Mesopotamia comes across as a sad place. Almanacs of the Middle East will tell you that it has its fair share of sunshine, but it is easier to imagine it under a leaden sky. Mesopotamia – Chaldaea, Sumer, Assyria, Babylonia, Iraq, or any other of its many names – consists of a patchy flood plain, without much cohesion and with wide-open frontiers on two of its sides. To the south is desert and ocean, while the east is overshadowed by the Iranian plateau, where enemies can gather in numbers. The rivers of this plain are unpredictable, especially the Tigris, and they can do damage without warning. The city-states which grew up there – the first city-states in history – spent much of their time eyeing each other nervously, and preparing for the next war of retribution. If you were lucky, and got hold of power, you held onto it, and distributed it among your friends and relatives. This made sense, because the gods of Mesopotamia did the same. Unlike their counterparts in ancient Egypt, they were not kind. They created human beings only because they wanted someone to do the dirty jobs for them, and they were not greatly interested in human beings’ fate. There was not much justice about the way things were, and the gods were not intending to add to it. But they were not to be ignored, in case they became offended and took away what little you had.
Something of this is brought out by a cynical text that probably dates from the first millennium BC. It takes the form of a dialogue between a master and his slave. The master feels that his life is pointless, but he comes up with a series of ideas of how to pass the time. The slave agrees with all of them, but the master immediately tires of each in turn. As he does so, the pliant slave points out their drawbacks. Some commentators have argued that this is satire, others that it is deadly serious. At one point the master decides to become a public benefactor, and the slave approves, but this idea, too, immediately palls. The slave takes up his point:
Do it not, my lord, do it not!
Climb the ruined walls of ancient cities and walk around;
look upon the skulls of high and low.
Who is the evildoer, who is the benefactor?
The people of northern and western Mesopotamia spoke Akkadian, a semitic language akin to Hebrew and Arabic, and the mercantile culture of much of the Near East was part of this tradition. But in early times much of the south, which was more urbanised, spoke Sumerian, a language whose affinities are unknown. From time to time the idea resurfaces that Sumerian is related to the Dravidian languages of India, although people in Turkey and Japan have sometimes convinced themselves that they, too, are part of the picture. Since much of Mesopotamian civilisation, especially writing, originated in the south – the medium for writing, clay tablets impressed with a reed, is well-suited to a riverine culture – the prestige of Sumerian meant that it occupied a place in the national curriculum long after it had become extinct in speech. This may have happened around 2000 BC, but its later role was similar to that of Latin in the Middle Ages. A school text quoted by Andrew George in his new translation of The Epic of Gilgamesh makes a sardonic point about Sumerian and its importance:
The door monitor said, ‘Why did you go out
without my say-so?’ and he beat me.
The water monitor said, ‘Why did you help
yourself to water without my say-so?’
and he beat me.
The Sumerian monitor said, ‘You spoke in
Akkadian!’ and he beat me.
My teacher said, ‘Your handwriting is not at
all good!’ and he beat me.
The landscape of Mesopotamia may have made for angst and paranoia, but it also brought out creativity. In the visual arts, the Mesopotamians were less impressive than the Egyptians, but their literature is now known to be remarkable. The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of its finest achievements, recognised by ancient audiences as a masterpiece, and now beginning to recapture modern ones. Yet little more than a century ago, this literature was unknown. In 1872, George Smith, a self-taught scholar, found an extract from it on a clay tablet newly arrived in the British Museum. What he saw there made him exclaim that he was the first man to read these words for two thousand years. Then he started rushing around the room, removing his clothes. Shortly afterwards, he read a paper about his discoveries before the Society of Biblical Archaeology. Gladstone was in the audience – the only time, Andrew George observes, that a British prime minister is known to have attended a lecture on Assyriology.
What was the fuss about? In the first instance, it was not about great poetry. Since this was the 19th century, attention focused on the sections of the Gilgamesh epic which tell the story of a universal flood, together with a Noah-like survivor. Did this Babylonian tale prove the accuracy of the Bible, or did it undermine it? Some time was to elapse before the scale of the whole could be grasped, and the moral seriousness with which it approached the problem of existence be appreciated. In this century, more and more tablets of Gilgamesh have come to light, but even now the poem is not complete. Gilgamesh was known to the Sumerians, and an early version of the epic exists in which he goes under the name Bilgames. The latest known extract dates from around 130 BC. In the two millennia of its popularity there were workings and reworkings, and many local variants must have developed. Tradition has it that an editor laboriously named Sîn-liqe-unninni (‘O Moon god, accept my prayer’) created the standard version of the poem (in Akkadian), perhaps around 1200 BC, considerably before Homer got to work on his better-known epics. But even after this, new variants came into the text, and there may never have been a canonical version of the poem in the sense that we would recognise. Nevertheless, most of the story of Gilgamesh can now be reconstructed.
Gilgamesh is the ruler of Uruk, a city in southern Iraq, nowadays a ruin. According to the poem, the Seven Sages laid its foundations. He is an unmatched hero, which is not surprising, since he is said to be two thirds god and one third man. Otherwise, he enjoys the usual privileges of Mesopotamian kingship: tyranny over the young men, and droit de seigneur over the girls. Eventually, even the gods find Gilgamesh a nuisance, and they create a rival to overcome him. This is a wild man, brutish and ‘matted with hair’, named Enkidu, the ‘offspring of silence’, in other words a creature without language, and in a state of primeval ignorance. A trapper sees him by a water-hole, and arranges an assignation with a harlot to tame him. This works, to an extent: thanks to the harlot’s efforts he becomes more human and less brutish.
Enkidu was weakened, could not run as before,
but now he had reason, and wide understanding.
One evening, Enkidu intercepts Gilgamesh in the street as the latter is on his way to deflower a bride, and the two fight. Mutual admiration ensues, and for the first time Gilgamesh feels concern for a fellow creature. The two then set off on their greatest challenge, to overcome an ogre named Humbaba (or Huwawa), who dwells in the distant Cedar Forest. Humbaba is terrifying, but after a fierce struggle he becomes the first alien in world literature to be zapped. Gilgamesh then attracts the attention of the goddess Ishtar (Inanna in the Sumerian version), who proposes to him. She is the goddess of love, but she is not nice to know. She destroys her lovers, and Gilgamesh, perhaps because of the affection he has come to feel for Enkidu, recognises in her the indifference of the Universe to the suffering of nature:
You loved the speckled allallu-bird,
but struck him down and broke his wing:
now he stands in the woods crying ‘My wing!’
You loved the lion, perfect in strength,
but for him you dug seven pits and seven.
You loved the horse, so famed in battle,
but you made his destiny whip, spur and lash.
You made his destiny a seven-league gallop,
you made his destiny to drink muddy water.
The contrast between Ishtar, the vicious goddess, and the generous harlot who gave humanity to Enkidu is not made explicit, but it is clear. From the point of view of the gods, however, Gilgamesh and Enkidu have gone too far, especially when the pair kill a divine bull sent by Ishtar to ravage the land. Enkidu begins to have nightmares about death and eternal damnation, and he sickens and dies. Gilgamesh refuses to recognise what has happened to him, until, after seven days, a maggot drops from Enkidu’s nose, and he has no choice but to give his friend’s body up for burial. Grief for this animal-man and fear of death send Gilgamesh on the rest of his life’s journey. Dishevelled and animal-like himself, his face wasted, he finds himself in a tavern by the great ocean. (The idea of the restaurant at the end of the Universe is not a new one.) The tavern is run by an old lady, who dishes out ale, and in one version advice: eat, drink and be merry, and forget things which do not concern you. This character, who would not be out of place in a television soap opera, is sometimes equated with a minor goddess known as Shiduri. Only one man, she says, has ever become immortal, and he lives on an island in the midst of the waters of death. He is called Uta-napishti, which means ‘I found life’.
Gilgamesh tracks down the boatman of Uta-napishti, who is accompanied by mysterious helpers known as the Stone Ones. Our hero has a recrudescence of form, and smashes the Stone Ones, a rash act which only adds to his difficulties. After many more adventures, he reaches the island of immortality. There, Uta-napishti tells him the story of the Flood, and how he was told to build a boat to take his family and the wild animals to safety. He sent out two birds over the face of the waters, but they found no food and returned. A third bird, a raven, was sent out but did not return, and the Flood started to abate. The boat came to rest on a mountain named Nimush. These were the passages which so excited George Smith and interested Gladstone.
During the Flood, says Uta-napishti, the gods fled to heaven, where they cowered like dogs. After the Flood, they gathered like flies around his first sacrifice. They quarrelled about his fate, but eventually granted him freedom from death. In this epic, they are powerful, and they are despicable. Uta-napishti remembers the fragility of life:
Ever the river has risen and brought us the flood,
the mayfly floating on the water.
On the face of the sun its countenance gazes,
then all of a sudden nothing is there!
Finally Uta-napishti, in sympathy for the exhausted Gilgamesh, tells him of a plant, the ‘plant of heartbeat’, which grows on the bed of the ocean, and which can restore youth. Gilgamesh dives for it, recovers it, and is about to consume it when a snake swallows it. The snake sloughs its skin, and is young again. This is the only result of the hero’s pilgrimage to death and beyond, and he returns to his city, Uruk.
In a postscript, Gilgamesh is described among the dead, where the gods have relented and appointed him as a judge. To a modern reader, this sounds like a cop-out, rather like Nahum Tate’s attempt to rewrite King Lear with a happy ending. Some of the ancient audience may have felt the same, though most might simply have savoured the irony, since they knew all along what the fate of Gilgamesh would be. Others might have reflected that it was better to be judged in the next world by a hero who had known grief and disappointment, than by one of the sadistic gods.
Why was this poem so popular? Some reasons are straightforward: The Epic of Gilgamesh contains adventure, drama, imagery of a high order and tragedy. The repeated stanzas may look artificial in a printed book, but in oral delivery they would have been effective in holding an audience’s attention while giving the reciter time to structure what came next. The poem does not have Homer’s Olympian detachment, since it’s more than clear whose side the scribes were on, but all aspects of the story are given their due. For Rilke, Gilgamesh was das Epos der Todesfurcht, ‘the epic of the fear of death’, and this in itself would make it relevant to the concerns of a sensitive audience. But there are deeper cultural reasons for the popularity of this profoundly bleak poem. Mesopotamia, unlike Egypt, was rarely a united country. This is true even now, when commentators tells us there is a possibility that Iraq will break up after Saddam goes. In such a situation, what unites people is a common culture, together with shared artistic experience. Epics such as Gilgamesh must have been one of the ways in which Mesopotamian identity was created and expressed.
There are several translations into English, notably those by Nancy Sandars and Stephanie Dalley. Sandars’s prose translation was recently accused of stodginess by no less a reviewer than the editor of the Times, which seems a little ironic. Dalley’s verse translation is compelling, and she even tries to tell us what an allallu-bird is, but in her anthology the space she was able to devote to the epic was limited. Now Andrew George has skilfully bridged the chasm between a scholarly re-edition and a popular work, and his translation is likely to become the standard.
There are several stage versions of the poem, and at least two operas. It might even make a good animated film. There may well be other fragments of Gilgamesh waiting to be discovered beneath the earth in Iraq, and there could be greater literary treasures there even than this. Perhaps this is something for a British prime minister to think about, the next time we are bombing the place out of a leaden sky.