Buried but Not Forgotten: The Oldest Story on Earth

Until relatively recent history no one knew that across the Tigress and written on tablets of baked clay buried within a mound in Nineveh lay the oldest written piece of literature on Earth. In 1840 however, Austen Henry Layard, an English archaeologist and explorer, started digging. His efforts uncovered the library of Ashurbanipal, king of the Neo-Assyrian empire and fan of a good yarn for within the hoard lay treasure – the epic of Gilgamesh.

Rarely taught in school, reproduced by Hollywood directors or retold with the fervour of literature from the Ancient Greeks, this Sumerian text, written in the elegant script of Akkadian cuneiform and translated by only a handful of gifted Assyriologists, belongs to another era.

Although the Epic of Gilgamesh is the earliest piece of written literature on Earth, it’s not a firm part of the vernacular, the canon that supplies it, nor indeed the literary consciousness of the contemporary world. Not, that is, when compared to Homer’s epics, whose stories of heroic gods and superhuman warriors permeate our culture to this day.

Indeed, by viewing the Epic of Gilgamesh through the prism of Homer and the one hundred and fifty generations we have spent examining his work (or the aggregation of poets whom we conveniently identify as Homer), it is fair to say that the story hasn’t received credit where it is due. Undoubtedly this epic, the original epic, a linguistic feat of both style and substance, belongs on every bookshelf.

The tome of twelve tablets, assembled in its somewhat incomplete entirety, is touted as ‘the’ masterpiece of Babylonian poetry by Andrew George, an Assyriologist, Professor of Babylonian at the University of London and one of the few people alive able to read the epic in its original cuneiform. George says that the work is not only poetic but that it speaks of universal truths, indeed, of what it means to be human.

Inaccessible and unread in the four millennia after it was enjoyed by Mesopotamians, the epic has not been repeated in perpetuity as Homer’s have been. Instead, David Damrosch, in his work The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh, suggests that “Gilgamesh has lived in two very different ages, the ancient and the modern, and only in these.”

The story, although not read continuously throughout time, is in itself, timeless. It opens with a cruel and tyrannical man, Gilgamesh, the King of Uruk. He punishes the men of his city by making them fight him in exhausting battles they cannot win. He takes the virginity of young women on the eve of their betrothal, and he rules Uruk with an iron fist. At a time when Kings were divine, Gilgamesh is endearingly human in his failings.

After the frustrated citizens of Uruk call on the Gods, Enkidu is sent to Earth to help. A wild man whose habit of dismantling hunter’s traps make him a liability, Enkidu is seduced by a prostitute-goddess and lured to make love and eat bread. He consequentially loses his affinity with the wild and upon hearing of the tyrannical reign of Gilgamesh, gains a righteous sense of duty. After Enkidu fights with the king and neither men win, they become friends in literature’s first and possibly most intense relationship between two men.

After a series of adventures, when Enkidu dies following a dream predicting it, Gilgamesh is thrust into grief and becomes confronted with his mortality. So begins his quest in what Randi, in his essay A Comparison of the epic of Gilgamesh and the Homeric Epics: Their Place in History and Literature, suggests is the “…unaging struggle of the protagonist – man, in conflict with the antagonist – death.”

At the time Gilgamesh was discovered, the world was questioning another text – the Bible. Here it was once again measured not in and of itself, but by how it validated another story, in this case, not a Homeric epic but the flood myth.

After losing Enkidu, Gilgamesh wanders the earth in search of Uta-napishti, the human being who enjoys the immortality of the gods, in order to learn what it will take to live forever. Uta-napishti tells him that the Gods gave him such powers because he had already survived the great flood and was considered invincible.

Written in the declarative couplets that George praises, and translated by him in the following stanza, Uta-napishti says of the flood for which he built an Arc in order to endure:                                                                              

The stillness of the Storm God passed over the sky, and all that was bright then turned into darkness. [He] charged the land like a bull [on the rampage,] he smashed [it] in pieces [like a vessel of clay.]

Although Layard had discovered the tablets in 1840, it was not until 1872, when the only man able to read cuneiform was curating the collection and translated this passage. Obsessed with Biblical history, George Smith was so overwhelmed that he had found historical proof of the flood myth that upon translating the original cuneiform he supposedly declared, “I am the first man to read that after more than two thousand years of oblivion,” and promptly disrobed in delight.

Smith’s discovery came at a time when Darwin’s theory of evolution and concurrent advances in geology was challenging the authenticity of the Bible. Gilgamesh provided tentative evidence that the Biblical flood had existed historically and prompted so much interest that even Britain’s Prime Minister, William Gladstone, attended Smith’s lecture to the Biblical Archaeology Society in December of that year. In his speech, Gladstone suggested that Smith’s discovery was significant not so much for its proof of the flood myth but in its confirmation of Homer and the literary tradition from which he appeared to have sprung. Damrosh recounts the evening.

“During the discussion following Smith’s presentation, Gladstone rose to offer extensive remarks, as reported the next day by the Times of London. He began by praising the discoveries in Mesopotamia, not so much for their relevance to the Bible but for giving “a solidity to much of the old Greek traditions which they never before possessed,” bringing new understanding to the reading of Homer. Almost forgetting the occasion altogether, he extolled Homer as “the friend of my youth, the friend of my middle age, the friend of my old age, from whom I hope never to part as long as I have any faculty of breath left in my body.”

Gladstone, although verbose and sentimental, was not far from the truth. Smith’s translation of the flood myth seemingly validated the story of Noah and the Arc. However, it also served to reinforce the epic tradition from which Homer appeared.

Indeed, Homer was probably aware of Gilgamesh and several similarities in the texts suggest transferal of form and subject matter. Randi suggests that:

“Besides its importance in the realm of literature, the Gilgamesh epic has a particular importance because of its antiquity. The work employs the epic genre at least one and one half thousand years before Homer. The wide prevalence and fame of the Gilgamesh epic may very well account for some of the many similarities of the Homeric epics with their ancient predecessor.”

Both poets reflect similar societies, extolling the divinity of Kings and man’s relationship with God. They also deployed comparable literary devices that suggest Homer, although understood to be the better poet, did indeed borrow from Gilgamesh.

Whether the story validates the myths of the Bible or propels Homer in esteem, its literary value lies in its creation. Andrew George, one of the few people on Earth able to read the story in its original form, knows that the story is worth its salt:

“Ever since the first modern translations were published more than one hundred years ago, the Gilgamesh epic has been recognised as one of the great masterpieces of world literature. One of the early translations, by the German Assyriologist Arthur Ungnad, so inspired the poet Rainer Maria Rilke in 1916 that he became almost intoxicated with pleasure and wonder, and repeated the story to all he met. ‘Gilgamesh,’ he declared, ‘is stupendous!’

The failure of Gilgamesh to supersede Homer is not because of the story itself, but in its retelling, or lack thereof. This historical gap is the Achilles heel (pun intended) of Gilgamesh. Damrosh observes the irony:

“A story of the fragile triumph of culture in the face of death, the epic strangely came to illustrate its own theme through its turbulent history. It was widely read in the Near East for a thousand years, until it vanished amid the eclipse of the region’s ancient cultures, buried under successive waves of empire, from the Persians to the Romans and their successors.”

On the first tablet in the epic, Gilgamesh, or one may infer, the very story itself, asks to be remembered. “Lift the lid of its secret, [pick] up the tablet of lapis lazuli and read out the travails of Gilgamesh, all that he went through.”

Burying the oldest story on Earth wasn’t enough to keep it hidden. Indeed, just as Gilgamesh embarked on a quest for immortality, so too will the story written about him live on.

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