The Epic of Gilgamesh for Kids
- Location: Mesopotamia (Iraq)
- Time: Around 4,000 years ago
- Tradition: Sumerian
The Epic of Gilgamesh was written roughly 4,000 years ago on clay tablets. It was rediscovered and translated only a little more than 100 years ago. The story tells of a historical king who became thought of as a demigod — or part human, part god — centuries later.
Here’s a version we’ve written for kids, followed by a brief discussion of the wisdom and insights contained in the text.
Part One: A Selfish King Is Tamed
Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, had a problem: The people he ruled over didn’t like him.
To be fair, they didn’t like him for a reason. Gilgamesh selfishly used his power to get whatever he wanted from those he ruled over, even if it hurt them.
So the people prayed to the gods for help. In response, the mother of the gods created Enkidu, a strong and hairy wild man who lived in the wilderness. There Enkidu lived until a woman named Shamat persuaded him to travel to Uruk and stand up to the oppressive king.
Eager to meet a man whose strength could match his own, Enkidu traveled to the city where Gilgamesh reigned.
That’s when Enkidu saw how Gilgamesh hurt the people — a sight that filled him with so much anger that he walked right up to the king and blocked his path, preventing the king from going to a wedding.
Instantly, Gilgamesh grabbed Enkidu. The two men locked arms and smashed their foreheads together like bulls. The ground shook like an earthquake. Walls trembled. Doorposts rattled. One moment it seemed like Gilgamesh would win, the next moment it seemed like Enkidu would overcome.
Finally, Gilgamesh pinned Enkidu to the ground, and Enkidu admitted defeat. At this, the anger drained from Gilgamesh. He was so impressed by Enkidu’s strength that he couldn’t help but admire the wild man.
The two became fast friends, balancing each other perfectly.
Part Two: The Quest to Live Forever
Time passed, and Gilgamesh longed for he and Enkidu to be known as heroes in the land. So the two traveled to the distant Cedar Forest and defeated a terrible monster named Humbaba.
When they returned, a beast called the Bull of Heaven wreaked havoc in Uruk. They defeated that monster too.
But these actions angered the gods, who struck Enkidu with an illness. Within days, the wild man died. Gilgamesh held the body of his friend, hoping that Enkidu would recover, but nothing could make things right again.
Grief-stricken and haunted by the realization that he might die too, Gilgamesh longed for a way to live forever. He’d heard about one of his ancestors — a man named Utna-pish-tim who was said to have become a god. Considering that Utnapishtim might have what he sought for, Gilgamesh left Uruk to find him.
Gilgamesh traveled far and reached twin peaks where two scorpion people, a man and a woman, stood guard. They told Gilgamesh that to pass he would have to do the impossible: run through a pitch dark tunnel at sunrise and make it to the other end before sunset. So Gilgamesh did just that, making it to the tunnel’s end with just a moment to spare.
At the other end of the tunnel, Gilgamesh found himself in the garden of the gods. But Gilgamesh wasn’t interested in staying in the garden, so he left.
That’s when he met Shiduru, a woman who warned Gilgamesh that his quest to live forever wouldn’t bring him happiness. She told him that he’d be better off if he learned to love his life as he lived it. “Until the end comes, enjoy your life,” she told him “Spend it in happiness, not despair.” But Gilgamesh didn’t listen and stayed focused on finding the man who would never die.
Then, finally, he found Utnapishtim. He asked him for his secret. Utnapishtim said that it happened like this. Long ago, the gods were so angry with humans that they decided to flood the world. But before they did, one of the gods named Enki warned Utnapishtim to first build a boat and gather his family, along with many animals, inside. In this way, Utnapishtim survived the flood. As a reward for his troubles, the gods let Utnapishtim live forever.
Utnapishtim told Gilgamesh that the quest to live forever was hopeless for him and was about to send him away until Utnapishtim’s wife urged him to tell him of a chance. There was a plant, they said, that grew at the bottom of the Great Deep and, if found, could grant eternal life.
With that, Gilgamesh left to the Great Deep. He tied stones to his feet and descended to the Great Deep where he found the plant. He cut it off, untied the stones, and swam back to the surface. There he planned to take the plant back to Uruk where he could test its powers. But before he made it back to the city, a snake snatched the plant away, never to be seen again.
So Gilgamesh returned to Uruk empty-handed. He celebrated that at least the great city of Uruk would exist beyond his life.
So, do you see any wisdom in a story like this?
It can admittedly be hard to see, given that this story is at least 4,000 years old.
But embedded in the Epic of Gilgamesh are themes that appear in many other ancient texts, such as:
- People in power aren’t always right
- Lessons can come from the wilderness
- Death is humbling, even for the powerful
- The world is dangerous (seen in the gods who created the flood)
- The world is generous (seen in the god who warned Utnapishtim about the flood)
- We can learn to enjoy life as we live it
You can especially see similar themes in other stories from this same era and location, including two particularly famous ancient stories: The story of Adam and Eve and the story of Noah and the Flood, which you can see in our page on the Hebrew Bible.