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Biblical Archaeology Review 49:2, Summer 2023

Epistles: What’s In a Name?: Gilgamesh

Biblical Archaeology Review

dpap.bí (Sumerian) | dgi-il-ga-meš (Akkadian)

d = divine marker | pap = “elder” | bí = “fruit,” “off shoot” | mes = “hero”

Gilgamesh appears in numerous Sumerian poems but is best known from the later Akkadian Epic of Gilgamesh, where he is presented as a heroic figure and king of the Sumerian city of Uruk in the early third millennium BCE.

While the modern spelling of the name follows an Akkadian pronunciation, the name itself originated from the Sumerian personal name Pabilgames. The literal translation of this original form is “the elder fruit was a hero,” meaning “the forebearer was a hero,” where the verb “to be” is assumed and read in the past tense, which was the default tense of Sumerian. It likely refers to Gilgamesh’s father, since offering praise of the child’s father or a particular deity was common in Sumerian and Akkadian. The name is consistently introduced by the symbol for deities (the unpronounced ), to express Gilgamesh’s deified status.

When it was adopted into Akkadian, the Sumerian name dropped the element “pa.” Dozens of alternative spellings and pronunciations of the name Gilgamesh exist throughout cuneiform literature, demonstrating the flexibility of the script as well as a scribal tendency to reinterpret the origins and meanings of names.

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