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Five Reasons for Teaching the Epic of Gilgamesh

Five Reasons To Teach Series World Literature

Ancient cultures, obscure deities, hard-to-pronounce names are enough to deter almost any teacher, yet even though The Epic of Gilgamesh presents many challenges, it is also a great teaching tool. In addition to qualifying as the oldest work of literature in the world, the epic is a rousing adventure that presents a valuable lesson about life and death. Below are five reasons for teaching the Epic of Gilgamesh.

  1. Analyze Ancient Cultures and Encourage Amateur Archaeologists: While ancient cultures, with their unfamiliar customs, may seem difficult to teach, they also have the power to intrigue. Whether you teach Social Studies or English, The Epic of Gilgamesh (featuring ancient gods and goddess, cuneiform writing, and ziggurats) is a living example of ancient Sumerian culture. After all, epics embody the virtues their culture most values. As your students read the epic and ask, “What can be learned from this ancient hero story?” in essence they become amateur archeologists. Even the epic itself is an example of archeology in action. We would know nothing of Gilgamesh if it hadn’t been for an amazing and somewhat accidental archeological discovery. When archeologists unearthed the ancient city of Nineveh, they discovered many stone tablets covered with cuneiform (wedge-shaped symbol writing). They expected these tablets to contain the records of daily life in Nineveh, which many did. Yet as they translated, they also discovered a previously unknown epic—The Epic of Gilgamesh—one that is a full 1,500 years older than the Iliad and the Odyssey.
  2. Teach Effective Leadership: In my own sophomore World Literature course, I emphasize the themes of power, corruption, and effective leadership in the literature we read. In his epic Gilgamesh begins as a tyrant—an arrogant king who bullies the men of his kingdom and violates its women. Not a good role model! Yet throughout the course of the story, Gilgamesh’s adventure humbles him and teaches him the error of his ways. By the end of the epic Gilgamesh has learned how to treat his people with respect and vows to use his god-given knowledge to better his kingdom.
  3. Tackle the Ultimate Questions of Life: Gilgamesh is a very human hero (even though technically he’s only one-third human…however that math works). While Gilgamesh goes about the typical hero stuff of defeating monsters and beasts, he is also plagued by the same fears that we regular mortals face. He wrestles with one of the ultimate questions of life—how should human beings face death? Gilgamesh’s search for immortality leads him all the way to an ancient wise man named Utnapishtim, a man who once survived a great flood. The wise man gives him a challenging response to Gilgamesh’s hopes for immortality:  Life on earth is temporary, so live it to the fullest.  Throughout the story Gilgamesh resists and ultimately accepts his own mortality.
  4. Analyze an Epic Friendship: Ancient cultures prized bonds of friendship over romantic ones, and this is evident in the fact that the heart of the epic is the brotherly bond between Gilgamesh and the once-beastlike Enkidu. Ninsun, the goddess mother of Gilgamesh, even adopts Enkidu as her son—making him and Gilgamesh legitimate brothers. Enkidu challenges Gilgamesh and shows him the flawed way he rules his people. The Death of Enkidu breaks Gilgamesh’s heart and sends him on quest for immortality. The epic provides an excellent way for teenagers to examine the important topic of choosing the right kind of friends:  those who challenge us and make us better—rather than those who lead us astray.
  5. Study Heroes and the Hero’s Journey: Joseph Campbell’s groundbreaking research of hero stories from around the world resulted in the discovery of a pattern he named The Hero’s Journey. This pattern allows us to analyze ancient and modern concepts of a hero. Gilgamesh fits Campbell’s pattern well and is actually the most ancient known example of an epic hero; therefore, Gilgamesh is the perfect place to start when teaching the Hero’s Journey. For resources for teaching the Hero’s Journey in the classroom, visit our other website:

The Epic of GilgameshA script-story version of The Epic of Gilgamesh, comprised of three student-friendly scripts, is available in our store. Click here for more information. If you would like to try out an early part of the epic, “The Arrival of Enkidu” for free, click here.

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