When we talk about reading the Epic of Gilgamesh today, we are talking about a version of the story discovered in 1872 at Nineveh, the city perhaps best known for its prominence in the Biblical book of Jonah, in the ruins of the royal library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal. The story, like all very ancient stories, was first shared around orally. In the case of Gilgamesh, the story is quite old, perhaps beginning its circulation around 2500 BCE. Scholars tend to think the first written version of the story would not have occurred until around 1200 BCE when a scribe weaved several tales together into a flowing whole. If this is the case, then Gilgamesh has had a history rather similar to that of the book of Genesis, in which several strands of oral tradition seem to have been drawn together into a coherent text.
It is good fortune that we can read any version of the Epic of Gilgamesh at all. The epic, before it was rediscovered in 1872, had been completely lost to human memory for over 2500 years. All the gods, and the people written of there, were forgotten. Imagine if Greece had suffered a similar discontinuity of cultural memory–and we had only recently discovered Homer and the Greek pantheon. This is the situation that we face with the gods and heroes of the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh.
Reading Gilgamesh is like stepping onto the ruins of a metaphorical Pompeii and exploring a literary lost world.
And were it not for Gilgamesh, we would not know that Mesopotamia had a flood narrative similar to the one found in the Bible.
The Noah character in Gilgamesh is named Utnapishtim.