BMCR 2004.04.21

The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Introduction, Critical Edition and Cuneiform Texts, 2 vols

, The Babylonian Gilgamesh epic : introduction, critical edition and cuneiform texts. Gilgamesh.. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. 2 volumes : illustrations ; 26 cm. ISBN 0198149220. £175.00.

Gilgamesh is ancient Iraq’s most enduring literary legacy. For the last 130 years or more, since the discovery of a parallel to the Biblical Flood story amongst the cuneiform tablets of the British Museum, scholars from an extraordinary range of fields have been obsessed with the eponymous hero’s saga of love and friendship, death and the quest for eternal life.1 Briefly told, Gilgamesh is king of the city of Uruk in southern Iraq, where he oppresses his subjects, paradoxically by coercing them into too much sex and sport. The gods send the wild man Enkidu to calm and distract him, and together they set off on a great adventure, to the great Cedar Forests of Lebanon or Amanusarea. The formation of the two men’s deep friendship forms the first third of the Epic. The middle section revolves around death: first the heroes’ murder of Humbaba, spirit of the Cedar Forest; then their slaughter of the Bull of Heaven, who is sent to destroy Uruk by the vengeful sex goddess Ishtar after Gilgamesh has spurned her advances. She retaliates by inflicting upon Enkidu a long, lingering death, bringing Gilgamesh face to face with not only his beloved companion’s mortality but also his own. In the final third of the Epic Gilgamesh searches alone for the secret of everlasting life, eventually discovering Uta-napishtim, the Babylonian Noah, in his retirement home at the ends of the earth. Uta-napishtim recounts his own life story and sets Gilgamesh a test to see if he is worthy of immortality too. Failing miserably, the hero returns to Uruk, newly aware that we live forever, if at all, only in others’ memories of the good we have done. In a short appendix, Enkidu returns from the Underworld to confirm that those with the most comfortable afterlives are the ones with plenty of loving descendants who make regular offerings to their dead ancestors.

The Epic of Gilgamesh has been translated from Babylonian into countless modern languages, made into attractive picture books for children,2 “retold” in modern prose versions,3 recast into new settings,4 transformed into opera, plays, and dance.5 Yet until last year the most recent critical edition of this seminal work was published by Reginald Campbell Thompson in 1930.6 Given that Babylonian cuneiform was satisfactorily deciphered as early as the 1850s, and that the reference grammars, dictionaries, and sign lists that started to appear in the second half of the twentieth century have radically changed our understanding of the language, it is extraordinary at first glance that we have had to wait for over seven decades for a definitive new publication.

A quick glance through Andrew George’s monumental new Gilgamesh will, perhaps, give some sense of the sheer scale of his achievement, twenty years in the making, and hint at the reasons for the long hiatus in its editorial history. George’s work is in fact three books in one. Part 1, “Introduction” (pp. 3-155) surveys the literary history of the Epic and the (often independent) history of the main characters within it. Part 2, “The older versions of the Epic” (pp. 159-378), discusses and presents the earliest versions of the story, from the second and early first millennia BCE. Part 3, “The Standard Babylonian epic” (pp. 379-742), is a critical edition of the Epic in its mature form. The notes to this edition (pp. 778-905) and plates (147 of them, with scale drawings of all cuneiform sources of all versions) are very sensibly placed in a second volume, saving the reader from much frustrating flicking back and forth with fingers in pages, etc. (Photos of previously unpublished sources are also scattered through volume one.) This second volume is rounded off by a compendious bibliography (pp. 906-50) and no less than four different indices (pp. 951-86).

The very first chapter is a useful survey of the Epic’s literary history, from the third millennium BCE to its post-cuneiform afterlife (pp. 3-70). The six Sumerian poems about Gilgamesh, from the early second millennium BCE, are only briefly presented, partly because George considers them as secondary rather than primary sources for the mature Babylonian Epic, and more pragmatically because they are almost all published in good, recent editions elsewhere (pp. 7-17).7 He is rightly dismissive of recent overenthusiastic attempts to see echoes of the Epic in everything from the Alexander Romance to the Thousand and One Nights (although the names alone of Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and Humbaba do survive). On the other hand, he is curiously willing to accept the historicity of an original Gilgamesh, king of Uruk some time in the early to mid-third millennium BCE. In fact, the only relevant pieces of evidence are two brief royal inscriptions of (En)-mebarage-si, king of Kish, who according to one Sumerian poem was the father of Gilgamesh’s adversary Akka or Aga.8 This convinces me of nothing historical but suggests instead that a well-known king (En-mebarage-si) was adduced to add pseudo-historicity to this one Sumerian composition. It tells us nothing of the “true” Gilgamesh, whose fictional character could just as easily have been constructed from the real or imagined traits of a whole host of real or imaginary kings.

The second chapter is a close analysis of the various cuneiform writings of the hero’s name at different times and places (pp. 71-90). It is probably comprehensible and interesting only for those with an intimate knowledge of cuneiform writing, but its outcome is fascinating: “Gilgamesh” is so often written cryptically that we know the true pronunciation of his name only from a very Late Babylonian commentary on the work published in 1890 (p. 71). The third chapter discusses literary historical, and religious traditions about Gilgamesh (pp. 71-137), while the fourth does the job of chapters 2 and 3 for the other main characters of the Epic (pp. 138-155): Gilgamesh’s wild-man companion Enkidu; their foe Humbaba, spirit of the Cedar Forest; Gilgamesh’s divine mother Ninsun; Enkidu’s prostitute partner Shamhat; S(h)iduri the wise barmaid; Ur-Shanabi (or Sur-sanabu) the ferryman; and Uta-napishti, survivor of the Flood.

In Part 2, as noted, George presents the surviving sources for the Babylonian Epic as it was known in the second and early first millennia. The ten oldest extant manuscripts are from southern Iraq of the eighteenth to sixteenth centuries BCE (pp. 159-286). One of them, describing a dream Gilgamesh has on the way to the Cedar Forest, was excavated from the same eighteenth-century scribal school as some forty-five tablets carrying extracts from three Sumerian Gilgamesh poems widely used in scribal education — Gilgamesh and Huwawa (version A); Gilgamesh and the Bull of Heaven; and Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Nether world— as well as some 1400 more witnesses to a scribal education in which Babylonian was the medium of instruction, Sumerian the target language.9 These three “curricular” poems — but not the others: Gilgamesh and Aga; The Death of Gilgamesh; and Gilgamesh and Huwawa (version β which are found only rarely in scribal school contexts — relate events that become key episodes in the Babylonian epic. Further, the Babylonian extract is written on a tablet of a type typically used for Sumerian literary excerpts, and there is nothing to suggest that it is an interloper in the house. In this light, George’s dismissal of (all) the Sumerian poems as related only tangentially to the Babylonian epic (p. 5) should be reconsidered; and perhaps the eighteenth-century school milieu should be posited as one starting point for the creation of the Babylonian epic from the three Sumerian poems and other myths.

By the third quarter of the second millennium, Gilgamesh (with cuneiform in general) had spread across the Middle East, with sources from the Hittite capital Hattusas (modern Boghazkoy) in central Anatolia, Emar on the Syrian Euphrates, and Megiddo (Biblical Armageddon) near the Levantine coast. It also continued to be copied in Babylonian schools (pp. 287-347). That for the early first millennium we have a handful of sources only from Assyria (northern Iraq and eastern Anatolia, pp. 348-75) says more about the collapse of cuneiform literacy elsewhere in the region than it does about the popularity or otherwise of Gilgamesh.

So far, however, George has simply been warming us up for his main act in Part 3: a definitive new edition of the so-called Standard Babylonian version of the Epic, current in the eighth to second centuries BCE (pp. 379-742). This most famous and beautiful of the various versions of Gilgamesh runs to some three thousand lines, split into twelve standard “Tablets” or chapters, supposedly as edited by one Sin-leqi-unninni some time in the late second millennium BCE. Whereas Campbell Thompson worked from 108 fragments of cuneiform tablets as his source material, George has 184 at his disposal, some 25 of which are completely new to this edition. Together the fragments comprise some 73 manuscripts of the Epic in its mature form, yet between a third and a fifth of the 3000-line work is still unknown to us.

A manuscript by manuscript description of the extant sources (pp. 379-417) together with an edition of the surviving colophons (pp. 736-41) enables George to present some marvellously specific evidence about who owned and copied Gilgamesh in the first millennium BCE. In complete contrast to its forerunners, the mature Epic was almost never copied in scribal schools. The oldest datable source is a copy of Tablet XII, copied from an older original by the great Assyrian scholar Nabu-zuqup-kenu in 705 BCE, the most recent a copy of Tablet X by Itti-Marduk-balatu, who became an astronomer at the temple of Marduk in Babylon in 127 BCE. George identifies four other individual series of manuscripts amongst the tablets excavated with Nabu-zuqup-kenu’s at Nineveh, one of which claims to be written by king Ashurbanipal (668-631 BCE) himself. It is known that he was literate, taught by his tutor Balasi, so it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that these manuscripts (for Tablets ιιι, ) are the remains of a full set in the king’s own hand. George does less with the Babylonian sources, as they tend not to be so precisely localisable. However, it is possible to attribute the sources from a single house in Uruk to different dates and families on the basis of their stratified findspots: MSS ee and aa (Tablets II and III) probably belonged to Shangu-Ninurta family (c.420 BCE, cc, bb, and dd (Tablets I, II, V) to members of the Ekur-zakir family (c.320 BCE). Thus the Uruk sources, including MS w from a sixth-century context, span some two centuries and should not be taken together as evidence for an “Uruk recension” (cf. p. 401). No complete set of manuscripts survives in any one hand from anywhere; it is a moot point as to whether this is a matter of archaeological survival or a reflection of true patterns of ancient ownership.

Then we are given an introduction to the linguistic, textual, and orthographic features of the Standard Babylonian epic (pp. 418-443). After a thorough synopsis and exegesis (pp. 444-530) comes, at last, the edition (pp. 531-741) with transliteration and translation on facing pages. George has scoured collections worldwide in search of new manuscripts, and to make new, improved drawings of old ones. He is to be particularly congratulated on his perseverance in collating and copying tablets in the Iraq Museum, Baghdad during the 1990s and the early years of this decade, when most people considered Iraq off-limits. More worrying ethically, however, is his choice to publish manuscripts of very uncertain provenance now in the private Schoyen collection. (Although the Schoyen website publishes ownership histories of these pieces it is widely believed that they are, in the current British legal terminology, “tainted cultural property”.) A cylinder seal from the Schoyen collection even graces the dust jacket: excessive legitimation in my eyes. In the aftermath of the looting of the Iraq Museum and continued heavy plundering of archaeological sites in the south of Iraq, no decision to publish illicitly sourced material can be morally neutral.

This splendid book is for you only if you are familiar with the workings of cuneiform writing. George assumes throughout an intimacy with the scripts and languages of the Epic and the modern conventions for rendering them alphabetically, without which much of the introductory material and commentary will seem meaningless. However, there is help at hand, in the form of a recent translation by George himself (1999) in a rather more accessible style. Translations of Gilgamesh by Dalley (2nd ed. 2000), and Foster (2001) are of a similar high standard.10 Foster and George have the longest introductory sections and offer translations of the Sumerian poems too, while Dalley’s work includes nine other, shorter masterpieces of Babylonian literature. All are in affordable paperback at a fraction of the price of George’s edition; which you prefer is simply a matter of style.

George’s edition is not a work of literary criticism; as he says in the preface, “that is for others to do” (p. v). No doubt they will: expect to see a revival of Gilgamesh studies in the next few years, renewed and invigorated by George’s magnificent study. It will inevitably enable the identification of further manuscript sources and provoke new insights that will in time warrant revisions great and small to the text. One day we may even know it in its entirety. Let’s hope, though, that we will not have to wait another seventy years for the next update.


1. For a lively cross-section of studies from the 80s and 90s, see J. Maier (ed.), Gilgamesh: a reader, Wauconda, IL: Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, Inc., 1997.

2. For instance Ludmilla Zeman’s lavish trilogy Gilgamesh the king, The revenge of Ishtar, and The last quest of Gilgamesh, London and Montreal: Heinemann/Tundra Press, 1992-95, and Irving Finkel’s more faithful Gilgamesh the hero king, London: British Museum Press, 1998.

3. For instance the trashy historical novel Gilgamesh by Stephan Grundy (New York: William Morrow, 2000), billed as “a magnificent retelling of humankind’s oldest epic adventure”.

4. For instance Philip Roth’s The great American novel (1st ed. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1973), with its baseball star antihero Gil Gamesh; more recently Joan London’s Gilgamesh (London: Atlantic, 2003), set in the Australian outback and beyond.

5. For instance Bohuslav Martinu’s opera Gilgamesh (1954) and Augustyn Bloch’s ballet-pantomime Gilgamesz (1968). Andrew George’s 1999 translation (see note 10) has been professionally staged several times in London, most recently in July 2003.

6. Reginald Campbell Thompson, The epic of Gilgamesh: text, transliteration, and notes, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1930 with accompanying, somewhat eccentrically rendered, translation, The epic of Gilgamish: a new translation from a collation of the cuneiform tablets in the British Museum rendered literally into English hexameters, London: Luzac, 1928. More recently a composite teaching text with useful pedagogical tools has been provided by Simo Parpola, The Standard Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh: cuneiform text, transliteration, glossary, indices and sign list (State Archives of Assyria Cuneiform Texts, 1), Helsinki: Helsinki University Press, 1997.

7. With one exception: at the beginning of the second volume George presents an edition of a hundred-line passage from the Sumerian poem Bilgames [= Gilgamesh] and the Netherworld, which closely parallels Tablet XII of the Standard Babylonian epic (pp. 743-77). Here Enkidu, returning from a mission to the Underworld to fetch Gilgamesh’s lost sports equipment, tells of the various fates of the dead.

8. Illustrated and discussed most accessibly in J.N. Postgate, Early Mesopotamia: society and economy at the dawn of history, London: Routledge 1994, p. 30.

9. Eleanor Robson, “The tablet house: a scribal school in Old Babylonian Nippur”, Revue d’Assyriologie 95 (2001), 39-67.

10. Andrew George, The epic of Gilgamesh: the Babylonian epic poem and other texts in Akkadian and Sumerian, London: Allen Lane, 1999; reprinted as The epic of Gilgamesh: a new translation, Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 2000. Stephanie Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia, 2nd ed., Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 2000, pp. 39-153. Benjamin Read Foster, The epic of Gilgamesh, Norton, 2001.