Gilgamesh four thousand years later


GilgameshGilgamesh continues to enthrall us, even after more than 100 years of translations and interpretations. The story continues to be told and retold and even re-imagined. There’s even a children’s version of the tale.

You can read a version here, in PDF format or an online version here.Translations and transliterations (if you know your Akkadian…) are here. There was likely an oral version shared even before writing was invented – if you really want to know what that might have sounded like, listen to some modern recordings of old Babylonian poetry here.

Gilgamesh is not simply humankind’s earliest written legend – it’s also a powerful story that tells us about what it means to be human, to be part of a greater community. It’s about growing up, about friendship, fear, loss, death, sex, magic, faith, pride, finding wisdom and the meaning of life.

Several texts of the Gilgamesh epic have been found, all of them fragmentary, so part of the retelling is collecting the pieces and assembling them into a whole. They are also in other languages including Elamite and Hurrian. It is also a personal tale based on a man many archaeologists believe to have been real: the King of the city-state of Uruk,* some time between 2750 and 2500 BCE.

While the story itself dates back to the late third millennium BCE, the earliest tablets – Sumerian versions of the epic – date come from the city of Ur around 2150-2000 BCE. The Akkadian version is from about 1900 BCE.

The Gilgamesh story is the earliest work of literature known, and was so popular it spread throughout the great Mesopotamian civilizations of Sumeria, Babylon, Akkad and others. The great epic was still being repeated and written down on clay tablets during the Hittite rule a thousand years later. That alone shows the power of its storytelling.

Some parts – like the Flood myth – even made their way into the Bible, albeit wrapped in a different religious blanket.Four thousand years later, this story still captures our imagination.

All of the surviving copies of the story are in fragments: some pieces in broken tablets, some stories with tablets or lines missing. The earliest tablets were written at the dawn of human literacy, when language was still being created and designed as a written form, so the earliest texts are much more difficult to translate. Language was more plastic then, and meaning not as firmly committed to the written form as it is today.

There may be untranslated tablets that are part of one or more of the versions sitting in museums, among the collections of thousands of clay tablets awaiting analysis and translation. Every few years some new addition or correction seems to be brought to light. In 2015, for example, there were 20 lines added to the corpus (thanks to a deal with a smuggler) and the order of chapters arranged by the discovery of a single tablet – a fragment of Tablet V (in which Gilgamesh and Enkidu slew the forest demigod Humbaba and thus angered the god Enlil – text here). As noted on the University of London website:

So far eleven pieces of Old Babylonian versions of the epic are extant, and eighteen pieces are known from later in the second millennium (Middle Babylonian and other intermediate manuscripts). If these twenty-nine fragments were all that had survived we would not be able today to give an accurate account of the poem’s narrative and plot. Fortunately we have 184 fragments from the first millennium (count at January 2003). These come from ancient libraries in Assyria, most notably the library of the seventh-century king, Ashurbanipal, and from slightly later collections of tablets found in Babylonia, chiefly at Babylon and Uruk.

The looting of the National Museum of Iraq, during the American invasion, made it more difficult, however, since many untranslated tablets were stolen from its collection in 2003. Then came the despicable ISIS fighters who actively destroyed as many sites and artifacts in Iraq in both museums and archaeological sites as they could find.

But some bits continue to come to light. In Andrew George’s Penguin Classics version of the epic, there were additions of material made between his first publication in 1999 and the Penguin version of 2003. The future will no doubt add more to the story, so as definitive as this work appears, it is still transitional.

The most complete version of the story is from 12 stone tablets, written in the Akkadian language, and found in the ruins of at Nineveh in the library of the great Ashurbanipal, king of Assyria 669-633 BCE. The library, as well as the city, was sacked by the Persians in 612 BCE, and all the tablets are damaged. This is the “standard” version used by most translators today, and is also known as “He Who Saw the Deep” from the description of Gilgamesh in the first line of the first tablet.

Gilgamesh - flood storyWhat’s interesting to me is that these tablets – the originals dating from around 1300-1000 BCE – have an author’s name inscribed on them. Identifying the writer was extremely rare in the ancient world. So we know the name of Shin-eqi-unninni (or Sin-liqe-unninni), the oldest known named author or editor (or possibly scribe), who compiled the various Sumerian and Akkadian stories into one larger document somewhere between 1300 BCE and 1000 BCE.

The Gilgamesh tale is also interesting because while it was first popularized as a Sumerian story, it was adopted and translated by each successive culture as they conquered the other, some parts of it even making its way into the Bible. But unlike classical Greek or Roman literature that was read continually in the West, most of the ancient Middle Eastern stories were lost, their languages forgotten until modern times.

Gligamesgh and AgaGilgamesh was first translated for the west in 1870 and as our understanding and appreciation of the cuneiform languages increased, it has been translated and interpreted many times ever since. I have four or five versions on my shelf, dating from a battered Penguin edition (the prose translation itself dating from the 1960s) I picked up 20 or so years ago, to a newer Penguin edition dating from 2003 I found in a local book store a few weeks ago. The tale seems to fascinate us even after four millennia and we continue to try and present it anew.

Translation is a notoriously slippery art, especially with a language that has not been used or spoken for millennia. That’s compounded by the discovery of new pieces to include. Assyriologist Benjamin Foster said in an interview:

Many Assyriologists of my generation or previous ones felt that they could translate it better than had been done before. One reason for this is the rapid advance in understanding of the Babylonian language… Another reason is the constant discovery of new pieces of Mesopotamian texts… Babylonians tended to see themselves in their heroes, so perhaps this is one work of ancient Mesopotamian literature in which the modern reader can see himself as both grand and imperfect, different from other people but ultimately the same.

As the hero of the tale, Gilgamesh is a legendary semi-divine figure, but scholars are inclined to grant that he is based on a real, historical king of the Sumerian city of Uruk. According to the epic, Gilgamesh built the city’s walls. What is believed to be the tomb of Gilgamesh found by a German expedition in 2003. However, it’s not a particularly good time to be doing archeology in Iraq, so until the region settles down, there is still much to be learned from what has been described as the “Venice” of the ancient world.

By now, most of us know the Gilgamesh story as the source of the story of the Biblical flood, that mythical deluge most likely based on retold stories of a historical flood of the Euphrates river around 2900-2750 BCE. Excavations around the Sumerian city of Shuruppak indicate the river overflowed its banks in this period and the flood extended nearly as far as the city of Kish. This disaster disrupted the young civilizations of the Ancient Near East, threw its political, commercial and cultural structures into chaos. It was Etana, the king of Kish, who subsequent stories say founded the first Sumerian dynasty after the flood.**

The flood story is told on tablet 11 in the standard version of the Gilgamesh epic, although this part is considered by some scholars to be extraneous material added from another work, Epic of Atrahasis.

The oldest surviving flood story is the fragmentary Eridu Genesis, dated to the late 17th century BCE and the tale is found in several Mesopotamian tablets as late as the 3rd century BCE. By the time the Torah – the first five books of the Bible (Old Testament) – were being compiled (950-500 BCE), the tale of the flood was already a thousand years old. It emerged in its current Biblical form in the book of Genesis. (B’reshit) around 450-300 BCE. Many of the early Biblical stories – such as the creation myth – originally come from Mesopotamian epics like the Enuma Elish.

As a literary work, Gilgamesh contains many of the elements of a modern story: the rise and fall of a great man, a great friendship betrayed, death, passion and sex, violence, politics, the environment, meeting and overcoming great challenges (mostly in the form of gods or demons), a great treasure found and lost, the quest for immortality and the magical youth-giving plant which is stolen by the serpent, hubris humbled, anguish, loss and redemption, the conflict between man and gods… while a close translation may be couched in a somewhat awkward and archaic form that readers may struggle with, less texturally exact interpretations can easily bring the story to vibrant life. After all, it’s about the human condition and (despite our advances in technology) that hasn’t changed in all these tens of thousands of years of our evolution.

Because of these universal themes, it is so easy to adapt the tale to modern sensibilities and language that there have been novelizations of the story as recently as 2007, and there are also theatrical versions, an opera, a BBC radio series. and movie versions. There’s even a translation into Klingon!

There is also a subtext story of the difference between humans and gods and the conflict it creates. While the gods have little concern for humans, they sometimes intervene and interfere, often callously but sometimes with affection. Humans are sometimes at their beck and call, and other times can act independently, sometimes even in opposition to them.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu set out on a dangerous adventure to conquer the god Humbaba. Originally presented as a monster, Humbaba in the newly-discovered lines seems far more civilized:

Humbaba emerges, not as a barbarian ogre, and but as a foreign ruler entertained with exotic music at court in the manner of Babylonian kings. The chatter of monkeys, chorus of cicada and squawking of many kinds of birds formed a symphony (or cacophony) that daily entertained the forest’s guardian, Humbaba.

But the heroes press on and battle Humbaba, and win with the help of the god Shamash. In Tablet II, with loud bravado Gilgamesh tells Enkidu:

We all die anyway, so I might as well accomplish great, risky deeds, and make a name for myself. That way, my fame will live on after I’m dead—even if I have a short life.

It’s the sort of heroic quest that Joseph Campbell wrote about in so many of his books. But even though they kill the god, it goes awry: Humbaba curses the two heroes just before being killed. Enkidu sickens and dies shortly after. It’s a lesson in hubris for Gilgamesh.

After the death of his beloved friend Enkidu (who may also have been Gilgamesh’s lover), Gilgamesh sets out on his second great adventure: to find the secret of immortality so he will not die like Enkidu. Gilgamesh hunts for and after great adversity finds Utnapishtim, the one human who allegedly knows the secret to immortality (also the proto-Noah; he and his family were granted immortality after the god Enlil caused the Great Flood that wiped out the rest of humanity).

Utnapishtim says to Gilgamesh,

“There is no permanence. Do we build a house to stand forever, do we seal a contract to hold for all time?…. When the Anunnaki, the judges, come together, and Mammetun the mother of destinies, together they decree the fates of men. Life and death they allot but the day of death they do not disclose.”

Gilgamesh struggles to find the gift of divinity – immortality – and is rebuffed, then finds it again but loses it before he can partake. Gilgamesh eventually accepts his fate and his loss, and returns to Uruk to live out the remainder of his mortal life. A lesson for those of us entering the later years of our lives: stop trying to be young.

The Gilgamesh story lays the foundation for the relationship between deities and humans that would persist into Roman times, and is central to the grand Homeric tales (which came 1,500 or so years later). It’s also about the individual and society – how Gilgamesh went from an entitled, hedonistic (and promiscuous) autocrat king, to being a shepherd looking out for the needs of his flock. He journeys from brutality and conquest to justice and responsibility. Freudian and Jungian scholars have debated on hidden and symbolic messages in the story.

The fatal flaw in the human condition is our inescapable mortality and part of many myths is our quest to somehow gain immortality – or steal it – from the gods. Even when we overcome the gods in some contest, humans are fated to die while the gods live on (Gilgamesh fails twice). Yet although the chances are seemingly impossible, because the prize – eternal life – is so valuable, we continue to fight for it. Modern readers can appreciate the frustration and challenge against such odds as much as ancient ones could.

Siduri the barmaid tells Gilgamesh about this and offers him basic, Buddha-like advice about how to deal with it:

“You will never find that life for which you are looking. When the gods created man they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping… As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man.'”

While I’m no scholar, I like Andrew George’s edition (Penguin Classics, 2003) the best, not for its language (which can be stiff because it is so literal) but rather because he includes in one book all the current versions and fragments from every source. It’s fascinating to be able to read alternate takes on the same story pressed into the clay over two millennia in different cultures.

George is scrupulous in not trying to fill in the blanks for readers – the tale has many missing lines – as many translators have done. The reader can appreciate the still incomplete nature of the epic, as well as marvel over how much has been preserved for such a long time.

Missing lines or fragments are clearly identified in his version, which gives his version a special but cool credibility. It allows the reader to imagine what is missing. Some readers may find it more awkward to read than fuller interpretations because these lacuna break the rhythm of the story. For example, in this fragmentary description of the god-like proportions of Gilgamesh:

A triple cubit was his foot, half a rod his leg.
Six cubits was his stride,
…cubits the front part of his…

What I also appreciate in George’s version is its completeness in gathering all the fragments (to the date of publication – 2003) together. Many modern translations or interpretations have skipped lightly over some parts of the story, and even ignored them completely, George offers us all the bits and pieces and lets us fill in the blanks ourselves (albeit sometimes with some scholarly help). That somehow makes the story all the more powerful to me.

But there are other, more poetic, more flowing versions that you may find easier to start with. Whichever you choose, you should not miss reading the Gilgamesh story. It says something valuable about and to all of us, even today.

* Uruk, which later became part of the Sumerian and then Babylonian empires, was the largest city in the world at the time of Gilgamesh. It is mentioned in the Bible (Gen. 10:10) as Erech. It went through a lengthy period of growth and declining cycles, until it started to fade away when the Parthians took the region around 141 BCE. It was slowly abandoned over the next four centuries and not rediscovered until the mid-19th century.

** Some scholars believe the flood myths which are found in many cultures are holdovers from stories told about flooding in the last glacial period, or perhaps flooding of the Black Sea basin around 5600 BCE. There is a Babylonian flood story dating from 1750 BCE which has a description for building a round ark. Marina Warner, a professor at England’s University of Essex, wrote an essay on Gilgamesh and the flood myths which, reviewer David L. Ulin says in reading her essay, are really about “… what we leave behind us” and “…the value of what remains.” Rather fortuitously, the discovery and publication of the Gilgamesh story came about because in 1872 George Smith, a Christian scholar and archeologist looking for proof of the Bible’s stories read about the flood in the Gilgamesh story and saw it as proof of his theories.

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