Saudi Aramco World: January/February 2014 - page 9

January/February 2014
Clay tablet from the
Epic of Gilgamesh
, from the Old Babylonian period, ca. 1800–1600
, Ishchali, Iraq. (11.8 x 6.2 x 3.0
cm / 4½ x 2½ x 1¼
) This corresponds to the contents of the third tablet (of 12) in the later version of the
Epic of Gilgamesh
found in the
library of Ashurbanipal, and contains part of an early version of the story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s journey to the Cedar Forest.
Clay plaque depicting Gilgamesh, from the Isin-Larsa period to the Old Babylonian period, ca. 2000–1600
, Iraq. (28.2 x 8.5 x 5.2 cm
/ 11 x 3¼ x 2
) This depicts what may be Gilgamesh standing on the head of the slain Humbaba, monster of the Cedar Forest. Gilgamesh
was a semi-divine character who is said to have reigned for 126 years and was 11 cubits tall (equivalent to more than five meters, or 16').
Haki Madhubuti is an author, educa-
tor and poet. He is one of the founding
members of the Black ArtsMovement,
and the founder and publisher of Third
World Press (established 1967). Now
retired, he writes full-time.
“Any people who are in control of their
own cultural imperatives are about
the healthy replication of themselves
and their communities. This replica-
tion starts with language and writing.
Gilgamesh obviously was an activist,
in terms of trying to find a worldview
that he could understand and explain
and bring back to his people. What I
understand from Gilgamesh, on one
level, is that we make our lives essen-
tial not only to our civilization but to
the furthering of civilization. And writ-
ing is about that. Storytelling is about
that. All too often cultures are not rec-
ognized unless they create something,
unless they leave a legacy.… The oral
tradition is passed down from genera-
tion to generation, but in the written
tradition, we see more permanency.
With the oral tradition, interpretations
keep changing. You give one story to a
child, and it goes through the grandfa-
ther, but by the time it gets to the next
generation, it’s changed several times.
When you have the written tradition,
you have something that’s going to stay;
you have something to build upon, and
obviously you can interpret it also.”
Gilgamesh was probably a historical figure, a king of the city of Uruk (in southern Mesopotamia,
in what is now Iraq) in about 2800
. The legends that grew up about him in both Sumerian and Akkadian (languages of ancient
Mesopotamia) probably began as oral traditions, later collated by scribes to form what we today call the
Epic of Gilgamesh
, the most
elaborate and popular of Mesopotamian literary compositions. In the poem, Gilgamesh, who is described as part god, part man,
tyrannizes his subjects in the city of Uruk. The gods create the wild man Enkidu to distract him. Gilgamesh and Enkidu fight, then
become great friends and join forces to defeat the monster Humbaba in the Cedar Forest. Upon their return to Uruk, they are met by
the goddess Ishtar (Inanna in the Sumerian version), whose advances Gilgamesh spurns. Punished by the gods for attacking Ishtar,
Enkidu dies, leaving Gilgamesh to consider his own mortality and to seek immortality, which he cannot attain. Gilgamesh realizes that
although he will not live forever, his monuments and exploits will continue after his death. The most complete copy of the Akkadian
version was written on 12 tablets and formed part of the library of King Ashurbanipal (reigned 668–627
) at Nineveh, Iraq. The
of Gilgamesh
is recognized today as a literary classic and the oldest known epic poem.
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