Assurbanipal’s Classic

Stephanie West

  • Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, The Flood, Gilgamesh and Others by Stephanie Dalley
    Oxford, 360 pp, £35.00, November 1989, ISBN 0 19 814397 4
  • The Epic of Gilgamesh by Maureen Gallery Kovacs
    Stanford, 122 pp, £29.50, August 1989, ISBN 0 8047 1589 0

Cuneiform studies have come far since 1872, when George Smith, assistant keeper in the Oriental Department of the British Museum, engrossed the December meeting of the Society of Biblical Archaeology with a paper on ‘The Chaldean Account of the Deluge’. Among the tablets recovered from Assurbanipal’s library at Nineveh he had found an account of a world-wide flood which resembled the narrative of Genesis not only in its main outline but even in detail. His revelations created such a sensation that the Daily Telegraph promptly offered one thousand guineas to support further excavation under his direction, and the British Museum thus acquired not only further portions of the Deluge narrative but also the text which Smith styled ‘The Chaldean Account of Genesis’, the Creation Epic commonly known from its opening words as Enuma Elish (‘When on high’).

Smith’s dedication to this austere branch of study (in which he was self-taught, being by profession an engraver) arose from a passionate interest in the historical books of the Old Testament, and the early advances of Assyriology undoubtedly owed much to its relevance to Biblical study. But scholarly attention soon spread to the questions raised by the work in which the story of the great flood, now known to have been originally an independent narrative, is incorporated, the Epic of Gilgamesh.

The fascination of this, the longest of all the works of Mesopotamian literature known to us, is undeniable, despite the obstacles to understanding created by the still fragmentary state of the text and by conceptual and linguistic difficulties. It is the world’s oldest heroic epic, the culmination of a literary tradition which we can trace back for nearly 1500 years, and already a classic of the distant past for Assurbanipal.

It starts with a prooemium of some sophistication:
[Of him who] found out all things, I [shall te]ll the land,
[Of him who] experienced everything, [I shall tea]ch the whole.
He searched (?) lands (?) everywhere.
He who experienced the whole gained complete wisdom.
He found out what was the secret and uncovered what was hidden,
He brought back a tale of times before the Flood.
He had journeyed far and wide, weary and at last resigned.
He engraved all toils on a memorial monument of stone.
He had the wall of Uruk built, the sheepfold
Of holiest Eanna, the pure treasury.

The poet enlarges on the splendour of the city walls, and then gives us a further foretaste of the hero’s adventures before focusing on the king’s early days: Gilgamesh was

                     named from birth for fame.
Two-thirds of him was divine, and one-third mortal.

In the confidence of superior physical strength natural to one of more than mortal stock Gilgamesh treats his subjects with such overbearing arrogance that they cry out to heaven for relief. The gods devise a strange solution: as a match for Gilgamesh they create the wild Enkidu, who lives with the beasts in the open country and helps them to escape the hunter’s craft until his savagery is curbed by the temple-prostitute Shamhat.

She did for him, the primitive man, as women do.
His love-making he lavished upon her.
For six days and seven nights Enkidu was aroused
               and poured himself into Shamhat.
When he was sated with her charms,
He set his face towards the open country of his cattle.
The gazelles saw Enkidu and scattered,
The cattle of the open country kept away from his body ...
Enkidu had been diminished, he could not run as before.
Yet he had acquired judgment (?), had become wiser.

Shamhat takes him to town, and after a spirited assault on Gilgamesh has shown his mettle, there begins an extraordinary friendship, already foreshown to Gilgamesh in dreams (though he is unaware that it represents heaven’s remedy for his despotic tendencies). Together they destroy Humbaba (Huwawa), the monstrous guardian of the forest, and the Bull of Heaven, sent by Ishtar, the goddess of love, to plague Uruk because Gilgamesh has rejected her advances. But just after this, their greatest triumph, Enkidu dies – from natural causes, we should say, but, as has been revealed to him in a dream, by divine ordinance.

Enkidu lay down, and had a dream.
Enkidu got up and described the dream,
He said to his friend,
‘My friend, why are the great gods consulting together? ...
O my brother, what a dream [I saw] last night!
Anu, Ellil, Ea, and heavenly Shamash [were in the assembly].
And Anu said to Ellil, “As they have slain the Bull of Heaven,
So too they have slain Huwawa, who [guarded]
           the mountains pla[nted] with pines.”
And Anu said, “One of them [must die].”
Ellil replied: “Let Enkidu die, but let Gilgamesh not die”’

Gilgamesh’s grief for his friend turns his thoughts towards his own mortality, and he determines to seek out Ut-napishtim ‘the far distant’, to whom the gods have given eternal life. He succeeds in his terrible journey despite attempts to discourage him, both by the Scorpion-people, who guard the mountain of Mashu through which he must pass, and by the ale-wife Siduri, who lives beside the sea which must be crossed. Ut-napishtim, after adverting to the futility of Gilgamesh’s quest, relates how he and his wife survived the flood.

‘Let me reveal to you a closely guarded matter, Gilgamesh,
And let me tell you the secret of the gods.
Shuruppak is a city that you yourself know,
Situated on the bank of the Euphrates.
That city was already old when the gods within it
Decided that the great gods should make a flood.’

However, the far-sighted god of wisdom, Ea, contrives a warning for Ut-napishtim.

‘Man of Shuruppak, son of Ubara-Tutu,
Dismantle your house, build a boat.
Leave possessions, search out living things.
Reject chattels and save lives!
Put aboard the seed of all living things, into the boat.
The boat that you are to build
Shall have her dimensions in proportion,
Her width and length shall be in harmony.’

In his peculiar cuboid craft Ut-napishtim rides out the fury of the six-day storm, and as the waters start to recede the boat comes to rest on Mount Nimush. After that, he waits for six days, and then attempts an experiment.

‘When the seventh day arrived,
I put out and released a dove.
The dove went; it came back,
For no perching place was visible to it, and it
                              turned round.
I put out and released a swallow.
The swallow went; it came back,
For no perching place was visible to it, and it
                              turned round.
I put out and released a raven.
The raven went, and saw the waters receding.
And it ate, preened (?), lifted its tail and did not
                                        turn round.’

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