Historical Context - Imagery and Themes
Rosenberg notes that Gilgamesh is probably the world's first human hero in literature (27). The Epic of Gilgamesh is based on the life of a probably real Sumerian king named Gilgamesh, who ruled about 2600 B.C.E. We learned of the Gilgamesh myth when several clay tablets written in cuneiform were discovered beginning in 1845 during the excavation of Nineveh (26). We get our most complete version of Gilgamesh from the hands of an Akkadian priest, Sin-liqui-unninni. It is unknown how much of the tale is the invention of Sin-liqui-unninni, and how much is the original tale. The flood story, which appears in the Sin-liqui-unninni version, is probably based on an actual flood that occurred in Mesopotamia around 2900 B.C.E. (26).
The Sumerian culture influenced the entire Near East (Swisher 13). The success of their culture was dependent on the agricultural viability of the area. Every year there were floods which provided rich silt for successful farming that encouraged the people to stay in the same area year after year instead of migrating to find new areas for crops (19).
There are indications that the Sumerians were composed of two different peoples which mingled in the same area. The Semites are believed to have mixed with the Highlanders. The Semites were patriarchal hunters and more warlike than the Highlanders. The Highlanders were matriarchal and peaceful. Swisher suggests that there is evidence of both social groups and that the combination of the two led to changes in the perception of the roles of the gods and goddess as well as the men and women (21).
Sumer was originally small groups of people that eventually grew to form cities. As a country it included 13 cities (34). The cities grew into city-states which were ruled by kings. As the city-states and their kings evolved, the four economic classes developed. They included the noble, the commoner, the client, and the slave (37).
Women were allowed to own property and do business. Men enjoyed the ability to divorce or take a second wife in the event that the first wife was unable to bear children. Children appear to have been viewed as the property of the parent and without rights (38).
The time of economic prosperity that the agricultural gains provided allowed inventions to become more important. The inventions helped society advance further. One of the most important inventions at this time was animal husbandry (39).
There are also indications that the people believed in an afterlife. The tombs which were excavated in recent times contained earthly riches such as beads, earrings and knives which would have been useful to the deceased (42).
Between 4500 and 2500 BC, there was a period of expansion and growth in the economy and political environment of the Sumerians. Intellectualism and artistry flourished as a result (Mallowan 98-106). Kings who gained enough power and wealth conquered weaker...