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Oldest Poem Ever Written – The Epic of Gilgamesh

In honor of National Poetry Month, I’d like to spotlight what is largely considered the oldest known poem ever written: The Epic of Gilgamesh. This is an epic poem from ancient Mesopotamia, written circa 2000 BCE, that is actually thought to be one of the oldest works of literature, period. The epic follows the life and journeys of Gilgamesh, King of Uruk,on his quest for adventure and, more importantly, the secret to eternal life. But be warned, this epic work of literature is not exactly “kid friendly”. Definitely not appropriate for all ages.

Gilgamesh is an enigmatic and interesting character, and is actually based on the real-life, historical King Gilgamesh. The story is long and complex, and has been pieced together over the centuries from ancient tablets, and translated over and over. For a detailed, and often humorous, description of the Epic of Gilgamesh visit this Shmoop summary page.

Below I’ve added some excerpts from the work:

Humbaba’s mouth is fire; his roar the floodwater;
his breath is death.
Enlil made him guardian of the Cedar Forest,
to frighten off the mortal who would venture there.

But who would venture there?
Humbaba’s mouth is fire;
his roar is the floodwater;
he breathes and there is death.
He hears the slightest sound somewhere in the Forest.

Enlil made him a terrifying guardian,
whose mouth is fire, whose roar the floodwater.
—Tablet II



What could I offer the queen of love in return,

who lacks nothing at all?
Balm for the body?
The food and drink of the gods?
I have nothing to give to her who lacks nothing at all.

You are the door through which the cold gets in.
You are the fire that goes out.
You are the pitch that sticks
to the hands of the one who carries the bucket.

You are the house that falls down.
You are the shoe that pinches the foot of the wearer.
The ill-made wall that buckles when time has gone by.
The leaky water skin soaking the water skin carrier.
—Tablet VI


And so they traveled until they reached Uruk.

There Gilgamesh the king said to the boatman:

“Study the brickwork, study the fortification;
climb the ancient staircase to the terrace;

study how it is made; from the terrace see
the planted and fallow fields, the ponds and orchards.

One league is the inner city, another league
is orchards; still another the fields beyond;

over there is the precinct of the temple. . . . ,
Three leagues and the temple precinct of Ishtar.”

Measure Uruk, the city of Gilgamesh

—Tablet XI


The Epic of Gilgamesh is a sprawling, exciting, and sometimes villainous work of poetic craftsmanship. If you’re looking for an interesting poetry read, or simply enjoy a challenge, here is a website where you can read it, tablet by tablet. For free, of course.

Peace.

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