What Is the First Poem in the World?

by Amy
The Epic of Gilgamesh

Poetry is one of the oldest and most profound forms of human expression, predating written language and encompassing the very essence of culture, myth, and history. Among the vast expanse of poetic works, one stands out as the earliest known: The Epic of Gilgamesh. This ancient Mesopotamian epic not only holds the distinction of being the world’s first poem but also serves as a rich source of historical, cultural, and literary insight. This article delves into the origins, content, and significance of The Epic of Gilgamesh, exploring its profound impact on literature and human understanding.

The Origins of The Epic of Gilgamesh

1. Historical and Geographical Context:

The Epic of Gilgamesh originates from ancient Mesopotamia, a region that corresponds to modern-day Iraq, Kuwait, and parts of Syria, Turkey, and Iran. This area, often referred to as the “Cradle of Civilization,” saw the rise of the Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, and Assyrian cultures. The epic was composed in the Akkadian language, a Semitic language that became the lingua franca of the region.

The earliest versions of the poem date back to around 2100 BCE, during the Third Dynasty of Ur. The story was passed down through oral tradition before being inscribed on clay tablets in cuneiform script. The most complete version of the epic was found in the library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal in Nineveh, dating from the 7th century BCE.

2. The Discovery and Preservation:

The Epic of Gilgamesh was rediscovered in the mid-19th century by archaeologists excavating the ruins of Nineveh. The British Museum’s Assyriologist George Smith is credited with the translation of the first fragments, revealing the existence of this ancient masterpiece. The poem is preserved on twelve clay tablets, although some parts are missing or damaged, leading to gaps in the narrative.

Content and Structure of The Epic of Gilgamesh

1. Overview of the Plot:

The Epic of Gilgamesh follows the adventures of Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk, and his companion Enkidu. The narrative explores themes of friendship, the quest for fame, the inevitability of death, and the search for immortality. The story can be divided into several key episodes:

Tablet I-II: Introduces Gilgamesh, the tyrannical king of Uruk, and the creation of Enkidu, a wild man sent by the gods to challenge him. After a fierce battle, they become close friends.

Tablet III-V: The friends embark on a journey to the Cedar Forest to confront the demon Humbaba. They succeed in their quest, earning fame and glory.

Tablet VI: The goddess Ishtar proposes to Gilgamesh, but he rejects her. In retaliation, Ishtar sends the Bull of Heaven to punish him. Gilgamesh and Enkidu slay the bull, incurring the wrath of the gods.

Tablet VII-VIII: Enkidu falls ill and dies as punishment from the gods. Gilgamesh is devastated by the loss of his friend and embarks on a quest to find the secret of eternal life.

Tablet IX-XI: Gilgamesh’s journey leads him to Utnapishtim, the survivor of a great flood, who tells him the story of the deluge and reveals that immortality is reserved for the gods. Gilgamesh learns to accept his mortality and returns to Uruk, recognizing the value of his legacy.

Tablet XII: An appendix to the epic, this tablet focuses on Enkidu’s descent to the underworld.

2. Literary Elements and Themes:

The Epic of Gilgamesh is rich in literary elements that contribute to its enduring significance. These include:

Epic Hero: Gilgamesh, as the protagonist, embodies the characteristics of an epic hero: strength, bravery, and a quest for immortality. His journey reflects both his flaws and his growth as a leader and human being.

Friendship: The relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu is central to the epic. Their bond, which begins in conflict and evolves into deep friendship, underscores the themes of companionship and loyalty.

Mortality and Immortality: The quest for eternal life is a major theme. Gilgamesh’s realization that immortality is unattainable and his acceptance of his mortality highlight the human condition’s inevitability.

Divine Intervention: The gods play a significant role in the narrative, influencing the events and fates of the characters. This reflects the ancient Mesopotamian belief in the power and capriciousness of the gods.

Wisdom and Legacy: By the end of the epic, Gilgamesh gains wisdom and recognizes that his true legacy lies in the lasting achievements and improvements he has made to his city, Uruk.

Significance and Impact of The Epic of Gilgamesh

1. Historical and Cultural Insights:

The Epic of Gilgamesh provides a window into the culture, values, and beliefs of ancient Mesopotamia. It reveals the significance of kingship, the relationship between humans and gods, and the societal emphasis on heroism and legacy. The narrative also offers insights into the Mesopotamian worldview, including their understanding of life, death, and the afterlife.

2. Influence on Literature and Mythology:

As the earliest known epic poem, The Epic of Gilgamesh has had a profound influence on subsequent literary traditions. It shares thematic and structural similarities with later epics, such as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and has inspired countless works of literature, art, and philosophy.

The story of the great flood in The Epic of Gilgamesh, as told by Utnapishtim, bears striking parallels to flood narratives in other ancient cultures, including the biblical story of Noah’s Ark. This suggests a shared cultural memory and the diffusion of mythological motifs across different civilizations.

3. Philosophical and Existential Themes:

The Epic of Gilgamesh addresses fundamental human concerns, such as the search for meaning, the inevitability of death, and the pursuit of eternal life. These themes resonate with readers across time and cultures, making the epic a timeless exploration of the human condition.

4. Modern Interpretations and Adaptations:

In the modern era, The Epic of Gilgamesh has been translated into numerous languages and studied in various academic disciplines, including literature, history, and anthropology. Contemporary authors and artists continue to draw inspiration from the epic, reinterpreting its themes and characters in new and creative ways.

For example, in his novel “The Buried Giant,” Kazuo Ishiguro explores themes of memory, loss, and reconciliation, echoing the existential questions raised in The Epic of Gilgamesh. Similarly, in the graphic novel “The Sandman,” Neil Gaiman references the epic in his exploration of mythology and storytelling.

The Rediscovery and Scholarly Study of The Epic of Gilgamesh

1. Archaeological Discoveries:

The rediscovery of The Epic of Gilgamesh in the 19th century was a landmark moment in the field of archaeology. Excavations at the site of Nineveh unearthed the library of Ashurbanipal, which contained thousands of clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform script. Among these tablets were fragments of The Epic of Gilgamesh, which were subsequently translated and studied by scholars.

2. Translation and Interpretation:

The translation of The Epic of Gilgamesh has been a complex and ongoing process. Early translators, such as George Smith, faced significant challenges in deciphering the cuneiform script and reconstructing the fragmented text. Over time, advances in the understanding of the Akkadian language and the discovery of additional fragments have led to more accurate and complete translations.

Contemporary translations, such as those by Andrew George and Benjamin Foster, aim to provide readers with a faithful and accessible version of the epic, capturing both its poetic beauty and its philosophical depth. These translations also include scholarly annotations and commentary, offering insights into the historical and cultural context of the work.

3. Interdisciplinary Studies:

The study of The Epic of Gilgamesh has benefited from interdisciplinary approaches, combining insights from literature, history, archaeology, and anthropology. Scholars examine the epic’s historical context, its influence on later literary traditions, and its significance within the broader framework of ancient Near Eastern mythology and religion.

For example, the character of Gilgamesh has been analyzed in relation to other epic heroes, such as Achilles and Odysseus, highlighting common themes and narrative structures. Similarly, the flood narrative in The Epic of Gilgamesh has been compared to other ancient flood myths, revealing shared motifs and cultural exchanges.

The Enduring Legacy of The Epic of Gilgamesh

1. Timeless Themes:

The themes explored in The Epic of Gilgamesh—friendship, heroism, mortality, and the search for meaning—are timeless and universal. These themes continue to resonate with readers, offering profound insights into the human experience. The epic’s exploration of the tension between the desire for immortality and the acceptance of mortality speaks to fundamental aspects of the human condition.

2. Influence on Modern Literature and Art:

The Epic of Gilgamesh has left an indelible mark on modern literature and art. Its influence can be seen in works ranging from classical literature to contemporary novels, poetry, and visual art. Authors, poets, and artists continue to draw inspiration from the epic’s characters, themes, and narrative structure, creating new works that reflect its enduring relevance.

For example, the character of Gilgamesh has been reimagined in various literary works, from science fiction to fantasy, exploring different aspects of his heroic journey and existential quest. Similarly, the themes of friendship, loss, and the search for meaning have been explored in countless novels, films, and artworks, reflecting the ongoing impact of The Epic of Gilgamesh on the creative imagination.

3. Cultural and Educational Significance:

The Epic of Gilgamesh holds significant cultural and educational value, serving as a cornerstone of world literature and a vital resource for understanding ancient Mesopotamian culture. It is studied in schools and universities around the world, offering students a glimpse into the origins of literary tradition and the richness of ancient civilizations.

By engaging with The Epic of Gilgamesh, readers gain a deeper appreciation for the complexity and diversity of human expression, as well as the shared themes and concerns that connect us across time and space. The epic’s enduring relevance underscores the power of literature to transcend historical and cultural boundaries, fostering a sense of shared humanity and universal understanding.


The Epic of Gilgamesh, as the world’s first poem, holds a unique and enduring place in the history of literature. Its origins in ancient Mesopotamia, its rich narrative and thematic complexity, and its profound influence on subsequent literary traditions make it a foundational text in the study of human culture and expression.

Through its exploration of friendship, heroism, mortality, and the search for meaning, The Epic of Gilgamesh continues to resonate with readers, offering timeless insights into the human condition. Its rediscovery and scholarly study have enriched our understanding of ancient Mesopotamian civilization and its contributions to the literary canon.

As we continue to engage with The Epic of Gilgamesh, we are reminded of the power of storytelling to capture the essence of human experience and to connect us across the ages. The epic’s legacy endures, inspiring new generations of readers, writers, and artists to explore the depths of human emotion and the quest for understanding in an ever-changing world.

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