​Gilgamesh, Origin of the First Superhero

​Gilgamesh, the First Superhero

(Above image from a painting by Frank Frazetta.)

In ages past, storytellers told tales of gods and monsters around campfires. Stories passed from generation to the next. Heroes became more heroic; villains more villainous. Today’s myths come in full-color panels, and the gods wear tights – but before modern Marvels, there was the world’s first superhero.

The Epic

Gilgamesh was born to a human father and a mother who was the child of two gods – this is why he is called two-thirds god (even if this makes no biological sense) – and he had great strength. He could lift mountains or defeat demons. He was a powerful king.

Unfortunately, he was also an asshole.

He loved pushing weaker people around – which was just about everybody – and often enjoyed his right as king, taking new brides before their wedding nights. The people appreciated the protection he afforded the kingdom but prayed to the gods for someone – anyone – who could keep their king distracted and away from them.

​Gilgamesh, the First Superhero

(Malachi from Futurama)

One day a hunter spotted the beast-man Enkidu near the river, and knowing the creature was sent by the gods, told the king, “There is a monster who stops us from hunting and commands the animals – please fight him, smite someone who deserves it for once.”

Now Gilgamesh was a great fighter, but he was also a wise tactician. He knew the animals followed Enkidu because they believed he was not a man – and he knew one way to make a man out of Enkidu. He called upon Shamhat, the priestess (though in those days, a priestess was not much different from a prostitute). She agreed to do what must be done for her kingdom.

Shamhat went to the river and proceeded to bathe. Enkidu watched her with rapt interest – he had never seen an animal like her. He approached her, and she introduced herself to him.

​Gilgamesh, the First Superhero

(From a painting by Alex Ross, after an image by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.)

And then they “fought” – for six days and seven nights. Non-stop.

When it ended, Enkidu went to the river to take a drink, but when the animals saw him, they ran as surely as if he were a man.

Shamhat comforted him, “you are a man now.” She told him where other men could be found, and took him to the city.

There, a wedding was behind held, and intoxicating beverages served. This was Enkidu’s first true exposure to man’s world, and to drink. And drink he did.

“The lion used to be my friend,” he drunkenly whined, “but now he won’t even look at me.”

As he drowned his sorrows, Gilgamesh arrived – as he was wont to do at weddings.

“The king is here! Where is the bride,” he bellowed lustfully.

“Hey,” came a slurred protest from the bar, “leave those good people alone!”

Unused to having anyone talk back to him, Gilgamesh gave the interloper a shove, but Enkidu got back up and punched Gilgamesh through a wall. Surprised by this sudden challenge, Gilgmesh stood again, and punched Enkidu through a building.

The fought for six days and seven nights – a real fight this time.

​Gilgamesh, the First Superhero

(An innocent boy from the wilds fighting a twisted king, on Dragon Ball.)

As the innocent monster of the wilds battled the twisted king, valleys cracked open, mountains were pushed up, city blocks were leveled. It was all the townspeople could do to stay out of their way.

Then, after one more powerful blow, Enkidu fell deep into a crater left by their battle. He landed flat on his back. Weakened and in pain, but not yet out, he attempted to stand. Gilgamesh jumped in after him.

Gilgamesh extended a hand.

“You fight well. We should be friends.”

Gilgamesh lifted Enkidu up, and from that point on they shared their adventures together. When Enkidu wished to learn about the world of man, Gilgamesh taught him, and when Gilgamesh began to slip back into his old, despicable ways, Enkidu would stop him.

​Gilgamesh, the First Superhero

(Monster and man united in friendship, from Dragon Ball Z.)

The Background

This story, by the way, is not the “correct” version of the story – if there could even be said to be a correct version. The story we know as the Epic of Gilgamesh was written down nearly five millennia ago, and told from storyteller to storyteller for centuries before that. The story evolved and changed, so each tablet we find tells Gilgamesh’s story in a slightly different way.

Gilgamesh stories are some of my favorite to tell, and that was how I tell it. Others tell it their own way.

(A clip from Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Darmok.”)

And that is how comic books – and for that matter a lot of speculative fiction franchises – develop. A few creators my spark the idea, but others retell it. New writers and artists may abandon and forsake less interesting (or in hindsight inappropriate) portions of the story, and retcon in new elements they like, and the stories continue to evolve.

Think about your favorite hero – now think about how many creators helped that hero evolve over time.

This story was originally published on the Kinja blog Observation Deck on April 21st, 2014.
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