The Epic of Gilgamesh is almost 4,000 years old, but it’s considered so well-known and universal that Star Trek used it in an episode set in the 24th century. Researchers have recently discovered it has 20 more lines.
Considered to be one of the first written stories in the world, the Epic of Gilgamesh was written in Sumerian over several centuries. In the process was also rewritten and translated to Akkadian. It is considered a poem and may have been sung.
Consisting of five parts, it tells the story of the hero Gilgamesh and—first his enemy, then his friend—Enkidu. It includes a number of references to other stories from the region, including the Noah’s Ark story. Altogether, it is thought to be one of the world’s most well-known stories. “The epic has now been translated into every major language in the world, and has become the basis for theatrical, literary, artistic, and musical adaptations,” writes the Annenberg Learner in its course on the work.
This includes what is considered one of the finest Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes, “Darmok.” In it, Captain Picard chose the Epic of Gilgamesh as the quintessential Earth story to tell a new race—a race that communicated solely through telling such stories.
The Epic of Gilgamesh isn’t just widely known in the performing arts world, but in the computer world as well. It has often been used in high tech, such as being scanned by Google in 2008 as part of its Google books project, and as an early book to be read aloud by a computer. In addition, when researchers began using 3D scanners to digitize cruciform script on clay tablets, the Epic of Gilgamesh was the example they tested because it was so well-known.
“It’s got everything: power, corruption, friendship, loss, mortality, struggle, self discovery and, ultimately, what we leave behind,” writes HITRECORD, an open source collaborative company, explaining why it chose to work with the classic. “Its themes are universal because they’re so very human.”
As well-known as the Epic of Gilgamesh is, though, we don’t know it all, because, like so many other libraries of the past, the library that held the epic was destroyed. “It is to the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal that we owe the story we know today,” explains the Annenberg Learner. “Copies of the epic were placed in his great library in Nineveh. And although invaders burned the library, the tablets crashed down into the ruined foundations, to be buried as they were built over by later generations. Gilgamesh was effectively lost until the mid-1800s when British archaeologists uncovered the ruins and the tablets. They were sent to the British Museum in London for study, and gradually scholars deciphered the script and the language.”
But while clay tablets aren’t invulnerable, they’re tougher than paper, writes Eric Ormsby in the New York Sun. “The clay tablets of the Babylonians seem clumsy and strangely vulnerable,” Ormsby writes. “They weren’t gathered in books or protected by bindings; they crumbled easily. And yet, they had one great advantage over all our media, from parchment to CDs: When baked by the sun or fired in kilns, clay tablets become virtually indestructible. Neither fire nor water nor hungry worms can wreck them. If they break, the shards can be pieced together again. As a result, thousands of ancient records incised in clay, from bills of lading to personal letters to such literary masterpieces as the ‘Epic of Gilgamesh,’ survive to this day.”
That’s what made the recent discovery possible. With the recent unrest in Iraq, the Sulaymaniyah Museum in the Kurdistan Region of that country has a policy of buying artifacts from smugglers to keep them from leaving the country. The tablet with the additional lines—actually, three separate fragments of a tablet, glued together—was purchased in a lot of 80 to 90 such tablets. “Even caked in mud the tablet’s importance was instantly recognizable to the expert,” writes The History Blog.
The 20 new lines also demonstrate how timeless the Epic of Gilgamesh actually is. It turns out that they describe a jungle—“ one of the very few episodes in Babylonian narrative poetry when attention is paid to landscape,” notes a scholarly paper on the tablet—as well as what happens when Gilgamesh and Enkidu destroy it.
“Their reaction after the event is now tinged with a hint of guilty conscience, when Enkidu remarks ruefully that [ana] tušār ništakan qišta, ‘we have reduced the forest [to] a wasteland,’” F. N. H. Al-Rawi and A. R. George write in their paper. “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: minû uzzakunūma taraḫḫisā qišta, ‘what was this wrath of yours that you went trampling the forest?’ This newly recovered speech of Enkidu adds to the impression that, to the poets’ minds, the destruction of Ḫumbaba and his trees was morally wrong.”
We’d like to think that most of us feel the same way, but just in case you’re looking for another reason to switch to a paperless office, remember that this week is Earth Day.
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