Friday, January 7, 2011

Gilgamesh: From the Beginning

The story of the great king Gilgamesh is the oldest narrative text in the world. The story has roots in the real Gilgamesh, a king of the city Uruk in ancient Mesopotamia in approximately 2750 BCE. In this fertile crescent between the rivers Tigres and Euphrates, civilization as we know it began.

Here began the earliest known writing system in the world: cuneiform. At first a pictographic language, cuneiform is constructed with marks made on clay tablets with a reed stylus. The earliest markings were used to keep track of agricultural products and food stores. Quickly, however, people began to use written language to record stories. This instinct to create narratives about who we are, how we live, and what we want to become is one of the things that defines us as human beings.

It is in this place where cities began, where written language got its start, that the Iraq war has been fought.

Although we here in the West often imagine our cultures as different from those of the Arabic world, the two societies stem from the same root: life in Mesopotamia. And the Epic of Gilgamesh is the first narrative we have from the area. It comes to us on shards of clay, incomplete and developed over the course of a thousand years. The earliest shards date to 2100 BCE and were written in Sumerian. Later records are in the Akkadian language, some from around 1700 BCE and some (presumably copies made for the world's earliest library) from about 650 BCE.

People fell in love with this story, with the process of reading and writing, with sharing and saving copies of narratives of humanity and of imagination.  It is amazing to me that when I flip the pages in my paperback copy of Gilgamesh, I am reading a version of what people read nearly five thousand years ago. It seems like a momentous place to begin my reading journey.

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The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of GilgameshIf you are interested in a more detailed history of the epic, I recommend David Damrosch's The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh.  Beginning with an extremely detailed account of the archaeological rediscovery of some of the tablets of Gilgamesh during the 1870s, the book then goes back in time to discuss Ashurbanipal's great library in Ninevah during 600s BCE, the epic of Gilamesh itself, and finally the history of the real-life king Gilgamesh.

Although Damrosch develops his historical characters with the pacing of a novelist, I must admit that I got a bit bogged down in his descriptions of the ins and outs of the 19th-century discovery of Gilgamesh.  I found the book much more readable and interesting when the earlier periods are discussed.  You might even start your reading with chapter five, and then after finishing to the end, skim through the beginning chapters.

Perhaps my favorite part in Damrosch's book is his epilogue--a discussion of Saddam Hussein.  Before the second Gulf war began, the Iraqi leader announced plans to restore the library in Nineveh (which was Ashurbanipal's greatest legacy).  He planned to make plaster casts of all the clay tablets now entombed at the British Museum and fill the reconstructed library with the treasures of Iraq's cultural heritage.

Saddam Hussein also wrote a novel--published soon after the first Gulf war--which uses the story of Gilgamesh as an allegory for the war with the U.S.  The protagonist suggests that he, like Gilgamesh, has learned lessons of mortality and humility.  Damrosch's analysis of this and other contemporary readings of Gilgamesh is subtle and fascinating.

You might also enjoy the New York Times review of Damrosh's book.

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Join me in the next post for a discussion about some of the central themes that arise in Gilgamesh.


  1. Thanks for the suggestion, incl. how to read it. I just put it on hold at our library.

    I have 2 'background' books for Gilgamesh--Ancient Mesopotamia, Portrait of a Dead Civilization by A. Leo Oppenheim, and Ancient Iraq by Georges Roux. They are both quite dense. If I had to pick one, it would be Roux. However, the history of this region is so rich and complex I'm not sure I'll ever finish either book.

  2. I will also pick up Damrosch's book at the library. I am very interested in how the clay tablets were recovered. This sounds like the perfect choice.

  3. Nancy: Thanks for the leads. Damrosh's book, while scholarly, was clearly written for a non-specialist audience. Sounds like it might be a great introduction to Oppenheim and Roux.

    Angela: I do hope you enjoy it. Please let me know what you think!

  4. The Buried Book is definitely going on my wishlist!

    Old books are a kind of time travel, aren't they? Reading "Agamemnon," knowing that ancient Greeks went to see it performed about 2500 years ago (in Athens, where I was born!) gave me goosebumps.

  5. What a great post! I love ancient literature - even got to teach it for awhile - but I've never really read contemporary works in relation to them.

  6. Eva: I love thinking of old books as time travel. Old books also remind of a Faulkner quote: something like "The past is never dead; it is never even past."

    Trisha: Thanks! How wonderful to get to teach ancient literature. I always learn things so much more deeply when I teach them. If you decide you want to try a contemp work, Damrosh is an easy intro to that world and a quick read. Many libraries seem to have it.

  7. Lovely quote! Faulkner is on my 'list of authors who make me nervous': one day I'll get over that. :) I have enjoyed a few of his short stories!

  8. Eva: Hope you love Faulkner when you get to him. I used to hate him when I was in high school. _Light in August_ is one of his most accessible novels--and "A Rose for Emily" is a very short and very creepy short story. Lots of fun.

  9. The interesting thing about the epic of Gilgamesh is that they keep finding more of it. Perhaps becuase it was frequently used as a standard text in scribal schools, fragments keep popping up in archeological digs all the time. Additionally, hundreds of fragments stored in the british museum lie dormant, awaiting reconstruction and translation.

    By the way, the range of dates for Gilgamesh tablets is a little wider that you've indicated. The earliest version of the epic proper does date to around 1700 BCE but parts of the final or "standard" version begin to appear around 1300 to 1000 BCE.

  10. Anon: Who says the past is past? I love how much "new" stuff we find about the most ancient of literature--and have been thinking about Sappho's reconstruction as well as this text's. Amazing. Any idea what scholars are in for as they sort through the fragments at the British museum?


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