Ancient History & Civilisation

4. The Literary Background

Five poems relating to Gilgamesh have survived from Sumerian literature. Of these, two are used combined with later material in this version of the Epic; they are ‘Gilgamesh and the Land of the Living’, and fragments from the ‘Death of Gilgamesh’ which are now known to be part of a much longer text of at least 450 lines. This uses language much like that of a lament for Ur-Nammu, an historical ruler of Ur who lived around 2100 B.C., which incidentally names Gilgamesh. Another poem concerning ‘Gilgamesh and the Bull of Heaven’ lies behind the corresponding episodes in the Ninevite collation describing the flouting and revenge of the Goddess Ishtar. A large part of the Sumerian ‘Gilgamesh, Enkidu and the Netherworld’ was translated almost word for word and appended to the Assyrian Epic (Tablet XII), with no attempt at integration, although it is incompatible with the events described earlier (Tablet VII), and seems to provide an alternative to the ‘Dream’ and ‘Death of Enkidu’ which are placed at the centre of the Assyrian poem. ‘Gilgamesh and Agga’ like the ‘Death of Gilgamesh’ is known only in Sumerian. It is a detached and not very heroic tale of debate and mild warfare between the rival states of Kish and Uruk. Its temper, though typical of some Sumerian poetry, is too far removed from the rest of the Gilgamesh material for its inclusion in a ‘Gilgamesh Epic’. It is not surprising if Assurbanipal’s clerks and scholars rejected it; though of course it may have been unknown to them.

The story of the Deluge did not form any part of the Gilgamesh cycle in Sumerian literature, but was an independent poem with, in the role of Noah, a hero named Ziusudra, which means ‘he saw life’. There is also an Old Babylonian ‘Deluge’ dating from the first half of the second millennium, in which the hero is named Atrahasis. In this poem the flood is only the last among a number of disasters sent to destroy mankind. The first part is taken up with other matters, including the creation of mankind. A fragment from Ugarit in Syria has already been mentioned. A late version of the Atrahasis poem was written down in the reign of Assurbanipal. It is not possible to say at what time the flood was drawn into the Gilgamesh cycle, since evidence is lacking from the Old Babylonian period. There has been much controversy on the question of the relationship between the Genesis flood and that of the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Sumerian writers. The opinion, at one time widely held, that the Genesis account was a late refinement on a story once current in all the cities of Babylonia, is not now so general; while the view that it derives directly from a very old and independent history has many supporters. There is no need to enter this difficult controversy in order to follow the account of the flood as it stands in the eleventh tablet of the Gilgamesh Epic. The decipherment of fresh texts may throw more light on the whole question; but at present the Genesis account is probably best seen against a background of many very ancient flood stories not necessarily relating to the same disaster, and with different protagonists, both human and divine. Not all the versions current in Mesopotamia and the Near East in the third millennium need have survived till today. The persistence and independence of different stories is shown by the fact that the hero in the third-century B.C. account, which in the last resort derives from a Greek-speaking priest of Babylon, Berossus, is given the name of Xisuthros or Sisuthros, which can only be the Sumerian Ziusudra, although that name has dropped out of the known Semitic versions.

Outside the Gilgamesh cycle two Sumerian poems have survived (as usual incomplete), which are concerned with one Enmerkar, a forerunner of Gilgamesh on the throne of Uruk; in the Sumerian King-List he is placed second after the flood. In the Enmerkar poems the king is in conflict with the lord of another state called Aratta, which lies eastwards, in the highlands of Persia. The cause of the quarrel is commercial, and appears to revolve round the barter of corn from Uruk against precious metals, gold, silver, lapis lazuli, and probably building stone from Aratta. Although heralds and champions are employed, the action is even less heroic than that in ‘Gilgamesh and Agga’. As might be expected from the provenance of the poem, Uruk is in each case successful against Aratta.

Lugulbanda also is the hero of two poems. He stands third in the King-List and is sometimes referred to by Gilgamesh as his semi-divine ‘father’. He is a more interesting figure than Enmerkar and, like Gilgamesh, he is a wanderer. In ‘Lugulbanda and Enmerkar’ he is the liegeman and champion of the latter. Like Gilgamesh too he crosses great mountains and the river Kur (that is to say the underworld river), before he brings Enmerkar relief from his enemies. In ‘Lugulbanda and Mount Hurrum’ he is left for dead by his companions on another mountain journey, this time to Aratta. By means of pious sacrifices he gains the protection of the Sun God; and, again like Gilgamesh, on his wanderings through the wilderness, he eats the flesh of wild animals and uncultivated plants as though he were a poor hunter. A reference to this episode seems to be intended in our Epic when Gilgamesh is reminded by his counsellors of the piety of Lugulbanda and exhorted to make sacrifices to the sun and ‘not to forget Lugulbanda’. It is possible therefore that the later compilers drew upon this cycle as well as that of the original Gilgamesh.

Sumerian epic was probably the creation of a proto-literate phase of archaic Sumerian civilization at the beginning of the third millennium; but it was not written down till centuries later. According to one widely held view these Sumerians had arrived in Mesopotamia some time before 3000 B.C. Here, in the fertile plains, they inherited the prosperity of the settled inhabitants who, being illiterate, are known only by their beautiful pottery and by their settlements in villages of reed-huts and sun-dried brick houses. According to an alternative view the Sumerians were themselves the earliest cultivators in Mesopotamia. However that may be, the world described in the ‘epics’ is very much that of the early and middle third millennium, before the unification of the pantheon at the end of the millennium (under the third dynasty of Ur), and before the standardization and formalism of the second millennium.

Of the early literary writings the Enmerkar poems, as they stand, are less heroic tales than argumentative contests and disputes. Not enough of the Lugulbanda cycle has yet been translated to judge how far it is heroic and epic in character. Most of the remaining Sumerian poems are either hymns and laments addressed to the gods, or are concerned with their attributes and activities. A number of ‘epics’, all more or less fragmentary, are known from the Old Babylonian and later periods, but the protagonists are usually gods and monsters. Gilgamesh is the one human character of heroic stature who has survived, though heroic fragments may be embedded in other material, as the ‘Song of Deborah’ is set in the Book of Judges.

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