This is the story which has survived precariously, to be rediscovered only within the last century; for when Nineveh fell in 612 B.C. to a combined army of Medes and Babylonians, the destruction that followed was so complete that it never rose again; and under the rubble of the Assyrian capital was buried the whole library of Assurbanipal. The Assyrians of the later Empire were not much loved by their neighbours, and the Hebrew prophet Nahum spoke no doubt for the sentiments of many when in ‘The Burden of Nineveh’ he exulted over its imminent fall: ‘The chariots shall rage in the streets, they shall justle one against another in the broad ways: they shall seem like torches, they shall run like the lightnings.... Nineveh is laid waste: who will bemoan her?’
This seventh century was perhaps the last point in the history of the Near East when a great literature, and a story like that of Gilgamesh of Uruk, could have so nearly disappeared. The flood narrative had become once more an independent story, but the mechanics, as told by Eusebius, quoting from Berossus in, the third century B.C., have altered surprisingly little. In Babylonia the entire Epic probably survived rather longer than anywhere else, and copies are known from after the sack of Nineveh; but survival was a matter of a particular pattern of journeys and of adventures, which recurs in the frontierless, timeless world of folk-tale and romance. Aelian, writing in Greek c. A.D., 200 knew a Gilgamos, king of Babylon, and tells a story of his birth not unlike that told of Perseus, and also of Cyrus. Elements have been suspected in medieval Persian folk-tales and even further afield; but it was a twilight survival. Amongst the writings of the Near East and Mediterranean in the classical age there is no direct awareness of our Epic.
One of the reasons for this disappearance may have been the cuneiform characters in which it was written, and which were passing out of use, soon to become unintelligible to the new Mediterranean world. There may have been popular Aramaic versions which have not survived, but the Persians, who continued to use the old script, had their own literature and were apparently very little sympathetic to the history and legends of their late enemy. The Hebrews had still better reasons for wishing to forget Assyria, Babylon, and all that concerned them, except as a cautionary tale. Moreover, the century in which Nineveh fell was the same that saw the emergence of the modern poetic forms of the lyric and choral ode written in alphabetic script. But if Greek lyric of the seventh century is modern, the Greek Epic still belonged in part to the same legendary world as Gilgamesh the king of ancient Uruk. It would have been historically possible for the poet of the Odyssey to hear the story of Gilgamesh, not garbled but direct, for ships from Ionia and the Islands were already trading on the Syrian coast. At Al Mina and at Tarsus the Greeks were in contact with Assyrians. It is unlikely, but not impossible, that Assurbanipal heard a Greek story-teller reciting the Iliad in Nineveh.
It is possible that rather too much has been made recently of the apparent similarities between early Greek and western Asiatic mythology and legend. This is not the place to chase those beguiling will-o’-the-wisps of criticism: whether Gilgamesh was a prototype of Odysseus or wielded the club of Heracles. It is less a case of prototypes and parentage than of similar atmosphere. The world inhabited by Greek bards and Assyrian scribes, in the eighth and seventh centuries, was small enough for there to have been some contact between them; and the trading voyages of Greek merchants and adventurers provide a likely setting for the exchange of stories; particularly if the ground had been prepared, centuries earlier, by Bronze-Age Mycenaeans in their contacts with the people of Syria, and possibly with the Hittites of Anatolia. Therefore it is not surprising that Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and Humbaba should seem to inhabit the same universe as the gods and mortals of the HomericHymns, Hesiod’s Theogony, and the Odyssey. Common to all is the mise-en-scène, a world in which gods and demi-gods fraternize with men on a fragment of known earth which is surrounded by the unknown waters of Ocean and the Abyss. These men occasionally emerge from the penumbra of myth and magic as sympathetic, recognizable human beings, such as the Homeric heroes, and with them is Gilgamesh of Uruk.
When the Babylonian gods and their universe went underground it was only to reappear in later Mediterranean religions, and particularly in Gnostic beliefs; so too the heroes were transformed and survived, travelling westward as well as east. Gilgamesh has been recognized in the medieval Alexander, and some of his adventures may have been transferred to the romances. So perhaps behind the Welsh Cynon, behind Owen and Ivain, behind Sir Gawain searching for the Green Chapel through the northern winter forest with its oak trees and trailing moss, behind Dermot fighting the ‘wild man’ at the fountain (which is the way to the country under the waves) there is still the Sumerian Country of the Living, the Cedar Forest and the Silver Mountain, Amanus, Elam, Lebanon. These are stories of folklore and romance which run back from the medieval courts through Celtic legend and minstrelsy to archaic Sumer, and perhaps further, to the very beginning of story-telling. Although the Sumerian hero is not an older Odysseus, nor Heracles, nor Samson, nor Dermot, nor Gawain, yet it is possible that none of these would be remembered in the way he is if the story of Gilgamesh had never been told.
Today ours is a world as violent and unpredictable as that of Assurbanipal, the king of Assyria, the Great King, king of the World, and of Nahum of Judea, and even of the historical Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk, who made war and sent out expeditions in the third millennium before Christ. The difference is only that for us the ‘swirling stream of Ocean’ lies not over the rim of a flat horizon, but at the end of our telescopes, in the darkness they cannot penetrate, where the eye and its mechanical extensions turn back. Our world may be infinitely larger, but it still ends in the abyss, the upper and nether waters of our ignorance. For us the same demons lie in wait, ‘the Devil in the clock‘, and in the end we come back to the place from which we set out, like Gilgamesh who ‘went a long journey, was weary, worn-out with labour, and returning engraved on a stone the whole story’.