The Epic of Gilgamesh
On Effectiveness, Immortality, and
the Economics of Friendship
Gilgamesh, wherefore do you wander? The eternal life you are
seeking you shall not find…. Always be happy, night and day. Night
and day play and dance.
The Epic of Gilgamesh
The Epic of Gilgamesh dates from more than four thousand years ago1 and is the oldest work of literature available to humankind. The first written records come from Mesopotamia, as do the oldest human relics. This is true not only of our civilization but of humankind in general.2 The epic served as an inspiration for many stories that followed, which dominate mythology to this day in more or less altered form, whether it is about the motif of the flood or the quest for immortality. Even in this oldest work known to men, however, questions we today consider to be economic play an important role —and if we want to set out on a trail of economic questioning, we can go no deeper into history than this. This is the bedrock.
Only a fraction of the material relics survive from the period before the epic, and only fragments remain of written records relating mainly to
1 The oldest Sumerian version of the epic dates from the third Uru dynasty, from the period between 2150 and 2000 BC. The newer Akkadian version dates from the turn of the second millennium BC. The standard Akkadian version, on which this translation is based, dates from between 1300 and 1000 BC and was found in a library in Nineveh. For the rest of its chapters, the Epic of Gilgamesh is thought of as its “standard” eleven-tablet Akkadian version, which does not contain Gilgamesh’s descent into the underworld, later combined with a twelfth clay tablet, and at the same time includes the meeting with Utanapishtim on the eleventh tablet and the conversation with Ishtar on the sixth tablet. Unless otherwise noted, we will use the Andrew R. George translation from 1999. The story plays out on the territory of what is today Iraq.
2 The oldest writings come from the Sumerians; writings from other cultures (such as the Indian and Chinese) are from newer dates. The Indian Vedas come from the period around 1500 BC, as does the Egyptian Book of the Dead. The older parts of the Old Testament were written between the ninth and sixth centuries BC. The Iliad and the Odyssey come from the eighth century, and Plato and Aristotle’s writings from the fourth century. The Chinese classics (such as Confucius) date from the third century BC.