Until the last century most of what we knew about ancient history depended on one major textbook: the Bible. And because the Hebrews were the central figures in the Bible, lesser peoples, such as the Assyrians and Babylonians, were no more than dim shadows, seldom rating more than a casual reference as "the enemy abroad." Thus with the defeat of the army of Sennacherib at Jerusalem and the destruction, in 612 B.C., of Assurbanipal's Assyrian capital, most knowledge of the great Mesopotamian civilizations were buried forever. And properly so, thought many whose sympathies were with the prophet Nahum, when he exulted, "Nineveh is laid waste; who shall bemoan her?"
In 1839, Sir Austen Henry Layard, en route to Ceylon, made a side trip to explore some Assyrian ruins. The ruins, it turned out, kept him longer than he expected. He had found the city of Nineveh in which, eventually, were uncovered more than 25,000 clay tablets—the most extensive royal library of the ancient world.
Included in the collection were fragments of all sorts, from hymns and rituals to business records and statutes. The most fascinating discovery was a tablet which recorded the tale of a great flood which had destroyed the world in prehistoric times. The story was strikingly like the account in the Book of Genesis, except that the text was in Assyrian, not Hebrew.
When British scholar George Smith revealed all this in 1873 to the newly formed Society of Biblical Archaeology, he created so much excitement that the London Daily Telegraph offered a thousand guineas to finance a search for other tablets in the series, for this one was clearly numbered 11. Archeologists returned to the site and also searched in museums and collections where other clay fragments had been taken. Incredibly, they were able to locate at least major portions of the remaining tablets and combine them into a literary work that was written more than a thousand years earlier than the Iliad or the Odyssey: the epic of Gilgamesh.
The flood story itself is only a small part of the work and is not really a part of the original at all. Instead, the original concentrates on Gilgamesh, a legendary king of Sumeria who, the story says, is part god and part man, but who, we know from a recently found "king-list," was probably a real king who reigned about 2600 B.C. in Uruk (the Erech of Genesis 10:10, known today as Warka). His deeds were so great and his fame so widespread that within a hundred years he had been deified by the storytellers who continued to celebrate his achievements in narrative poems. (Kings in this heroic age, it should be pointed out, were understandably jealous of their fame at a time when writing was still unknown, and only as minstrels sang of their accomplishments could they hope for more than a fleeting recognition. But however exaggerated the exploits of Gilgamesh became, his spirit was real enough to have been memorialized in a series of epic poems which have survived in translations into most of the important ancient languages of western Asia—Hittite, Assyrian, Canaanite, Sumerian and Human.)
At first the individual tales were separate, as they are on the clay tablets containing a Babylonian version of the Gilgamesh stories found at Erech and dated somewhere between 2100 and 1900 B.C. But like the Greek rhapsodes ("song-stitchers") who developed Greek myths before Homer, Middle Eastern bards joined the separate tales into a long national epic celebrating a man who had ruled not long "after kingship had descended from heaven," according to the old records. As scholar Samuel N. Kramer explains, "Gilgamesh became the hero par excellence of the ancient world—an adventurous, brave, but tragic figure symbolizing man's vain but endless drive for fame, glory and immortality."
The story begins with a prologue praising Gilgamesh as a man with "a perfect body" and "endowed with beauty and courage" which surpass all others. But along with all his greatness goes such a despotic pride that "the men of Uruk muttered in their houses," complaining that "his arrogance has no bounds by day or night."
Hearing their plea, the gods petition Aruru, goddess of creation, to make an equal to Gilgamesh—"his second self"—to keep him so busy that he wouldn't have time to bother the people of Uruk. Out of clay she creates the "noble Enkidu," a man who cats grass like a gazelle and runs with the wild beasts in the hills. As Enkidu also prevents hunters from killing game, however, the hunters eventually appeal to Gilgamesh for help. His solution is ingenious. A harlot is to be brought from the temple and taken to the water hole that Enkidu frequents so that, seeing her, he will be seduced by her "woman's art." As she is told, "When his love is drawn to you, the wild beasts that share his life in the hills will reject him."
The plan is wholly successful. Enkidu loses his animal powers. He and Gilgamesh, however, are bound to clash and soon Enkidu is hurling a challenge at the great king. "I will challenge him boldly, and I will cry aloud in Uruk," says Enkidu." 'I have come to change the old order, for I am the strongest here.' " That night the king comes and the. two men fight "like bulls locked together." But at length their fury gives way to a mutual respect for each other's valor, a respect that was to become a bond of legendary friendship.
Shortly after, the gods inform Gilgamesh—in a dream—that his destiny is mere kingship, not godship, despite his godly heritage. Everlasting life is to be reserved only for the gods themselves. Disturbed, but philosophical, Gilgamesh and "his servant Enkidu" decide to go to the Land of Cedars to "raise a monument to the gods." If immortality is not to be his lot, at least the epic hero can make a name for himself in his mortal life.
To get through the wilderness, however, they must first conquer the monster Humbaba, the ferocious guardian of the forest, a creature with "breath like fire" and jaws that are "death itself." Gilgamesh calls for help from Nisun, his goddess-mother and from Sharnash, the Sun God, and, with the eight storm winds and Endiku to help him, goes forth to confront and slay the monster. They then cut down the great cedars of Lebanon, and Enkidu "cleared their roots as far as the banks of the Eupharates."
Once back home, Gilgamesh gets involved in one of the most unusual stories to come out of any part of the ancient world, as he yaunts the Queen of Heaven, the godless Ishtar, and contemptuously refuses to marry her as she wishes. Recounting in detail her unfaithfulness to earlier lovers (who now languish in new bodies as a bird with a broken wing, a hated wolf and a blind mule), he charges, "If you and I should be lovers, should I not be served in the same fashion as these others whom you loved once?"
Mad with rage, Ishtar compels her father, the high god Anu, to avenge her by creating the mighty Bull of Heaven (the constellation Taurus) to wreak havoc on the earth and to slay the arrogant Gilgamesh. But when the bull charges, Enkidu leaps upon it and grasps it by the horns until Gilgamesh can kill it with his sword. This further infuriates Ishtar so that now she demands the king's head at a hastily summoned council of the gods. They refuse her, but they do agree that Enkidu shall die in his stead (though more for killing the bull and thus thwarting their godly will than for insulting Ishtar). Stricken with a fatal fever, Enkidu dies and Gilgamesh has to "give him up to the earth." Weeping, he goes away convinced that "the end of life is sorrow."
With life so uncertain and the gods so capricious, the mournful leader wanders uncertainly, "despair in his heart." He yearns after immortality, but a young woman Siduri, the heavenly wine-maker, tells him, "You will never find what you are looking for. When the gods created man they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping." At first her advice is simple and practical: eat, drink, and be merry. But poignantly she goes on, "Cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy with your embraces; for this too is the lot of man."
Gilgamesh is not satisfied, and, driven by a need to understand the mysteries of life and death, he journeys across the far Western Ocean until he comes upon the only earthly man "to process everlasting life," Utnapishtim the Faraway. This lone immortal cannot tell Gilgamesh how to achieve immortality, but does agree to reveal "a secret of the gods." His story is the Babylonian version of the familiar tale of the Deluge.
Warned slyly by Ea, God of the Sweet Waters, Utnapishtim learned that the gods were going to destroy the world. "The uproar of mankind is Intolerable and sleep is no longer possible by reason of the babel," they had complained in council. Ea's advice was to build a huge square six-decked ship whose "ground-space was one acre" and then to lay in supplies before taking aboard "the seed of all living things." In seven days the vessel was completed and wealth, family and beasts were all loaded. As promised, the rains came and for six days "tempest and flood overwhelmed the world." When finally it was over and all was silenced, "all mankind was turned to clay" again.
For six days the strange ship lay aground X atop the mountain of Nisir before Utnapishtim sent out three birds—first a dove, next a swallow, then a raven—to seek a resting place. When the raven did not come back he threw open the doors of the ship and made a sacrifice to the gods. The gods were at first enraged to discover that any man had escaped their wrath, but since some of them had begun to regret the scope of their hasty action, they granted him their blessing and promised that forever he should "live in the distance at the mouth of the rivers."
The story fascinates Gilgamesh, but still he is not satisfied and continues to yearn after immortality. At last Utnapishtim promises to reveal another "secret thing" and explains how in the deepest part of the water grows a marvelous herb which can restore man's youth. "If your hands obtain it you will attain life."
Gilgamesh ties heavy stones to his feet to drag himself down to the water bed, leaps into the water, finds the thorny bush and quickly returns to the shore to begin his journey home "to give it to the old men to eat." Fifty leagues away, however, when he stops to bathe in a pool of water, a serpent rises out of water and eats the precious plant, leaving Gilgamesh with nothing but tears and a memory. There is nothing left to do but make his way back to Uruk, where "he engraved on a stone the whole story.
Had his story been written on paper instead and been buried for almost 4,000 years in the damp earth of the Mesopotmian Valley, it would never have been found at all, but because the ancient cuneiform writing was done with a stylus on soft clay tablets it became practically indestructible. Especially if it was baked as well as dried, it could withstand the elements for centuries without damage. Today an archeologist's stiff brushing can easily remove collected impurities and leave the surface almost as clean as the day it was first written upon.
The story of Gilgamesh is as old as the third millenium B.C. yet it is as modern as the 20th century, for the frustration of mortality is a part of every age. Sickness and death are still inescapable, and fame and everlasting life are still sought after Men still love adventure and a rousing story. And as it was for Gilgamesh, man’s greatest mortal achievement is to love and do justice to his fellow men.
Anxious about death and uncertain about what came after, the courageous hero devoted his life to achieving fan but found only frustration. Now, after the resurrection of his story only a hundred years ago, his spirit has been freed from the dingy confines of the Place of the Dead. In the tablets and pages of the epic that bears his name, he has, ironically, found the immortality he sought.
Melvin G. Williams is an instructor at American International College, an expert on 18th-century English literature and a free-lance writer specializing in religious an historical subjects. He has written nearly 60 articles for such publications as the Methodist Magazine and the Catholic Layman.