Ancient Clay Tablet Offers New Insights into the Gilgamesh Epic

Gilgamesh tablet on display at the Sulaymaniyah Museum

sulaymaniyah-gilgamesh-epic

This ancient clay tablet was acquired along with other Babylonian antiquities in 2011 by the Sulaymaniyah Museum in Iraq. Researchers discovered that the tablet contained passages from the Gilgamesh Epic. Photo: “Tablet V of the Epic of Gligamesh” by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP (Glasg). Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Commons.

Tablet V of the ancient Mesopotamian Gilgamesh Epic tells the story of the heroes Gilgamesh and Enkidu as they combat Humbaba, the monstrous guardian of the Cedar Forest. Two ancient clay tablets securely represent the story that unfolds in Tablet V: a Neo-Assyrian tablet from Nineveh and a Late Babylonian tablet from Uruk. Now, an ancient clay tablet acquired in recent years by the Sulaymaniyah Museum in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq offers new insights into the adventures of Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk, and his companion Enkidu.

The earliest known texts of the Gilgamesh Epic were written by the Sumerians, the first literate civilization in Mesopotamia, in the third millennium B.C.E. By the end of the second millennium B.C.E., the epic story developed into an 11-tablet text. Assyrian scribes added an additional tablet describing Gilgamesh’s preparations for death and journey to the underworld in the eighth century B.C.E.

The Sulaymaniyah Museum tablet is a copy of Tablet V of the so-called Standard Babylonian version of the Gilgamesh Epic. Assyriologists Farouk Al-Rawi and Andrew George, both of SOAS, University of London, studied the tablet together over five days in the Sulaymaniyah Museum and published their findings in 2014.1 Inscribed by hand in cuneiform, the writing system of “wedge-shaped” signs used throughout the Near East in the first four millennia B.C.E., the partially broken tablet measures 4.3 by 3.7 inches and is 1.2 inches thick.

While the provenance of the Gilgamesh tablet is unknown, the researchers state in their paper that it’s “highly probable that [the tablet] was unearthed at a Babylonian site.”

“The only evidence for the time of writing of an undated cuneiform tablet is paleography,” Andrew George told Bible History Daily. “In my opinion, having read many tablets of Old Babylonian and Neo-Babylonian date, the script of the Sulaymaniyah Gilgamesh tablet […] is a typical Neo-Babylonian script, probably—and here things are more subjective—not later than the sixth century B.C.E.”
 


 
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Al-Rawi and George discovered that the Sulaymaniyah tablet duplicates what’s written on known fragments of Tablet V of the Gilgamesh Epic—thus confirming the order of the passages. The new tablet also fills in gaps in the text and adds some 20 additional lines to the epic.

louvre-gilgamesh-epic

This colossal figure choking a lion once stood at the palace of Assyrian king Sargon II at Khorsabad in northern Iraq. Often identified with the hero Gilgamesh, the statue now resides at the Louvre Museum in Paris. Photo: Musée du Louvre, Paris.

Vivid literary devices abound in the Sulaymaniyah Gilgamesh tablet, according to the researchers:

The most interesting addition to knowledge provided by [the Gilgamesh tablet] is the continuation of the description of the Cedar Forest, one of the very few episodes in Babylonian narrative poetry when attention is paid to landscape. The cedars drip their aromatic sap in cascades (ll.12–16), a trope that gains power from cedar incense’s position in Babylonia as a rare luxury imported from afar. The abundance of exotic and costly materials in fabulous lands is a common literary motif. Perhaps more surprising is the revelation that the Cedar Forest was, in the Babylonian literary imagination, a dense jungle inhabited by exotic and noisy fauna (17–26). The chatter of monkeys, chorus of cicada, and squawking of many kinds of birds formed a symphony (or cacophony) that daily entertained the forest’s guardian, Humbaba. The passage gives a context for the simile “like musicians” that occurs in very broken context in the Hittite version’s description of Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s arrival at the Cedar Forest. Humbaba’s jungle orchestra evokes those images found in ancient Near Eastern art, of animals playing musical instruments. Humbaba emerges not as a barbarian ogre and but as a foreign ruler entertained with music at court in the manner of Babylonian kings, but music of a more exotic kind, played by a band of equally exotic musicians.2

The Sulaymaniyah tablet also offers a new angle into the mindset of the Gilgamesh Epic heroes following their slaying of Humbaba:

The previously available text made it clear that Gilgameš and Enkidu knew, even before they killed Humbaba, that what they were doing would anger the cosmic forces that governed the world, chiefly the god Enlil. Their reaction after the event is now tinged with a hint of guilty conscience, when Enkidu remarks ruefully that […] “we have reduced the forest [to] a wasteland” (303). The anxiety about offending the gods seems to a modern reader compounded by ecological regret. Enkidu goes on to imagine the angry questions that Enlil will ask them when they arrive home: […] “what was this wrath of yours that you went trampling the forest?” (306). In the theme of the angry gods, the poems about Humbaba in both Sumerian and Akkadian already displayed an ethical ambivalence toward the expedition to his Cedar Forest, arising from what one commentator has called the “double nature” of the forest’s guardian as ogre and servant of Enlil (Forsyth 1981: 21). This newly recovered speech of Enkidu adds to the impression that, to the poets’ minds, the destruction of Humbaba and his trees was morally wrong.3

Read more about the Sulaymaniyah Gilgamesh Epic tablet at Ancient History Et Cetera.
 


 
This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on October 27, 2015.
 


 

Notes:

1. Farouk N.H. Al-Rawi and Andrew George, “Back to the Cedar Forest: The Beginning and End of Tablet V of the Standard Babylonian Epic of Gilgameš,” Journal of Cuneiform Studies 66 (2014), pp. 69–90.

2. Al-Rawi and George, “Back to the Cedar Forest,” p. 74.

3. Al-Rawi and George, “Back to the Cedar Forest,” p. 74.
 


 

Learn more about the Gilgamesh Epic and cuneiform in the BAS Library:

Tzvi Abusch, “Gilgamesh: Hero, king, god and striving man,” Archaeology Odyssey, July/August 2000.

Karel van der Toorn, “Did Ecclesiastes Copy Gilgamesh?” Bible Review, February 2000.

Jack Meinhardt, “Gilgamesh—Like You’ve Never Seen Him Before,” Archaeology Odyssey, July/August 2005.

Alan R. Millard, “The Complexities of Cuneiform,” Bible Review, April 1992.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.
 


 

Related reading in Bible History Daily

The Animals Went in Two by Two, According to Babylonian Ark Tablet

The Enduring Symbolism of Doves

Mesopotamian “Receipts” Illuminated by 3D Technology

Hanging Gardens of Babylon … in Assyrian Nineveh
 


 

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  • Paul says

    The above article also mentions that the 12th tablet of the Gilgamesh Epic was written by Assyrian scribes during the 8th century B.C.E., and it is thus not found in most translations of Gilgamesh. “The Epic of Gilgamesh; The Babylonian Epic Poem and Other Texts in Akkadian and Sumerian,” by Andrew George, includes all the versions of Gilgamesh discovered since the mid-19th century. The 12 th tablet of Gilgamesh was incorporated into the tale, “Gilgamesh and the Netherworld,” and it describes Gilgamesh complaining that his “ball and mallet” had fell into the netherworld (in the 1st tablet Gilgamesh is said to have excelled in the sport that he exploited as a means to intimidate men; think “golfball and driver”), whereupon he persuades Enkidu to go down and retrieve them. However, Enkidu fails to follow instructions to not act as if he were alive among the dead and was trapped in the underworld and though Gilgamesh couldn’t get his ball back he did learn from Enkidu what conditions were like down there.
    Another work is “The Death of Gilgamesh,” in which Gilgamesh has a dream of his death and his internment in a tomb that would be constructed of stone in a place that was prepared by having forced laborers divert the Euphrates River temporarily so no one can loot the treasure like the royal tomb dating to the time after Gilgamesh when the Sumerian King List states that “Uruk was defeated in battle, its kingship was removed to Ur.” Known as the Great Death Pit discovered at Ur, the remains of 74 servants of the king/queen were drugged and killed to keep him/her company, like in “The Death of Gilgamesh,” where it states:
    “His beloved wife, his beloved child,
    his beloved senior wife and junior wife,
    his beloved minstrel, steward and…,
    his beloved barber, [his beloved]…,
    his beloved attendants and servants,
    his beloved goods…,
    we’re laid down in their places, as if [attending] a palace-review in the midst of Uruk” (“The Epic of Gilgamesh,” p.206).
    Isaiah 14:4-20 is thought to be about the demise of King Sargon II, who is referred to as the king of Babylon in verse 4, having conquered Babylonian and was at Babylon to celebrate the New Year by “taking the hand of Bel,” thus acquiring the “staff of the wicked/rod of tyrants” in verse 5.
    From the display inscriptions from the stone slabs adorning Sargon”s palace in Dur-Shurrukin (modern Khorsabad) we have it in his own words that he “never released his prisoners to their homes” (Isaiah 14:17):
    “At that time I built a city with (the labor) of the peoples of the lands which my hands had conquered, which Assur, Nabu and Marduk had brought in submission to my feet, so that they bore (drew) my yoke, at the foot of Mount Musri, above Nineveh, according to the command of god and the prompting of my heart, and I called its name Dur-Shurrukun.”
    In verse 11 where it states, “Your pomp is brought down to Sheol, and the strains of your lutes,” recalls Sargon’s celebration of the completion of the 10 year construction project of Dur-Shurrukin:
    “The great mountain, Bel (Enlil), Lord of (all) lands, who dwells in Eharsaggal-kukurra, the gods and goddesses who abide in Assyria, turned aside (and entered) their city amid jubilation and feasting. With the princes of (all) countries, the governors of my land, scribes and superintendents (justices), nobles, officials and ekders of Assyria, I took up my abode in that palace and instituted a feast of music.”
    After taking his place “in the mount of assembly on the summit of [the north]” (Isaiah 14:13), Sargon is drawn to the western theater of the Neo-Assyrian’s engagement with nations who were descended from Japheth in Genesis 10:2-4:
    “In 705 (B.C.E.) Sargon led his armies to the land of Tabal in the Taurus mountains, where he met his death doing battle against a man called Gurdi (Gordias), a common name among rulers of the Anatolian principalities. Sargon had been at the height of his power and seemed invincible. He ruled the core of the Near East from the Gulf to the Taurus mountains, from the Zagros mountains to Sinai. He had defeated Urartu and forced other rulers includind Midas, King of Phrygia, the pharoah if Egypt, Uperi, the king of Dilmun, and seven kings Yadnana (Cyprus) to pay tribute. His death in battle and the loss of his body, so that he could not be buried in his palace, was a great blow to Assyrian morale” (“Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia and the Ancient Near East” by Michael Roaf, p.182).

  • Paul says

    The Sumerian King List quoted by commentator Kurt mentions 5 cities in southern Mesopatamia where the “kingship that was lowered from heaven” was passed on in succession from the city of Eridu to Bad-tibira, then to Larak, then to Sippar and finally to Shuruppak, where the hero Utnapishtim (tablet #11 in Epic of Gilgamesh) was instructed by Ea, the god of wisdom, to:
    “Tear down (this) house, build a ship! Give up possessions, seek thou life. Foreswear (worldly) goods and keep the soul alive! Aboard the ship take thou the seed of all living things” (“The Ancient Near East, vol. 1; An Anthology of Texts and Pictures” edited by James B. Pritchard, p.66).
    The Sumerian King List continues:
    “After the Flood had swept over (the earth) (and) when kingship was lowered (again) from heaven, kingship was (first) in Kish…” (ANET, p. 78).
    The confusion all these centuries over the Cush, the first son of Ham (whose name means “black,” alluding to the fertile black sediment along the Nile in lower Egypt), as being the begetter of Nimrod (associated with Assyria in Micah 5:6), lies in the fact the initial author(s) of the Table of Nations in Genesis chapter 10 who is known in modern criticism as the Jehovist or “J” source around 1000 B.C.E., had deviated from the Table of Nations to include a portion (Genesis 10:8-12) based on Mesopotamian records that have been lost to humanity until modern archaeology filled in the puzzle pieces. It makes a lot of sense if the city of Kish begot Nimrod, as were all of the Mesopotamian kings down through the Neo-Babylonian period (when this version of Gilgamesh was said to be composed in the above article), who compiled their updated King lists to include themselves as inheriting the “divine kingship” from the city of Kish (like the Table of Nations having Noah as their ancestor like the pre-diluvian character Utnapishtim).
    Some scholars think the portion of Genesis 10 about Nimrod originally didn’t include the cities of Erech (Uruk), Accad, Reho’both-Ir, Calah and Resen, and that the text initially read:
    “The beginning of his kingdom was Babylon in the land of Shinar. From this land he went up to Asshur and built Ninevah, the great city.”
    Then some time later the cities from which the “mighty Nimrods” expanded their power were added perhaps in the 8th century B.C.E. when the Neo-Assyrian King Sargon, whose name means “legitamate king,” and who is mentioned along with his general in Isaiah 20:1, provided the basis for the reference to “the land of Assyria and the land of Nimrod” in Micah 5:6. The “mighty hunter” image of Gilgamesh in the above article who was depicted in art and literature as in mortal combat with lions was actually a requirement for kingship when wild predators posed a menace, however, by the time of the early 9th century B.C.E., it appears that lion hunting was a fetish for Assurbanipal II, as the stone slab decorations lining the walls of his palace at Kalhu, the biblical Calah, attest (present day Nimrud in Iraq). The new city that Sargon II founded, Dur-Sharrukin (Fortress of Sargon), might be the city mentioned as Resen in Genesis 10:12, according to Yigal Levin in his essay “Nimrod the Mighty, King of Kish, King of Sumer and Akkad” (available as PDF on Acadamia’s website). The mention of Accad in Genesis 10:10 links Sargon II historically (for propaganda purposes) to Sargon I, founder of the Akkadian empire.

  • Kurt says

    The Bible is a historical book, preeminently so among ancient writings. The histories of the ancient Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Medes, Persians, and others are, in the main, fragmentary; their earlier periods are either obscure or, as presented by them, obviously mythical. Thus, the ancient document known as The Sumerian King List begins: “When kingship was lowered from heaven, kingship was (first) in Eridu. (In) Eridu, A-lulim (became) king and ruled 28,800 years. Alalgar ruled 36,000 years. Two kings (thus) ruled it for 64,800 years. . . . (In) Bad-tibira, En-men-lu-Anna ruled 43,200 years; En-men-gal-Anna ruled 28,800 years; the god Dumu-zi, a shepherd, ruled 36,000 years. Three kings (thus) ruled it for 108,000 years.”—Ancient Near Eastern Texts, edited by J. B. Pritchard, 1974, p. 265.
    http://wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/r1/lp-e/1200275596


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