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War Prisoners in Antiquity: The Epic of Gilgamesh

Ancient World

War Prisoners in Antiquity: The Epic of Gilgamesh

Chaos Monster and Sun God


By André Bastos Gurgel, OAB


This article is one in a series about the treatment of prisoners of war in Antiquity. I will also compare views on this topic in classical cultures to those in our supposedly enlightened modern age in order to see who comes out looking more “civilized”? In this first article I will discuss the Epic of Gilgamesh, which contains the first reference to prisoners of war in world literature, and demonstrate that five thousand years ago the Sumerians believed that prisoners of war should be treated with respect.

What is the Epic of Gilgamesh?

Summarising the plot of the Epic of Gilgamesh, perhaps the oldest epic in the history of mankind, isn’t easy. This ancient text narrates the adventures of the Sumerian king Gilgamesh, and his loyal friend Enkidu. After facing a variety of dangerous situations, they commit sacrilege, and Enkidu, now cursed by the gods, dies. Gilgamesh, moved by his friend’s death, then goes on a quest for immortality.

The author of this ancient classic is unknown, but later versions of the Epic mention the name Sîn-lēqi-unninni, a scholar and doctor who lived in Mesopotamia between 1300 BC and 1000 BC and probably was the editor of the Akkadian version of the work.

Humbaba: the First Refercence to Pow

The episode regarding the giant Humbaba is one of the most interesting events in the epic. The description of the giant varies. The Sumerian version, translated by John Gardner, says “when he looks at someone, it is the look of death. Humbaba’s roar is a flood, his mouth is death and his breath is fire!” On the other hand, the recently-discovered Sulaymaniyah Tablet describe him as an ally of the gods, assigned as guardian of a holy cedar forest.

In the Sumerian version, the god Shamash orders Gilgamesh to fight Humbaba. When the battle is over and Humbaba is defeated by the heroes, Gilgamesh is willing to show him mercy, as the giant promised to give him a rich ransom and become his servant. The way I see it, Gilgamesh represents kindness. As a demi-god, he knows the mind of the gods and doesn’t feel that an unarmed prisoner should be killed. However, Enkidu represents wickedness, since he is not a divine being and is not aware of any heavenly laws. He cannot stand the fact that Gilgamesh will spare an enemy and ends up convincing his friend that Humbaba must be killed.

The gods disapprove of Gilgamesh and Enkidu killing an unarmed prisoner who has begged for his life. The god Enlil says to the heroes: “He should have eaten your bread, and should have drunk your water! He should have been honored!”


André Bastos Gurgel
André Bastos Gurgel, OAB (Order of Attorneys of Brazil), Academic Advisor for the Carmenta Online Latin School, is a life-long student of both modern and ancient languages. Mr. Gurgel is fluent in English, Portuguese, Mandarin, Spanish, French, Italian, German, and Latin (the last of which he learned with Carmenta) and has a working knowledge of Danish, Hebrew, Ancient Greek, and Sanskrit. Mr. Gurgel is currently studying Old English through Carmenta as well.

Click here to read Mr. Gurgel’s full profile.



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