The Background of the Gilgamesh Epic

The Sumerian story of Ziusudra, the Akkadian Atrahasis Epic, and the Gilgamesh Epic are the renowned flood accounts written in the Ancient Near East, in addition to the Genesis account.

The Sumerian story of Ziusudra,1 the Akkadian Atrahasis Epic, and the Gilgamesh Epic are the renowned flood accounts written in the Ancient Near East, in addition to the Genesis account. The substance of the Sumerian flood story of Ziusudra cannot be ascertained in detail because only one-third of the tablet has survived.2 The Sumerian manuscripts, found in Nippur3 where a scribal school existed,4 seem to have been inscribed about the time of Hammurabi.5 According to the extant Akkadian manuscripts, the Atrahasis Epic traces back to around the seventeenth century B.C. or earlier, although they are not intact, but in pieces.6 The tablets of the Atrahasis Epic excavated in Nineveh are inscribed in Old Babylonian and in Neo-Assyrian.7 The flood account in tablet III of the Atrahasis Epic has much resemblance to that contained in the Gilgamesh Epic.8 The Gilgamesh Epic, which consists of twelve tablets, contains the flood account in the eleventh tablet.9 This flood account in the Gilgamesh Epic is the most complete of these ancient flood accounts.10

The historical background of Gilgamesh

Gilgamesh, a legendary king of Uruk,11 is recorded as one of the post-diluvian kings in the Sumerian king list. Interestingly, the flood is also mentioned after the ante-diluvian kings whose reigns were said to be more than ten thousand years: “(Then) the Flood swept over (the earth).”12 According to the Weld-Blundell list, the descent of Gilgamesh is as follows:

  • Enmekar, son of Meskemgašer, king of Erech, who built Erech, became king; he reigned 420 years.

  • The deified Lugalbanda, a shepherd, reigned 1,200 years.

  • The deified Dumuzi (Tammuz), a fisherman, whose city was ïabur, reigned 100 years.

  • The defied Gilgamiš, whose father was a lil-lá13 the lord of Kullab,14 reigned 126 years.

  • Ur-Nungal, the son of Gilgamiš, reigned 30 years.15

In addition, Gilgamesh is called the son of Lugalbanda, king of Uruk, and the goddess Ninsun, and he is listed in a god-list after his death.16 As befits such parentage, his figure is “two-thirds god, one-third human” (tablet I ii, 1; IX ii, 16).17 Sumerian epic poems about Gilgamesh were discovered in Iraq.18 Scholars believe that the initial text of these tablets seems to trace back to the Third Dynasty of Ur (around 2094–2047 B.C.), even though most of these manuscripts were inscribed around the eighteenth century B.C., in the Old Babylonian period.19 Thus, by the Third Dynasty of Ur, Gilgamesh had become the topic of royal epics and he was listed as a predecessor among the kings of the dynasty.20 In such a background, for the claim to the throne, Gilgamesh is often called “brother” by Shulgi, a king of the Third Dynasty of Ur, in his royal hymns,21 because according to the tradition, his parents are the same divine parents of Gilgamesh.22 In an inscription, Gilgamesh is also cited by Anam, who ruled Uruk in the nineteenth century B.C.,23 as the ancient king of Uruk who had built the city’s walls which Anam rebuilt.24 The ruins of these walls can be inspected and their origin is considered to be about 2700 B.C. by archaeologists.25 The walls are also mentioned in the Gilgamesh Epic (tablet I i, 9–19; XI 303–305).26 According to these materials, Moran and Foster judge that Gilgamesh seems to have existed in about 2700 BC.,27 if he were an historical person.

The discovery of the tablets

In December 1853,28 Hormuzd Rassam, an Assyrian Christian, excavated the palace of Assurbanipal at Nineveh.29 Although he was an assistant of an Englishman named Henry Layard who had begun the dig at Nimrud in 1845, Rassam took over the investigation at Nineveh from Layard.30 Within the palace Assurbanipal, who ruled Assyria as the last king from 668 to 626 B.C., had a great library in which numerous tablets of Babylonian and Assyrian literature, chronicles, dictionaries, hymns, and so on had been preserved.31 Therefore, this discovery made by Rassam became a great historic event. Because of lack of linguistic knowledge, Rassam could not recognize what he had found, and it took time until the Gilgamesh Epic was translated by George Smith after tens of thousands of tablets were brought to the British Museum from the library.32

This flood account in the Gilgamesh Epic is the most complete of these ancient flood accounts.

Absorbed in archaeology, George Smith was working in a minor position in the British Museum.33 Although his poor family background had prevented him from being well-educated, because of Smith’s genius and diligence the Department of Oriental Antiquities designated him as the assistant in order that he might contribute to the Museum’s publications of cuneiform texts.34 On December 3, 1872, Smith announced that he had translated the flood accounts which had been found among the tablets from Nineveh and presented his paper, “The Chaldean Account of the Deluge”35 to the Society of Biblical Archaeology.36 Although he could not restore the whole text, in 1876 extracts of the Atrahasis Epic were presented under the title of “The Story of Atarpi” in “The Chaldean Account of Genesis.”37

The manuscripts of the Gilgamesh Epic, discovered in various spots in the Middle East, have provided information to ascertain the whole text; but the tablets which were inscribed in the period of Assurbanipal (668 to 626 B.C.) and were preserved in his library give the most information of the text of the Epic.38 The extensive circulation of the Gilgamesh Epic in the ancient world is confirmed by the parts of it which were put into Hittite and Hurrian, non-Mesopotamian languages.39

The source of the Gilgamesh Epic

The date of the Gilgamesh Epic seems to be earlier than the reign of Hammurabi when Marduk succeeded to the supremacy in the Babylonian pantheon from Anu and Enlil40 because Anu and Enlil are still described as the chief deities (XI 15–16) in the Epic.41 At the same time, Heidel states, “It has long been recognized that the Gilgamesh Epic constitutes a literary compilation of material from various originally unrelated sources, put together to form one grand, more or less harmonious, whole.”42 Although the Gilgamesh traditions were distributed widely and numerous tablets have been discovered, unfortunately, a complete original text of the Gilgamesh Epic does not exist.43 The text and the date of composition of the extant manuscripts vary widely.44 The oldest version of the Epic, which is inscribed in the Babylonian dialect of Akkadian early in the second millennium B.C., is called the Old Babylonian Version.45 It is extant in a fragmentary state; therefore, its conclusion cannot be ascertained.46 A later version, the so-called “Standard Version,” consists of twelve tablets and is more complete.47 It was composed by Sin-leqe-unninni, a poet-editor who lived around the thirteenth century B.C.48 In this version the flood account appears in tablet XI. Moran discusses that account as follows:

It is generally conceded that the Flood was not part of the original epic, which may have referred to it, but only briefly. The long account in Tablet 11 seems to be told for its own sake. It seriously interrupts not only the flow of dialogue between Utnapishtim and Gilgamesh but the otherwise smooth and natural transition from the end of the Tablet 10, where Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh about the assembly of the gods after the Flood, to Utnapishtim’s rhetorical question. Finally, the story as told here is not an independent account; it draws on an identifiable source, the myth of Atrahasis.49

Generally, the flood account in the Atrahasis Epic tablet III is regarded as the source of the Gilgamesh Epic tablet XI because of many common elements and wordings.50 Actually, the hero’s name Atrahasis, which denotes “the exceedingly wise,” is used as another cognomen of Utnapishtim, the hero of the flood account in the Gilgamesh Epic (XI 187).51 The date of the original composition of the Atrahasis Epic also seems to trace back to before the reign of Hammurabi because of the superiority given to Anu and Enlil in the Epic.52 Even though the extant oldest tablets of the Atrahasis Epic date to the days of King Ammizaduga (1646–1626 B.C.),53 it is obvious that they are not the original, but copies.54 However, Heidel expresses the opposite view that the flood account in the Atrahasis Epic might have been rooted in the Gilgamesh Epic tablet XI.55 Whether the Gilgamesh Epic was the source of the Atrahasis Epic or the opposite, it is also recognized that the Atrahasis Epic is probably the version edited from various traditional materials.56 Therefore, there seems to have existed an older version from which both accounts derived. Moran also states the reason why the flood account was added in the Gilgamesh Epic as follows:

It is also generally conceded that the one who added the story was the poet-editor of the prologue. He has a manifest interest in, and esteem for, “the knowledge of days before the Flood” that Gilgamesh brought back. He also speaks in the prologue of the secret things revealed by Gilgamesh but with only two formally identified, one of them the Flood Story. If the poet-editor was not the one who added the story, he certainly directs his reader to it and implies its importance.

In the learned world of Sin-leqe-unninni, the Flood Story is certainly important, in that it is knowledge that, were it not for Gilgamesh, would have been lost. And it is not just any knowledge. It is knowledge about the most terrible event in human history. It is knowledge about a terrible truth: the gods can destroy and one may never know why. A wise man, Gilgamesh, should know this.57

Thus, the date of the original text of the flood account of the Gilgamesh Epic is not certain, and yet Heidel suggests the possibility that the Epic originated in the Sumerian stories as follows:

To judge from the Sumerian fragments of the epic which have so far come to light and from the fact that Semitic Babylonians became in general the heirs of Sumerian culture and civilization, it appears reasonable to assume that also the other episodes in the Gilgamesh Epic were current in Sumerian literary form before they were embodied in the composition of this Semitic Babylonian poem. From this, however, it does not necessarily follow that all this material had its origin with the Sumerians, either in their former home or after they had occupied the plains of the Tigro-Euphrates Valley. Instead, the material itself may have originated, at least in part, with the Semitic Babylonians, from whom the Sumerians may have taken it over, adapting it to their own views and beliefs and giving it expression in their own script and language. But irrespective of the origin of the raw material, the earliest literary form of most, if not all, of the tales or episodes imbedded in the Gilgamesh Epic was doubtless Sumerian, as far as available evidence goes.58

In fact, Sumerian tablets also have some episodes which are in tablet III–V, VI, VII and XII of the Gilgamesh Epic.59 Furthermore, tablet XII is not congruous with tablet VII and VIII in the Epic.60 Finally, the Sumerian stories which are common to some parts of tablet XI do not mention Gilgamesh at all.61 Heidel also states that it is highly likely that Utnapishtim which means “the finder (or obtainer) of life”62 originated in the Sumerian deluge hero’s name, Ziusudra, which probably signifies “he who laid hold on life of distant days.”63

If it is correct that the flood account in the Gilgamesh Epic is derived from the Sumerian, and if one wishes to compare the Gilgamesh Epic and the Genesis accounts, it is important to know whether the Sumerian account derived from an historic event. Unfortunately, there is no clear evidence of this. Alster states that “It is often more or less tacitly assumed that the stories told in the Sumerian epics are based on actual historical events, or even that they reflect a so-called heroic age of the first half of the third millennium.”64 But he goes on to say:

However, it serves little purpose to discuss whether the stories contain anachronistic details, because, as is generally the case with legends and folktales, they telescope everything into exemplary behavior where the realistic is imagined, and they do not aim at correctness in any historical sense.65

Lambert also writes, “Myths are the final outcome of millennia of development, and have often lost much of their original seriousness and purpose. This can be seen in the case of Babylonian myth.”66 Thus, while one may say with some confidence that the flood account in the Gilgamesh Epic tablet XI traces back to the Sumerian story, it is more difficult to say whether that story reflects an historic event. If it does, the report of the event has been seriously distorted.

Chart: “Gilgamesh Tradition”

Gilgamesh Tradition

“The Epic of Gilgamesh,” trans. and ed. Benjamin R. Foster, A Norton Critical Edition (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001), p. 198. Used with permission.


  1. Cf. “The oldest preserved literature in the world was written in the Sumerian language.” Piotr Michalowski, Sumerian Literature: An Overview, CANE, vol. III & IV, Jack M. Sasson (Ed.), Gale Group, Michigan, 1995; Hendrickson Publishers, New York, p. 2279, 2000. [Ed. note: No new languages would have developed until God confused human language at Babel (Genesis 11:7, between 2500 and 2000 BC—see Real History: The Timeline of the Bible). However, it is possible that the original human language was sustained through a Semitic language.]
  2. S.N. Kramer, The Deluge, in Pritchard, pp. 42–44.
  3. J.H. Hunt, “Noah,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, David W. Baker and Desmond Alexander (Eds.), InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, p. 608, 2003.
  4. Cf. Mesopotamian scribes kept inscribing manuscripts in Sumerian language in the schools and temples, even after Akkadian had taken its place in the society. Michalowski, p. 2279. Laurie E. Pearce, The Scribes and Scholars of Ancient Mesopotamia, CANE, vol. III & IV, p. 2270.
  5. Heidel, p. 102.
  6. E.A. Speiser, Atrahasis, in Pritchard, p. 104.
  7. Ibid. Cf. Babylonian and Assyrian were originated from Akkadian which replaced the Sumerian language and was used mainly in Near East by the eighteenth century B.C. Livingston, pp. 55–56, 62. John Huehnergard, Semitic Languages, CANE, vol. III & IV, pp. 2118–2124.
  8. ATRAHASIS, pp. 11, 88–101. Cf. Tablet I and II also contain some of the same or similar expressions. Ibid., pp. 42–43, 68–69, 74–75, 86–87.
  9. Speiser, The Epic of Gilgamesh, p. 72.
  10. Heidel, p. 1.
  11. Modern Warka. William Moran, The Gilgamesh Epic: A Masterpiece from Ancient Mesopotamia, CANE, vol. III & IV, p. 2027. Cf. Uruk is recorded as “Erek in Gen. 10:10.” Victor P. Hamilton, Handbook on the Pentateuch, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, p. 66, 1982.
  12. A. Leo Oppenheim, Babylonian and Assyrian Historical Texts, in Pritchard, p. 266.
  13. For this difficult word, cf. Theokild Jacobsen, The Sumerian King List, Assyriological Studies, No. 11, Oriental Institute, University of Chicago, Chicago, p. 90, n. 131, n.d.; also, A. Leo Oppenheim, Orientalia, Nova series XVI, p. 233, n. 3, 1947; in Oppenheim, Babylonian and Assyrian Historical Texts, p. 266.
  14. Part of Erech. Thompson, p. 9.
  15. Part of Erech. Thompson, p. 9.
  16. Moran, p. 2327. Cf. “According to a widely accepted hypothesis, the Sumerian king upon his coronation was adopted as a son by his city’s god or by the god of his ancestors, and thus he was regarded as divine.” Jacob Klein, Shulgi of Ur: King of a Neo-Sumerian Empire, CANE, vol. I & II, p. 847.
  17. Thompson, p. 9.
  18. These are, “Gilgamesh and Akka,” “Gilgamesh and Huwawa A,” “Gilgamesh and Huwawa B,” “Gilgamesh and the Bull of Heaven,” “Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Netherworld,” “The Death of Gilgamesh,” and probably “The Gudam Epic.” Douglas Frayne (Trans.) “The Sumerian Gilgamesh Poems,” in The Epic of Gilgamesh, Benjamin R. Foster (Trans. and Ed.), A Norton Critical Edition, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, p. 99, 2001.
  19. These are, “Gilgamesh and Akka,” “Gilgamesh and Huwawa A,” “Gilgamesh and Huwawa B,” “Gilgamesh and the Bull of Heaven,” “Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Netherworld,” “The Death of Gilgamesh,” and probably “The Gudam Epic.” Douglas Frayne (Trans.) “The Sumerian Gilgamesh Poems,” in The Epic of Gilgamesh, Benjamin R. Foster (Trans. and Ed.), A Norton Critical Edition, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, p. 99, 2001.
  20. Thorkild Jacobsen, “And Death the Journey’s End: The Gilgamesh Epic,” in The Epic of Gilgamesh, Benjamin R. Foster (Trans. and Ed.), A Norton Critical Edition, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, p. 183, 2001.
  21. Cf. Klein, pp. 843–857.
  22. Michalowski, p. 2284. While Sumerian kings “never publicly deny their human parents, in the royal hymns they are constantly referred to as the offspring of gods and goddesses. It is still debated whether these mythological references were in their time taken literally or in a metaphorical sense.” Klein, p. 847.
  23. Foster, p. xi.
  24. F. Thureau-Dangin, Die sumerischen und akkadischen Königsinschriften, Leipzig, p. 222, 1907; in Heidel, p. 4. Cf. “Although the assumption is normally made that city walls were built for defense against human aggression, there are reasons to suppose that their original purpose may have varied.” “Once built, walls displayed wealth and power, and were sometimes richly decorated to attract admiration toward their rulers.” Stephanie Dalley, Ancient Mesopotamian Military Organization, CANE, vol. I & II, p. 413.
  25. Foster, p. xi.
  26. “These walls were nearly ten kilometers long and had more than nine hundred towers.”
  27. Moran, p. 2327. Foster, p. xi.
  28. ATRAHASIS, p. 2.
  29. Andrew George, The Epic of Gilgamesh: The Babylonian Epic Poem and Other Texts in Akkadian and Sumerian, Penguin Books, England, pp. xxii–xxiii, 1999.
  30. George A. Barton, Archaeology and the Bible, American Sunday School Union, Philadelphia, pp. 34–35, 1916.
  31. Ibid., pp. 35, 70.
  32. George, pp. xxii–xxiii.
  33. ATRAHASIS, p. 3.
  34. ATRAHASIS, p. 3.
  35. Published in the Translations of the Society of Biblical Archaeology II, pp. 213–34, 1873; in Heidel, p. 2.
  36. Heidel, p. 2.
  37. ATRAHASIS, p. 3. “Atar-pi,” the hero’s name in the flood story was rectified to “Atra-hasis” by Heinrich Zimmern in 1899. Ibid., p. 4.
  38. Moran, p. 2330.
  39. Foster, p. xiii. Cf. These versions trace back to the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries B.C. Moran, p. 2330.
  40. B. Meissner, Babylonien und Assyrien, II, Heidelberg, p. 46, 1925; in Heidel, p. 261. Cf. Marduk became “the god of the Babylonian Empire” in the days of Hammurabi and he was “worshipped especially in the temple of Esagila in Babylon.” Theopile J. Meek, “The Code of Hammurabi,” in Pritchard, p. 164, footnote 5.
  41. Heidel, p. 15. Cf. The name of Marduk appears only once, in tablet III 177 of the Gilgamesh Epic. Parpola, pp. 80, 147.
  42. Heidel, p. 13. Cf. In ancient Near East, scribes not only took dictation but also they edited documents by themselves. William D. Whitt, The Story of the Semitic Alphabet, CANE, vol. III & IV, pp. 2394–2395.
  43. Foster, p. xv.
  44. Foster, p. xv.
  45. Moran, p. 2328.
  46. Moran, p. 2328.
  47. About three-fifths of the original is extant. Ibid., p. 2330.
  48. Pearce, p. 2275.
  49. Moran, p. 2333.
  50. ATRAHASIS, p. 11. Speiser, Atrahasis, p. 104. Hunt, p. 609. J.H. Walton, “Flood,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, David, W. Baker and Desmond Alexander (Ed.), InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, p. 315, 2003.
  51. Heidel, pp. 227, 88.
  52. Ibid., p. 261.
  53. Although the Turkish Government excavated these tablets at the site of the ancient city of Sippar, Dr. Scheil possessed them. L.W. King, Babylonia Religion and Mythology, p. 124, 1899; in ATRAHASIS, p. 33, footnote 1. Cf. C.H. Johns, Cuneiform Inscriptions, p. 41.
  54. Heidel, p. 261.
  55. Heidel remarks that Ea’s idea to destroy man in other ways in tablet XI of the Gilgamesh Epic may have been adopted and elaborated in the Atrahasis Epic. Ibid., p. 107.
  56. ATRAHASIS, p. 23.
  57. Moran, pp. 2334–2335.
  58. Heidel, p. 14. Cf. S.N. Kramer, The Epic of Gilgamesh and its Sumerian Source, Journal of the American Oriental Society LXIV, New Haven, p. 7 ff., 1944; in Speiser, The Epic of Gilgamesh, p. 73.
  59. Heidel, pp. 13–14. The ?umbaba episode (III–V) is also contained in tablet II. Frayne, pp. 104–143. Tablet XII contains the second half of the Sumerian epic poem, “Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Netherworld.” Moran, p. 2335.
  60. Enlil declares that Enkidu shall die in tablet VII and Gilgamesh laments for his death in tablet VIII. Nevertheless, in tablet XII, Enkidu is still living and is seized in the netherworld after he descends there. Heidel, p. 13. Cf. Frayne, pp. 129–142.
  61. Heidel, p. 13.
  62. The significance of Utnapishtim is generally regarded as “he saw life,” i.e., he found or obtained everlasting life. Nevertheless, “If this is the real meaning of the name, we should expect the form Utnapishtam (or Utanapishtam), i.e., the second element should stand in the accusative, instead of the genitive. On the basis of Sumerian equivalent and genitive ending in Babylonian and Assyrian, one would, in this particular instance, expect the element uta to be a substantive or nominative formation of some kind.” Cf. Meissner, p. 113; in Heidel, p. 227, footnote 5.
  63. Heidel, p. 227.
  64. Bendt Alster, Epic Tales from Ancient Sumer: Enmerkar, Lugalbanda, and Other Cunning Heroes, CANE, vol. III & IV, p. 2322.
  65. Bendt Alster, Epic Tales from Ancient Sumer: Enmerkar, Lugalbanda, and Other Cunning Heroes, CANE, vol. III & IV, p. 2322.
  66. W.G. Lambert, Myth and Mythmaking in Sumer and Akkad, CANE, vol. III & IV, 1834.


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