh, can cheat death.

The standard text of Gilgamesh has a very chequered prehistory. As we have seen, the real Gilgamesh was a king of Uruk (Biblical Erech – that is, Warka in modern Iraq), an important city-state, cult centre and centre of literacy around the very beginning of the oldest historical period, around 2800 – 2500 BCE. There is no contemporary written evidence for his existence. However, very early illustrations appear to show episodes from his adventures, and written evidence dating from soon after his death indicates that he was already being worshipped as a god, in the way many ancient kings were (including Egyptian pharaohs and the much later Greek and Roman emperors). He, his “father” Lugulbanda and grandfather Enmerkar are the three major figures of the later Mesopotamian king-lists and story-collections, in exactly the same way that Israelite kings such as David and Solomon came to feature in the compendious “begats” and narrative episodes of the Hebrew Bible. So there was a Gilgamesh, in all probability. Gilgamesh may have actually been Lugulbanda’s biological son, but it is possible that their relationship was one of political “adoption” designed to secure a legally robust succession to the throne of Uruk. The two men may even have been rivals.

The earliest surviving Gilgamesh stories are found across a wide area of the Middle East and are written in cuneiform script in various languages, chiefly Akkadian. They date from after 2150 BCE, by which point Akkadian was replacing Sumerian as the official language, under the increasing influence of neighbouring Akkad, with its capital Babylon, over the original centre of literate civilisation in Sumer. These tablets are mostly short single episodes or adventures, apparently existing in multiple variants in various parallel traditions, presumably rooted, at least ultimately, in orality. But by 1700 BCE there was already an early or “Old Babylonian” version of the single epic of Gilgamesh. Around 1200 BCE, various texts were collated and translated into the version we now regard as standard, and, unusually for so ancient a literary text, we may know the name of the author from later Mesopotamian tradition. He is supposed to have been called Sin-leqe-unnini. Unlike the Sumerian and Akkadian empires which ultimately spawned it, the standard version of the epic survived the turbulent Dark Age around 1000 BCE, for the surviving copy dates from around the 8th or 7th century BCE and was lodged in the library at Nineveh, the capital of a young Mesopotamian empire, that of Assyria. The default version of the Gilgamesh epic thus dates from what Europeans would call Old Testament times, by which point the Gilgamesh tradition was as old as Beowulf or the oldest Arthurian material is today.

Nineveh in turn was destroyed in 612 BCE by a new imperial regime based on the old centre of Babylon, which then fell to the Persians, then the Greeks, and there is evidence that Gilgamesh stories, or at least their basic plot elements and motifs, continued to circulate in text form as late as the Greek times and beyond. Odysseus’ encounter with Calypso, for example, seems to echo Gilgamesh’s encounter with Siduri. But ecological and political disaster had overcome the urban centres of the Middle East, and the whole area had become the desert it is today. The vast written records were lost amid the ruins and their very existence was forgotten until the nineteenth-century explosion of text-based research caught up with them. In 1844, an English traveller, Austen Henry Layard, began excavations around modern Mosul and was staggered to discover the ruins of the Biblical Nineveh, including tens of thousands of then-unreadable cunieform tablets. Within a decade, cuneiform script had been deciphered. Many of the tablets turned out to be relatively humdrum: accounts, records of payment, and the like. Then, in 1872, George Smith, a British Muesum curator, realised that the tablet he was reading contained a Flood myth similar to the one he knew from the Bible. Smith, of course, had stumbled on what we now know as the dialogue between Gilgamesh and Utnapishtim. Although he knew nothing else of the Gilgamesh story (because nobody did), Smith was immediately so overwhelmed by this discovery that he laid the tablet down on the table, stripped off, and ran, seemingly half-naked, around the room, much to the astonishment of his fellow-scholars.

By the turn of the nineteenth century the epic of Gilgamesh was available in translation to general readers, and was being hailed as a classic of world literature by heavyweights such as Rainer Maria Rilke, who described the poem as “stupendous … one of the greatest things that could happen to a person.”

And so, in one sense, it is. Check this out for some modern images which I think really capture the spirit of the story, courtesy of the wonderful Mythstories museum.

And – of course – I’ve helped do Gilgamesh as a commission for Huddersfield Literature Festival, at the kind invitation of the commissionee, my friend and collaborator Tim Ralphs. So if you want me to tell you in person how Gilgamesh and Enkidu first met, click here and go to 1:43.