An Abnormal Interest in Gilgamesh

I’ve written about Gilgamesh and ancient Mesopotamia several times in the past, but my articles and posts are nothing near the original work that Duane is doing at Abnormal Interests in translating ancient texts.

I’m a frequent reader of his blog (but one of the worst, I’m afraid, since I rarely post comments) and I highly recommend reading his work if you have even a passing interest in the translations of ancient texts.

His latest post is a translation of The Letter of Gilgamesh. In the letter, Gilgamesh, the King of of Ur, citizen of Kullab, creation of Anu, Enlil and Ea, favorite of Shamash, and the beloved of Marduk, makes a “gentle” request ruler of another land: “send me a large portion of your wealth and come visit me. If I have to come to you, it won’t be pretty and I’ll not only take everything I want but pulverize your cities.” Okay, I’m paraphrasing. Here’s a quote:

I[f ]on the fiftieth day of Teshrit, I do not meet you in the gate of my city Ur, (then) I swear by the great gods, whose oath can not to be revoked, (and) I swear by my gods, Lugalbanda, Sin, Shamash, Palil, Lugalgirra and Meslamtaea, (that) I will send (35) to you Zamana, and the divine lord of my person (‘head,’ my personal god?), the aggressor(?), whose name you honor. He will pulverize your cities. Your [palac]es he will pillage (and) your orchards he will [plunder(?)].

You gotta love Gilgamesh! He was two-thirds god and one-third human, so his threats weren’t to be taken lightly!

One of the things that I found so compelling about the Gilgamesh story is the love and friendship he had with Enkidu. Thousands of years have passed since the story was written, and yet the emotion of loss still comes through loud and clear in a tale written in a language long since dead, forgotten then deciphered and translated thousands of years later.

Gilgamesh was clearly pressuring this ruler, and probably other rulers in the region, to align with him. The demonstration of their alignments and their commitments was a substantial sacrifice of their national wealth, but what they received in return was the protective umbrella of his Empire.

Dilmun and Punt: Part III

This is the third in a three part series on the subject of Dilmun and Punt: Two Mythical Origins for Two Early Civilizations. In this final segment, I wrap up with discussion of Dilmun and Punt as places of origin for their respective civilizations and offer a bibliography for students or those interested in researching the topic further. I’ll also include links to the other two parts which I’ll add above the folds and at the ends of each part for convenience:

Part I: Mythical References
Part II: Archaeological and Geological Considerations
Part III: Discussion and Bibliography

Discussion

Kramer (1944) concluded that Dilmun isn’t in Bahrain as the majority have suggested, but rather southwestern Iran, based primarily on the information in texts that describes Dilmun at the mouth of the Tigris and Euphrates. Cornwall (1952) cites at least two others that, likewise, agree that Dilmun is located in Iran, but presents evidence to the contrary in the form of two letters from Nippur that mention Dilmun as being reached by sea. Cornwall previously argued (1946) that the Assyrian use of the term for “in the midst of the sea” (in qabal tam-tim), which referred to islands such as Tyre, Arvad, and Cyprus provided evidence in favor of Bahrain as Dilmun. Another possible location that has had its favor with scholars is the eastern Arabian coast near Dhaharan and Howard-Carter (1987) describes archaeological finds which include steatite vessels with Mesopotamian motifs, un-worked blocks of steatite, lapis, copper ore and other tradable commodities as well as tumuli-tombs.

The tumuli-tombs are, as Lamberg-Karlovsky (1982) suggests, an enigma. Such a large cemetery population created in such a short period of time should have evidence of a large settlement center or centers surrounding it. Yet, as Lamberg-Karlovsky points out, the archaeological surveys of Bahrain do not support such an expectation. He draws a comparison between the Bahrain cemetery complex and that of other cemeteries of antiquity surveyed by modern archaeologists, such as Shahr-i Sokhata. This community spanned 350 acres, which was over twice that of Bahrain, but only had 20,000 burials (p. 46) to Bahrain’s 172,000 – 450,000, depending on if each tumulus contained a single body or an average of three (p. 48). Lamberg-Karlovsky refers to this as “a phenomenon in search of an explanation” and suggests that the island may have held significance in antiquity as a “ceremonial center of pilgrimage,” and, as Dilmun, was a place that interment would provide the eternal life and immortality that was promised Ziusudra. The people buried at the Bahrain complex were not of Bahrain but “from a large geographical area sharing only the fundamental belief in the manner of assuring an after-life.” Such a central place of pilgrimage then provided the basis for the establishment of a trade center (p. 49).

The similarities between Dilmun and Punt are many, but the evidence linking the two directly is thus far missing in the archaeological record. That ancient civilizations of Sumer and Egypt both record in their myths and histories far away lands of sacred and divine significance may be an expectation since both the Egyptians and the Sumerians emerged at a time when the climate was still undergoing changes. The switch from wet to arid conditions following the inundation of the Persian Gulf at around 15,000 BCE finally came at about 4,000 BCE when the sea stopped rising. Egypt, too, experienced similar conditions at around the same time, and early Egyptians eventually abandoned the Nabta Playa perhaps for the Nile Valley.

Both Dilmun and Punt may have begun as points of origins for the Sumerians and Egyptians, respectively. Both of these civilizations have origins that predate writing, so the memory of their ancestral homes must have been orally transmitted until they could be recorded as “the land of the gods” and the “land of the living” –the place “where the sun rises.” If such paradises existed, as two separate places or as one, they may very well have been along coasts or the basin of the Persian Gulf, long since inundated by rising sea levels. The pilgrimages and expeditions to the “lands of the gods” may have been the best attempts that these two societies could offer to reach a now submerged homeland they were forced to abandon several millennia before. Both Dilmun and Punt may have been trade centers (or a single center) that emerged as a result of pilgrimage and geologic circumstance which favored natural harbors and fresh water.

Bibliography and References

Aldred, C. (1987). The Egyptians. London: Thames and Hudson.
Bibby, G. (1969). Looking for Dilmun. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Breasted, J. H. (1906). Ancient Records of Egypt, Vol. I, The First to the Seventeenth Dynasties. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Breasted, J. H. (1906a). Ancient Records of Egypt, Vol. II, The Eighteenth Dynasties. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Brewer, D. J., & Teeter, E. (1999). Egypt and the Egyptians. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Caspers, E. C. D., & Govindankutty, A. (1978). R. Thapar’s Dravidian Hypothesis for the Locations of Meluhha, Dilmun and Makan: A Critical Reconsideration. Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 21(2), 113-145.
Cornwall, P. (1946). On the Location of Dilmun. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, 103, 3-11.
Cornwall, P. (1952). Two Letters from Dilmun. Journal for Cuneiform Studies, 6(4), 137-145.
Diamond, J. (1997). Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
Diamond, J. (2005). Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Viking Books.
Fagan, B. M. (1994). In the Beginning: An Introduction to Archaeology, 8th ed.. New York: Harper Collins.
Gupta, A. K., Anderson, D. M., Pandey, D. N., & Singhvi, A. K. (2006, April). Adaptation and human migration and evidence of agriculture coincident with changes in the Indian summer monsoon during the Holocene. Current Science, 90(8), 1082-1090.
Harvey, S. P. (2003). Interpreting Punt: Geographic, Cultural and Artistic Landscapes. In D. O’Connor & S. Quirke (Eds.), Mysterious Lands: Encounters with Ancient Egypt (pp. 81-91). London: Institute of Archaeology, UCL.
Howard-Carter, T. (1981). The Tangible Evidence for the Earliest Dilmun. Journal of Cuneiform Studies, 33(3/4), 210-223.
Howard-Carter, T. (1987). Dilmun: At Sea or Not at Sea?: A Review Article. Journal of Cuneiform Studies, 39(1), 54-117.
Ingman, M., Kaessmann, H., Pääbo, S., & Gyllensten, U. (2000, 7 December). Mitochondrial genome variation and the origin of modern humans. Nature, 408, 708-713.
Kramer, S. N. (1944, Dec.). Dilmun, the Land of the Living. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, 96, 18-28.
Kramer, S. N. (1947). Gilgamesh and the Land of the Living. Journal of Cuneiform Studies, 1(1), 3-46.
Lamberg-Karlovsky, C. (1982). Dilmun: Gateway to Immortality. Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 41(1), 45-50.
Langdon, S. H. (1917). Sumerian Liturgical Texts. In The University Museum Publications of the Babylonian Section (Vol. 10 (2)). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, The University Museum.
Mark, S. (1997). From Egypt to Mesopotamia: A Study of Predynastic Trade Routes. London: Chatham Publishing.
Meeks, D. (2003). Locating Punt. In D. O’Connor & S. Quirke (Eds.), Mysterious Lands: Encounters with Ancient Egypt (pp. 53-80). London: Institute of Archaeology, UCL.
Naville, E. (1907). The Origin of Egyptian Civilisation. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 37, 201-214.
Price, T. D., Tiesler, V., & Burton, J. (2006). Early African diaspora in colonial Campeche, Mexico: Strontium Isotopic Evidence. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 130, 485-490.
Pritchard, J., ed. (1958). The Ancient Near East Volume I: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
PSD. (2006). Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary Project. Retrieved 30042007, from Babylonian Section of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology: http://psd.museum.upenn.edu/epsd/index.html.
Singer, D. A., Berger, V. I., & Moring, B. C. (2005). Porphyry Copper Deposits of the World: Database, Maps, and Preliminary Analysis (U.S. Geological Survey No. 02-268). http://pubs.usgs.gov/of/2005/1060: U.S. Geological Survey.
Smith, W. S. (1958). The Art and Architecture of Ancient Egypt. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Thesiger, W. P. (1985). The Marsh Arabs. New York: Harper Collins.
Wendorf, F., & Schild, R. (1998). Nabta Playa and its Role in Northeastern African Prehistory. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 17, 97-123.
Wicker, F. (1998). The Road to Punt. The Geographical Journal, 164(2), 155-167.
Woolley, C. L. (1928). The Sumerians. Oxford: The Clarendon Press.

Part I: Mythical References
Part II: Archaeological and Geological Considerations
Part III: Discussion and Bibliography

Gilgamesh and Mesopotamian Mythology Part II

In my last post, I discussed both the Old Babylonian and the Akkadian versions of the Gilgamesh Epic and some of their similarities and differences. I find the Akkadian acceptance and fascination of Sumerian gods and mythology to be fascinating itself. I often wonder if, perhaps, their fascination with the earlier Sumerian culture could be analogous to the fascination modern Americans have with Native American culture. Like the Akkadians, we assign many place-names based on Native words and we continue to have a special reverence for Native mythology and culture.

In this part, I’ll quote two passages of the Flood Myth present in Gilgamesh which demonstrates the popularity and appeal of at least one aspect of the story that still resonates with people even today.

PART II

Non-Mesopotamian versions of the Flood diverge further. Berossos, who wrote the Greek history of Babylonia in the 3rd century BCE, has his ark land in Armenia rather than Dilmun or even Mt. Nisir. He uses the name Xisouthros instead of Ut-napishtim, indicating that he is familiar with the Ziusudra version, but the use of mountains might demonstrate an embellishment designed to show that no culture could escape the flood. Nisir is only 9,000 feet and further south, while the Armenian mountains are probably among the highest known to Berossos. It could very well be that the original intent of the story was to maintain the Dilmun connection in an inaccessible and secret land, since NIŞIRTU, the possible source of the NI SIR sign in line 140, means “inaccessible,” “secret” or “hidden.” The assumption that the sign referred to Nisir may have led to an embellishment of landing the boat on a mountain, further embellishing the significance of the Flood’s reach.

By the time the story has been adopted by Jewish authors in Genesis, many embellishments are added, such as significantly increasing the number of days of rain from six or seven to forty days and forty nights; changing the perspective to a monotheistic one; the inclusion of two of every animal; the size of the boat; and so on. Even the reason for the destruction of mankind is embellished, evolving from being noisy to being wicked. But the core framework of the Sumerian flood myth still remains:

Gligamesh XI, 145-54

When the seventh day arrived,
I sent forth and set free a dove.
The dove went forth but came back since no resting place was visible, she turned around.
Then I set forth a swallow
The swallow went forth but came back, since no resting place for it was visible, she turned around.
I then set free a raven. The raven went forth and, seeing that the waters had diminished, he eats, circles, caws, and turns not around.

Genesis 8:6-12

Then it came about at the end of forty days, that Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made;
and he sent out a raven, and it flew here and there until the water was dried up from the earth.
Then he sent out a dove from him, to see if the water was abated from the face of the land,
but the dove found no resting place for the sole of her foot, so she returned to him into the ark, for the water was on the surface of all the earth. Then he put out his hand and took her, and brought her into the ark to himself.
So he waited yet another seven days; and again he sent out the dove from the ark.
The dove came to him toward evening, and behold, in her beak was a freshly picked olive leaf. So Noah knew that the water was abated from the earth.
Then he waited yet another seven days, and sent out the dove; but she did not return to him again.

In addition to the similarities of the end of the survivor’s time at sea, other key elements remain, which include: deciding to send a flood to wipe out life on earth; selecting a worthy man to survive; building a boat; riding out the storm on the boat; offering a sacrifice on dry land at the end; and establishing a covenant between the gods and mankind. Ut-napishtim and his family achieve immortality and Noah is instructed to “be fruitful and multiply. Ishtar tells Ut-napishtim that she “shall remember these days and forget never,” and Enlil, seeing the error of his rage, takes Ut-napishtim and his wife by the hands, touches their foreheads and announces, “Hitherto Ut-napishtim and his wife shall be like unto us gods. Yahweh tells Noah, “I will never again curse the ground on account of man, for the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth; and I will never again destroy every living thing, as I have done.”

The natural appeal of Gilgamesh as an adventurous hero was likely a source of its popularity in pre-literate as well as post-literate Mesopotamia. Oral traditions may have out-weighed written ones in transmitting the story during the heights of Sumerian and Akkadian cultures, but the traces of the motif are present in cultures that are far removed from Mesopotamia in both space and time, testifying to the power of a good story to propagate itself in human culture, particularly when its themes of heroism, loss, survival, and friendship resonate so well with human nature.

References

Dalley, S. (1989). Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, The Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kraeling, Emil G (1947) Xisouthros, Deucalion and the Flood Traditions. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 67 (3), 177-183.

PSD (2006) Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary Project. Babylonian Section of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology. Found on the Internet at: http://psd.museum.upenn.edu/epsd/index.html

Pritchard, J. B. (1958). The Ancient Near East, Volume 1: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Woolley, C. L. (1928). The Sumerians. Oxford: The Clarendon Press.

The Gilgamesh Epic and its Relationship to other Mesopotamian Myths

The Epic of Gilgamesh is a story of heroism and adventure that still has an appeal to the reader today, suggesting that the human need for fictional identification with heroes and adventure is one that has possibly always existed. Keeping this in mind can help when the epic as a whole is examined and its parts dissected to reveal its origins. It can also benefit the reader of related Mesopotamian and Near Eastern Myths as motifs and themes find their way from one to another across time and space.

Part I

The standard version of the Gilgamesh Epic is comprised of written and oral stories and tales that originate from Sumer but were probably collected and redacted by one or more Akkadian scribes, perhaps Sin-leqe-unnini of the Kassite period whose name is known because he “signed” his work. But Sin-leqe-unnini didn’t invent the epic. Earlier Sumerian stories include Gilgamesh as the central character, such as Gilgamesh and the halub-tree, Gilgamesh and Huwawa, and The Descent of Inanna to the Underworld. In these and other stories, themes and events are drawn from to create the Akkadian epic where Gilgamesh, part god, part man, teams up with Enkidu who is created by the gods to provide a balancing companion to Gilgamesh. Throughout the epic, many themes are dealt with by Gilgamesh: friendship, honor, life, death, loss. But it is, perhaps, human mortality that becomes the central theme as Gilgamesh deals with the death of his friend and explores the concept of immortality with Siduri, the wine maker, in tablet ten and Ut-napishtim in tablets ten and eleven. To them both he asks, “Am I not like him [Enkidu]? Must I lie down too, never to rise, ever again?” And to both of them he says, “I was frightened. I am afraid of death.”

In the Old Babylonian version, it is Siduri where Gilgamesh’s journey ends rather than Ut-napishtim. As with Enkidu, who was humanized by a harlot, Gilgamesh is humanized by a woman (an ale-wife or wine-maker). The addition of the Ut-napishtim story, however, is significant and it imparts the significance of the flood event that is regarded in many Mesopotamian and Near Eastern stories as one that was initiated by gods to “cleanse” the land of wicked or just annoying humanity.

Other stories that included the subject of wide-scale flood, which displaces or wipes out humans that inhabit the world include the Myth of Ziusudra, Atrahasis, and Genesis, through which there are many similarities and distinctions. The similarities are interesting and useful to students of mythology and anthropology for obvious reasons, since the motifs can be traced through space and time giving evidence that these cultures had ties to each other. The distinctions are, likewise, useful but perhaps for less obvious reasons. Where the stories depart can show how cultures evolve, differ, or intentionally accept or reject the motifs of other, contemporaneous or preceding cultures.

In looking first at the similarities, the evolution of the flood myth can be examined. Ziusudra, from a Sumerian tablet dating to around 1600 BCE, provides a flood myth among the oldest in known literature. In it, the gods have decided to destroy mankind and one of the gods warns Ziusudra, Sumerian for “extra-wise,” which is the same meaning of the Akkadian name “Atrahasis.” Ziusudra escapes the flood, which lasts seven days and seven nights by boat, to the island of Dilmun, where he prostates himself before the gods.

The Atrahasis story, found on Akkadian tablets dating to about 1650 BCE, depicts the same hero in the same situation. Atrahasis is warned by Enki of the impending flood, speaking to him through a wall, and instructed to build a boat for him and his family to escape the flood which lasts seven days and seven nights.

The second Akkadian version, found in Gilgamesh, refers to the survivor as Ut-napishtim by name, which means “he found life,” though he is referred to once as Atrahasis in tablet ten, line 187 of the standard Babylonian version. Ut-napishtim weathers only six days and seven nights in the flood, however, and lands his boat on Mount Nisir (a.k.a. Nimush) rather than the island of Dilmun (perhaps Bahrain) or the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates.

Dalley (1989) suggests at one point that the Ziusudra myth is “based on the relatively composition based on an Akkadian version of the story,” but acknowledges that the flood motif was one of Sumerian origin and was effectively incorporated into Atrahasis. The dating of the tablets themselves cannot date the individual stories and only reveal when they were scribed to clay for a given tablet. Oral traditions likely predate the cuneiform traditions and, thus, the flood motif may have existed long before the technology of writing. That the Akkadian culture is using Sumerian gods to tell a Sumerian story is telling, but examination of the differences might give further insight as to which story follows which.

Ziusudra reports that the boat lands on the island of Dilmun whereas Atrahasis has the landing at “the mouth of the rivers,” meaning the Tigris and Euphrates, which come together over 300 miles from Bahrain, often suggested as the island of Dilmun. But since Arab tradition holds that these two rivers flow beneath the sea only to emerge at the surface at Bahrain where they provide a “miraculous supply of sweet water,” it is still tenable that Bahrain is the intended location of Dilmun in the Atrahasis story. The Sumerian and Akaddian versions would seem to have a common progenitor, which is obviously Sumerian since the central figures are Sumerian as are the geographical details.

The Gilgamesh epic adopts the flood motif, with slight embellishments. The name, Ut-napishtim is contextually important since Gilgamesh is searching for immortality and it is the Flood survivor, Ziusudra (“extra-wise”) who finds it, thus living up to the new name, Ut-napishtim, which translates to “he found life” on at least two levels: surviving the deluge intended by the gods to destroy mankind; and granted immortality by the gods. The addition of the

The cuneiform sign for KUR [KUR] in line 140 of Gilgamesh refers to “underworld; land, country; mountain(s); east; easterner; east wind” (PSD 2006). The sign for NI SIR [KURKUR] is traditionally translated to mean the mountain, Nisir, which reaches 9,000 feet. But if KUR is referring to something other than “mountain,” such as land or country, then KUR KURKUR may have been derived from KUR NIŞIRTU, meaning “hidden land/country” or “secret land/country,” which is contextually consistent with the motif since the legend of Dilmun includes a Utopist perception of a place that is holy and removed from the profane. Dilmun is “pure,” “pristine” and “virginal” according to The Myth of Enki and Ninhursag.

I don’t pretend to be an expert on either cuneiform or ancient Mesopotamian languages and spent more than a few collective hours looking over some of the scripts and translations involving Gilgamesh and other ancient texts. I wouldn’t even consider myself a novice in the field and I defer willingly to any input others like Duane at Abnormal Interests might have to offer. The more I look at ancient cuneiform, however, the more I’m interested.

I’ll post Part II in a day or so, where I’ll look more closely at the flood myth in Gilgamesh and how it relates to other Mesopotamian texts, including the Noachian myth. I’ll also include a short bibliography that I used for those interested in following up or finding additional sources.

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