Videos for the Classroom: The Epic of Gilgamesh

Thanks to my new position, The Neighborhood may take a turn towards more world history and a touch less American history.

Today’s video is not only essential in understanding early civilizations, but is also a great storytelling tool.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is perhaps the oldest written story of all time.  There may be older tales, but so far none had been written for posterity before this Sumerian tale.

According to most historians, the epic was first written as a series of five poems about the legendary king of Uruk, four of which were combined to create a cohesive story around 1900 BCE, though the actual poems date well before that date (some as early as 2700 BCE).  Later, a longer 12-tablet version was written between 1300-1100 BCE.  Only a few small pieces of the earlier poems remain, and only about 2/3 of the later version survive.

The story is sweeping in scope and dense in meaning.  Gilgamesh, the demi-god king of Uruk, begins as a despotic, even monstrous figure.  Through various adventures, including fighting mythic beasts, angering the gods, losing his best friend and a journey through the underworld, Gilgamesh gains anunderstanding of himself, his place in the universe and his own mortality.

These adventures, many believe, form the basis to many later myths and legends, particularly the Greek myths and several stories of the Bible–specifically that of Noah and the flood, which owes much to Gilgamesh.  It gives a window as to how ancient Mesopotamians viewed themselves and the universe, and also is a piece of excellent storytelling.

Gilgamesh has been retold numerous times, translated and adapted into several versions.  To date, no good video adaptation of the epic exists.  Of those available, it is difficult to find a version that connects with children.

Today’s film was created by a YouTube user and condenses the epic into an 11 minute animated adventure.  It isn’t perfect: lots of details were missed, some of which critical to the story (where did Ishtar go?  She plays a central role.) but it is kid-friendly, covers the basic tenets of the epic, and is short enough to use in both a social studies classroom and a literacy workshop.

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One response to “Videos for the Classroom: The Epic of Gilgamesh

  1. Congratulations on your video and the clear, concise summary, but please allow me to correct a couple of minor inaccuracies. The epic is definitely not the oldest written story as it is predated by many Sumerian works from the third millennium. The oldest manuscripts of the integrated epic of Gilgamesh date to around 1800 BCE. Moreover, the earliest extant fragment of a Sumerian Gilgamesh poem dates to approximately 2100 BCE – not 2700 when the hero is supposed to have lived. Additionally, we have most of the text of the earlier Sumerian poems – not just a few small pieces (see Andrew George’s penguin edition for the texts).

    One problem with adapting the story for children is that it includes a graphic sex scene, along with a lot of superficially glamorized violence. Although Enkidu’s seven day bout of love making with Shamhat could be cut, the encounter between the two is critical to the plot. Similarly, the slaughter of Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven is essential to the depiction of the hero as a violent war monger and tyrant who eventually acquires wisdom. Overall, this is a very adult tale, although I suppose the difficulties of adaption are no greater than with the biblical story you mention. Popularly imagined as a nice story about animals and rainbows, the Genesis flood story is, at heart, a rather barbaric tale of mass destruction.

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