MV Blog


Gilgamesh the first superhero

by Bernard
Publish date
22 March 2012
Comments (12)

Bernard works part-time at Melbourne Museum devising and delivering presentations for visitors. The other part of the time he writes and draws and edits and publishes comic books, and also teaches and broadcasts about them.

Gilgamesh. What a guy. 

In The Epic of Gilgamesh, we learn that he's the son of a human man and the goddess Ninsun.

Gilgamesh and Lamassu in the Louvre A hero overpowering a lion (left) and Lamassu in the Louvre. These bas-relief sculpures are huge - the man figure is about three times life-size. Lion-taming spirits are often identified with Gilgamesh.
Image: caribb
Source: Used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 from caribb.

He's two-thirds god and one-third human, and single-handedly built the city walls of Uruk to protect his people.

Gilgamesh statue Cast bronze sculpture of Gilgamesh at The University of Sydney. It was made by Lewis Batros and donated by the Gilgamesh Cultural Centre on behalf of the Assyrian community celebrating the university's sesquicentenary in 2000.
Image: D. Gordon E. Robertson
Source: Wikimedia Commons

He fought and befriended the wild man Enkidu. Enkidu and Gilgamesh fought the monster Humbaba (or Huwawa). They defeated Humbaba and brought his head back to Uruk on a raft.

Clay mask of the demon Huwawa or Humbaba. Clay mask of the demon Huwawa or Humbaba. The cuneiform inscription on the back says that if the intestines of a sacrificed animal are looped around to resemble Humbaba, it is an omen of 'revelation.' Gruesome.
Source: © The Trustees of the British Museum

Gilgamesh and Enkidu also defeated the Bull of Heaven, who was sent to destroy Uruk by the furious goddess Ishtar after Gilgmesh said that he wouldn't go to the prom with her.

Queen of the Night relief The 'Queen of the Night' Relief, possibly a representation of the goddess Ishtar. It might also be her sister and rival, the goddess Ereshkigal, or the demoness Lilitu, known in the Bible as Lilith. Old Babylonian, 1800-1750 BC, from southern Iraq.
Source: © The Trustees of the British Museum

Sure, Gilgamesh is the legendary demigod hero-king of Mesopotamia, but is he actually the first comic book superhero? Of course he is. There were definitely legendary heroes and gods before Gilgamesh, but he's the first one we have a publication for. That publication weighs a little more than your standard comic book, because it's made of tablets of baked clay. But there are 12 of those tablets, each telling of a separate episode, so each could be considered an 'issue' of the Gilgamesh comic mini-series.

The one possible argument against it being a comic book is its total and utter lack of pictures. However, this objection is easily overcome by holding the tablets of cuneiform up against the large narrative Mesopotamian wall-carvings. The tablets thus become word balloons, containing a tale that the characters on the carvings are telling to one another. THEN it's a comic book. A weighty comic book. It might even, given the scope of the story, be a 'graphic novel' (=long comic book). Ooh la la!

Three thousand years after that original clay publication of the adventures of Gilgamesh, the brilliant Jack Kirby, 'King of Comics', who virtually invented the visual language that we associate with American superhero comics, put the Babylonian demigod on paper. BK (Before Kirby), comic books used the restrained compositions and drawing styles that they had inherited from newspaper comic strips. Kirby changed all that. His characters burst through the frames. They leapt from the page.

Bernard reading comic book Me ensconced in the classic Jack Kirby comic book series The Eternals, which features his character Gilgamesh.
Source: Museum Victoria

Gilgamesh shows up in issue #13 of The Eternals (1977), a comic book series that Kirby created for Marvel Comics. In the intervening years, the character has been drawn and written by various writers and artists. Sometimes he's working under a different name (simply 'Hero' or 'The Forgotten One'), sometimes he's costumed in the hide of the Bull of Heaven, and sometimes he's fighting alongside the team called The Avengers, but I'm pretty sure he won't have a cameo in the film of the same name directed by Joss Whedon (the Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator) coming from Marvel Studios later this year. More's the pity, eh?

Q&A with Dr Andrew Jamieson

by Adrienne Leith
Publish date
22 February 2012
Comments (0)

Adrienne creates and presents public programs at Melbourne Museum and coordinates Museum Victoria's lecture series.

A new major exhibition is coming to Melbourne Museum this year called The Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia. To learn more about the history and significance of Mesopotamia, I interviewed an expert in ancient civilisations, Dr Andrew Jamieson.

Can you first tell us a bit about yourself and how you are involved with the exhibition?

I am an archaeologist from the Classics and Archaeology program at the University of Melbourne, and for the past 25 years I have been working on archaeological projects in the Middle East. I'm helping with the development and presentation of The Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia at Melbourne Museum, and I'm looking forward to sharing some of my knowledge at some public lectures at the museum.

Where exactly is Mesopotamia?

Ancient Mesopotamia corresponds with the area known today as Iraq, north-east Syria and south-east Turkey. The word 'Mesopotamia' is of Greek origin (meso 'middle' and potamia 'river'), meaning the land between two rivers – the Tigris and the Euphrates. Both the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers start in the mountainous regions of Turkey and flow into the Persian Gulf.

It was here, in a land through which the two rivers flowed, that some of the world's first great empires flourished - the Sumerian, Assyrian and Babylonian empires.

Statue of King Ashurnasirpal II Statue of King Ashurnasirpal II that was placed in the Temple of Ishtar at Nimrud where Ashurnasirpal established his capital city.
Source: @ The Trustees of the British Museum

So why is Mesopotamia so significant?

Mesopotamia is important for a number of reasons.  For example, Mesopotamia witnessed experiments in agriculture and irrigation, the invention of writing, the emergence of cities and complex society, and developments in art, literature, science and mathematics. Mesopotamia is also sometimes referred to as the 'fertile crescent' or the 'cradle of civilisation', because the crescent-shaped region was a moist and fertile land, and because the first complex societies emerged in this region.

Why is Mesopotamia relevant to us today?

For me, Mesopotamia is relevant today because it represents the origins or beginnings of western civilisation. Ancient Mesopotamia has a long and rich history that continues to influence our lives.

The Mesopotamians were amongst the first people to build and live in large cities. They also developed many aspects of technology including metalworking, pottery production, glassmaking, textile manufacture and leather-working.

The oldest writing yet discovered comes from southern Mesopotamia and dates to circa 3500 BC. It consists of pictographic signs incised on clay tablets that record the Sumerian language. The earliest writing was used to communicate basic information about crops and taxes. A few centuries later the pictographs were transformed into more abstract cuneiform ('wedge-shaped') characters. This distinctive script was incised on wet clay with a stylus (pen-like instrument), usually cut from a reed. Over thousands of years, Mesopotamian scribes recorded daily events, trade activities, astronomy, myths, and literature on thousands of clay tablets. So successful was this system of writing that it was used over three millennia by the different peoples of the ancient Near East.

Early cuneiform writing tablet, c. 3000 BC Early cuneiform writing tablet, circa 3000 BC. Quantities of barley allocated to officials listed by rank. The impressed circles and half-circles represent numbers.
Source: @ The Trustees of the British Museum

What can people expect to see in the exhibition?

The Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia is specially designed for Melbourne Museum It features over 170 objects highlighting significant episodes of Mesopotamian civilisation, including masterpieces from Sumer, Assyria and Babylon. It is rare for the British Museum to tour such priceless pieces. Some of these objects include an early Sumerian cuneiform writing tablet, a fluted gold cup with spout found in the death pit of the tomb of Queen Puabi at Ur that may have been used for drinking beer, a large stone statue of the Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal II inscribed in cuneiform giving his titles and lineage, and much more.

Gold cup Gold cup with spout found in the death pit of the tomb of Queen Puabi. The long spout would have been used like a drinking straw, probably for drinking beer.
Source: @ The Trustees of the British Museum

The Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia is a collaboration with the British Museum. It is on at Melbourne Museum from 4 May to 7 October 2012.


The Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia

Video: What is Mesopotamia?

Video: The Mesopotamian Minute

Pre-purchase exhibition tickets online

Dr Andrew Jamieson at the University of Melbourne

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Updates on what's happening at Melbourne Museum, the Immigration Museum, Scienceworks, the Royal Exhibition Building, and beyond.