BMCR 2021.02.44

Achilles beside Gilgamesh: mortality and wisdom in early epic poetry

, Achilles beside Gilgamesh: mortality and wisdom in early epic poetry. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019. Pp. xxvi, 385. ISBN 9781108481786. $39.99.


Since its discovery, the Epic of Gilgamesh has invited comparison with the Homeric poems.[1] Following a modest but steady stream of earlier studies,[2] the ‘orientalising’ approach to Homer, given prominence by Burkert’s Orientalizing Revolution (Cambridge, MA., 1992) and West’s East Face of Helicon (Oxford, 1997), counts the IliadGilgamesh link among its chief exhibits. Broad similarities of theme, structure and ethos, together with congruent details, are commonly taken to indicate dependence (variously conceived).[3]

Recent treatments either briefly catalogue resemblances to answer methodological questions[4] or isolate particular themes.[5] Clarke’s ample treatment is therefore welcome. Approached as ‘documents in the history of ideas’ (x) sharing ‘unique thematic configurations’ (xiii), the epics emerge as ‘teaching[s] of wisdom’ (130). Their complex protagonists deconstruct a traditional heroic ethic in which forgetfulness of mortal limits encourages (self-)destructive behaviour; pessimistic about the gods, the poems valorise what is properly human, embodied in family and home. The book’s first half reads the Standard Babylonian Version (SBV) sequentially (Chs. 2-4), while the second tracks Achilles’ ‘mental and emotional life’ (198) through the Iliad; each is prefaced by a survey of the literary background. This ‘juxtaposed’ (versus, say, thematic) treatment makes exposition clear—novices are among the intended readership (x)—but partly obscures the mutual illumination Clarke seeks. Homeric material is sporadically anticipated in the first part, and treatment of the main correspondences is scattered through the second (but summarised on 330-4). The blend of analysis with generous quotation and paraphrase makes for excellent introductions to the texts; scholars will find much material familiar.

A methodological introduction, pondering how to illuminate Homer’s alien ethical world, discusses the Indo-European background, the illusion of a universal ‘epic’ genre and the pitfalls of comparison between traditions. Looking east for answers, Clarke lucidly summarises debates about foreign influence on Greek culture. Greece between the Mycenaean and Archaic periods is understood as the western outlier of ‘a continuous … culture-area’ (14) whose epicentre was Mesopotamia, with the Levant and Cyprus as key intermediaries in transmission. Gilgamesh’s spread and adaptation within this zone are revealed by Hittite and Hurrian versions. No material evidence proves it reached Greece, but one can reasonably speculate about oral diffusion and perishable written sources.

The texts, as usual, are the key evidence. Clarke concludes that ‘[t]he correlations are so tightly woven, and so systematic’ as to suggest ‘a creative intellect reaching from one storyline to another’ (333).[6] Adaptation occurred soon before the Iliad’s composition, whether via chains of oral singers or a Homer ‘somehow aware’ of the epic directly (333-4). Clarke cautiously suggests some audiences recognised the link (271), but recognition is never deemed necessary for comprehension.

Parallels are complexly schematised (328). Since cultural connectivity was variable but enduring, links between texts can take different forms. Broad conceptual resemblances (e.g., semi-divine heroes) are attributable to a common cultural background; comparable story-patterns (e.g., heroic excess provokes death) may be conventional narratives shared between poetic traditions, whereas more detailed confluences of scene or image may suggest dependence between specific texts (31-4). Such gradations improve on both the tendency to catalogue undifferentiated ‘parallels’ and the common binary choice between borrowings that are ancient and ‘naturalised’ or recent and (potentially) ‘alien’.

The specific correspondences, on which Clarke’s argument primarily relies, are mostly familiar. The (apparently new) claim that both plots begin with a ‘crisis over access to females’ (215), while true (as of the Odyssey), risks merely illustrating the power of paraphrase to connect any two texts. The motif of the companion dying as a substitute, clear in SBV II.110, is rightly doubted for Patroclus (243-9) but then surprisingly included on 328. Occasionally more detail and scepticism would be useful. Whether touching Patroclus’ breast (18.317) is a demotivated echo of Gilgamesh’s action (SBV VIII.58) or an explicable Homeric mourning-gesture (as, e.g., Coray ad loc.) requires more than minimal consideration (269 n. 2). Unsurprisingly, the pièce de résistance remains the bereaved hero’s comparison to a lion (SBV VIII.61-2 ~ Il. 18.316-23): ‘the same word-picture at the same point in the narrative’ (270), indicating not a floating motif but comprehensive engagement with Gilgamesh. Yet since, as Clarke notes (271), the simile matches Homeric patterns (e.g., 17.132-5), one can reasonably imagine independent creations (cf. Edwards on 18.318-22). Without these detailed connections, ‘[t]he crux is the conceptualisation of the friendship’ (332), including the companions’ relative standing, the lesser man’s moderating role, and the protagonist’s crisis following his death.[7] Yet similar motifs appear in Greek and other literatures (Heracles and Iolaos/Hylas; David and Jonathan); nor are the roles fully analogous: Achilles’ real crisis—the Embassy—precedes Patroclus’ death.

Yet even if one doubts theories of influence, paired readings can be revealing.[8] Moreover, Clarke’s ‘juxtaposed’ approach gives his treatments coherence and value independent of any link. Ch. 2 sketches the cuneiform background by illustrating enduring ideas about hero-kings, glory and mortality from lesser-known hymnic, epic and wisdom texts. The rich bibliography offers a useful guide for classicists. The discussion of Gilgamesh itself (Chs. 3-4) seeks to imagine its later reception (61-2). In practice this means adducing (somewhat haphazardly) Mesopotamian and/or Greek parallels; the former are generally more illuminating. Clarke observes how Enkidu’s creation redirects Gilgamesh’s problematic energies towards glory-hunting and even against the gods. By slaying Humbaba and scorning Ishtar—‘enactment[s] of heroic overconfidence and bravado’ (74)—the pair forget mankind’s proverbial frailty. Enkidu’s death, the poem’s critical event, illustrates this tragically, prompting Gilgamesh’s confrontation with mortality and his vain search for eternal life. This, the epic’s ‘central problem’ (97), finds its explicit (negative) answer in Uta-napisthi’s teaching about ineluctable death.

So far, the emphases are familiar.[9] Clarke then probes the enigmatic final image of Gilgamesh before Uruk’s famous walls. Rightly excluding ‘simple celebration of his greatness’ (107), he plausibly suggests the city represents community and family—values superior to the heroic ones that brought Gilgamesh failure and sorrow (113).[10] Less persuasively, he finds this view implicit in Tablet XII, where post-mortem fates depend on offspring, and in the ale-wife Siduri’s exhortation to enjoy food, song and family. Yet Tablet XII, as Clarke notes, is agreed to be extraneous to the unified SBV; even if SBV’s redactor added it,[11] the hint is slight. Siduri’s advice is attested only in the OB Sippar tablet (iii. 6-14); that SBV’s redactor added a prologue making wisdom Gilgamesh’s goal (I.1-28) but removed explication of it, preferring implicit didacticism (113), is implausible. In support of Clarke’s view, however, one might observe that Enkidu’s Menschwerdung involves sex, food and clothes, and ‘adoption’ by Ninsun.[12] Uruk’s walls, meanwhile, rather than proving ‘the heroic life is nothing’ beside the collective (113), could exemplify a positive form of heroism: unlike Gilgamesh’s self-centred, outward-directed adventures, they embody his kingly role as the people’s protector (noted at SBV X.276-9).

The Greek section explores at length, via Hesiod, the Cyclic epics and (generously illustrated) visual art, Homer’s mythical background (Chs. 5-8). Clarke is a reliable guide to knotty traditions, although their relevance is sometimes tenuous or questionable. If the Διὸς βουλή of Il. 1.5 recalls Zeus’ plan to use the Trojan War to relieve Gaia of the burden of ‘impious’ humanity (schol. D ad loc.), and the Iliadic heroes’ behaviour illustrates this punishable ἀσέβεια, the clues are extremely slight and debatable.[13] The more obvious crime and (just) punishment—Troy’s—are overlooked, since Homeric gods are reductively viewed as motivated only by ‘frivolous and selfish reasons’ (156).

The book’s core (Chs. 9-16) examines Achilles as the epitome of heroic help-and-harm ambiguity, his story instantiating Gilgamesh’s pattern of excessive energy, transgression and (self-)harm. Like Gilgamesh, Achilles is extraordinarily self-reflective, enough to question the ‘painfully reductive’ (243) heroic ethos in favour of ‘simpler and perhaps less masculine values’ (221), including ‘home and family’ (223).[14] Yet calling Briseis ἄλοχος (9.336) overvalues a possession to exaggerate its loss (cf. Agamemnon on Chryseis, 1.113-4), while the notoriously obscure 9.387 seems rather to value honour exorbitantly.[15] Unweighed alternatives, here and elsewhere, lessen the argument’s impact.

Achilles’ crisis following his friend’s demise is as extreme as Gilgamesh’s, but he embraces death as the price of revenge. As the wilderness dehumanises Gilgamesh (SBV X.36-45), so Achilles’ aristeia renders him bestial (Ch. 14 well explores the chain of animal similes). Both epics culminate in unusual meetings. Remarkably, Achilles assumes Uta-napishti’s didactic role (24.524-51). Yet Clarke rightly stresses the imperfect resolution: unlike Gilgamesh, Achilles remains torn between violence and pity.

Closure instead comes through Hector’s funeral (Ch. 16). For all his dutifulness, he too fatally enacts the Gilgamesh-Achilles pattern (as Andromache predicts: 6.407, 22.457) and dooms his community. Yet the social reintegration implied for Gilgamesh, and denied to Achilles, is (partially) achieved in the ‘web of feminine voices’ (324) that honour him as husband, son and brother-in-law. Clarke plausibly finds here a quiet but eloquent rebuke of the poem’s dominant ethos.

The texts are quoted liberally in English. Clarke’s Greek translations are ‘idiosyncratic’ (xi) —especially with psychosomatic terms (e.g., thumos = ‘thought’s breath’)— but otherwise clear. Discussions of complex nuances, though occasionally fussy, are lucid and usable by Greekless readers; a few seem tangential (e.g., 179 n. 19 on hippobatas). The most consequential omission involves kharis at Il. 9.316, translated as ‘it would be no thing of joy’ (221): the half-verse’s repetition at 17.147 suggests Achilles’ disappointed expectations within an honour-based economy (‘there was no gratitude’), not new ‘anti-heroic’ values, are in view.

Overall, Clarke’s book proves the value of reading these poems together, though it may struggle to convince sceptics about direct influence. Its layout and style will make it particularly suitable for non-expert readers. While Clarke’s pessimism about heroism and divine justice occasionally seems excessive (and characteristically modern), the vision animating his work is clear, insistent, and above all humane.

There are a few typographical errors: 22: ‘Bronze <Age> Aegean’; 31: ‘product<s>’; 42 n. 35: missing reference after ‘See.’; 54: ‘Instructions of Shuruppak’ (cf. 55) not ‘Wisdom’; 83: ‘<the> concept’; 180 n. 20: ‘treatment of Achilles’ not ‘Apollo’; 201: ‘influenced’ not ‘unfluenced’; 238 n. 15: ‘to <be> implicit’; 249: ‘look{s}’; 265 n. 28: ‘by Phaedrus’ not ‘in’; 293: ‘is <in> him’; 320: ‘putting {his} aside his’. Helen is Clytemnestra’s sister, while Penelope is her ‘first cousin’ (204). Poulydamas is Hector’s ‘brother’ (324) only figuratively (Il. 18.251-2).


[1] Bibliography in J. Haubold, Greece and Mesopotamia, Cambridge, 2013, 21 n. 7.

[2] A. Szabó, ‘Achilleus, der tragische Held der Ilias’, AAntHung 4 (1956), 55–108; H. Petriconi, ‘Das Gilgamesch-Epos als Vorbild der Ilias’, in A. Crisafulli (ed.), Linguistic and Literary Studies in Honor of Helmut A. Hatzfeld, Washington, DC, 1964, 329–42; G. K. Gresseth, ‘The Gilgamesh Epic and Homer’, CJ 70 (1975), 1–18; J. R. Wilson, ‘The Gilgamesh Epic and the Iliad’, EMC 30 (1986), 25–41. Clarke’s brief history (17, 34) mentions only Petriconi. Since the others both anticipate and diverge from Clarke, engagement could have been productive. The bibliography is generally sparing with non-English scholarship.

[3] Fullest compendium in West, 336-47.

[4] E.g. R. Rollinger, ‘Altorientalische Einflüsse auf die homerischen Epen’, in A. Rengakos and B. Zimmermann (eds.), Homer-Handbuch, Stuttgart, 2012, 221-3.

[5] E.g. Haubold [n. 1], 44-5 on ideas about humanity.

[6] Cf. the ‘expanded Neoanalysis’ of B. Currie, Homer’s Allusive Art, Oxford, 2016, 22-29.

[7] Clarke assumes the essential Achilles-Patroclus story predated Gilgamesh’s influence, which was encouraged by their similarity (331).

[8] E.g. R. North and M. Worthington, ‘Gilgamesh and Beowulf: Foundations of a Comparison’, Kaskal 9 (2012), 177-217.

[9] Cf. the older essays collected in B. R. Foster (ed.), The Epic of Gilgamesh, 2nd edn., New York, 2019. The bibliography contains few non-technical English treatments.

[10] Cf. A. R. George, ‘The mayfly on the river: individual and collective destiny in the Epic of Gilgamesh’, Kaskal 9 (2012), 227-42.

[11] A. R. George, The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic, Oxford, 2003, i.32.

[12] SBV I.188-94, OB P 90-110, SBV III.117-28.

[13] Clarke, Flesh and Spirit in the Songs of Homer, Oxford, 1999, suggests (169, 293) ἄχθος ἀρούρης (Il. 18.204), κωφὴν…γαῖαν ἀεικίζει (24.54).

[14] Od. 11.504-40 is not parallel because Achilles takes pride in Neoptolemus as a warrior.

[15] M. D. Reeve, ‘The language of Achilles’, CQ 23 (1973), 193-5.