Ancient History & Civilisation

10. Remarks on this Version

This version of the Epic of Gilgamesh is not a fresh translation from the cuneiform. Such a translation would require a detailed knowledge of the languages in which the various parts have survived—Sumerian, Akkadian and Hittite are the principal - and is a task which I am not competent to undertake. Several scholarly translations into English, French, and German now exist, which provide accurate texts amplified by long explanatory notes. For the ordinary reader, who is not also an Assyriologist or student of Ancient literatures and history, these texts prove difficult reading, for they necessarily tend to emphasize rather than mitigate the short-comings of the original material. Every missing or doubtful word is marked by a gap or brackets; these are of different kinds according as to whether the word within the bracket has been supplied by the translator or by the ancient redactor. Moreover, the language is brought as close as possible to the structure of the Semitic or Sumerian original, which often makes poor English. Many happy exceptions exist and from these I have been able to benefit, as well as from the commentaries which explain the limitations and difficulties of various readings. This scholarly method gives the student and specialist what he needs, but presents the ordinary reader with a page which may look rather like an unfinished crossword puzzle. It has seemed, therefore, worth attempting a version which, while adding nothing that is not vouched for by scholarship nor omitting anything of which the meaning is beyond doubt, yet will avoid the somewhat uncouth appearance of the line by line translation and will give the reader a straightforward narrative.

I am well aware of the temerity of any such attempt and of the prime debt which I owe to the scholars who have made the translations out of cuneiform. I have been chiefly dependent on Alexander Heidel of the Oriental Institute, in the University of Chicago, for his Gilgamesh Epicand Old Testament Parallels (second edition 1949), and to E. A. Speiser for his translation, among other Akkadian texts, in the collection edited by J. B. Pritchard under the title Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (second edition 1955; there is now a third edition, 1969, with supplementary material). All later translators have made extensive use of Campbell Thompson’s translation (into English hexameters) and his commentary published in 1928 and 1930. For the Sumerian material I have used the translation of S. N. Kramer published in Ancient Near Eastern Texts and in his book From the Tablets of Sumer, 1956 (reissued in this country as History begins at Sumer, 1958). The important fragment from Sultantepe was published by O. R. Gurney in the Journal of Cuneiform Studies for 1964 and is found slightly modified in the second edition of Ancient Near Eastern Texts; other supplementary passages or variant readings arc drawn from special articles in journals and will be referred to in their context below.

I have not followed other versions in giving the Epic in verse, believing that prose will provide a more direct and flexible means of communication, particularly in difficult passages, and for the same reason I have given up the division into tablets. Within the framework of the text there is still room for considerable variety of approach and interpretation, as a comparison of the different translations in existence soon shows. My aim throughout has been intelligibility, and as far as the surviving texts allow, a smooth and consistent story. Any version that aims at a unified narrative must be a collation. The ‘Standard Text’ created by the scribes of Assurbanipal in the seventh century was a collation, and so are all the modern versions. I have departed from the more usual practice by employing the Sumerian sources alongside the Akkadian and Hittite. This is not only because of their priority, and the fact that the Akkadian writers themselves drew on the Sumerian Cycle for the basis of most of the episodes in their Epic; but also because they fill important gaps, particularly in the ‘Forest Journey’, and they alone provide the ‘Destiny’ and the ‘Death of Gilgamesh’. Moreover, their quality is very high.

The differences in detail between the Sumerian and the Old Babylonian are not greater than those that appear to exist between the Ninevite and Boghazköy recensions, which are generally combined by the modern translators; while the date of writing-down of the surviving Sumerian material (first half of the second millennium) is very close to that of the Old Babylonian of the Yale and Pennsylvania tablets (First Dynasty of Babylon). The Hittite version appears to diverge radically from the others in the later parts, but it is valuable at several points, particularly in the conflict with Humbaba (Huwawa) and the first meeting with Urshanabi.

The order of events is not always certain and is particularly confused in the Forest Episode; but the order of the episodes is fairly consistent. I have not followed the rearrangement of Tablets IV and V proposed by J. V. Kinnier Wilson (VII-Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale (1960), see below) according to which the dreams of Gilgamesh take place before his arrival at the forest. Although in some ways more logical, there are serious objections to this alteration. The sequence which I have followed is in the main that of Heidel and Speiser with their combination of Old Babylonian, Hittite, and Assyrian material, including the Sultantepe fragment. The use in addition of the Sumerian ‘Gilgamesh and the Land of the Living’ and the’ Death of Gilgamesh’ has meant some modification of this arrangement. In the Forest Episode the Sumerian is sufficiently close to the other versions to be used directly to fill in the very defective description of the encounter with Humbaba. The chief point of difference is the Sumerian account of the ‘fifty sons of the city’ who accompany the two heroes on their journey, and whom I have omitted. A recently published Old Babylonian fragment relating to the fight against, and the killing of Humbaba provides a closer link with the Sumerian, and a recent Hittite tablet suggests yet another variant. In the preparations for the ‘Forest Journey’, the Sumerian, Old Babylonian, and Assyrian all give a slightly different sequence of events. I have used an amalgamation of the Old Babylonian and Assyrian versions except that, with the Sumerian, I have placed the appeal to the Sun God before the interviews with the citizens and the smiths.

The excuse for incorporating also the Sumerian ‘Death of Gilgamesh’ is that it makes a more satisfactory end than the conclusion of Assyrian Tablet XI. The reason for not using tablet twelve has already been given. It is incompatible with the account of Enkidu’s death which we have already had, following the episode of the ‘Bull of Heaven’. The Sumerian poem, of which this has been shown to be a literal translation, probably took the place of the dream and death of Enkidu described on the seventh tablet of the Ninevite recension. More open to possible objection may be my use at the beginning of the ‘Forest Journey’ of the Sumerian ‘Destiny’. As Enkidu is the Interpreter of dreams on subsequent occasions, and since the Sumerian ‘Destiny’ came to Gilgamesh apparently in a dream, I have thought it permissible to insert it at this point, as well as repeating it at the end where, with the ‘Death’ (fragments ‘A’ and ‘B’), it forms an appropriate tail-piece. Both the Old Babylonian and the Sumerian texts make Enlil the author of the ‘Destiny’.

There are one or two other points that need explanation. I have omitted altogether Humbaba’s hypothetical ‘Watchman’ at the Gate, because I think it is always Humbaba himself who is referred to. Though the language is ambiguous, a second watchman is not mentioned again and would be superfluous. The Old Babylonian fragment describing the killing of Humbaba I have used in full, after the Sumerian account, though they may really overlap. I have very slightly altered the sequence of lines at the beginning of the last journey (Assyrian Tablet IX); this is in order to state the motive for the journey as early as possible. Additional lines for the ‘Garden of the Gods’ are based on the translation of L. Oppenheim (Orientalia 17, 1948, 47-8). The same source gives the simile of the ‘wool’ for sleep. The ‘Things of Stone’ which Gilgamesh smashes before embarking with Urshanabi defy explanation at present. The sweet-water current along with the movements of Gilgamesh and Urshanabi when they leave Utnapishtim are difficult to follow; I have used a clue given by Speiser in Ancient Near Eastern Texts (p. 96, n. 232). The statement that Gilgamesh returned ‘through the gate by which he had come’ is taken from the words of the wife of Utnapishtim (Heidel XI, lines 207-8). Something is necessary here to mark the transition.

In the enumeration of names at the end of the Sumerian ‘Death of Gilgamesh’ I have left out two pairs which appear to belong to personages about whom nothing is known; for the others I have added an explanatory epithet, so that the names may convey a hint of what is implied in this catalogue. I have left them in their Sumerian forms. At three points I have borrowed a few lines from other epics. At the beginning of the account of the flood I have inserted the lines of explanation for the wrath of Enlil taken from the flood narrative in the Old Babylonian004Epic (see below p. 57); they are the lines beginning ‘In those days the world teemed, the people multiplied...’ Again at the end of Enkidu’s dream of the underworld, the simile of the bailiff is taken from the Assyrian ‘Vision of the Nether World’, in which the whole passage has a fairly close parallel, while the lines describing the position of Dilmun come from the Sumerian ‘Deluge’. A short resume of the division of the material on the tablets will be found in the Appendix.

July 1959 (1972) N. K. s.

Since the publication of this version of the Epic of Gilgamesh in 1960, decipherment of fresh tablets, and study of those already known, has added much to our understanding of the Epic itself, and of its historical and literary background. Gilgamesh was the subject of a meeting of the ‘Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale’, the proceedings of which have been published as Gilgameš et sa légende,Cahiers du Groupe François-Thureau-Dangin, I, Paris 1960. Here are to be found a full bibliography, new textual material and discussions. Among the substantial additions of which, in spite of some contradictions, I have made use, is a new Sumerian account of the Humbaba (Huwawa) episode (J. van Dijk). The difficulties inseparable from this sort of interpretation can be seen in the fact that ‘the felled cedars’, and the tying and laying down of the branches, of one translation, have become, in another, ‘aura coats’, rosettes or’ sleeping camp-followers’. Another addition comes at a point where the text is particularly defective; the crisis of the meeting between Humbaba and Gilgamesh. To the Sumerian and Old Babylonian can now be added a Hittite tablet from Boghazköy, written down in the thirteenth century, and containing what is probably the Hurrian tradition concerning this episode, in which the hero may have been Humbaba, not Gilgamesh (H. Otten, 1958). The language is much like that known from other Hittite myths; and a single tablet covers the course of events from the endowing of Gilgamesh by the gods to the killing of Humbaba. This takes five tablets of Akkadian so there has been considerable compression; even so, some gaps are filled, as well as alternative matter provided at other points. It is, for example, perfectly natural that the Hittite weather-god should bestow the gift of courage in place of Akkadian Adad, to whom he holds an equivalent, though relatively superior, position. The trapper who snares Enkidu has an Akkadian name, Sangasu, meaning ‘death-striker’; but more important is the possibility, hinted here, that Gilgamesh came to Uruk only after his earlier wanderings in the world, and so the resentment of his ‘tyranny’ becomes more understandable. The forest journey is given an actual physical setting. It starts from the banks of the Euphrates where the heroes make their sacrifice to the Sun God, and from there a six days’ journey brings them to the Cedar Mountain. This is added confirmation for placing the mountain in a north westerly, rather than an easterly, direction, and agrees with the naming of Lebanon at the end of the fight with Humbaba in the Old Babylonian (Tell Iščali) fragment. But though in the Hittite tablet Humbaba threatens more alarmingly, the outcome is exactly the same and fits well between the Sumerian and Old Babylonian fragments. Further details come from other sources and are published by A. Falkenstein(Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 19, April 1960, 2, 65-71) and J. van Dijk, (Sumer, 15, 1959, i, 8-10) but the differences are not more than may be expected in oral tradition. A tablet from Ur, perhaps of the eleventh century B.C., contains another version of, and additions to, part of Tablet VII of the Ninevite recension describing the conversation between Shamash and Enkidu on the latter’s deathbed. It links up with the Sultantepe fragment and was published by C. J. Gadd in Iraq, 28, 1966, 105-121, with a commentary that includes interesting suggestions as to the name and character of ‘Siduri’, and consideration of the ‘Stone Things’ destroyed by Gilgamesh before crossing the Waters of Death.

Much of this new material has been incorporated into the text of the third edition of Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, Princeton, New Jersey, 1969, or in the Supplement, pp. 503-7, translated by A. R. Grayson. A fragment of text from Tell Harmal gives the ‘first’ dream of Gilgamesh on the mountain and there are additions to the conversation between Gilgamesh and Ishtar, and the episode of the Bull of Heaven. Important new light is thrown on Enkidu’s sickness and dreams by R. Stefanini (1969) Hittite material and by C. J. Gadd, loc. cit. (1966) with Middle Babylonian or Cassite period texts from Ur, perhaps of the early 11th century, which give an alternative to the Ninevite version and add considerably to the exchange between Enkidu and Shamash. The problem of the ‘gate’, whether it is still the ‘gate of the forest’, or whether it is not rather of forest wood but raised in Uruk, is discussed by I. M. Diakonoff (Bibliotheca Orientalis, XVIII, 1961, 61-67). I have taken the second alternative as most probable. The Stone Things are again discussed by C. J. Gadd, and by A. R. Millard (1964) publishing an Old Babylonian fragment which overlaps with Meissner, also D. Wiseman in Gilgames et sa legende (1960). Minor additions to Tablet X are also taken from the new third edition of Texts Relating to the Old Testament, and I have followed suggestions in the article by L. Matouš (BibliothecaOrientalis, XXI, 1964, 3-10) as well as from the various contributors to the article ‘Gilgamesh’ in the Reallexikon der Assyriologie,parts ¾, pp. 357-74. A clue to the nature of the plant of eternal youth comes from R. Campbell Thompson’s Dictionary of Assyrian Botany (London, 1949); and the amended first line of the epic is given in the Assyrian Dictionary of theOriental Institute of Chicago,7, 33b.

I have referred in this introduction to the discovery of new evidence for the existence of an historical Gilgamesh. The question is discussed, in Gilgameš et salégende, by W. G. Lambert, S. N. Kramer and in a short note by E. O. Edzard; also M. Rowton, Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 19, 1960, 2, 156-62. The divergences, though important, are not very great, and whichever date is followed, Gilgamesh’s lifetime will not be far from the date of the Royal Tombs of Ur with their refined wealth and barbaric ritual; thus the fragmentary Sumerian text of the ‘Death of Gilgamesh’ can be used as a semi-historical document to throw light on the funeral rites of the royal house of Ur in the third millennium, as in fact was done by Prof. Kramer in an article in Iraq, 22, 1960, 58. Prof. Mallowan has written on the subject of a flood or floods (Iraq, 26, 1964, 62-82) and it is also discussed in005The Babylonian Story of the Flood by W. G. Lambert and A. R. Millard (1969), with M. Civil on the Sumerian tradition of the flood. The possible indebtedness of Greek mythology to the Orient has been treated in several recent books since T. B. L. Webster’s From Mycenae to Homer (London, 1958) : by P. Walcott, in Hesiod andthe Near East (Cardiff, 1966), G. S. Kirk, Myth, its Meaning and Functions in Ancient and Other Cultures (Cambridge, 1970), and M. L. West, Early Greek Philosophy and the Orient (Oxford, 1971).

The question of who the Sumerians were is still unsolved and may remain so. If they were new arrivals they may not have been very numerous, and the extent of their influence on language and literature may never be really known.

May 1972 N. K. s.

The matter relating to Gilgamesh still grows. New texts come to light which add to our knowledge of the Epic and of the historical Gilgamesh, while work on the existing texts increases our understanding of difficult passages. Two outstanding works have appeared within recent years. Thorkild Jacobsen’s The Treasures of Darkness (Newhaven and London, 1976), contains a fresh analysis of the whole Epic in the light of the author’s general view of Mesopotamian religion; and J. H. Tigay in The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic (Philadelphia, 1982), by comparing versions and distinguishing different sources, both chronological and geographical, has shown how theological and political changes shaped the poem, and how the various strands came together in the final compilation. Interesting new light on the poem comes from W. G. Lambert in The Theology of Death(ed. B. Alster, XXVI Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale, 1980), and a new fragment from the fifth tablet is published by E. von Weiher in Baghdader Mittheilungen(1980, II, 90-105). R. A. Veenker has enlarged on the significance of the Magic Plant of Youth Restored as a separate myth in Biblical Archaeologist 1981, 44/45, 199-205), and so it continues. I am grateful to Mrs Stephanie Dalley for her help with the references.

September 1987 N. K. S.

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