The History of The Epic of Gilgamesh

The History of The Epic of Gilgamesh

The Epic of Gilgamesh refers to a collection of cuneiform tablets that were discovered through Israel, Syria, and Turkey, originating from ancient Mesopotamia (where writing is believed to have been invented, c. 3500 BC). It is believed to be the earliest and oldest piece of literature in existence, and may have existed and been passed down in oral form prior to being recorded through the medium of tablets.

It is pertinent to mention that most scholars are still divided on the issue of whether the titular Gilgamesh historically existed, though his prominence in clay prayer tablets and wall inscriptions in Uruk (modern day Warka, Iraq), as well as in references by Greek and Roman literature in 200 AD certainly suggested his persistent status as a far-reaching, cross-cultural icon.

As of right now, no complete version of The Epic of Gilgamesh exists. All existing fragments of the epic were compiled by scholars and archaeologists, at times using older pieces of the Sumerian text to fill in gaps found in newer pieces. However, this calls into question whether The Epic was intended to be a “complete” piece, so to speak. I personally have trouble accepting this modern completist attitude, how it’s driving such experts to seek an ideal, definitive beginning and ending, and even reconstructing this historical text by mixing in pieces from different time periods for the sake of cohesion. At the end of the day, this process of reassembly is still being conducted by those belonging to a time and culture that are far different from what Sumerian literary world may have been, and I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is also more than just a single epic piece of text. 5 Sumerian poems (dating back to as early as 2100 BC) were discovered and believed to exist separately from the primary narrative of the Gilgamesh epic. Presumably, such poems were the result of sessions conducted within Sumerian scribal schools, in which scriveners would copy stories (perhaps originally oral narratives sung at the royal court of the Third Dynasty of Ur) about Gilgamesh.

Next comes the oldest preserved version of the Gilgamesh epic, referred to as the “Old Babylonian version”, which dates back to the 18th century BC. Following this is the best known, “most complete” version of The Epic, the “Standard version” of 12 tablets in Akkadian, which dates back to the 13th-10th century BC.

The most definitive modern translation of The Epic was done by British academic Andrew George in 2003, which included a tablet-by-tablet exegesis and dual language side-by-side translation. Just a year later, however, a controversial translation was created by American translator and scholar Stephen Mitchell, who not only included modernized allusions within the text, but featured commentary regarding the 2003 iraq war as well. I found this highly reminiscent of Ælfric’s Preface to Genesis, in which he expressed concerns about being entrusted with the role of translating the book of Genesis from Latin into English, for fear of altering the word of God and having “unlearned priests” manipulate its meaning.

Along these same lines, according to an essay featured on the Met Museum’s website, “this scholar most likely assembled various versions of the story from both oral and written sources and updated them in light of the literary concerns of his day, which included questions about human mortality and the nature of wisdom. … The new version of the epic explains that Gilgamesh, although he is king of Uruk, acts as an arrogant, impulsive, and irresponsible ruler.” It’s fascinating to note how, in the process of transcription, the scholar not only pieced the story together from an assortment of sources, but also interjected common ponderings and questions of their time period, and even altered the depiction of Gilgamesh to affect future perceptions, perhaps in a manner similar to modern literary pursuits as well.

This same essay later points out, “Hundreds of years later, toward the end of the second millennium B.C., literary works in Babylonian dominated scribal learning. Differing versions of classic compositions, including the Akkadian Gilgamesh story, proliferated, and translations and adaptations were made by poets in various lands to reflect local concerns.” So, not only were scribes and poets at the time focused on bringing these tales to their people, but they also upheld a responsibility of making it more applicable and relatable to such peoples’ lives.

This made me think of our in-class exercise of how difficult it was for me to adapt to someone else’s voice, particularly as their backgrounds and language use (let alone their handwriting) were extremely different from my own, in comparison. Although scribes typically aren’t meant to insert their own voices into the works they were copying, it’s certainly easy to consider how their personalities and values could easily show through through their reinterpretation and recomposition of text.

Another interesting thing to note is how modern scholars are so deeply focused on the presence and placement of “the flood account,” in relation to the overall Gilgamesh narrative. Across the differing surviving versions of the epic and related texts, scholars believed that the recurrence and minute differences of this account between multiple versions helps build a timeline on when each version was written, as well as how they influenced one another, regarding the tale of the Sumerian flood.

For example, scholars have debated over whether the Atrahasis epic or the Gilgamesh epic was the true source material of the other. In addition to this, it was believed that the flood account found in the Gilgamesh epic was added by the same poet-editor of the epic’s prologue (who had lived around the 13th century BC), because of how the flood account disrupts the flow of the overall narrative between Tablets 10 and 11.

Above all else, The Epic of Gilgamesh’s influence is definitely tangible, existing within the Homeric Epics (especially as the former was presumably composed nearly 1500 years prior to The Iliad, as well as sharing roots in oral storytelling culture) and also The Bible (think: Noah’s ark and the Great Flood). In attempting to understanding the historical context behind The Epic, we must also consider the social culture at the time, particularly literary culture, and how it was comprised of people transcribing texts into countless versions that were distributed and passed down across cultures and civilizations, intended to reflect (or maybe even challenge) the societal norms and values at the time. This cycle even persists today as scholars and experts continue to search worldwide for more traces of The Epic, in hopes to reconstruct this narrative and sustain its historical significance.