Statue of Gilgamesh, University of Sydney Statue of Gilgamesh, University of Sydney. Photo: Michael Zimmer / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

The earliest surviving story powerfully highlights the contradictions and tensions of all societies founded on exploitation, writes Sean Ledwith

The story of civilisation can partly be told through the stories of great heroes who have pursued quests and overcome incredible obstacles. From Arjuna in The Mahabharata, through Hercules and Perseus in Greek mythology and King Arthur of the Celts; from Moses in the Old Testament, through the Old English Beowulf, and onto the heroes of contemporary popular culture such as Luke Skywalker and Indiana Jones, the saga of an indefatigable protagonist (usually male) confronting impossible odds has stirred the imaginations of countless generations across the diversity of human societies.

Age of revolutions

The blueprint of all these stories is ‘The Epic of Gilgamesh’, the oldest work of extant literature in the world, elements of which can be dated as far back as 2100BCE. The eponymous hero was an historical figure who ruled over one of the first urban settlements in the cradle of civilisation – Sumer, in what we now call southern Iraq. That was the regional location for two of the most fundamental transformations in world history: the Neolithic Revolution that saw the rise of agriculture and the urban revolution which produced humanity’s first cities.

Gilgamesh is rooted in the aspirations and contradictions which accompanied these epochal shifts in social evolution. The massive expansion of productivity as humans in the region relocated from a hunter-gatherer existence to an urban one opened new possibilities in terms of technical and cultural sophistication. However, this transition also witnessed the rise of the first ruling classes whose addiction to cruelty and exploitation was the price humanity paid for progress. Our society feels far removed from the concerns of the Sumerians who lived millennia ago. Like them, however, we live in a class society, riven by the fault-line between rulers and ruled and the consequences of that on the rest of nature. The events and characters of the poem still resonate with the contradictions of our twenty-first-century version of a class-bound society.

Gordon Childe

The pioneer of Marxist analysis of the earliest human societies was the great Australian archaeologist, Gordon Childe. As a young man, Childe was immersed in the labour politics of his native country in the early twentieth century. Disillusionment with the limitations of reformism, however, led him to abandon a career in trade unionism there, and he travelled to Britain to focus on the other great love of his life, archaeology. Childe went on to achieve academic success at the Universities of London and Edinburgh in the post-World-War-I era and is now widely regarded as one of the greatest archaeologists of the twentieth century.

Childe’s Marxism enabled him to assess the great achievements of the earliest civilisations through the lens of historical materialism and to contextualise them in a wider framework of humanity grappling with the challenges of survival in hostile environments over multiple generations. He explained how the ideas of Marx and Engels provide the best theoretical tools for examining the societies of the distant past:

‘Marxists have been at pains to show that in any given environment, with a given equipment of tools and knowledge, one form of organisation secures the smoothest and most efficient exploitation, while any other is likely to impede production or may even paralyse it. And in general just one kind of ideology—institutions, beliefs and ideals—will keep that organisation functioning most smoothly … It is not the individual human animal that has to be “adjusted to his environment” in order to “survive,” as each rabbit or rat must be. It is his society that must be adjusted, and the adjustment is … called culture.

Seeds of change

Childe explained how new environmental conditions at the end of the last ice age, around 10 000 BC, began to allow an alternative to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle that had prevailed in the Middle East since humanity’s arrival there, and prompted the development of agriculture, focused on the cultivation of plants with edible seeds and the domestication of livestock. Childe labelled this transformation the Neolithic Revolution and emphasised how it was feasible thanks to the non-hierarchal nature of pre-class societies that encouraged a diffusion of innovative techniques and ideas across the region.

‘Today archaeology can show that the logical series – savagery, barbarism, and civilisation – corresponds to a temporal succession, provided the criteria be made the ways in which the societies classified got a living. In fact at first, throughout the Old Stone Age, all societies lived entirely by collecting or catching the wild food nature offered. Then in the New Stone Age some societies began producing food by cultivating edible plants or breeding animals for food or combining both activities, but still without regular division of labour and without dependence on “foreign” trade for any necessities of life. Finally, a few farming communities began producing a surplus of food large enough to support full-time specialists who engaged in secondary industry, in trade or in organising social cooperation.’

Force multiplier

This revolution in food production had a force multiplier effect on the human population and triggered the other great transformation of the epoch: what Childe termed the urban revolution. In locations such as Ur, Nippur, Lagash and Gilgamesh’s Uruk, small villages of self-sufficient farmers coalesced into cities of significant size, founded on the secondary trades that sprang up in the wake of the expanding human settlements. The story of Gilgamesh is situated in the social and economic framework created by these twin revolutions in the region known to the Greeks as Mesopotamia: the land between the two rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates. For the first time, a regular and substantial food surplus became possible for human beings as the skill and ingenuity of the first farmers unfolded over the generations.

The need to store and safeguard this surplus necessitated the development of mathematics, writing and armies as the rival cities of the region realised that predation, as much as cultivation, could be the route to enrichment. The emergence of exploitative elites in cities such as Uruk was the dark shadow over this quantum leap in human capabilities. After hundreds of thousands of years of egalitarianism – known as primitive communism by Marx and Engels – a minority of humankind asserted itself as a ruling class, with a panoply of religious ideology and brute force personified in the forms of priests and kings. The opening of the poem vividly conveys the might of Gilgamesh’s projection of power through the architecture of his city:

‘In Uruk he built walls, a great rampart, and the temple of blessed Eanna for the god of the firmament Anu, and for Ishtar the goddess of love. Look at it still today: the outer wall where the cornice runs, it shines with the brilliance of copper; and the inner wall, it has no equal. Touch the threshold, it is ancient. Approach Eanna the dwelling of Ishtar, our lady of love and war, the like of which no latter-day king, no man alive can equal. Climb upon the wall of Uruk; walk along it, I say; regard the foundation terrace and examine the. masonry: is it not burnt brick and good?

George Smith

The principal protagonist of the story is believed to be based on a historical character who ruled Uruk in the third millennium BC. The poem that bears his name is a relatively recent addition to the canon of world literature, as it disappeared for many centuries, buried in the rubble of an Assyrian palace.

The story of its recovery and translation into English by a working-class Victorian autodidact named George Smith in the 1860s is a remarkable one in itself. Smith’s inspired dedication to bringing the story back to life has given us a sequence of clay tablets, written in cuneiform (the earliest written script) by multiple poets in several of the languages of the Mesopotamian and Anatolian civilisations, including Akkadian, Hittite and Hurrian. The palimpsestic nature of the poem accounts for its sometimes disjointed and enigmatic structure, but the overall effect is a refracted evocation of the priorities of both the world’s first ruling class and those forced to labour for it.


As the story begins, Gilgamesh is described as a semi-divine being, two-thirds god and one-third man. The King, however, is no friend to the people of Uruk and is revealed to a tyrannical figure, content to oppress anyone and everyone on a whim:

‘Gilgamesh went abroad in the world, but he met with none who could withstand his arms till be came to Uruk. But the men of Uruk muttered in their houses, ‘Gilgamesh sounds the tocsin for his amusement, his arrogance has no bounds by day or night. No son is left with his father, for Gilgamesh takes them all, even the children; yet the king should be a shepherd to his people. His lust leaves no virgin to her lover, neither the warrior’s daughter nor the wife of the noble.’

Enter Enkidu

The gods who created Gilgamesh are also dismayed at the activities of their progeny and create a rival for him who is tasked with knocking the presumptuous King down to size. Enkidu, symbolically, is a product of the countryside, unlike the city-bound Gilgamesh. The second product of divine intervention is initially happy in his rural idyll and spends his time avoiding the company of other men and saving animals from the traps of human hunters. Following his conversion to urban mores by one of Gilgamesh’s handmaidens, however, Enkidu is pointedly rejected by the creatures he had formerly protected. The ambiguous transition of our ancestors from a hunter-gatherer existence to an urban one can be detected in Enkidu’s disorientation at this development:

‘For six days and seven nights they lay together, for Enkidu had forgotten his home in the hills; but when he was satisfied he went back to the wild beasts. Then, when the gazelle saw him, they bolted away; when the wild creatures saw him they fled. Enkidu would have followed, but his body was bound as though with a cord, his knees gave way when he started to run, his swiftness was gone. And now the wild creatures had all fled away; Enkidu was grown weak, for wisdom was in him, and the thoughts of a man were in his heart.’

Wrath of the gods

Gilgamesh and Enkidu inevitably cross paths in a contest for power but the outcome, contrary to the expectations of the gods, is that the two men become bound to each other in friendship and respect. They resolve to work together to overthrow Humbaba, a fearsome creature who lives in the neighbouring cedar forest, usually linked by modern scholars to Lebanon. They succeed in killing and dismembering this formidable opponent, but there is a price to paid. The two heroes not only destroy Humbaba but also chop down many of the trees the creature looked after for the gods.

As punishment for his role in this wanton act of ecocide, Enkidu is sentenced to a slow, tortuous death by his divine creators. One modern translator, Stephen Mitchell, finds ‘Gilgamesh’s raid on the Cedar Forest and the ill-advised slaughter of its guardian a counterpart of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and toppling of Saddam Hussein. The Sumerian poem’s subtle criticism of Gilgamesh’s foreign adventure calls attention to the dubious morality of the pre-emptive strike as a military strategy.’

The problematic slaying of Humbaba can also be interpreted as an indication that the Sumerians were not ignorant of the environmental cost of their agricultural revolution. Part of the reason the Mesopotamian civilisation declined was salinisation of the soil due to over-intensive cultivation. There is also an ecological warning in the form of the story of a great deluge brought about by human hubris, which is recounted to Gilgamesh by another character following the death of Enkidu.

The great leveller

Gilgamesh is a forlorn and lonely figure in the latter stages of the poem, broken-hearted by the death of his only friend. A vainglorious pursuit of the elixir of life ends with him being forced to accept the mortality of all men, commoners and kings. He may lord it over his fellow men in the present, but death is the great leveller which no amount of earthly power can withstand. Another supernatural being advises him to seek solace in the everyday and give up the pursuit of ephemeral glory with a humanistic message that echoes down the millennia to all those labouring in subsequent societies afflicted by the pernicious effects of class rule:

‘Gilgamesh, where are you hurrying to? You will never find that life for which you are looking. When the gods created man they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping. As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man.’

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Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters