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On Exhibit in Hutchins Library

The Epic of Gilgamesh

Gilgamesh, an epic poem of 3000 lines written in cuneiform and predating the Bible, is believed to be the world’s oldest story. Some of the clay tablets on which it is written date back to 3000 B.C., but the seventh century edition inscribed by Sin-leqi-unninni is the most nearly complete and is the source for the study of this needlework.

According to the epic, in the city of Uruk in Sumer (southern Iraq) lived a god/king Gilgamesh. Because of his exploitation and oppression, the people beseeched the gods to intervene. The gods then created Enkidu who was expected to subdue Gilgamesh. Instead, during a wrestling match, the two became best friends. Together they engaged in numerous feasts of daring, and ultimately they slew the monster Humbaba in the sacred cedar forests. For the desecration of the forests, the gods decreed that Enkidu must die. Gilgamesh, overcome with grief for his friend and concern for his own mortality, went in search of Utnapishtim (Biblical Noah) who knew the secret of immortality. Utnapishtim told Gilgamesh that he must return to Uruk and “live in the conformity of man.” However, the secret of eternal youth was revealed to him – to eat of the plant called weed-that-makes-old-young-again which lay at the bottom of the bitter river (Death). Although Gilgamesh obtained the weed, he lost it when a serpent devoured it, shedding its skin (becoming young) as it ate the weed. Gilgamesh then returned to Uruk, resigned to mortality.

The Gilgamesh Tapestry at Hutchins Library

The Gilgamesh Tapestry is on permanent display in the Reference Area of Hutchins Library.  This prize winning piece is a 5'x8' needlework panel depicting incidents and characters in the Gilgamesh epic poem (believed to be the world’s oldest story).  The tapestry was designed and constructed by Virginia Ferrill Piland, Berea College Class of 1943.

Piland has created quilts to air her views on smoking, prejudice, religion, and global warming. Her quilt, “O Jerusalem!” featuring symbols of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, hung in the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. and is part of Berea’s Union Church’s collection of Piland’s quilts.  Her quilts also hang in St. Joseph Hospital in Berea (tapestry of Historic Berea) and in the Berea branch of the Madison County Public Library (quilt protesting global warming).   


Gilgamesh Tapestry

Gilgamesh Tapestry

The Five Registers of the Tapestry

This needlework is constructed in five registers. The top shows nobility at a banquet being entertained by musicians and served a lavish meal. The corner shows scribe Sin-leqi-unninni and the artist. In her embroidery hoop, Piland includes the Sumerian pictograph for comet, thus dating the needlework as being made in the year of the comet.


The second register shows the development of written language from pictograph to cuneiform ideogram and from a concrete word (water) to an abstract idea (drink).


The center register depicts the gods, a map of the time and area, the exploits of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, and Gilgamesh’s meeting with Utnapishtim.


The next register gives a synopsis of the epic on twelve clay tablets and shows animals in byres taken from cylinder seal impressions.


The bottom register shows laborers - from the horticulturist who cross-pollinates the date palm to the weaver who wears a skirt woven on a miniature loom.