Ancient Literature and Language
Chapter 2: The Epic of Gilgamesh
I. Introduction to The Epic of Gilgamesh
Andrew George's edition (Penguin, 1999) includes a full and detailed introduction
to Mesopotamian civilization as it bears upon reading and understanding The
Epic of Gilgamesh. Below is a list of key-terms to learn and remember as
you read the introduction (pp. xiii-xlii).
|Terms, Places, People and Things to Know (with page numbers in the Introduction where the term is first or primarily mentioned)|
|Todesfurcht ("fear of death"), xiii
The Deluge, xiii
cuneiform tablets, xv
Akkadian language, xv
"He who saw the Deep," xv-xvi
Sumerian language, xvi
Tablet Houses, xx
"Surpassing all other kings," xxv
Uta-napishti, , xxxii
"document of ancient humanism," xxxiii
plant (of rejuvenation), xlv-xlvi
celestial bull (Bull of Heaven), xlviii
Readers may find the Glossary of Proper Nouns (pp. 222-225) helpful.
II. The Epic of Gilgamesh
A. The Nature of Verse in The Epic of Gilgamesh
Scholars today are unsure about what exactly differentiated poetry from prose in the Ancient Near East. One thing is certain: rhyme and meter, linguistic features which are traditionally used in many cultures to shape words into verse, were not determining factors in Ancient Near Eastern poetry. Instead, Mesopotamian verse seems to entail only a heightened sense of language, loftiness of expression, and perhaps also musical accompaniment which, of course, isn't apparent in cuneiform texts.
But there were also other more obvious factors at work in sculpting the poetic language of the Ancient Near East, features of discourse which readers today may not associate with verse but the Mesopotamians almost surely did. One of those is repetition, technically termed repetitive parallelism, a characteristic of poetry visible as far back in time as the Sumerians. In its simplest form, this involves speaking the same words twice, as seen in the Enuma Elish, the Babylonian New Year's Hymn, a paean to their primary deity Marduk:
You are the most important among the great gods;
Your destiny is unequaled, your command is Anu.
Marduk, you are the most important among the great gods,
Your destiny is unequaled, your command is Anu. (Enuma Elish 4.3-6)
Originally, this repetition may have arisen from the oral nature of this poetry, which is to say that it was designed to be performed in public where refrain and recapitulation are to be expected.
But such bald repetition is actually rather rare in Ancient Near Eastern literature. More often, repetitive parallelism involves changes and additions in the second half of the verse, what scholars call progressive specification, such as:
When above, the heaven had not been named,
Below, the earth had not yet been called by name, . . . (Enuma Elish 1.1-2)
This pair of lines says essentially the same thing twice, "when the universe had as yet no name," but the poet has broken the thought between the anonymity of heaven in the first line and that of earth in the second.
In much the same way, Mesopotamian poets often used the second line to add a further pertinent detail, for example:
<Tiamat> was angry and cried out to her husband;
She cried out and raged furiously, she alone. (Enuma Elish 1.42-3)
This type of redundancy is termed incremental repetition.
In the surviving poetic documents of the Ancient Near East, these repetitional devices occur frequently and can assume a wide range of shapes and sizes. For instance, though they most often take the form of couplets, sometimes repetitive pairs stretch out over a full quatrain or are collapsed into half-lines. Occasionally, statements go without any parallel at all. Thus, there is no firm or consistent principle guiding the creation of poetry in Mesopotamia. All in all, it demonstrates only a sense of elevated language suitable for the grand occasions at and about which the verse was sung, and while there is a rhythm, there's no discernible meter.
B. The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Bible
The Bible is the only work to survive from the Ancient Near East through a literary tradition, that is, to be copied over and over and thus transmitted in an unbroken line of texts from antiquity. To it, however, can now be appended the vast numbers of cuneiform texts which archaeologists have unearthed and, stemming as both do from the same general area and period of time, Mesopotamian literature shares much with the Bible. They speak, for instance, to the same historical events and cultural evolution and, in terms of poetic forms, employ a similar type of elevated language and repetition.
For instance, consider the lofty praise of the divine Nanshe in Mesopotamian poetry:
Nanshe, Lordly Lady, Lady of the precious me (justice?),
Lady who like Enlil decrees the fates,
My Nanshe whose command is enduring, eternal,
You, the interpretress of the gods, . . .
Compare that with the encomium of God in Psalms 111.7-8:
The works of His hands are truth and justice; all His commandments are sure.
They stand fast for ever and ever, done in truth and uprightness.
The repetitive nature of Biblical scripture is also well-documented, especially in older passages like the Song of Deborah:
In the days of Shamgar the son of ‘Anat
In the days of Ya'el, the highways were unoccupied,
And the travellers walked through crooked byways.
The inhabitants of the villages ceased, they ceased in Yisra'el,
Until I Devora (Deborah) arose,
I arose a mother in Yisra'el.
Progressive specification is particularly common:
The kings came and fought,
Then fought the kings of Kena'an,
In Ta'nakh by the waters of Megiddo;
They took no gain of silver.
They fought from heaven;
The stars in their courses fought against Sisera.
The wadi of Qishon swept them away,
The ancient brook, the brook of Qishon. (Judges 5.19-21)
This opens the door to exploring other parallels between the Bible and The Epic of Gilgamesh. In doing so, we shed valuable light on both as well as illuminating the bedrock on which their and our literary traditions ultimately rest.
1. Gilgamesh and the Nephilim (Tablet I.29-91)
Gilgamesh is described in The Epic of Gilgamesh as part mortal and part god. A similar sort of hybrid can be seen in the Bible, too. Semi-divine beings called in Hebrew the nephilim—nephilim is often translated "sons of God"—populate some of the earliest sections of the Bible, e.g. Genesis 6:4:
There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.
Though it's never explained where these nephilim come from, their role in the Bible is clearly very important. After they mix with mortal women, they engender an arrogant breed of creatures more than human but less than divine, driving God to flood the earth and obliterate their kind.
In like manner, Gilgamesh misbehaves because of the arrogance born of his innate superiority:
The young men of Uruk he harries without warrant,
Gilgamesh lets no son go free to his father . . .
It is he who is shepherd of Uruk-the-Sheepfold,
but Gilgamesh let no daughter go free to her mother. (I.67-8, 71-72)
While the Biblical tale of the nephilim is somewhat confusing—it looks to have been abridged for some reason—it bears some clear parallels to The Epic of Gilgamesh, in particular, the audacity of a semi-divine "hero" who oversteps his rightful bounds and thus the gods must punish and keep in line. Also, Gilgamesh's humbling journey to Uta-napishti, the sole survivor of the Flood, echoes the Hebrew God's intention to rid the world of the nephilim's influence by sending the Deluge. Though the stories have different morals, each suited to its own culture, they both build upon a "fallen angel" motif which, no doubt, they shared in common as part of their Near Eastern heritage.
2. The Cedars of Lebanon (Tablet IV)
Another motif seen in both the Bible and The Epic of Gilgamesh is the Cedars of Lebanon, an enormous and daunting forest which once covered a large stretch of the Near East. The depredations of humanity have erased almost all traces of it. History offers no better lesson about the long-term consequences of ecological mismanagement. Go to Lebanon today and it's hard even to imagine there was once a lush, inpenetrable forest there.
But there was and, more important, a forest of cedar trees whose resin provided the local populace with a valuable export commodity which because of its sweet smell was used widely in purification rituals. This economic asset manifests in literature as an opportunity for great exploits such as the journey taken by Gilgamesh and Enkidu to the cedar forest where they kill the monster Humbaba. In Sumerian times it was perhaps a genuine test of valor that someone had breached this wood—to the early Sumerians, Lebanon would have represented the edge of the world—the "Conquest of the Cedar Forest" later became a trope, a conventional way of expressing a king's bravery and daring, many of whom listed this adventure among their feats of renown.
Indeed, as late as the Assyrian and Babylonian kings of the first millennium BCE, it was a royal prerogative to claim the "Conquest of the Cedar Forest," even though the Near East was a much smaller world and there probably weren't even many cedars left in it. By then merely a cliche, the irony-rich habit of vaunting victory over a nearby, nearly dead forest didn't escape the shrewd eye of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, always on the lookout for hypocrisy among the heathen. At Isaiah 14:8-9 he sings a clever mocking dirge of a recently deceased Babylonian king, saying:
The whole earth is at rest and is quiet:
they break forth into singing.
Yea, the fir trees rejoice at thee, the cedars of Lebanon, saying,
‘Since thou art laid down, no feller is come up against us.’
In other words, the braggart ruler of Babylon is dead so the forest feels safe and the trees sing: "There's one less king to cut us down now!" Isaiah's mockery of this tradition customary among Mesopotamian royalty—a paradigm we now know is as old as The Epic of Gilgamesh—shows not only that he knows the literary and political tradition behind the vain boast but also that the Bible is deeply rooted in the context and content of Ancient Near Eastern culture.
3. The Creation of Enkidu (Tablet I.99-102)
When the mother goddess Aruru takes "a pinch of clay" and molds Enkidu, her actions bear some resemblance to the creation of Adam in Genesis. First, the name Adam has strong affinities with adom, the Hebrew word for "clay"—similarly, adamah means "dirt"—an etymology which is reinforced at Job 33:6:
Behold, before God I am as you are; I too was formed from a piece of clay.
At Gen 3:19, God even calls Adam "dust" explicitly: "For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return." Moreover, the same motif appears in another Mesopotamian epic, The Story of Atrahasis, where the gods also create humankind by "pinching" off a piece of clay. The underlying message of this pervasive theme in Ancient Near Eastern scripture appears to be the fragility and transitory nature of mortal life, a motif appropriate to all Mesopotamian heroes.
Second, in each work the newly formed creature contains within him a divine spark. In The Epic of Gilgamesh Enkidu embodies the lofty conception of Anu, the principal god of the Mesopotamian pantheon, "what Anu had thought of" (I.100). Likewise in the Bible, God makes man in his own image (Gen 1:26-7). In both cases, the moral seems to be that humans are more than merely ceramic, even if not fully divine.
4. Enkidu and the Acculturation of Man (Tablets I.161-II.195)
Seen another way, Enkidu's story bears an even greater resemblance to that of Adam in Genesis. In a story pattern scholars call the "Acculturation of Man," Enkidu's animal-like savagery is tamed and he assumes human attributes. At first, a veritable beast who lives in the wild and co-habits with other creatures, Enkidu meets the prostitute Shamhat who seduces him, after which the denizens of the wilderness shun him. In despair, Enkidu returns to Shamhat who clothes him and teaches him how to eat, then takes him to the great city of Uruk where his adventures with Gilgamesh leading ultimately to his death begin.
Adam's story runs closely parallel to this. At first living peacefully amidst nature in the Garden of Eden, Adam meets Eve and his troubles begin. While the Bible doesn't speak directly of Adam and Eve having sex, the atmosphere between them is from the outset fraught with sexuality: both are naked, Eve serves as Adam's companion, and God tells them to be "fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth." (Gen 1:28)
Most interesting of all, the text of Genesis centers around the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, popularly called the "apple." In Ancient Near Eastern culture, the words for "fruit" and "knowledge" both carry strong sexual overtones. Inbu, for instance, in Babylonian means both "fruit" and "sex," while "knowledge" in Hebrew can imply "carnal intercourse" as shown in the Sodom and Gomorrah passage (Gen 19:5). This is not to say that the Bible should be interpreted to be saying—or even implying—that Adam and Eve "knew" each other's "fruit" in the Garden of Eden, only that this passage shares with the Enkidu-Shamhat episode a strong aura of sexuality, with a woman in both cases showing a man the way to a more informed way of life, be it for his good or not.
After Adam "did eat" of the fruit Eve offers him, he incurs God's displeasure and is evicted from his idyllic existence amidst the animals of nature, just as Enkidu loses his connection to the wild after having sex with the prostitute Shamhat. Adam and Eve also sew on fig leaves to hide their nakedness in much the same way Shamhat clothes Enkidu. Later, God condemns Adam to eat bread "in the sweat of thy brow," like Enkidu whom Shamhat feeds bread (Gilg. II.90).
Although the stories seem on the surface to end very differently—Enkidu leaves the wild behind and meets his new best friend Gilgamesh, while Adam and Eve are banished from Eden to a life of toil and pain—there's a notable parallel here, too. Both tales culminate in a city: Enkidu ultimately ends up in Uruk; and later in Genesis, Cain, we are told, "builded a city." (Gen. 4:17)
It is still very early in the history of the world—there can't as yet have been many people to live in Cain's city of Enoch—no doubt, the Bible includes this detail, at least in part, because the Mesopotamian story pattern used in narrating the creation and acculturation of humankind here resolves traditionally in a city. Cities are, after all, one of the more definitive features of our species. Indeed, the Greek philosopher Aristotle called man "the political animal," meaning the creature which lives in poleis ("cities").
Thus, for all their seeming differences with the heathen civilizations around them, the Hebrews in the end cling with remarkable fidelity to their Ancient Near Eastern cultural heritage. Even if they're tailoring the story pattern of the Acculturation of Man to their own purposes, giving it a whole new context and meaning, they abide by the fundamental nature of its tried-and-true narrative framework: natural harmony, woman/sex/fruit/knowledge, clothing/expulsion, and cities. If there ever was, this is proof of the truism: the more things change, the more they stay the same.
5. Conclusion: The Walls of Uruk (Tablet XI.321-9)
And if any ostensible truth emerges from The Epic of Gilgamesh, it is that enduring fame that is found in the building of cities. As he delivers the defining moral at the end of the epic, Gilgamesh tells the boatman Urshanabi to inspect the walls of Uruk closely:
Go up, Urshanabi, walk on the ramparts of Uruk.
Inspect the base terrace, examine its brickwork,
If its brickwork is not of burnt brick,
And if the Seven Wise Ones laid not its foundation. (Gilg. XI.324-7)
To this, compare Psalms 48:12-13:
Walk about Zion (Jerusalem), and go round about her:
count her towers,
Mark well her bulwarks, consider her palaces;
that you may tell it to the generation following.
While Tablet XI of The Epic of Gilgamesh concludes with the verses above, Psalm 48 adds a final verse:
For such is God, our God, for ever and ever:
He will be our guide to the death.
But the entire Gilgamesh saga points to much the same conclusion. Where Psalm
48 ends by evoking the city of Jerusalem as evidence of God's strength and the
promise he offers of salvation in death, Gilgamesh has spent much of his life
seeking exactly that, an answer to the riddle of life and the mystery of death.
Just like the psalmist, the broken and bruised King of Uruk at the end of journey
finds the solution he's looking for in the fortitude of his own city, its towers
and walls, his greatest achievement, indeed, the crowning glory of all humankind.
|Terms, Places, People and Things to Know (include also key-terms from Chapter 2.I)|
Cedars of Lebanon
Acculturation of Man
walls of Uruk
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