THE Epic of Gilgamesh, the renowned king of Uruk in Mesopotamia, comes from an age which had been wholly forgotten, until in the last century archaeologists began uncovering the buried cities of the Middle East. Till then the entire history of the long period which separated Abraham from Noah was contained in two of the most forbiddingly genealogical chapters of the Book of Genesis. From these chapters only two names survived in common parlance, those of the hunter Nimrud and the tower of Babel; but in the cycle of poems which are collected round the character of Gilgamesh we are carried back into the middle of that age.
These poems have a right to a place in the world’s literature, not only because they antedate Homeric epic by at least one and a half thousand years, but mainly because of the quality and character of the story that they tell. It is a mixture of pure adventure, of morality, and of tragedy. Through the action we are shown a very human concern with mortality, the search for knowledge, and for an escape from the common lot of man. The gods, who do not die, cannot be tragic. If Gilgamesh is not the first human hero, he is the first tragic hero of whom anything is known. He is at once the most sympathetic to us, and most typical of individual man in his search for life and understanding, and of this search the conclusion must be tragic. It is perhaps surprising that anything so old as a story of the third millennium B.C. should still have power to move, and still attract readers in the twentieth century A.D., and yet it does. The narrative is incomplete and may remain so; nevertheless it is today the finest surviving epic poem from any period until the appearance of Homer’s Iliad: and it is immeasurably older.
We have good evidence that most of the Gilgamesh poems were already written down in the first centuries of the second millennium B.C., and that they probably existed in much the same form many centuries earlier, while the final recension, and most complete edition, comes from the seventh century library of Assurbanipal, antiquary and last great king of the Assyrian Empire. This Assurbanipal was a formidable general, the plunderer of Egypt and Susa; but he was also the collector of a notable library of contemporary historical records, and of much older hymns, poems, and scientific and religious texts. He tells us that he sent out his servants to search the archives of the ancient seats of learning in Babylon, Uruk, and Nippur, and to copy and translate into the contemporary Akkadian Semitic those texts which were in the older Sumerian language of Mesopotamia. Amongst these texts, ‘Written down according to the original and collated in the palace of Assurbanipal, King of the World, King of Assyria’, was the poem which we call the Epic of Gilgamesh.
Not long after the completion of this task of collation the epic was virtually lost and the hero’s name forgotten, or disguised and garbled out of recognition; until it was rediscovered in the last century. This discovery was due, in the first place, to the curiosity of two Englishmen, and thereafter to the labours of scholars in many different parts of the world, who have pieced together, copied, and translated the clay tablets on which the poem is written. It is a work which continues, and more gaps are being filled in each year; but the main body of the Assyrian Epic has not been altered in essentials since the monumental publications of text, transliteration, and commentary by Campbell Thompson in 1928 and 1930. More recently, however, a new stage has been reached and fresh interest aroused by the work of Professor Samuel Kramer of Pennsylvania, whose collection and translation of Sumerian texts have carried the history of the Epic back into the third millennium B.C. It is now possible to combine and compare a far larger and older body of writings than ever before.