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Epic of Gilgamesh Tablet from Hattusa

Epic of Gilgamesh Tablet from Hattusa

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‘THE EPIC’ Cuneiform Rolling Pin: The Epic of Gilgamesh

You wanted it so YOU GOT IT! Behold, ‘THE EPIC’ Cuneiform Rolling Pin: The Epic of Gilgamesh. Bring a bit of Babylonia to the holiday table this December and produce the world’s earliest known surviving work of literature on gingerbread! Translation included…

Read on for more information…

Read on for more information…

It’s Christmas in Mesopotamia! So let’s bake like a Babylonian and make the internet’s most popular Christmas biscuit with this archaeologically-derived cuneiform gingerbread rolling pin exclusively available through Tavola Mediterranea. THE EPIC is a cuneiform rolling pin that is ‘edible archaeology’ at its finest, giving bakers, archaeologists, and linguists alike, the opportunity to consume archaeology and ancient writing systems in a way they never have before! Why simply study it when you can eat it too? With THE EPIC, not only do you get to read a passage from one of the greatest stories ever told, as it was written in text dated to 1,800 BC, but you can wash it down with a cup of tea once you’re finished!

There are two EPIC varieties to choose from!

The pin-faces of THE EPIC cuneiform rolling pins feature passages from Column 1 and Column 5 from the Epic of Gilgamesh — a Mesopotamian epic poem which is the earliest known surviving work of literature. The image/text is derived from The Yale Tablet of The Epic of Gilgamesh, pictured below, which was sectioned into columns and lines during translation by Morris Jastrow Jr., University of Pennsylvania, and Albert T. Clay, Ph.D, Yale University, in the 1920s.


The Epic of Gilgamesh passages featured on each pin have been translated by Morris Jastrow Jr., University of Pennsylvania, and Albert T. Clay, Ph.D, Yale University, in the 1920s. A translation sheet for each rolling pin will be included inside the box with each pin so you can read it to friends, partners, neighbours, or the cat, before you start rolling out the most literarily and archaeologically rich Christmas biscuits you’ve ever made.

This cuneiform rolling pin measures 20 cm in length and is designed for making a large gingerbread tablet. It creates an embossed impression of the symbols, rather than an impressed one (we’re working on that)… but you’ll still be the coolest baker in the bunch so no worries! Each rolling pin comes with a complimentary gingerbread recipe card that is derived from the original internet-breaking Cuneiform Gingerbread Tablet recipe that was published on Tavola Mediterranea in 2017. It will be mailed separately, though, as it does not fit in the box!

This rolling pin creates a cuneiform script relief and will roll the impression on to the gingerbread dough beautifully, without sticking or pulling the dough up, if you work with the dough chilled and dust a bit of flour on the pin or dough surface prior to rolling. Don’t forget to use the Tavola gingerbread recipe and baking instructions for this pin as the dough is firm and will hold the impressions beautifully during baking.

Head on over to the TAVOLA SHOP to buy your EPIC cuneiform rolling pin today. Instructions for use and tips for nice, clean impressions are also available on the TAVOLA SHOP page. These will sell-out fast! Pre-orders are available if current stock sells out and you will be notified by email when your pin has shipped. C’mon, Enkidu, it’ll be totally epic!


Distinct sources exist from over a 2000-year timeframe. The earliest Sumerian poems are now generally considered to be distinct stories, rather than parts of a single epic. [6] They date from as early as the Third Dynasty of Ur (c. � BC ). [7] The Old Babylonian tablets (c. � BC ), [6] are the earliest surviving tablets for a single Epic of Gilgamesh narrative. [8] The older Old Babylonian tablets and later Akkadian version are important sources for modern translations, with the earlier texts mainly used to fill in gaps (lacunae) in the later texts. Although several revised versions based on new discoveries have been published, the epic remains incomplete. [9] Analysis of the Old Babylonian text has been used to reconstruct possible earlier forms of the epic. [10] The most recent Akkadian version, also referred to as the Standard Babylonian version, consists of twelve tablets and was edited by Sîn-lēqi-unninni, [11] who is thought to have lived sometime between 1300 BC and 1000 BC. [12]

Some 15,000 fragments of Assyrian cuneiform tablets were discovered in the Library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh by Austen Henry Layard, his assistant Hormuzd Rassam, and W. K. Loftus in the early 1850s. [14] Late in the following decade, the British Museum hired George Smith to study these in 1872, Smith read translated fragments before the Society of Biblical Archaeology, [15] and in 1875 and 1876 he published fuller translations, [16] the latter of which was published as The Chaldaean Account of Genesis. [14] The central character of Gilgamesh was initially reintroduced to the world as "Izdubar", before the cuneiform logographs in his name could be pronounced accurately. [14] In 1891, Paul Haupt collected the cuneiform text, and nine years later, Peter Jensen provided a comprehensive edition R. Campbell Thompson updated both of their work in 1930. Over the next two decades, Samuel Noah Kramer reassembled the Sumerian poems. [16]

In 1998, American Assyriologist Theodore Kwasman discovered a piece believed to have contained the first lines of the epic in the storeroom of the British Museum, the fragment, found in 1878 and dated to between 600 BC and 100 BC, had remained unexamined by experts for more than a century since its recovery. [17] The fragment read "He who saw all, who was the foundation of the land, who knew (everything), was wise in all matters: Gilgamesh." [18] The discovery of artifacts (c. � BC ) associated with Enmebaragesi of Kish, mentioned in the legends as the father of one of Gilgamesh's adversaries, has lent credibility to the historical existence of Gilgamesh. [19]

Biblical Oneiromancy

Dreams occur throughout the Bible as omens or messages from God

  • God speaks to Abram while he is in a deep sleep (Genesis 15)
  • God speaks to Abimelech, the king of Gerar, concerning his intentions regarding Sarah, Abraham’s wife (Genesis 20)
  • Jacob dreams of a ladder to heaven (Genesis 28)
  • his son Joseph dreamed of his future success (Genesis 37), interpreted the dreams of Pharaoh of Egypt’s cupbearer and baker while imprisoned (Genesis 40) and interpreted the dreams of the Pharaoh of Egypt (Genesis 41)
  • Solomon conversed with God in his dreams (1 Kings 3)
  • Daniel interpreted dreams (in the Book of Daniel 2 and 4)
  • the Magi are told in a dream to avoid Herod on their journey home (Matthew 2)
  • Joseph, when betrothed to Mary, was told not to fear taking Mary as his wife (Matthew 1)
  • Joseph, now husband of Mary, was directed to flee with Mary and Jesus to Egypt (Matthew 2)
  • Pilate’s wife suffered in a dream because of Jesus (Matthew 27)
  • Paul was told to go to Macedonia (Acts 16)

In Acts 2:17, the apostle Peter quotes Joel 2:28, saying that because of the Spirit now out poured, “…your old men will dream dreams.”

The Epic of Gilgamesh Summary and Analysis of Tablet XII

A twelfth tablet exists that is not part of the main body of the epic and is not included in some translations and versions. Sin-Leqi-Unnini added the tablet to the poem, but it is unclear why. It does not correspond to the rest of the poem and contradicts some of the events outlined in it.

Gilgamesh drops a drumstick through a hole in the floor of a carpenter’s home and it falls into the Nether World. Enkidu, who is still alive in this tablet, offers to venture down and retrieve it. Gilgamesh warns Enkidu that if he goes to the Nether World he must not do anything to attract the attention of anyone, or the dead will overtake him. Enkidu enters the Nether World but does not heed any of Gilgamesh’s advice, doing exactly the opposite. Ereshkigal, the Queen of the Nether World, seizes him with the Cry of the Dead. Some translations suggest that Ereshkigal exposes her breasts and forces Enkidu to make love to her.

Gilgamesh grieves the loss of Enkidu and approaches Enlil for aid. Enlil refuses and Gilgamesh makes his way to Sin, the moon god for help. Sin ignores his cries for help. Finally, Gilgamesh goes to Ea for help. Ea intercedes and allows Enkidu’s spirit to rise up and escape the Nether World. Gilgamesh inquires about the Nether World. Enkidu tells him that it is terrible and that if he tells Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh will sit down and weep. Gilgamesh implores Enkidu to tell him anyway. Enkidu says that vermin eat at his body. Gilgamesh sits down and weeps.

After a while, Gilgamesh inquires about the fate of different people: the man with no children, the man with one son, the man with six sons, the man who died in battle, and a man who left no one behind to remember him. Enkidu tells him the fate of each, explaining that the man with no sons is miserable, the man with six sons is happy, and that the man who left no one behind eats garbage. No dog would eat what he eats.

As in the main story, Enkidu finds himself in the Nether World by upsetting mystical forces. Instead of angering Ishtar, he pays no attention to Gilgamesh’s warning, and he is taken by the Cry of the Dead. The carpenter’s home and drumstick in the beginning of this tablet do not have a clear interpretation. It is not explained why the heroes are there or what significance the drum takes. The fact that the use of these objects opens a hole into the Nether World suggests that the drum could have been used in a ceremony to speak to the dead as one would in a séance or shamanistic tradition.

Once Enkidu is taken by the Cry of the Dead, it is again Ea that helps him and Gilgamesh. This allows Gilgamesh to learn about the fate of those in the Nether World and imparts the same core lesson to him as the main body of the epic. Enkidu’s tale about those he has seen in the Nether World emphasizes the importance of relationships in the living world. Those who leave a family behind fare far better than those who have no one to remember them. They feed on garbage and are regarded as lower than dogs. Enkidu’s example does not speak of individuals who have attained happiness through great wealth.

Civil action filed to forfeit rare cuneiform tablet from Hobby Lobby

NEW YORK – Pursuant to ongoing Cultural Property, Arts & Antiquities investigations by ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) New York, a civil complaint was filed Monday to forfeit a rare cuneiform tablet bearing a portion of the epic of Gilgamesh, a Sumerian epic poem considered one the world’s oldest works of literature. Known as the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, it originated in the area of modern-day Iraq and entered the United States contrary to federal law. The tablet was later sold by an international auction house (the “Auction House”) to Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. (“Hobby Lobby”), a prominent arts-and-crafts retailer based in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma for display at the Museum of the Bible (the “Museum”). Despite inquiries from the Museum and Hobby Lobby, the Auction House withheld information about the tablet’s provenance. The tablet was seized from the Museum by law enforcement agents in September 2019.

“Whenever looted cultural property is found in this country, the United States government will do all it can to preserve heritage by returning such artifacts where they belong,” stated Richard P. Donoghue, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York. “In this case, a major auction house failed to meet its obligations by minimizing its concerns that the provenance of an important Iraqi artifact was fabricated, and withheld from the buyer information that undermined the provenance’s reliability.”

HSI’s investigation revealed that in 2003, a U.S. antiquities dealer (the “Antiquities Dealer”) purchased an encrusted cuneiform tablet from a Middle Eastern antiquities dealer in London. After the tablet was imported and cleaned, experts in cuneiform recognized it as a portion of the Gilgamesh epic in which the protagonist describes his dreams to his mother (hence, the “Gilgamesh Dream Tablet”). The protagonist’s mother interprets the dreams as foretelling the arrival of a new friend. She tells her son, “You will see him and your heart will laugh.”

As alleged in the complaint, in 2007, the Antiquities Dealer sold the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet with a false provenance letter that stated the tablet had been inside a box of miscellaneous bronze fragments purchased in a 1981 auction. This false provenance letter traveled with the tablet and was provided to the Auction House by a later owner. As part of its due diligence, the Auction House’s antiquities director spoke with the Antiquities Dealer. The Antiquities Dealer advised the Auction House that the provenance would not withstand scrutiny and should not be used in connection with a public sale. The Auction House nevertheless represented to Hobby Lobby that the tablet was purchased in the 1981 auction. Hobby Lobby purchased the tablet in a private sale in 2014. In response to Hobby Lobby’s request for more details in connection with the purchase and the Museum’s expression of discomfort with the provenance in 2017, the Auction House advised both that the Antiquities Dealer had confirmed the details of the provenance. However, the Auction House withheld the false provenance letter and the Antiquities Dealer’s name from Hobby Lobby and the Museum.

The Museum cooperated with the government’s investigation. This case is being handled by EDNY’s Civil Division, with assistance from the District of Columbia and the Justice Department’s Money Laundering and Asset Forfeiture Section (MLARS).

HSI’s International Operations, through its 80 offices in 53 countries, works closely with foreign governments to conduct joint investigations, and is committed to pursuing a strategy to combat transnational organized crime related to the illicit trafficking of cultural artifacts by targeting high-priority organizations and strengthening international law enforcement partnerships.

HSI has recovered and returned approximately 12,500 artifacts to more than 30 countries since 2007, including paintings from France, Germany, Poland and Austria cultural artifacts from China and Cambodia dinosaur fossils from Mongolia and illuminated manuscript left from Italy a pair of royal Korean seals, ancient Peruvian ceramics, an ancient gold coffin repatriated to Egypt, and most recently, more than 500-year-old copy of Christopher Columbus’ letter describing his discoveries in the Americas to the Government of Italy.

Despite increasingly aggressive enforcement efforts to prevent the theft of cultural heritage and other antiquities, the illicit movement of such items across international borders continues to challenge global law enforcement efforts to reduce the trafficking of such property. Trafficking in antiquities is estimated to be a multi-billion-dollar transnational criminal enterprise.

Members of the public who have information about the illicit distribution of cultural property, as well as the illegal trafficking of artwork, are urged to call the toll-free tip line at 1-866-DHS-2-ICE or to complete the online tip form.

Flood Story in the Epic of Gilgamesh May Contain the First Example of Fake News

The expression may be new, but the practice of issuing “fake news” appears to go back much farther in history than one would expect. A new study dates the earliest example of fake news back to one of the earliest and most epic stories – the Gilgamesh Flood story written on clay tablets three thousand years. Say it isn’t so, Noah!

“This volume opens up new perspectives on Babylonian and Assyrian literature, through the lens of a pivotal passage in the Gilgamesh Flood story. It shows how, using a nine-line message where not all was as it seemed, the god Ea inveigled humans into building the Ark.”

Dr. Martin Worthington, a Fellow of St John’s College, University of Cambridge, is the author of a new book, “Ea’s Duplicity in the Gilgamesh Flood Story (The Ancient Word),” in which he researches the Epic of Gilgamesh, considered to be the earliest surviving great work of literature and the second oldest religious text, after the Pyramid Texts and well before the Hebrew Bible, where another of the well-known flood stories is told. Scholars have shown that the Gilgamesh flood, written about around 2000 BCE, and Genesis flood, written about around 500-100 BCE (these dates are not agreed upon by all but are useful to put the time difference in perspective) are nearly identical, with a few variances such as the number of days of the deluge the name of the mountain where the ark landed. What Worthington found in his research, summarized in a University of Cambridge press release, is sure to be a controversial interpretation of Ea’s (the God in Gilgamesh) message to Uta–napishti (the Noah in Gilgamesh).

“He (Ea) tells the Babylonian Noah, known as Uta–napishti, to promise his people that food will rain from the sky if they help him build the ark. What the people don’t realise is that Ea’s nine-line message is a trick: it is a sequence of sounds that can be understood in radically different ways, like English ‘ice cream’ and ‘I scream’.

While Ea’s message seems to promise a rain of food, its hidden meaning warns of the Flood. Once the ark is built, Uta–napishti and his family clamber aboard and survive with a menagerie of animals. Everyone else drowns.”

What Worthington is saying in his book is that Ea (God) played a trick on Uta–napishti (Noah), using a long phrase with two interpretations that to get Uta–napishti to do what he wanted – a trick that Worthington relates to a modern trick:

“With this early episode, set in mythological time, the manipulation of information and language has begun. It may be the earliest ever example of fake news.”

If it’s true, why hasn’t anyone figured this deific trickery out before? Dr. Worthington is an Assyriologist who specializes in Babylonian, Assyrian and Sumerian grammar. The Epic of Gilgamesh, written on a Flood Tablet (now in the British Museum) that was only discovered in 1872, is written in Assyrian, a complex combination of languages and dialects that is difficult to understand and interpret, with the epic poem being the oldest example of it – thus having nothing before it to compare to or learn from. Thus, it’s easy to see how misinterpretations have been made by scholars. But a God?

“Ea’s lines are a verbal trick which can be understood in different ways which are phonetically identical. Besides the obvious positive reading promising food, I found multiple negative ones which warn of the impending catastrophe. Ea is clearly a master wordsmith who is able to compress multiple simultaneous meanings into one duplicitous utterance.”

Ea, also known as Enki, is the god of the ocean and associated with wisdom, magic, incantations, arts, and crafts. He’s also one of many Mesopotamian deities, and Worthington explains that they survive by humans feeding them. Thus, killing off all of the humans would have been suicide for Ea.

Akkadian cylinder seal dating to c. 2300 BCE, depicting the deities Inanna, Utu, Enki (Ea), and Isimud

“The god Ea manipulates language and misleads people into doing his will because it serves his self-interest. Modern parallels are legion!”

We don’t need any help with parallels, Dr. Worthington. This trickster god obviously differs from the Hebrew God in many ways. The Noah story in Genesis doesn’t indicate any trickery in English, but what about in the original Hebrew? Perhaps that’s food for Worthington’s next book.

In the meantime, let’s not forget that dating the birth of fake news back a few thousand years still doesn’t make it right.

An Epic Tale of Gods, Men, and Beasts

The Epic of Gilgamesh is the work of an anonymous Babylonian poet, about the king of the walled city of Uruk (now part of Iraq in modern times). In the story, King Gilgamesh is claimed to be part god, part human – making him the strongest and most beautiful man in the world, but with the mortality of a human being.

The young Gilgamesh is widely disliked in his kingdom terrible to women and a poor sport – constantly subjecting his people to contests of strength and prowess. The people are sick of their king and beg the gods to reign him in.

The gods answer by creating a man – one that is equal to Gilgamesh in strength, yet his opposite. Enkidu was their creation, brought to life from water and clay, and was just as wild as Gilgamesh – but with complete innocence. Enkidu was raised by the animals of the forest, completely ignorant of humans – until a sacred prostitute by the name of Shamhat introduces him to the ways of humanity and civilisation.

Enkidu is enlightened by his lover and gradually becomes more attuned to the human world. This culminates with Enkidu challenging Gilgamesh to a fight – and although the two are so closely matched in strength, Gilgamesh wins.

Realising their similarities, Gilgamesh and Enkidu become inseparable, deeply bonded friends. Their friendship is enough to tame Gilgamesh, much to the relief of his people.

And so, Gilgamesh and Enkidu embark on dangerous, exciting adventures – adventures that lead to the destruction of the guardian of the forest, the rejection of the love of a goddess and the slaying of the Bull of Heaven. As punishment, Enkidu is killed by the gods, struck down with an agonisingly slow death.

This terrible loss leaves Gilgamesh broken, in denial and terrified of death – a fear that draws him out on an epic quest for immortality. The challenges he faces on his travels transform Gilgamesh from an unruly youth to a wise and noble king – and he receives immortality in kind, by forever being remembered as a great man long after his death.

Museum of Alcohol

The Epic of Gilgamesh is perhaps the oldest written story on earth. It is an epic poem retelling the exploits of a king who reigned over the Sumerian city-state of Uruk around 2700 BCE. Sumer was an ancient civilisation in South Mesopotamia which is now Southern Iraq. From the poem we know the Sumerians were no strangers to drunkenness.

The poem tells us of Gilgamesh’s semi-divine ancestry and then introduces the wild man Enkidu, who is required to slay a demon living in a distant cedar forest. The wild man is persuaded to join civilisation by a prostitute named Shanhat, who educates him in the ways of men:

Enkidu knew nothing about eating bread for food,

And of drinking beer he had not been taught.

The harlot spoke to Enkidu, saying:

“Eat the food, Enkidu, it is the way one lives.

Drink the beer, as is the custom of the land.”

Enkidu ates the food until he was sated,

He drank the beer-seven jugs! and became expansive and sang with joy!

We can see alcohol was not just food in Sumeria but was a clearly a source of merriment. The Epic of Gilgamesh’s characters drink water when going about their daily or heroic tasks but drink alcohol when they are celebrating. They even had a goddess of beer named Ninaski.

You probably know drinking was nothing new, but did you know it went back this far?

Here’s an interesting contemporary retelling of the epic of Gilgamesh by Baba Brinkman.

The ‘Epic of Gilgamesh’

The Epic of Gilgamesh was written in the second millennium BC. (Image: DR. L. LEGRAIN/CC BY SA/1.0/Public domain)

The Epic of Gilgamesh is the first recorded human attempt to understand and inhabit a world where suffering happens, and perhaps a world where suffering is partially constitutive of what makes us human.

The Source of the Epic of Gilgamesh

The Epic of Gilgamesh was inscribed on tablets. (Image: BabelStone/Public domain)

The epic is composed in Akkadian out of much earlier Sumerian myths. The Akkadian text is from around 1200 B.C.E., but we have fragments of it from Sumeria that are from 2000–2400 B.C.E.

In Akkadian, the title of the epic is He Who Saw the Deep, sha nagkbu amaeru, where “deep” means more than just the plumbing of a merely spatial profundity. Rather, “to see the deep” means to see something deep about the human experience. Even in the Acadian text, people understood that the Epic of Gilgamesh was incredibly profound.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu

Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill the Bull of Heaven. (Image: Own work/CC BY SA/ 4.0/Public domain)

In this story, Gilgamesh is a hard king over the citizens of his city, Uruk, and to stop him from being so oppressive, the gods create Enkidu as Gilgamesh’s equal. Enkidu is going to be Gilgamesh’s friend, though he is called part-animal and part-human, whereas Gilgamesh is part-god and part-human. Theirs is the story of great friendship. When they fight, they realize that they are well-matched and become inseparable.

They go on many legendary adventures together. They journey to the Cedar Mountain—somewhere probably in Lebanon—and defeat Humbaba, the ogreish guardian of the mountain. They kill the Bull of Heaven, who was sent by the goddess Ishtar, to punish Gilgamesh for spurning her seduction. This murder of the Bull of Heaven doesn’t go over well with any of the gods, and so they kill Enkidu as punishment.

The Fear of Death

At the death of his friend, Gilgamesh is distraught. He’s also terrified by death, realizing it will come to him as it did to Enkidu. So, to assuage his grief and palliate his fear, he undertakes a quest to find the key to immortality by undertaking a long and perilous journey to meet the ancient and immortal flood hero, Utnapishtim.

After many difficulties, he finally meets this man face to face. But the old man is unwilling or unable to help, and he tells Gilgamesh, “The life that you are seeking you will never find. When the gods created man, they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping.” As predicted, Gilgamesh’s efforts do eventually fail, and he collapses, weeping.

He then returns to Uruk where the sight of its massive walls prompts him to praise this enduring work, the work solely of human hands. Perhaps this recognition of the achievement of human effort is a sign that Gilgamesh has begun to find a way out of utter despair. This indicates a slow turning back toward a merely human life.

This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists.Watch it now, Wondrium.

The Time of Death

But even then, the old Sumerian myths of Gilgamesh do not spare him from death. There are fragments of a parallel work, or perhaps a coda to the epic, that recounts the moment of Gilgamesh’s dying. This is what is said to Gilgamesh as his life nears its end:

You must have been told that this is what being human entailed. You must have been told that this is what the cutting of your umbilical cord entailed. The darkest day of humans awaits you now. The solitary place of humans awaits you now. The unstoppable flood-wave awaits you now. The unavoidable battle awaits you now.

The unequal struggle awaits you now. The duel from which there is no escape awaits you now.

But you should not go to the underworld with heart knotted in anger.

Consolation in Death

Even here, then, that last clause suggests that there should be some consolation. The life of humans is not entirely bleak when need not be. Another fragment of one of these poems has dead Enkidu speaking to Gilgamesh from the underworld, “I fear you will come to hate our friendship, because it did not last forever.”

Death—the finitude of human life, is the great threat to all human happiness. What the Epic of Gilgamesh suggests, though, is that it is precisely this finitude of human life that is the basis of whatever blessings and joys we can have. It is the manmade walls of Uruk which draw Gilgamesh out of his despair. No lesser animal knows that it will suffer and die. Only we do, and only we know that we are doomed to this fate and so, we are given double evils in this way, the fact of death and the prior knowledge of it. Yet we are also not yet dead, and we can choose how we live in light of death.

The Allegory of Gilgamesh’s Life

Gilgamesh’s journeys are in this way an allegory for every human’s journey through life. There comes a moment when we know that death is our future, and then we must decide what to do with that knowledge.

In this way, Gilgamesh is the first character of this type that we’ll see again in later stories: Abraham and Job, Dante, or Joseph Conrad’s retired sailor Charlie Marlow. All of these people have a kind of acquaintance with evil that has changed them, but which they cannot exactly communicate to others so that others can share their knowledge. Each person’s quest is their own.

Stories, such as Enuma Elish and the Epic of Gilgamesh, give us more than their own reflections on evil. In many ways, they set the terms on which later texts, thinkers, and writers will debate these questions. Enuma Elish is the dualistic background against which the Genesis creation myth is written, and the dualism of the Enuma Elish will continue to haunt the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as a shadow, a rival to their own stories of how the world began and from whence evil came.

Gilgamesh has a more positive influence, for it exemplifies the genre of the quest story, and in particular the quest story as modeling an entire human life, the human’s lifelong search for the meaning of life in the face of suffering and evil.

Common questions about the Epic of Gilgamesh

The gods created Enkidu, who was part-human and part-animal, as Gilgamesh’s equal .

The Epic of Gilgamesh suggests that it is the finitude of human life that is the basis of whatever blessings and joys we can have.

Male and Female in the Epic of Gilgamesh: Encounters, Literary History, and Interpretation.

The Epic of Gilgamesh as represented by tablets from the "libraries" of first-millennium BCE Mesopotamia is the best known and most accessible to modern readers of all the literature of the ancient Near East, save that of the Hebrew Bible. As a result, it is often included in introductions to world literature, both in print and in the classroom. Similarly, it has frequently caught the attention of literary scholars and translators, even of some ignorant of the ancient Akkadian language in which it was composed.

Indeed, scholarship on the Epic has tended to cluster at two poles--on the one hand, the reconstruction of the basic text from its numerous fragmentary preserved exemplars and attention to technical philological problems of lexicon, grammar, and poetic practice, and on the other, as the author of this volume states, close reading that endeavors "to understand the meaning of the text on its own terms" (p. 1), paying attention "primarily to personal and psychological levels of the narration" (p. 2).

Over thirty years, Tzvi Abusch has written nine essays (one with the collaboration of Indologist Emily West) that combine his philological acumen with a literary-critical approach to the matter of Gilgamesh. The book under review collects these pieces, now minimally edited for internal consistency and provided with a short introduction. Read together, these contributions set forth a grand scheme of the development of the tales featuring the Mesopotamian hero from the third through the first millennium BCE, as evidenced most clearly in chapter 6, "The Development and Meaning of the Epic of Gilgamesh: An Interpretive Essay."

Abusch's conclusion in short: "Gilgamesh seeks immortality as a human being, and in all three versions of the text, he learns that this is impossible. In the Old Babylonian version, Gilgamesh finds a meaningful context within the bosom of the family . and accepts the role of builder-king. In the eleven-tablet version, he becomes a responsible ruler who rules his community with wisdom. In the twelve-tablet version, he readies himself to become a normal god who judges dead human beings for eternity" (pp. 142-43).

In the course of fashioning this arc of development, Abusch not only compares the extant textual witnesses from the earliest and latest periods, but posits the existence of lost stages of the story, such as an early version in which the seduction of the primeval man Enkidu is undertaken by the harlot Shamhat on her own initiative (p. 156), and another wherein Gilgamesh's quest ends with marriage to the divine bar-maid Siduri (p. 115).

Such a daring approach has not been to the liking of all readers of these essays in their earlier incarnations. See, for instance, Andrew George's dismissal of what appears here as chapter 5 ("The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Homeric Epics") as unsubstantiated (The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Introduction, Critical Edition and Cuneiform Texts [Oxford, Oxford Univ. Press, 2003], 55 n. 140), as well as Abusch's rebuttal in this work (p. 144 n. 1).

I must admit to being among the sceptics (see also p. 178) who demand stronger evidence than literary analysis alone in positing such historical events as the composition of a text now lost to us. And can we really conclude what a character in an ancient text, laconic in comparison to most modern literature, is thinking if its author doesn't see fit to inform us? Abusch repeatedly deduces the thoughts and motivations of the Epic's actors, as of Gilgamesh when propositioned by Ishtar (pp. 15-16), and he even suggests that another personage discloses crucial information "inadvertently, perhaps" (p. 80). For me, such psychologizing is unconvincing, as is the invoking of Freud and E. Kubler-Ross when examining a very distant and alien culture (p. 50 n. 77).

More serious perhaps is the interpretation of Gilgamesh's remark to Siduri that "Now, alewife, that I have seen your face / The death that I constantly fear may I not see" (Old Babylonian Meissner Tablet ii 12'--13') as a formulaic proposal of marriage (pp. 69-70). There is simply no evidence to support this assertion, despite the parallels adduced from later Near Eastern folk customs. Abusch's observation that in any case, such a union could never be, "for it is a mingling of human and god" (p. 79), ignores the fact that Gilgamesh himself is the product of such a coupling and is consequently two-thirds divine (Twelve-Tablet Version I 48). Or are we to attribute this description of the hero's genetic makeup to a later editor? I think not, since the goddess Ninsun is mentioned as his mother already in the Old Babylonian Pennsylvania Tablet (vi 236).

Furthermore, the idea that an embryonic stage of the narrative functioned as a kind of Mirror for Princes (pp. 172-76) that had accreted around a core of instruction in hunting for a crown prince is more than questionable. Abusch sees the lore of venery in the killing of Huwawa, guardian of the Cedar Forest (Tablet V), as well as in Gilgamesh's activities during his wanderings in the steppe following the death of Enkidu (Tablet IX). But it is stretching things to characterize the tutelary monster Huwawa as game (so p. 168), and while on his trek through the wilderness Gilgamesh is not preparing to assume kingship but has adopted the mode of life followed by his lost beloved companion prior to the latter's civilizing at the hands--or loins--of Shamhat.

Finally, the contention that the anomalous Tablet XII, a more or less direct translation of the Sumerian tale "Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Underworld," is "a simple description of the norms and procedures that govern life in the netherworld" (p. 142), appended in order to prepare the hero (pp. 56, 142) for his role attested elsewhere as a divine judge in the afterlife, falters upon the observation that while its contents indeed depict the sad lot of the inhabitants of that realm, they say nothing concerning its administration.

So much for the objections of a cranky old philologist, which are by no means intended to discourage readers from picking up this book. On a literary-critical level, Abusch has given us much to think about and has presented a plausible, if uncertain, reconstruction of the Epic's long and complicated history. Of his posited developmental path, one might say "Kann sein, muB aber nicht."

I can certainly affirm Abusch's statement that the basic conflict here "is that between the extraordinary and the normal" (p. 131). However gifted a person might be, he or she must come to terms with the constraints inherent in the human condition. But I would hold that this lesson of the Epic applies not only to a semi-divine ruler, but to any person, which helps to account for the great popularity of the tale(s) of Gilgamesh--in the ancient Near East and in the present day.


  1. Jerrall

    This phrase has to be purposely

  2. Branor

    This remarkable phrase, by the way, is falling

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