Ancient History & Civilisation

CHAPTER 7

AN AGE OF HEROES

If the Sumerians were not short of theories as to the origin of the universe, they were regrettably more discreet about their own origins, thereby standing in sharp contrast with, for instance, the Israelites who never forgot that Abraham, their ancestor, had come from Ur and who located the earthly paradise in the garden of Eden (a word derived from the Sumerian edin meaning ‘plain’ or ‘open country’), between the Tigris and the Euphrates. The Sumerians have left two texts which allude to a golden age but unfortunately do not provide information on their ancestral cradle. The first one is a passage of the epic tale Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta'1 which speaks of very remote times when there were no dangerous animals and when ‘all peoples together paid homage to Enlil in one single language’. This blissful unity ended when rivalries between Enki and Enlil led to a ‘confusion of tongues’, a theme which recurs in the biblical story of the Tower of Babel.

The second text is a strange and complicated myth called Enki and Ninhursag2 (in which the action takes place in Dilmun the island of Bahrain and neighbouring regions). To put it briefly, in this myth the god Enki makes Dilmun a fertile country by creating freshwater springs, while the goddess Ninhursag creates a number of healing gods, one of these being Enshag who appears as Inzak in stone inscriptions found in Bahrain and in the island of Failaka, near Kuwait. The first lines of the myth describe Dilmun as a clean, pure and bright country where old age, disease and death are unknown, and where:

The raven utters no cries,

The ittidu-bird utters not the cry of the ittidu-bird

The lion kills not,

The wolf snatches not the lamb,

Unknown is the kid-devouring wild dog…

Does this mean that the Sumerians originated from, or at least had once lived in this blessed island? There is nothing in the myth that suggests it, and we are inclined to see in these lines an indirect reference to the East, traditionally ‘the land of the living’ and the West, ‘the land of the dead’, perhaps combined with an attempt by the Sumerians to include in their pantheon Inzak and all other gods of Dilmun – a country with which they had very close commercial relations in the third millennium B.C. In reality, the Sumerians, like most ancient peoples, saw their country as the hub of the universe and themselves as the direct descendants of the first human beings. They used the same ideogram for kalam, ‘The Country’ (i.e. Sumer) and for ukú, ‘people in general’ and ‘the people of Sumer’ in particular. Significantly, the other ideogram for ‘country’, kur, pictures a mountain and was originally used in connection with foreign countries only. Clearly the Sumerians identified themselves with the earliest inhabitants of Mesopotamia and indeed with the initial population of the earth. How, then, did they imagine their own ‘prehistory’?

From ‘Adam’ to the Deluge

In the preceding chapter we have seen how, in the great Babylonian Epic of Creation, the first and nameless ‘savage-man’ had been created from the blood of the evil god Kingu. Other myths such as ‘Atrahasis’ (see below) refer to the making by the gods of one or two human beings either from clay or from the blood of minor deities, or both. But nowhere are we told what happened to these Adams or Eves. Up to now the Sumerian literature has offered no close parallel to the biblical story of the Lost Paradise, and to find a Mesopotamian account of the Fall of Man we must turn to the legend of Adapa,3 written in the middle of the second millennium B.C.

Created by the god Ea (Enki) as ‘the model of men’, Adapa was a priest of Eridu who fulfilled various tasks in Ea's temple, the most important being to supply his master with food. One day, as he was fishing on the ‘great sea’, the South Wind suddenly blew with such violence that his boat capsized and he himself was nearly drowned. In his anger Adapa uttered a curse whereby the wings of the South Wind – that big demon-bird – were broken, and for a long time ‘the South Wind blew not upon the land’. It so happens that the south (-easterly) wind is of capital importance to agriculture in southern Iraq, for it brings what little rain there is in winter, and in summer causes the ripening of the dates.4 When the great god Anu heard what Adapa had done he was naturally much angered and sent for the culprit. But Ea came to Adapa's aid. He told him that upon his arrival at Anu's gate in heaven he would meet the two vegetation gods, Dumuzi and Ningishzida (whom Adapa, it seems, had indirectly ‘killed’ by suppressing the South Wind), but if he clad himself in mourning and showed signs of grief and contrition the two gods would be appeased; they would ‘smile’ and even speak to Anu in Adapa's favour. Anu would then no longer treat Adapa as a criminal but as a guest; he would, after oriental fashion, offer him food and water, clothes to put on and oil with which to anoint himself. The last two Adapa could accept but, warned Ea:

When they offer thee bread of death,

Thou shalt not eat it. When they offer thee water of death,

Thou shalt not drink it…

This advice that I have given thee, neglect not; the words

That I have spoken to thee, hold fast!

Everything happened as Ea had said even beyond expectation, for Anu, touched no doubt by Adapa's repentance and sincere confession, offered him instead of the food and drink of death the ‘bread of life’ and the ‘water of life’. But Adapa, following strictly his master's advice, refused the gifts that would have rendered him immortal. Whereupon, Anu dismissed him with these simple words:

Take him away and return him to earth.

Whether Ea's proverbial foresight had failed him, or whether he had deliberately lied to Adapa is difficult to determine. But the result was that Adapa lost his right to immortality. He lost it through blind obedience as Adam lost it through arrogant disobedience. In both cases man had condemned himself to death.

The biblical parallel, however, goes no farther for the time being, for even if we see in Adapa a Mesopotamian Adam, we are lacking that long line of posterity which in the Bible links the first man with the Hebrews' true ancestor, Abraham. The Sumerians were not possessed of the passion for genealogy that was characteristic of the nomadic Semites. They viewed their own history from a different angle. The gods, they reasoned, had created mankind for a definite purpose: to feed and serve them. They had themselves fixed the details of this service, they had ‘perfected the rites and exalted the divine ordinances’. Humanity, however, was but a great, rather stupid flock. It needed shepherds, rulers, priestly kings chosen and appointed by the gods to enforce the divine law. At some remote date, therefore, almost immediately after the creation of mankind, ‘the exalted tiara and the throne of kingship’ were ‘lowered from heaven’, and from then on a succession of monarchs led the destinies of Sumer and Akkad on behalf of and for the benefit of the gods. Thus was justified by reference to the most distant past the theory of divinely inspired kingship, current in Mesopotamia from the third millennium onwards. Yet some modern scholars hold different views. They believe that the original political system of Sumer was what they call a ‘primitive democracy’. Monarchy, they say, developed comparatively late in proto-history, when the warrior chief (lugal), formerly elected by an assembly of citizens for short periods of crisis, took over for good the control of the city-state.5 This theory, first put forward by Th. Jacobsen in a penetrating study cannot be lightly dismissed. Thus the passage in the Epic of Creation describing the election of Enlil (or Marduk) to the rank of ‘champion of the gods’ for the specific purpose of waging war against Tiamat may reflect what happened on earth in similar circumstances. There is also no doubt that there were in Early Dynastic Sumer local assemblies, especially of older men, which played a part in the government of each city. But as pointed out by other Sumerologists, these assemblies (ukin) appear to have been purely consultative bodies summoned by the rulers on rare occasions, so that the word ‘democracy’ in this context is perhaps a misnomer. Judging from the texts at our disposal, there is no clear-cut evidence in the Sumerian tradition of a period when the city-states were ruled by collective institutions, and as far as we can go back into the past we see nothing but rulers or monarchs second only to the gods.

We possess by chance a document that gives us an uninterrupted list of kings from the very beginnings of monarchy down to the eighteenth century B.C. This is the famous ‘Sumerian King List’ compiled from about fifteen different texts and published by Th. Jacobsen in 1939.6 Despite its imperfections, this document is invaluable: not only does it embody and summarize very old Sumerian traditions but it provides an excellent chronological framework in which can be placed most of the great legends of the Sumerian heroic age. For the Sumerians, like the ancient Greeks, Hindus and Germans, had their heroic age, their age of demigods and superhuman kings who stood on equal term with the gods and performed fantastic feats of valour. Only now do we begin to realize that some at least of these heroes are only half-mythical and belong, in fact, to history.

According to the Sumerian King List, kingship was first ‘lowered from heaven’ in the city of Eridu, a remarkable statement if we remember that Eridu is one of the most ancient Sumerian settlements in southern Iraq (see Chapter 4). Then, after no less than 64,800 years during which only two kings reigned in Eridu, for some untold reason kingship was ‘carried’ to Bad-tibira (three kings, one of them the god Dumuzi himself, 108,000 years). From Bad-tibira it passed on successively to Larak (one king, 28,800 years), to Sippar (one king, 21,000 years) and to Shuruppak (one king, 18,600 years).7 These incredible figures, strangely reminiscent of Adam's posterity in the Bible, have no hidden significance; they simply express a widespread belief in a golden age when men lived much longer than usual and were endowed with truly supernatural qualities. But an even closer comparison with the Old Testament is called for by the brief sentence which follows the mention of Ubar-Tutu, King of Shuruppak, and closes the first paragraph, as it were, of the Sumerian King List:

The Flood swept thereover.

Here we feel irresistibly compelled to interrupt our narrative and examine one of the most controversial and fascinating problems of Mesopotamian archaeology and mythology: the problem of the Great Flood.

The Great Flood

In 1872 George Smith, then a young British assyriologist, announced to an astonished world that he had discovered, among the many tablets from Ashurbanipal's library in the British Museum, an account of the Deluge strikingly similar to that given in the Bible (Genesis vi. II – viii. 22). The story he had in hand was but an episode from a long poem in twelve tablets known as the Gilgamesh Epic of which we shall speak later. The hero of the epic, Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, is in search of the secret of immortality and eventually meets Ut-napishtim, the only man to have been granted eternal life and the son, incidentally, of Ubar-Tutu, King of Shuruppak. This, briefly, is what Ut-napishtim tells Gilgamesh:8

At some indefinite date, ‘when Shuruppak was already an old city’, the gods decided to send a deluge in order to destroy the sinful human race. But Ea took pity on Ut-napishtim and, secretly speaking to him through the thin wall of his reed-hut, advised him to tear down his house, abandon his possessions, build a ship of a certain size, take with him ‘the seed of all living creatures’ and prepare himself for the worst. The next day work was started on the ark and soon a huge, seven-decked vessel was ready, caulked with bitumen and loaded with gold, silver, game, beasts and Ut-napishtim's family, relations and workmen. When the weather became ‘frightful to behold’ our Babylonian Noah knew that the time for the deluge had come. He entered the ship and closed the door. Then, ‘as soon as the first shimmer of morning beamed forth, a black cloud came up from out of the horizon’, announcing the most terrible tempest of wind, rain, lightning and thunder that man had ever witnessed. The dykes gave way, the earth was shrouded in darkness; even the gods were panic-stricken and regretted what they had undertaken:

The gods cowered like dogs and crouched in distress.

Ishtar cried out like a woman in travail…

‘How could I command war to destroy my people,

For it is I who bring forth my people’…

The Anunnaki gods wept with her;

The gods sat bowed and weeping…

Six days and six nights

The wind blew, the downpour, the tempest and the flood overwhelmed the land…

On the seventh day, however, the tempest subsided. Says Ut-napishtim:

I opened a window and light fell upon my face.

I looked upon the ‘sea’, all was silence,

And all mankind had turned to clay.

The ark landed on mount Nisir,9 but no land was visible besides the rock that held fast the ship. After a week had elapsed Ut-napishtim sent forth a dove, but it came back; he sent forth a swallow, but it also came back; he sent forth a raven, and this time the raven found land and did not return. Ut-napishtim then poured a libation on top of the mountain and offered a sacrifice of sweet cane, cedar and myrtle:

The gods smelled the savour,

The gods smelled the sweet savour,

The gods gathered like flies over the sacrificer.

If Ishtar, in particular, was delighted, Enlil, who had ordered the deluge and whose plans were frustrated, was filled with anger and put the blame on Ea. But so well did Ea plead his own cause and the cause of mankind that Enlil's heart was touched. He entered the ship and blessed Ut-napishtim and his wife, saying:

Hitherto Ut-napishtim has been but a man,

But now Ut-napishtim and his wife shall be like unto us gods.

In the distance, at the mouth of the rivers, Ut-napishtim shall dwell.

Needless to say, George Smith's publication of this story made headlines in the newspapers of the time. As new cuneiform texts became available, however, other versions of the Flood legend, less complete but older than the Gilgamesh version (written at Nineveh in the seventh century B.C.), were discovered. The name of the hero varied. In a Sumerian text from Nippur dated about 1700 B.C. he was called Ziusudra, while in a Babylonian epic of slightly later date he was called Atrahasis, ‘Exceedingly Wise’, probably a nickname for Ut-napishtim himself.10 But, allowance being made for other minor variations, the theme was always the same: a gigantic Flood had swept over the earth and all but one (or two) human beings had perished; in the long history of mankind the deluge marks a definite break and the replacement of one race of men by another. The resemblance with the biblical story is, of course, striking; furthermore, it seems probable that the Hebrews had borrowed from a long and well-established Mesopotamian tradition. Quite naturally, the question arose: are there traces of such a cataclysm in Mesopotamia?

Hitherto, sizeable deposits of water-borne clay and sand due to a major and prolonged inundation have been found on only three Mesopotamian sites: Ur, Kish and Shuruppak. At Ur, seven out of the fourteen test pits dug by the late Sir Leonard Woolley between 1929 and 1934 have revealed such deposits at different levels. The deepest and thickest of these was sandwiched between two occupational layers of the Ubaid period, and Woolley always maintained, without convincing reasons, that this was the biblical Flood.11The other, and thinner, Ur deposits were dated to about 2800 – 2600 B.C., and so were the several deposits discovered at Kish. As for the single ‘sterile layer’ found at Shuruppak, its probable date is 2900 B.C. The presence on these sites of such alluvial deposits raises difficult geophysical problems,12 but it does not provide evidence of a widespread inundation covering hundreds of square kilometres, let alone the entire Near East. The only events it reflects are limited inundations probably due to overflows and changes in river courses. It must be noted, for instance, that Eridu, which lies in a shallow depression some 20 kilometres from Ur and has been excavated down to the virgin soil, has yielded no trace of a flood.

But if there never was in Mesopotamia (and elsewhere) a cataclysmic Flood of biblical dimensions, what then was at the root of the Mesopotamian legend? Several theories have been put forward, ranging from an alleged universal desire to cancel a slice of the past to a vague remembrance, handed down through generations, of the torrential Pleistocene rains. However, none of these theories is satisfactory or even relevant, for it appears clearly from the cuneiform texts that the Flood was not a natural accident but a deliberate attempt by the gods at getting rid of mankind. Why should the gods want to do this? The Gilgamesh epic and the Sumerian flood story are silent on this point, but a recently published fragment of Atrahasis may give us a clue.13 This remarkable epic begins with the creation of male and female human beings who would relieve the lesser gods, the Anunnaki, from their exhausting work on earth. All goes well at first, but:

Twelve hundred years had not yet passed

When the land extended and the people multiplied.

The earth was bellowing like a bull,

The gods got distressed with their uproar.

In order to reduce this noisy crowd to silence, the gods unleash an epidemic followed by a terrible drought, but these are of no avail: men and women continue to multiply, even though starvation forces them to eat their own children. Finally, the gods release the Flood, not knowing that Ea will warn and save Atrahasis, the ‘Exceedingly Wise’. The Flood itself is described in about the same words as in Gilgamesh, but it is the end of our epic which deserves our attention, for Ea now appears as a precursor of Malthus, advocating infertility, infantile mortality and celibacy as remedies against over-population. Turning to Mami/Nintu, the mother-goddess, Ea says:

O Lady of Birth, creatress of the Fates…

Let there be among the people bearing women and barren women,

Let there be among the people a Pashittu-demon,

Let it seize the baby from the mother's lap,

Establish Ugbabtu-priestesses, Entu priestesses and Igisitu-priestesses.

They shall indeed be tabooed, and thus cut off child-bearing.*

This presumably means that in the future the population increase must be controlled to prevent the gods from sending another Flood, this being the ultimate solution obviously inspired by the damage caused by major local inundations.

As for the Flood mentioned in the Sumerian King List as a specific event, a switch of power from one city to another that occurred at a certain date, it is perhaps not unreasonable to suggest that it might have been introduced in the list by the scribes of Shuruppak who had witnessed two or three simultaneous disasters in that city around 2900 B.C.: a military defeat, a severe inundation and possibly a (relative) ‘demographic explosion’. If this were the case, then the Flood-event would merge with the Flood-myth, but of these two tales it is the myth that has survived and will never cease to fascinate us and arouse our curiosity.

Dynasties of Supermen

After the Flood, says the Sumerian King List, kingship was again ‘lowered from heaven’, this time in Kish, a city now represented by an important group of tells, about sixteen kilometres due east of Babylon.14 The first ‘dynasty’* of Kish comprises twenty-three reigns with an average duration of one thousand years per reign. If we omit one king whose name could not be read by the scribe who compiled the list from old tablets, we observe that out of twenty-two monarchs twelve bear Semitic names or nicknames, such asKalbum, ‘dog’, Qalumu, ‘lamb’, or Zuqaqip, ‘scorpion’; six have Sumerian names and four have names of unknown origin. This is important because it shows the mixture of ethnic elements in southern Iraq at an early date, the predominance of Semites in the region of Kish and the apparent absence of rivalry between Sumerians and Semites within the same city-state. As we shall see in the next chapter, we have good reason to believe that this dynasty was at least partly historical and should be placed shortly after 2800 B.C. Yet one of its kings is expressly designated as a mythical figure: ‘Etana, a shepherd, the one who ascended to heaven’, and as it happens that we possess Babylonian and Assyrian tablets which give us more details about Etana, we can enlarge on this point.15

The Etana legend begins like a fable. The serpent and the eagle lived on the same tree and helped each other as good neighbours should. But the eagle one day devoured the young of the serpent. The serpent went weeping to the sun-god Shamash, who prompted the following stratagem: the serpent hid in the belly of a dead ox, and when the eagle came to devour the carcass, the reptile took his revenge; he caught the big bird, broke his ‘heel’; plucked him and threw him into a pit. Now a certain Etana, who had no children and was desperately in need of the ‘plant of birth’ which grows only in heaven, also cried to Shamash, and Shamash advised him to rescue the eagle, win his friendship and use him as a vehicle to fly to heaven. This Etana did. ‘Upon the eagle's breast he placed his breast, upon the feathers of his wings he placed his hands, upon his sides he placed his arms’ and, in this uncomfortable position, he took off for a series of breathtaking flights that took him to the gates of Anu, Enlil, Ea, Sin, Shamash, Adad and Ishtar. Then, moved, perhaps, by a spirit of adventure, he went even higher. Gradually he saw the earth shrink to the size of a furrow and the sea to the size of a bread basket. But when land and sea were no longer visible Etana panicked: ‘My friend, I will not ascend to heaven!’ he shouted and, loosening his grip, he plunged head down towards the earth, followed by the eagle. The end of the tale is unclear, due to lacunae in the tablets, but we may assume that Etana reached his goal, for not only did he live a respectable 1,560 years but, according to the King List, he had a son and heir called Balikh.

The Sumerian King List gives the impression that the last king of the First Dynasty of Kish, Agga, was defeated in battle by the first king of the first dynasty of Uruk; but we know that the two dynasties overlapped and that Agga, in fact, was contemporary with the fifth King of Uruk, Gilgamesh. We owe this information to a short Sumerian poem16 which describes how Agga sent Gilgamesh an ultimatum demanding that Uruk submit to Kish, how the ultimatum was rejected and Uruk besieged and how, at the sight of mighty Gilgamesh peering over the wall, the enemy was overwhelmed with fear and ‘cast itself down’. In the end it was Agga who became the vassal of Gilgamesh, and Kish which submitted to Uruk, as indicated in the King List. Yet if the predecessors of Gilgamesh did not rule over the whole country of Sumer but only over Uruk they were prominent figures all the same, since we have in order of succession: Meskiaggasher, son of the sun-god Utu, who ‘went into the sea and came out (from it) to the mountains’; Enmerkar, ‘the one who built Uruk’; divine Lugalbanda, a ‘shepherd’, and finally, Dumuzi, the vegetation-god called here ‘a fisherman’. The deeds of at least two of these heroes and demi-gods are now familiar to us, owing to the publication of four Sumerian epic tales which once formed parts of a ‘cycle of Enmerkar’ and of a ‘cycle of Lugalbanda’.17 All these legends revolve around the usually strained relations between Uruk and Aratta, a far-away country separated from Sumer by ‘seven mountains’ and probably to be located in Iran.18 In one of these tales we are told at length of the considerable difficulties encountered by Enmerkar in obtaining gold, silver, lapis-lazuli and precious stones from the Lord of Aratta, either by threats or in return for grain –a situation which must have repeated itself again and again in the long history of Mesopotamia and which perhaps underlies the endless wars between that country and mountainous Elam. In another tale we see Uruk besieged by the MAR.TU folk, i.e. the nomadic Amorites of the Syrian desert who, as will be told later, settled in Iraq and took over from the Sumerians at the beginning of the second millennium B.C. If we could be sure that these legends reflected the political situation as it was at the dawn of history and not at the date when they were actually written down (about 1800 B.C.) we would find in them matter of considerable interest to the historian.

Finally, we come to Gilgamesh, the fifth king of the first dynasty of Uruk and the son, we are told, of the goddess Ninsun and of a high priest of Kullab, a district of Uruk. Gilgamesh, whose exploits are reminiscent of those of both Ulysses and Hercules, was the most popular of all Mesopotamian heroes and appears in the form of a brawny, bearded man fighting bulls and lions on a very large number of monuments, from the cylinder-seals of the Jemdat Nasr period to the sculptured reliefs of the Assyrian palaces. Like Enmerkar and Lugalbanda, he had his own cycle of Sumerian legends, apparently unconnected episodes of his life, of which five are known to us.19 But this is not all. Early in the second millennium a long poem was composed, which amalgamated some of the older Sumerian legends with new material. The resulting ‘Gilgamesh Epic’ has by chance survived practically complete, and as it is without any doubt the masterpiece of Assyro-Babylonian literature and, indeed, one of the most beautiful epic tales of the ancient world, we must at least try to give a brief summary of its content, referring the reader to the several excellent translations that have been published.20

The Story of Gilgamesh

‘He who saw everything to the ends of the world’, as the title of the poem has it, Gilgamesh was two-thirds god and one-third man. He was supremely strong, brave and handsome, and cared much for Uruk, his city. The Babylonians admired in particular the strong wall which he had built around it perhaps the 9.7 kilometre long wall of Early Dynastic times that still encircles the ruins of Warka. Yet his arrogance, ruthlessness and depravity were a subject of grave concern for the citizens of Uruk. They complained to the great god Anu, and Anu instructed the goddess Aruru to create another ‘wild ox’, a ‘double’ of Gilgamesh, who could challenge him and distract his mind from ‘the warrior's daughter and the nobleman's spouse’ whom, it appears, he would not leave in peace. So, out of clay Aruru modelled Enkidu, a huge, brutish, hairy creature who lived in the steppe among the wild beasts:

With the gazelles he feeds on grass,

With the wild beasts he jostles at the watering places,

With the teeming creatures, his heart delights in water.

Now, one day a hunter saw Enkidu at a distance and understood why the traps he was setting were always out of action, and why the game kept slipping out of his hands. He reported the matter to Gilgamesh, who set a trap of another kind against the wild man. A woman, a prostitute, was sent forth to the steppe with orders to seduce Enkidu and convert him to civilized life. The harlot had no difficulty in fulfilling the first part of her mission. She then took Enkidu by the hand ‘like a mother’ and led him to Uruk, where he soon learnt to bathe, anoint himself with perfumed oil, eat bread and indulge in strong drinks. But while in Uruk, Enkidu heard that Gilgamesh was once more going to exercise his ius primae noctis in the communal house and bravely barred his way. A terrible fight ensued which ended in mutual affection and peace, Gilgamesh having found a companion of his own stature and Enkidu a master: ‘They kissed each other and made a friendship.’

The exuberant Gilgamesh, however, was anxious to make himself a name and persuaded Enkidu to accompany him to the vast and remote Cedar Forest, abode of Huwawa (or Humbaba), a frightening giant ‘whose mouth was fire, whose breath was death’. Having prepared their weapons and prayed to the gods, the two friends left Uruk and, covering in three days the distance it normally took six weeks to travel, they reached the Cedar Forest:

They stood still and gazed at the forest,

They looked at the height of the cedars…

From the face of the mountains

The cedars raise aloft their luxuriance,

Good is their shadow, full of delight…

Having caught the guardian unaware, they entered the forbidden land, and already Gilgamesh was felling tree after tree when Huwawa rose in anger and would have massacred the two adventurers if Shamash had not come to their rescue; he sent all the eight winds against Huwawa, who, paralysed, acknowledged himself beaten and begged for his life. But Gilgamesh and Enkidu cut off his head and triumphantly returned to Uruk.

Following this exploit, the goddess Ishtar herself fell in love with Gilgamesh and offered to marry him; but Gilgamesh would have none of it. Reminding the unfaithful goddess how she had treated her numerous lovers, from Tammuz, for whom she had ‘ordained wailing year after year’, to the shepherd and the gardener, whom she had turned into wolf and spider, he abused her in the most outrageous terms:

Thou art but a brazier which goes out in the cold,

A backdoor which does not keep out blast and windstorms,

A waterskin which soaks through its bearer,

A shoe which pinches the foot of its owner!

Bitterly offended, Ishtar asked Anu to send the Bull of Heaven to ravage Uruk. But after the Bull had knocked down man after man, Enkidu seized it by the horns while Gilgamesh thrust a sword into its neck, and as Ishtar was cursing the ruler of Uruk, he tore off the beast's right thigh and tossed it in her face.

Such impudence was more than the gods could stand. They decided that one of the pair should die. Enkidu, therefore, was seized with a long and painful disease and, having reviewed his past life, cursed the harlot and dreamed of the sombre Netherworld, he passed away, mourned by his companion for seven days and nights ‘until a worm fell out of his nose’.

The death of Enkidu affected Gilgamesh deeply. For the first time the fiery and fearless King of Uruk realized the full horror of death. Could he also disappear like this? Could he not escape the dreadful fate of the human race?

Fearing death I roam over the steppe;

The matter of my friend rests heavy upon me.

How can I be silent? How can I be still?

My friend, whom I loved, has turned to clay,

Must I too, like him, lay me down

Not to rise again for ever and ever?

Gilgamesh decided to meet Ut-napishtim, the man who survived the Deluge, and obtain from him the secret of immortality. First he had to cross the mountain of Mashu, the vast and dark mountain of the setting sun whose entrance was guarded by scorpion-men; but they took pity on him and let him pass. On the other side of the mountain he met Siduri ‘the barmaid who dwells on the edge of the sea’, and Siduri's advice was to stop worrying and wandering and enjoy life. Yet, touched by his sorrow, she told him where Ut-napishtim could be found: on the other side of an immense and dangerous sea barred by ‘the waters of death’. Our hero did not hesitate. He enlisted the help of Urshanabi the boatman, crossed the sea and finally met Ut-napishtim, who told him his own story, the story of the Flood. Could Ut-napishtim do something for Gilgamesh? Yes, he should get hold of a certain thorny plant, the plant of life which grew in the depths of the ocean. Gilgamesh, like a pearlfisher of the Persian Gulf, tied heavy stones to his feet, dived and picked the plant. Alas, on his way home, while he lay asleep near a spring, a snake came out from the water and carried away the precious harvest. There would be no eternal life for Gilgamesh. The conclusion implicit in the story is as pessimistic as Ut-napishtim's address to our hero:

Do we build houses for ever?

Does the river for ever raise up and bring on floods?

The dragon-fly leaves its shell

That its face might but glance at the face of the sun.

Since the days of yore there has been no permanence;

The resting and the dead, how alike they are!

Such is – briefly outlined and unfortunately robbed of its poetical fragrance – the story of Gilgamesh, unquestionably the most famous epic tale in the ancient Near East, judging from the numerous Assyro-Babylonian ‘editions’ and from the Hittite and Hurrian translations that have come to us.21 Gilgamesh-the-hero is, of course, a myth. But what of Gilgamesh-the-king? A few years ago one would have strongly doubted his existence; today there are good reasons to believe that a king of that name actually ruled over Uruk, though definite proof is still lacking. For some time we have had the impression of standing at the moving, ethereal border which separates fiction from reality; we now have the certitude that the time of Gilgamesh corresponds to the earliest period of Mesopotamian history.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!