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.’

In the meantime the gods have suffered as a result of the discontinuance of regular food-offerings; when Ut-napishtim, having disembarked, makes an elaborate offering on the mountain peak

‘The gods smelt the pleasant fragrance,
The gods like flies gathered over the sacrifice.’

Ut-napishtim’s pious obedience to Ea’s counsel has thus averted total disruption of heaven’s commissariat, and he is, accordingly, rewarded.

‘Ellil came up into the boat,
And seized my hand and led me up.
He led up my woman and made her kneel down at my side.
He touched our foreheads, stood between us, blessed us:
“Until now Ut-napishtim was mortal,
But henceforth Ut-napishtim and his woman
                    shall be as we gods are.
Ut-napishtim shall dwell far off at the mouth of the rivers.”
They took me and made me dwell far off, at the
                       mouth of the rivers.
So now, who can gather the gods on your behalf, Gilgamesh,
That you too may find eternal life which you seek?
For a start, you must not sleep for six days and seven nights.’

Gilgamesh fails this test, but at the suggestion of Ut-napishtim’s wife he is offered a consolation prize. Ut-napishtim describes a plant which brings rejuvenation; Gilgamesh succeeds in picking it, but loses it to a snake, which promptly demonstrates its efficacy by sloughing its old skin (an evident aetiological myth). So Gilgamesh returns to Uruk wiser, but empty-handed, and the epic ends as it began, with praise of the city’s great walls.

Tagged onto this narrative is a 12th tablet relating the descent of Enkidu to the Underworld to retrieve for Gilgamesh two mysterious objects which have fallen ‘into the Earth’. He ignores completely Gilgamesh’s instructions about the procedure to be followed while he is there if he is not to be seized and prevented from returning, with predictable consequences. The gods Ellil and Sin will not respond to Gilgamesh’s entreaties: but Ea tells him to make a hole by which Enkidu’s ghost can emerge. Enkidu’s report on conditions in the world of the dead brings the episode to an abrupt conclusion. It is blatantly inconsistent with the main narrative, since Enkidu is clearly still alive when he undertakes his descent.

This synthesis of the themes of friendship, memorable achievement and the terror of mortality produces an effect of great profundity, with a particular appeal to the late-20th-century reader who is reluctant to share the assumption, fundamental to much heroic epic, that the battlefield offers the supreme test of excellence. Gilgamesh’s hopeless quest to transcend the human condition does not seem to us, as it so easily might have done, simply bizarre or futile, and the ancient king of Uruk is not out of place in the company of the more traditional exemplars with whom Zbigniew Herbert sets him:

Go where those others went to the dark boundary
for the golden fleece of nothingness your last prize ...
go upright among those who are on their knees
among those with their backs turned and those
                    toppled in the dust
be courageous when the mind deceives you be courageous
in the final account only this is important ...
go because only in this way will you be admitted
                   to the company of cold skulls
to the company of your ancestors: Gilgamesh
                            Hector Roland
the defenders of the kingdom without limit and
                            the city of ashes
Be faithful Go.

Even before the hero’s name had been correctly deciphered (the unwary user of Roscher’s indispensable Lexikon der Griechischen u. Römischen Mythologie, 1890-4, may be disconcerted to find Gilgamesh lurking under the alias afforded by the old reading Izdubar), the question of the epic’s relation to the Homeric poems was seen to be important. Neither Egyptian nor Hebrew literature offers anything remotely comparable to Gilgamesh; the Iliad and Odyssey are the nearest parallels, and their composition in more or less their present form can hardly have been very far from the period when Assurbanipal was stocking his palace library. Knowledge of Gilgamesh was clearly quite widely diffused; we even have fragments of versions in Hittite and Hurrian from Hattusas, the Hittite capital in northern Anatolia. One of the ancient Lives of Homer credits the poet with an epitaph composed for the grave of King Midas of Phrygia, whom we know from cuneiform sources to have been a vassal of Sargon II (722-05 BC); whether or not there is any truth in this tradition, it indicates that the poet was imagined working within the Assyrian sphere of influence. The possibility of a Greek debt to Gilgamesh is clearly not to be excluded out of hand. Some of what looked to 19th and early 20th-century scholars like significant similarities now seem best explained by reference to narrative and stylistic techniques widely practised where poets envisage a listening audience rather than a reading public. Many other common features might be better understood as reflecting ideas or customs attested throughout the ancient Levant, or as widespread folk-tale motifs. Does anything important remain?

Resonances (an attractively vague term) of Gilgamesh have repeatedly been claimed for the Odyssey, which, like the Babylonian epic, features prominently strange journeys and encounters with fantastic beings, imposing a unity on heterogeneous elements through their connection with a single outstanding figure. Calypso has been compared to Siduri, both being lone females who try to detain the hero from his hazardous voyage. Circe’s erotic role has been thought akin to Ishtar’s, Ut-napishtim has been seen as a model both for the dead prophet Tiresias and for Alcinous, the Phaeacian king. The slaying of the Sun God’s cattle, the offence which brings death to those of Odysseus’s comrades who still survive, has been connected with the killing of the Bull of Heaven, disastrous in its consequences for Enkidu. Indications that Odysseus’s necromantic conjurations in Odyssey 11 are at least an after-thought, if not an insertion by a later hand, have been connected with the obviously late addition of the 12th tablet narrating Enkidu’s descent to the underworld. None of this seems to me to amount to much; nothing in the Odyssey has been shown to be more easily intelligible for the assumption that Gilgamesh was at the back of the poet’s mind, or had significantly influenced one of his predecessors in the long evolution of the tale of Odysseus’s homecoming. The tragic ethos of Gilgamesh is fundamentally at odds with the Odyssey, which represents, among other things, a celebration of the mutual loyalty of husband and wife against appalling odds, a theme absolutely alien to Gilgamesh, where the love of women is as nothing compared with the friendship of like-minded men. Far more important for the Odyssey, as Victor Zhirmunsky showed, are its affinities with the Central Asian epic of Alpamysh.

I am, however, impressed by a resemblance between the opening of Gilgamesh (quoted above) and that of the Odyssey (Walter Shewring’s translation):

Goddess of song, teach me the story of a hero. This was the man of wide-ranging spirit who had sacked the sacred town of Troy and who wandered afterwards long and far. Many were those whose cities he viewed and whose minds he came to know, many the troubles that vexed his heart as he sailed the seas, labouring to save himself and to bring his comrades home. But his comrades he could not keep from ruin, strive as he might; they perished instead by their own presumptuousness. Fools, they devoured the cattle of Hyperion, and he, the sun-god, cut off from them the day of their homecoming. Goddess, daughter of Zeus, to me in turn impart some knowledge of all these things, beginning where you will.

Still, if this similarity is judged to be indeed significant, it must be conceded that the beginnings of books tend to be much better-known than the rest. Certainly we have an index of the two poets’ very different attitudes to literacy in the ways in which they validate their narratives: the one appeals to epigraphic evidence (‘He engraved all toils on a memorial monument of stone’), the other to his Muse.

A much stronger case, though it has only relatively recently been advanced, can be made for the influence of Gilgamesh on the Iliad. In both epics the peripeteia comes about because one of two friends dies, and in some sense dies for the other. There is an interesting coincidence in the description of the survivor’s mourning for his lost comrade. ‘I touch his hearth, but it does not beat at all,’ complains Gilgamesh.

He circled over him like an eagle,
Like a lioness whose cubs are trapped in a pit,
He paced back and forth.

Similarly, in the Iliad (Richmond Lattimore’s translation), Achilles

laid his manslaughtering hands over the chest of his dear friend
with outbursts of incessant grief. As some great bearded lion
when some man, a deer hunter, has stolen his
                      cubs away from him
out of the close wood; the lion comes back too
                          late, and is anguished,
and turns into many valleys quartering after the man’s trail
on the chance of finding him, and taken with bitter anger;
so he, groaning heavily, spoke out to the Myrmidons.

The comparison of a hero to a lion was no doubt a poetic commonplace, but this application is highly distinctive.

The sceptic who is reluctant to regard this parallel as significant will find it hard to avoid admitting the influence of Gilgamesh in an earlier episode. When Aphrodite, wounded by Diomedes, retires from the battlefield to complain to her parents Zeus and Dione on Olympus, the scene clearly has something in common with the protest of her Babylonian counterpart, Ishtar, to her parents Anu and Antu when Gilgamesh has rejected her advances.

Dione, whose name (as was recognised in antiquity) is simply the feminine form of Zeus, appears only here in Homer, nor do we find any further reference to her as Aphrodite’s mother before Euripides: except at Dodona, she was not well established in cult. Here the assumption of a debt to Gilgamesh would account very satisfactorily for this mythological singularity: Dione may then be supposed to have been introduced in imitation of Ishtar’s mother Antu, whose name is likewise to be understood as a feminisation of the name of her consort, the Sky God Anu, but who, unlike Dione, was well established in cult and myth. In Gilgamesh the episode forms an essential part of the narrative; in the Iliad it is certainly dispensable, though it suits very well the poet’s presentation of the Olympians as an unruly family moved by all too human emotions.

Once some influence of Gilgamesh on the Iliad is admitted, several other parallel passages take on a further significance. Perhaps even more important, we might suspect that the Mesopotamian epic suggested to a poet trained in a wholly oral tradition the idea of recording in writing a lengthy composition on the Trojan War.

Be that as it may, Gilgamesh holds a further interest for Homeric specialists (though not only for them) in that we can trace its evolution back for nearly a millennium and a half; the antecedents of the Iliad and Odyssey are matters of speculation, but those of Gilgamesh are preserved, admittedly incompletely, in tangible literary form. From several sites we have tablets containing fragments of an Old Babylonian Gilgamesh epic, dating to the early second millennium BC. In parts the text is virtually identical with the Standard Version, in parts there are wide divergences. Thus, in the Old Babylonian epic Siduri gives expression to a Carpe diem philosophy quite absent from her discourse in the Standard Version (though fairly similar sentiments are there voiced by Ut-napishtim, who probably played no part in the Old Babylonian Version):

The ale-wife spoke to him, to Gilgamesh,
‘Gilgamesh, where do you roam?
You will not find the eternal life you seek.
When the gods created mankind
They appointed death for mankind,
Kept eternal life in their own hands.
So, Gilgamesh, let your stomach be full,
Day and night enjoy yourself in every way,
Every day arrange for pleasures.
Day and night, dance and play,
Wear fresh clothes.
Keep your head washed, bathe in water,
Appreciate the child who holds your hand,
Let your wife enjoy herself in your lap.’

Comparison of the two versions suggests some fascinating questions. Do differences in emphasis correspond merely to the lapse of time? Or did the later author envisage a different audience/ideal reader/occasion of performance? From an even earlier period, c.2150 BC, come Sumerian texts featuring Gilgamesh’s exploits; some, but not all, of these tales were incorporated into the epic’s continuous narrative. The saga’s vicissitudes thus offer an instructive model for those who deal with traditions of heroic poetry of which only the final phase survives.

Any translation of Gilgamesh is subject to an unusually high degree of built-in obsolescence. Steady advances on both linguistic and archaeological fronts have brought not only improved understanding of grammar and lexicography but also further tablets. The scholarly and spirited translation by R. Campbell Thompson into English hexameters (1928) has won a second lease of life in the libretto to Bohuslav Martinu’s cantata The Epic of Gilgamesh (completed 1955); comparison with either of the translations reviewed here demonstrates that much solid ground has been won in the last sixty years. For serious study English readers have long relied on the translation by E.A. Speiser in J.B. Pritchard’s Ancient Near Eastern Texts relating to the Old Testament (1969). The appearance of two new versions within a few months of each other, one from Oxford, the other from California, meets a widely felt want. Both face with determination and good sense the task of elucidating a text which to the non-specialist at times appears so alien as to be bizarre; they are to be congratulated on their success in achieving what the Stanford translator describes as the ‘dreaded compromise between comprehensiveness and comprehensibility’. They are sensitive to what is likely to faze the common reader, and without overburdening us with scholarly perplexities, they do not create an unjustified sense of security.

Maureen Gallery Kovacs originally undertook her translation for use in a course at Stanford University. It is attractively produced, and she has obviously given much thought to the need to encourage readers uncertain whether a fragmentary cuneiform epic will be quite their cup of tea, without sacrificing accuracy; her brief introductions to each tablet are a particularly helpful feature. Here, by way of a sample, are her versions of the beginning and end of the Flood story.

‘I will reveal to you, Gilgamesh, a thing that is hidden,
a secret of the gods I will tell you!
Shuruppak, a city that you surely know,
situated on the banks of the Euphrates,
that city was very old, and there were gods inside it
The hearts of the Great Gods moved them to inflict the Flood ...’

‘Enlil went up inside the boat
and, grasping my hand, made me go up.
He had my wife go up and kneel by my side.
He touched our forehead and, standing between us, he blessed us:
“Previously Utanapishtim was a human being.
But now let Utanapishtim and his wife become like us, the gods!
Let Utanapishtim reside far away, at the Mouth of the Rivers.”
They took us far away and settled us at the Mouth of the Rivers.’

Stephanie Dalley’s book (from which come the translations quoted elsewhere in this review) offers much more, and keeps clearly in view the needs of those who will want to investigate further; her ideal reader is made of sterner stuff. Her book offers translations of all the main myths and epics written in Accadian; she is rather more generous than Kovacs in her provision of background information, and her selective but substantial bibliography is a welcome feature.

After Gilgamesh the longest and best-known of these texts is the Creation Epic, Enuma Elish, celebrating the victory of Marduk, the principal god of Babylon, over the monstrous Tiamat, the triumph of cosmic order over chaos, annually recited on the fourth day of the New Year festival at Babylon. But more immediately appealing is the Old Babylonian Flood narrative of the Atrahasis epic, fragments of which have been found on tablets to be dated c.1700 BC. We start from a period before the creation of man:

When the gods instead of man
Did the work, bore the loads,
The gods’ load was too great,
The work too hard, the trouble too much,
The great Anunnaki made the Igigi
Carry the work sevenfold.
Anu their father was king,
Their counsellor warrior Ellil ...
They took the box (of lots) ...
Cast the lots; the gods made the division.
Anu went up to the sky,
[And Ellil (?)] took the earth for his people (?).
The bolt which bars the sea
Was assigned to far-sighted Enki.

This notion of a divine lottery, though quite alien to the normal Greek tradition about the circumstances in which Zeus gained his supreme position as Sky God, has a remarkable parallel in the Iliad (Poseidon is the speaker in Lattimore’s translation):

‘We are three brothers, born by Rheia to Kronos,
Zeus, and I, and the third is Hades, lord of the dead men.
All was divided among us three ways, each given his domain.
I when the lots were shaken drew the grey sea to live in.
forever; Hades drew the lot of the mists and the darkness,
and Zeus was allotted the wide sky, in the cloud and the bright air.’

No passage in Homer so strongly suggests the influence of a Mesopotamian text.

The excessive workload imposed on the lesser gods by their superiors leads to a strike:

‘Every single one of us gods declared war!
We have put a stop to the digging.
The load is excessive, it is killing us!
Our work is too hard, the trouble too much!
So every single one of us gods
Has agreed to complain to Ellil.’

Ea, the god of wisdom, sympathises:

‘Why are we blaming them?
Their work was too hard, their trouble was too much ...
Belet-ili the womb-goddess is present,
Let the womb-goddess create offspring,
and let man bear the load of the gods!’

So man is created, from the flesh and blood of a slain god mixed with clay. However, unforeseen difficulties arise:

Six hundred years, less than six hundred, passed,
And the country became too wide, the people too numerous.
The country was as noisy as a bellowing bull.
The God grew restless at their racket,
Ellil had to listen to their noise.
He addressed the great gods,
‘The noise of mankind has become too much,
I am losing sleep over their racket.’

Ellil’s attempts to control the problem by plague and famine are frustrated, but finally he sends a catastrophic flood. However, Ea ingeniously conveys a warning to Atrahasis (whose name means ‘Extra Wise’):

‘Dismantle the house, build a boat,
Reject possessions and save living things.’

Having thus ensured that life is preserved, Ea suggests a different solution to the population problem: the institution of a class of female devotees forbidden to bear children.

Whereas in Ut-napishtim’s narrative no explanation is given for the gods’ decision to send the flood, here, as in Genesis, the deluge results from divine anger at man’s offences, though Ellil’s irritation at human noisiness, so evocative of modern family life on a wet Sunday afternoon, is a far cry from the Old Testament: ‘God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.’

It is curious, and perhaps more than simple coincidence, that the lost Greek epic which related the causes of the Trojan War and its development up to the beginning of the Iliad, the Cypria, started with the problem presented to Zeus by Earth’s over-population. War, however, was the Greek god’s preferred solution.

‘Look unto the rock whence ye are hewn and to the hole of the pit whence ye are digged.’ To anyone inclined to follow this Scriptural exhortation, to anyone, that is, with an interest in the history of ideas, of literature, or of the ancient world, Dr Dalley has done an inestimable service in producing authoritative translations of these important texts. It is sad to reflect that now, when academic finance is increasingly governed by a crude modification of commercial criteria, the prospects for British Assyriology can hardly look as bright as they did in 1872.