The Epic of Gilgamesh


The Epic of Gilgamesh

Stephen Langdon


In the year 1914 the University Museum secured by purchase a large six column tablet nearly complete, carrying originally, according to the scribal note, 240 lines of text. The contents supply the South Babylonian version of the second book of the epic ša nagba imuru, “He who has seen all things,” commonly referred to as the Epic of Gilgamish. The tablet is said to have been found at Senkere, ancient Larsa near Warka, modern Arabic name for and vulgar descendant of the ancient name Uruk, the Biblical Erech mentioned in Genesis X. This fact makes the new text the more interesting since the legend of Gilgamish is said to have originated at Erech and the hero in fact figures as one of the prehistoric Sumerian rulers of that ancient city. The dynastic list preserved on a Nippur tablet1 mentions him as the fifth king of a legendary line of rulers at Erech, who succeeded the dynasty of Kish, a city in North Babylonia near the more famous but more recent city Babylon. The list at Erech contains the names of two well known Sumerian deities, Lugalbanda and Tammuz. The reign of the former is given at 1,200 years and that of Tammuz at 100 years. Gilgamish ruled 126 years. We have to do here with a confusion of myth and history in which the real facts are disengaged only by conjecture.

The prehistoric Sumerian dynasties were all transformed [208]into the realm of myth and legend. Nevertheless these rulers, although appearing in the pretentious nomenclature as gods, appear to have been real historic personages.3 The name Gilgamish was originally written dGi-bil-aga-miš, and means “The fire god (Gibil) is a commander,” abbreviated to dGi-bil-ga-miš, and dGi(š)-bil-ga-miš, a form which by full labialization of b to u̯ was finally contracted to dGi-il-ga-miš.4 Throughout the new text the name is written with the abbreviation dGi(š),5 whereas the standard Assyrian text has consistently the writing dGIŠ-ṬU6-BAR. The latter method of writing the name is apparently cryptographic for dGiš-bar-aga-(miš); the fire god Gibil has also the title Giš-bar.

A fragment of the South Babylonian version of the tenth book was published in 1902, a text from the period of Hammurapi, which showed that the Babylonian epic differed very much from the Assyrian in diction, but not in content. The new tablet, which belongs to the same period, also differs radically from the diction of the Ninevite text in the few lines where they duplicate each other. The first line of the new tablet corresponds to Tablet I, Col. V 25 of the Assyrian text, where Gilgamish begins to relate his dreams to his mother Ninsun.

The last line of Col. I corresponds to the Assyrian version Book I, Col. VI 29. From this point onward the new tablet takes up a hitherto unknown portion of the epic, henceforth to be assigned to the second book.

At the end of Book I in the Assyrian text and at the end of Col. I of Book II in the new text, the situation in the legend is as follows. The harlot halts outside the city of Erech with the enamoured Enkidu, while she relates to him the two dreams of the king, Gilgamish. In these dreams which he has told to his mother he receives premonition concerning the advent of the satyr Enkidu, destined to join with him in the conquest of Elam.

Now the harlot urges Enkidu to enter the beautiful city, to clothe himself like other men and to learn the ways of civilization. When he enters he sees someone, whose name is broken away, eating bread and drinking milk, but the beautiful barbarian understands not. The harlot commands him to eat and drink also:

“It is the conformity of life,

Of the conditions and fate of the Land.”

He rapidly learns the customs of men, becomes a shepherd and a mighty hunter. At last he comes to the notice of Gilgamish himself, who is shocked by the newly acquired manner of Enkidu.

“Oh harlot, take away the man,” says the lord of Erech. Once again the faithful woman instructs her heroic lover in the conventions of society, this time teaching him the importance of the family in Babylonian life, and obedience to the ruler. Now the people of Erech assemble about him admiring his godlike appearance. Gilgamish receives him and they dedicate their arms to heroic endeavor. At this point the epic brings in a new and powerful motif, the renunciation of woman’s love in the presence of a great undertaking. Gilgamish is enamoured of the beautiful virgin goddess Išhara, and Enkidu, fearing the effeminate effects of his friend’s attachment, prevents him forcibly from entering a house. A terrific combat between these heroes ensues, in which Enkidu conquers, and in a magnanimous speech he reminds Gilgamish of his higher destiny.

In another unplaced fragment of the Assyrian text Enkidu rejects his mistress also, apparently on his own initiative and for ascetic reasons. This fragment, heretofore assigned to the second book, probably belongs to Book III. The tablet of the Assyrian version which carries the portion related on the new tablet has not been found. Man redeemed from barbarism is the major theme of Book II.

The newly recovered section of the epic contains two legends which supplied the glyptic artists of Sumer and Accad with subjects for seals. Obverse III 28–32 describes Enkidu the slayer of lions and panthers. Seals in all periods frequently represent Enkidu in combat with a lion. The struggle between the two heroes, where Enkidu strives to rescue his friend from the fatal charms of Išhara, is probably depicted on seals also. On one of the seals published by Ward, Seal Cylinders of Western Asia, No. 459, a nude female stands beside the struggling heroes. This scene not improbably illustrates the effort of Enkidu to rescue his friend from the goddess. In fact the satyr stands between Gilgamish and Išhara(?) on the seal.

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