Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.08.21

Walther Sallaberger, Das Gilgamesch-Epos: Mythos, Werk und Tradition.   München:  Verlag C. H. Beck, 2008.  Pp. 128.  ISBN 978-3-406-56243-3.  €7.90.  

Reviewed by Mehmet-Ali Ataç, Bryn Mawr College (
Word count: 2887 words

This is a literary and historical introduction to The Epic of Gilgamesh, published in a series on the great works of world literature that seems to target the general audience rather than the specialist. Sallaberger stresses that the format of the book is not meant for an extensive interpretive study. And yet, going beyond the expectations of such a basic work, the book provides a richness and depth of discussion that would also appeal to academics both outside and in the field of ancient Near Eastern Studies. In this sense, it is as much a scholarly essay on the Gilgamesh tradition as it is a service especially to a readership in German. At the beginning, the author also acknowledges his indebtedness to the authoritative 2003 edition of the Gilgamesh corpus by Andrew George,1 indicating that the present book requires no effort other than sitting back and relaxing in order to work through its contents.

There are eight main sections to the book, each with numerous sub-divisions. The first, "Die jungbabylonische 'Serie von Gilgamesch': Inhaltsangabe" ("The Standard Babylonian 'Series Gilgamesh': Summary of Contents"), defines The Epic of Gilgamesh. What is referred to as such is the last and best preserved text produced in the eleventh century BCE by one Sin-leqi-unninni in the Standard Babylonian dialect of the Akkadian language, and put together from clay tablets found in the so-called library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh. The Gilgamesh tradition itself goes back to the third millennium BCE, but the Standard Babylonian Version remains unchanged for nearly a millennium after its composition. The work comprises eleven tablets, constituting the "epic," with the translation of a Sumerian Gilgamesh poem on the netherworld added to it as the twelfth tablet, which completes the "series."

The summary of the contents of each tablet is given, and the summaries also indicate which parts of the plot are not preserved in the Standard Babylonian Version and known from Old Babylonian. The discussion on the state of preservation is helpful and interesting. Sallaberger points out that at times only a word is missing and the relevant line remains incomprehensible, and at times entirely missing lines are recovered on the basis of parallels or repetitions. He emphasizes the long-standing Gilgamesh tradition as something that counteracts the fragmentary state of the textual corpus, where recovery would be much more difficult, or even impossible, if a modern work of literature had such gaps.

The second section, "Die Welt des Gilgamesch-Epos" ("The World of The Epic of Gilgamesh"), outlines the cultural and social background of Babylonia in the third millennium as a supplement to reading the epic. There is an effort here to parse not only the basic layout of the city of Uruk by correlating the description of the city in the poem to what is known about it from archaeology, but also the larger geography of the zones traversed by Gilgamesh during his quest for endless life. Even though this is a balanced parallel reading of the society and its institutions with the literary text, it is sometimes overdone, as when the author puts forth Enkidu's reception as son by Gilgamesh's mother Ninsun and his initiation at the temple as an example of how temples in ancient Babylonia sometimes served as homes for wanderers.

The contrasting themes of civilization, the city of Uruk, and what lies outside, the steppe, dominates this section. An engaging discussion is centered on the alleged geographic locations of the settings of the journey of Gilgamesh, such as the Cedar Forest, traditionally associated with the Lebanon and Amanus, and the Land of Utnapishtim, thought to lie somewhere beyond the shore of the Persian Gulf. The author has the tendency to subsume a number of places under the notion of the "steppe", such as where Enkidu comes from and where Gilgamesh mourns for his friend after his death, where Gilgamesh goes afterwards in quest for eternal life, where demons such as Humbaba dwell, and where the netherworld is accessed. Although it is important to note the affinity among all these locales, are they vaguely the same place or are they rather co-extensive while at the same time distinct? After a discussion of the location of Aratta as well, Sallaberger determines that one probably should not look on the map for routes described in legend.

The third section, "König Gilgamesch: Sage und Geschichte" ("King Gilgamesh: Legend and History"), addresses many matters about the royal and human qualities of Gilgamesh, and poses the question of whether there was a historical Gilgamesh. The author sees Gilgamesh's initial portrayal in the epic as a tyrannical ruler oppressing his people and practicing the ius primae noctis not as a critique of kingship, but as a necessary phase in the evolution of the prototypical king, just as a problematic phase precedes the establishment of order in the cosmogonic myth. One would nevertheless wonder if such a portrayal would inevitably present an innate problem in the essence of kingship and the concept of the hero. It may not be a critique of the institution of kingship per se, but may nevertheless point to an ontological complication in the nature of rule and order. As Sallaberger emphasizes, such a complication is also the case with the human qualities of Gilgamesh, which oscillate between success and failure, joy and suffering. The author's view is that these extremes make the hero human to his audience, causing him to strike a chord with many and earning him his timeless fascination and relevance. Some caution might again be needed here, as what may seem to us all too relevant and sympathetic may be a fully valid but secondary consequence of the way in which the epic depicts a particular kind of primordial man.

As for the question of the historicity of Gilgamesh as a ruler of Uruk, Sallaberger considers a variety of attestations of the name of the hero in literary and historical sources. Gilgamesh is mentioned along with his ancestors Enmerkar and Lugalbanda as one of the kings of Uruk in the Sumerian King List, a document that has a strong mythological component. Gilgamesh constitutes a turning point in the Sumerian King List, as he is the last king mentioned with a reign of super-human length. As Sallaberger points out, in this sense, Gilgamesh in a way bridges between "myth" and "history," even though such a distinction was never made by the ancients. Versions of the name Gilgamesh are found incorporated in divine and personal names in texts from Fara and Ur (27th-26th centuries BCE), and Gilgamesh is mentioned by Anam (ca. 1800 BCE), an Old Babylonian ruler of Uruk, as the builder of the walls of Uruk. However, authentic contemporary sources about Gilgamesh are completely missing in the historical records of ancient Mesopotamia. Sallaberger's conclusion is logical: to see a historical Gilgamesh as king of Uruk is far-fetched, but not entirely out of the question.

In the fourth section, "Sumerische und akkadische Gilgamesch-Erzählungen" ("Sumerian and Akkadian Gilgamesh Stories"), the chronology, plots, and literary-historical significance of the Sumerian and Akkadian Gilgamesh poems are discussed. Three main phases are outlined for the history of the tradition, the Gilgamesh poems in Sumerian, known from Old Babylonian tablets (second half of the 19th century), but thought to go back to prototypes of the Ur III Period (22nd-21st centuries); the Old Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, transmitted by tablets from the Late Bronze Age (16th-13th centuries), which combines some of the discrete Sumerian stories in one continuous narrative; and finally the Standard Babylonian Version, which remains a fixed text until the end of cuneiform literature.

This section is dominated by an effort on the part of the author to systematize distinctions in theme and tone among these three main corpora against the backdrop of the changing socio-political setup and Zeitgeist of contemporary Mesopotamia. Sallaberger sees the Old Babylonian epic, and the textual tradition in Akkadian as a whole, as more emphatic on the personal experiencing of the problem of death, the human condition, and friendship, in contrast to the Sumerian tradition that focuses on the legendary king and his heroic exploits. He considers even some of the Sumerian poems with the theme of death and "making a name," such as Bilgames and Huwawa A, The Death of Bilgames, and Bilgames and the Netherworld, already in the Old Babylonian manner because of a likely date of composition for them in the nineteenth century. Sallaberger notes, however, that we would need to be more familiar with literature in the Ur III period to confirm such assessments. Despite this caution, the author's parallelism between literary and socio-political change is quite rigid. There is also an eagerness on his part to show the Old Babylonian epic as an anthropocentric, almost existentialist, work focused on individual passion. Such an ethos, he seems to argue, is concordant with the Old Babylonian socio-political structure that allowed greater participation of the ordinary man in civic life than did the Ur III administration in which the king still towered over the society as a heroic figure.

Sallaberger in turn sees certain important shifts from the Old Babylonian to the Standard Babylonian Version. These entail a number of new themes not found in the Old Babylonian Version or in the Hittite renditions of the epic, such as the encounter with the Scorpion-Beings and the journey through the night in the netherworld. More importantly, the author sees the emphasis now shifting from the problem of death to the theme of living on after death in one's works and the kleos preserved in text, such as the lapis lazuli tablet on which the hero has inscribed all his toil, mentioned at the beginning of the epic, which ends up being the epic itself.

The fifth section, "Autoren, Kopisten und Schreiberschulen: Die Tradition von Literatur" ("Authors, Copyists and Scribal Schools: The Tradition of Literature") is an overview of ancient Mesopotamian scribal history and culture, especially inasmuch as it relates to the Gilgamesh tradition. The royal court as the environment in which the Gilgamesh tradition flourished, as well as the possible role of the court singers of the Ur III period in the composition of the Gilgamesh and other Sumerian poems are duly emphasized. Sallaberger points out that the subsequent period of the Isin dynasty was one in which the ancient Mesopotamian scribal curriculum was organized, and in which Sumerian was cultivated as a language of literature and culture, though it was now superseded by Akkadian as a spoken language. The author sees the emerging Old Babylonian literary tradition in Akkadian as one characterized by innovation and originality. He ties these two qualities to a freedom made possible by the lack of prescribed literary models in Akkadian, stating, however, that Sumerian literature continued offering a basis for the new literary creations.

The spread of the cuneiform tradition in the cultural koiné of the Near East and the Mediterranean in the Late Bronze Age is also discussed. In this period, a Hittite adaptation of the epic also came about, perhaps based on a Hurrian model rather than Babylonian. The rest of this section is devoted to the historical and cultural circumstances in which the Standard Babylonian epic was produced, with emphasis on the streamlining of textual corpora in the scribal culture of the first millennium. Among the hallmarks of the Standard Babylonian Version mentioned are the constitution of a new unified text that still draws on the already existing Gilgamesh tradition, the inclusion of the flood story in its eleventh tablet, which gives the whole text a new orientation, and the eventual attainment of the "rounded" number of twelve in its tablets through the addition of the final tablet on the netherworld.

In the sixth section, "Die literarische Gestaltung" (The Literary Form), the reader is offered a brief but interesting overview of some of the literary characteristics of the Standard Babylonian Version. Sallaberger mentions that poems in ancient Mesopotamia were usually songs. No discussion is provided, however, on the relation between song and written literature, especially since little is known of when and how the Gilgamesh poems were performed or recited. The author treats at some length, nevertheless, the phenomenon of the repetition of certain formulaic phrases, sometimes entire lines, not only within a single text, but also across several texts over a few centuries. Arguing against seeing such repetitions solely as traces of mnemonic devices in oral performance, Sallaberger considers them primarily as effective in imprinting certain key emotions and incidents in the hearer's perception, and further in establishing "stereotypes" that signaled a marked tone each time a particular situation recurred in the narratives.

The author does not dismiss the connection between repetition and orality, but it is disappointing that he does not make more out of it in the characterization of a literary tradition in which orality would have had a crucial place. Sporadic repetitions need not have active mnemonic functions in long texts to impart to them a quality of song, whether or not such repetitions signaled this emotion or that. Furthermore, one wonders if some of the recurrent formulaic phrases had a hieratic quality, such as all three examples given by the author on p. 108, which entail shedding tears and turning pale, the act of giving advice or instructions of a crucial nature, and waking up from a dream and shivering, all of which can be thought of as representing religious states. The best example, also given by the author, is perhaps the line "In those days, those far-off days," which clearly introduces a primordial time frame for the narrative to follow.

The seventh section, "Der Mensch im Gilgamesch-Epos" ("Man in the Epic of Gilgamesh"), deals with those aspects of the epic that pertain to human development, death, and the afterlife. In a fashion typical of many treatments of Gilgamesh, the hero is seen as representing a young man at the intermediate stage between childhood and adulthood. Again in a typical fashion, Sallaberger stresses that unlike Egypt, there was no striving on the part of the human being for existence after death in ancient Mesopotamia. Here, the only possibilities for an afterlife remained in making a name for oneself through accomplishments and one's offspring.

The contrast between Egyptian and Mesopotamian conceptions of the afterlife is often drawn in scholarly literature. It is interesting to note, however, that many of the rituals of mortuary commemoration, especially those revolving around the care of statues and those involving the eldest son of the deceased, cited by Sallaberger find parallels in ancient Egypt. One then wonders if drawing an extremely sharp contrast between the two cultures in their conceptions of the beyond is always very productive. Furthermore, to what extent the idea that the more children one has in this life, the better one fares in the netherworld, a notion inferred from the Sumerian poem The Death of Bilgames, is a literary trope rather than a reflection of social reality should be open to deeper consideration.

The final section, "Wirkung und Nachleben" ("Influence and Afterlife"), briefly treats the impact of Gilgamesh on the Bible and the Homeric epics. The author points out the transmission of cuneiform literature to lands neighboring Mesopotamia in the cultural koiné of the Late Bronze Age, especially the Hittite capital Hattusha, as crucial for the Homeric question. Direct evidence from the Iron Age in this regard is scarce, but there are many other factors about Iron Age channels of transmission that Sallaberger leaves out here. This is understandable given the limited format of the book. The author sees the connection between the flood narratives of the Bible and the Akkadian poems as much more plausible and direct.

A very short paragraph in the last section mentions the presence of some of the Gilgamesh episodes in the visual arts, especially in relief and glyptic. Since the emphasis of the book is on the literary dimension of the Gilgamesh poems, such brevity on art is certainly excusable. More difficult to excuse, however, is the inaccuracy on the cover of the book, which features the head of the cosmogonic god Lahmu on a relief from the palace of Sargon II at Khorsabad, identifiable by the six curls in his hair, giving the reader the impression that this is an image of Gilgamesh. The error here is perhaps one that pertains more to the publisher than to the author. An image credit on p. 4 carries on the erroneous identification: "Gilgamesch, assyrische Steinrelief aus dem Palast von Sargon II. (722-705 v.Chr.)." The confusion is generated by the fact that in the past, the Lahmu figures were thought to represent Gilgamesh in ancient Mesopotamian iconography. Further research clarified definitively both the figural type of Lahmu and those few episodes from the Gilgamesh tradition found in art.2 Perhaps future editions of the book will pay greater attention to "archaeological correctness."

In sum, Sallaberger's book is thoughtful and stimulating. It raises many interesting points that are not encountered frequently in other introductions to or literary analyses of the Gilgamesh poems. Especially enjoyable are the many cross-references in theme and diction pointed out among different episodes of the same work or among different texts. Within an introductory format, the book may not break new ground in the interpretation of the epic, but it certainly commends the potential of inter-disciplinary approaches to contribute to the study of this complex textual corpus.


1.   The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Introduction, Critical Edition and Cuneiform Texts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).
2.   See especially W. G. Lambert, "The Pair Lahmu-Lahamu in Cosmology," Orientalia 54 (1985) 189-202; and idem, "Gilgamesh in Literature and Art: The Second and First Millennia," in Ann E. Farkas et al., eds., Monsters and Demons in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds: Papers Presented in Honor of Edith Porada, 37-52 (Mainz on Rhine: Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 1987).

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