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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Four Stone Hearth Letters

The Four Stone Hearth is a blog carnival that specializes in anthropology. Anthropology is the study of humankind, throughout all times and places. This discourse focuses primarily on four lines of research:

* socio-cultural anthropology
* bio-physical anthropology
* archaeology
* linguistic anthropology

Each one of these subfields represent a stone in our hearth, a blog carnival aims to publish content from all aspects of the blogosphere. Click “Read More” below to see this week’s issue!

The Four Stone Hearth Tablets

Decades ago, archaeologists discovered in an ancient tell that has since been bulldozed to make way for a McDonalds (would you like fries and a Coke with your provenance?) four clay tablets of cuneiform script but in a language as yet undeciphered –until today!

The language is new and has been named Carnival and is spoken in various ancient lands, including FrStnHrth. All we have are the consonants, so by plugging in a soft e sound, we get FerStenHerth, a land that suffered the fate of others during the collapse of the Bronze Age and the attacks of the Sea Peoples. Below is a translation of these tablets.

ArchaeologyTablet 1: Archlgy

Alun’s Letter
To Nefer-khepru-re, Great King, king of Egypt, thus speaks Alun Salt, Great King, king of Archaeoastronomy, your brother. I and my house, my horses and my chariots, my notables and my land, we are well. May well-being reign over my brother and his house, his horses and his cars, his notables and his land.

I present to you the problem of The Orientation of Roman Camps, to which I have treated the data as a binomial distribution. This debate about Roman Camps, which appears on the hallowed tablets of the Oxford Journal of Archaeology, is of great concern my brother. I vented my anger with my brother with the following words: Should my brother not know that I am ill? Why has he not supported my head? Why has he not worried and sent his messengers? These Romans will surely be the end of the Bronze Age!

A Letter From Tim Ruler of Remote Central to the King of Egypt
To Nibmuaria, King of Egypt, my brother, say: Thus says Tim, King of Remote Central, your brother. It is well with me. May it be well with you; with your household, your wives, your sons, your nobles, your warriors, your horses, your chariots, and throughout your land may it be very well… [23 more lines of well-wishes destroyed]…

Behold, one chariot, two horses, one male servant, one female servant, out of the booty from the land of Hatti I have sent you. And as a gift for my brother, the stone tools of a civilization in a far away land of a far away time [The cuneiform hyperlink is reconstructed from similar tablets]: Walker Hill a Pre-Clovis Site: MN Archaeologist Says No.

Fragment of a letter from Paul, King of Wannabe, to Akhenaten, King of Egypt
And now, as to the tablet you have sent me, why have you put the name of my brother above my name? And who is it who troubles the good relations between us? Has such behavior become custom? My brother, have you written to me thinking that we become allies? If you are my brother, why have you praised my name, when I am no better thought of than a cadaver? […] But your name […] I rub out […] surely as the Toltec of a far away land rubbed out the Maya of Chitzen Itza!

A Letter From Martin Rundkvist Lord of Aardvarchaeology
To the king, my lord, my god, my Sun: Message of Abi-Milku, your servant. I fall at the feet of the king, my lord, 7 times and 7 times. I am the dirt under the sandals of the king, my lord. My lord is the Sun who comes forth over all lands day by day, according to the way (of being) the sun, his gracious father, who gives life by his sweet breath and returns with his north wind; who establishes the entire land in peace, by the power of his arm : ha-ap-si; who gives forth his cry in the sky like Baal, and all the land is frightened at his cry.
The servant herewith writes to his lord that he heard the gracious messenger of the kind who came to his servant, and the sweet breath that came forth from the mouth of the king, my lord, to his servant–his breath came back! The message carried is of the Oscarian Archaeology Journal On-Line!

Physical AnthropologyTablet 2: PHSCL ANTHRPLG

A Letter from Jeremy Bruno to Amenhotep III
To my lord, my king, my gods, my sun, this is said:
Jeremy, the dust of thy feet, at the feet of my lord, my king, my gods, my sun, seven times, and seven times more, I fall down. Behold, true to my lord, my king. I look on one side, and I look on the other side, and there is no light; but I look on my lord my king, and there is light. A brick may move away from under the coping, but I shall not move from under the feet of my master.
Let now my lord my king enquire about me of the AAAS Symposium: The Reduction of the Hominid Species.

Letter from blgtnjew, Prince of Hominin Dental Anthropology, to Akhenaton
To the Great One, thus speaks BLGTNJEW, at your feet do I fall.
You must know that Shipti-Ba’al and Zimrida are conspiring, and Shipti-Ba’al has said to Zimrida:
Many people seem to think that the bones and teeth of our ancestors as well as previous generations leave us with little information. In fact, that is not true. The bones and teeth of our ancestors, whether they are hundreds or millions of years old, can tell us a vast amount of information.

More on this revelation of dental conspiracy on another tablet still in my kiln [cuneiform hyperlink reconstructed], Basics: Dental Anthropology.

A Letter from Yann Klimentidis to Tiye
To Tiye, Lady of Egypt. Thus speaks Yann Klimentidis, King of Yann Klimentidis’ Weblog. May everything be well with you. May everything go well for your house, your son, may everything be perfectly well for your soldiers and for everything belonging to you. Everything is well with me and I am keeping with my theme on the climatic conditions during the major stages of human evolution. Visit with me and hear my thoughts on Paleoclimate and Human Evolution.

A Letter from Greg Laden to Akhenaten
To the king, my Lord, thus speaks Greg Laden, [your] servant. [I have prostrated myself] seven times seven times at the feet of my Lord, the king. The city of […] I have entered. May [the king] know that all the countries are at peace, (but) there is war against me and it is said by Mims We Shouldn’t Be Surprised That Chimps Hunt With Spears. With humble regard to Mims on Chimps: I agree and disagree. Thus, then, may the king take care of the troops of archers. May he send troops of archers against the Chimps who commit evil deeds against the king, my Lord.

A letter from Kambiz of Primatology.org
To the king, my lord, my god, my Sun: Message of Kambiz, your servant. I fall at the feet of the king, my lord, 7 times and 7 times. I am the dirt under the sandals of the king, my lord. My lord is the Sun who comes forth over all lands day by day, according to the way (of being) the sun, his gracious father, who gives life by his sweet breath and returns with his north wind; who establishes the entire land in peace, by the power of his arm : ha-ap-si; who gives forth his cry in the sky like Baal, and all the land is frightened at his cry.

The servant herewith writes to his lord that he heard the gracious messenger of the kind who has One more word on, and a video of, chimps hunting with spears. As you no doubt have heard from my king brothers, these Chimps threaten our cities as the Savanna Chimpanzees Hunt with Tools.
Is this breaking news: Chimps hunt using spears?

Letter from Kambiz of Anthropology.net
To the king, my lord, my god, my sun, the sun in the sky. Thus says Kambiz, the amelu of Anthropology.net, ruler of FerStenHerth, the dust of your two feet, the stable-man of your horse, the Sonny to your Bono: At the two feet of the king, my lord, the sun in the sky, seven times and seven times I prostrate myself both upon the belly and back. And to all that the king, my lord, has told me I have paid close attention. I am the king’s servant and the dust of your two feet.

Let the king, my lord, be aware that my beef is not with what Yann and afarensis are reporting, but the people who are theorizing this all. Hold court with me and share A brief critique about the extinction of Neandertals due to climate change

LinguisticsTablet 3: LNGSTCS

Letter from Corcaighist to FerStenHerth
To FerStenHerth, the ruler of Blogosphere say: Thus says the king: He sends this tablet to you, saying to you, Be on your guard; guard the place of the king where you are. Pay close attention to what he tells you so that the king does not find fault in you. Everything he tells you, pay careful attention and carefully carry it out. And be on guard! Be on guard! Do not be negligent.

Bealocwealm hafað fréone frecan forth onsended,
Giedd sculon singan gléomenn sorgiende,
On Meduselde pæt he ma no wære,
His dryhtne dyrest and mæga deorost.
Bealo…

Read the remainder of Éowyn’s lament at [cuneiform hyperlink reconstructed] Bealocwealm hafað fréone frecan forth onsended.

A Letter from Katie, Princess of TEFL Logue, to Akhenaten
Let the king my Lord hear the word of his servant!
Zirdamyasha has withdrawn from Biryawaza. He was with Shuta, the servant of the king in the city of [………] and I said nothing to him, but he deserted to me, and now Shuta has written to me: is Frananglais: A Compromise Language?!’ But I did not consent to give him up. Behold, Accho is (as Egyptian) as Magdal in Egypt, but the king my lord has not heard that Shuta has turned against me. Now let the king my lord send his commissioner to fetch him.

EthnographyTablet 4: ETHNGRPHY

Letter from Robert Philen of Robert Philen’s Blog

To the king, my Lord and my God and Sun, thus speaks Robert Philen, your servant, the dust under your feet. At the feet of the king, my Lord and my God and Sun, seven times and seven times I prostrate myself.

I have heard the words that the king wrote to me and who I am that the king lose his land through my fault? I am the servant of the king, and I have not rebelled and I have not sinned, and I do not retain my tribute, and I do not disregard the demands of his commissioner. They defame to me with ill will, but may the king, my Lord, not accuse me of revolting!

Moreover, my crime is, so they say, that I discovered Bertrand Russell’s Chicken: Sign Experience and the Human Mind!

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I hope you enjoyed the creative license I took with this week’s Four Stone Hearth. In case you didn’t get it, I modeled the “letters” above after the Amarna letters, copying some of them verbatim and substituting names and websites. There are one or two mild gags hidden in the text here and there, but nothing spectacular. At least three of the links were sent to me by bloggers other-than-the-authors, specifically the links in the Linguistics and Ethnography sections.

My hope was to make this week’s Four Stone Hearth fun and desirable for future iterations. There are a LOT OF ANTHRO BLOGGERS OUT THERE! Send your posts! Get some traffic! Find a sense of communitas (to invoke Victor Turner) and liminality!

The next Four Stone Hearth will be hosted at Mayacaves.org on March 14th.

The Perceived Threat of Linguistic Diversity

In a recent discussion about culture and cultural diversity, of which I was more of a bystander than active participant, the topic moved to race, as so many of these kinds of discussions do. And it’s at this point in such discussions that I usually move on, but it wasn’t’ before one of the participants made the comment that he found the steady influx of immigrants to be a threat to his own culture, listing the ways: loss of his own culture’s physical features through interbreeding; loss of jobs to immigrant workers; the strain on the educational system; etc. The one concern that really stuck in my mind, even after I checked out of the discussion, was the threat to his culture’s language as the language of immigrants replaces or infuses his own.

Language is no doubt an integral part of culture. If you accept the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, as many linguists do, then you understand that language influences habitual thought through a kind of linguistic determinism (language determines the way we think). The extent to which language affects culture is debatable, but it’s clear that as languages both infuse and diffuse with cultures, changes in culture occur.

In my own community in the Dallas-Fort Worth area of Texas, the influence of the Mexican culture is prominent and the affect of the Spanish language obvious. Most businesses and government offices have literature in both Spanish and English, and many businesses exist that cater only to Spanish-speakers. It certainly helps to understand at least a smattering of Spanish when conducting day-to-day business and greatly improves one’s chances of being hired if bilingual.

This linguistic diversity doesn’t come without a fair bit of resistance and rejection, however. Many of my neighbors are quick to associate cultural presence of Spanish-speakers to the problem of illegal immigration and, in some ways, this is a fair association. The population of illegal immigrants in North Texas is significant, but it isn’t clear to what extent the illegal population is a sub-set of the much larger, overall Hispanic immigrant culture here.

It is clear, however, that language can be a cultural divider as easily as it can a unifier. Shops in predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods whose signage is only in Spanish generally cater to only Hispanic customers. The obverse isn’t true, of course, since one can visit any Wal-Mart or McDonalds and find Hispanic customers who speak little or no English. But rarely will the average white Texan shop at the local taqueria or Mexican market. A local chain of pizza restaurants, Pizza Patron, have recently fallen under heavy criticism and even threats simply for deciding to accept pesos from customers, giving dollars as change.

Part of the resistance to change in culture is reasonable: being around those whose language you don’t understand is naturally disconcerting; trying to conduct business with speakers of foreign languages is challenging; and obtaining or sharing an education can be difficult to say the least. But looking back on the concern mentioned in the first paragraph, the danger of losing one’s culture, particularly language, to immigrants seems largely unfounded. It is true that changes will occur in any culture that allows another to infuse with it, but it’s also true that the diffusing culture changes as well. In both directions change will occur –some good, some bad. But I truly wonder about the efforts that some in government are taking to see to it that English is the “official language” and I worry about those that think if they can control the language people speak, they can “preserve their culture.” There are endangered languages in the world, but English isn’t one of them. Indeed, English is one of the languages that is fast wiping out many others.

In North America, only about 194 languages remain out of the hundreds that once existed. 73 of these are spoken only by adults over 50 and 49 spoken only by a scant few individuals. These figures are, at best, from the 1990’s, so they’re certainly much lower baring some sudden, massive revival where young people took the time to learn the languages of their elders. I heard it said once that Oklahoma was home to more dialects and languages than all of Europe. I don’t know if this is true or not, but the Native American population in the state is high. Interestingly enough, it’s also where a state-level Senator is pushing a bill to make English the official language. In her words:

The purpose of this bill is to establish a policy that unifies the state…“It unites us as a common people with diverse cultures. It unites us with a common language… English is the language of success. If you want to succeed in government, economy or school you have to be able to speak English,” Senator Kathleen Wilcoxson, R-Oklahoma City, said.

Instead of passing laws restricting languages, we should be focused more on teaching them. I have friends in Europe who I converse with on a regular basis whose first languages are German and Danish, yet their mastery of English rivals that of many Americans their age. In the United States, we appear to be slow to figure out what Europeans have long understood: speaking and writing in only one language is a limiting factor in economics, academia, and politics.

I’ll leave this post with a quote from the Linguistic Society of America and its position on “English only,” which is a measure that consistently rears its ugly head on both state and national levels:

The English language in America is not threatened. All evidence suggests that recent immigrants are overwhelmingly aware of the social and economic advantages of becoming proficient in English, and require no additional compulsion to learn the language.

American unity has never rested primarily on unity of language, but rather on common political and social ideals.

History shows that a common language cannot be imposed by force of law, and that attempts to do so usually create divisiveness and disunity. This has been the effect, for example, of the efforts of the English to impose the English language in Ireland, of Soviet efforts to impose the Russian language on non-Russian nationalities, and of Franco’s efforts to impose Spanish on the Basques and Catalans.

It is to the economic and cultural advantage of the nation as a whole that its citizens should be proficient in more than one language, and to this end we should encourage both foreign language study for native English speakers, and programs that enable speakers with other linguistic backgrounds to maintain proficiency in those languages along with English.

You can find the source for the quote above in the links section below.

Related links:

Pizza Por Pesos
Pesos Lift Pizza Patrón’s Profile
Bill would make English official state language
Caregivers help expand children’s language skills
What is an Endangered Language?
Resolution: English Only