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The Gilgamesh Epic is an epic poem from ancient Mesopotamia that is often regarded as the earliest surviving great work of literature. The literary history of Gilgamesh begins with five Sumerian poems about 'Bilgamesh' (Sumerian for 'Gilgamesh'), king of Uruk, dating from the Third Dynasty of Ur (circa 2100 BC). These independent stories were later used as source material for a combined epic. The first surviving version of this combined epic, known as the "Old Babylonian" version, dates to the 18th century BC and is titled after its incipit, Shutur eli sharri ("Surpassing All Other Kings"). Only a few tablets of it have survived.
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An Old Babylonian Version of the Gilgamesh Epic
Morris Jastrow And Albert Tobias Clay
The Gilgamesh Epic is the most notable literary product of Babylonia as yet discovered in the mounds of Mesopotamia. It recounts the exploits and adventures of a favorite hero, and in its final form covers twelve tablets, each tablet consisting of six columns (three on the obverse and three on the reverse) of about 50 lines for each column, or a total of about 3600 lines. Of this total, however, barely more than one-half has been found among the remains of the great collection of cuneiform tablets gathered by King Ashurbanapal (668–626 B.C.) in his palace at Nineveh, and discovered by Layard in 18541 in the course of his excavations of the mound Kouyunjik (opposite Mosul). The fragments of the epic painfully gathered—chiefly by George Smith—from the circa 30,000 tablets and bits of tablets brought to the British Museum were published in model form by Professor Paul Haupt;2 and that edition still remains the primary source for our study of the Epic. 
For the sake of convenience we may call the form of the Epic in the fragments from the library of Ashurbanapal the Assyrian version, though like most of the literary productions in the library it not only reverts to a Babylonian original, but represents a late copy of a much older original. The absence of any reference to Assyria in the fragments recovered justifies us in assuming that the Assyrian version received its present form in Babylonia, perhaps in Erech; though it is of course possible that some of the late features, particularly the elaboration of the teachings of the theologians or schoolmen in the eleventh and twelfth tablets, may have been produced at least in part under Assyrian influence. A definite indication that the Gilgamesh Epic reverts to a period earlier than Hammurabi (or Hammurawi)3 i.e., beyond 2000 B. C., was furnished by the publication of a text clearly belonging to the first Babylonian dynasty (of which Hammurabi was the sixth member) in CT. VI, 5; which text Zimmern4 recognized as a part of the tale of Atra-ḫasis, one of the names given to the survivor of the deluge, recounted on the eleventh tablet of the Gilgamesh Epic.5 This was confirmed by the discovery6 of a fragment of the deluge story dated in the eleventh year of Ammisaduka, i.e., c. 1967 B.C. In this text, likewise, the name of the deluge hero appears as Atra-ḫasis (col. VIII, 4).7 But while these two tablets do not belong to the Gilgamesh Epic and merely introduce an episode which has also been incorporated into the Epic, Dr. Bruno Meissner in 1902 published a tablet, dating, as the writing and the internal evidence showed, from the Hammurabi period, which undoubtedly is a portion of what by way of distinction we may call an old Babylonian version.8 It was picked up by Dr. Meissner at a dealer’s shop in Bagdad and acquired for the Berlin Museum. The tablet consists of four columns (two on the obverse and two on the reverse) and deals with the hero’s wanderings in search of a cure from disease with which he has been smitten after the death of his companion Enkidu. The hero fears that the disease will be fatal and longs to escape death. It corresponds to a portion of Tablet X of the Assyrian version. Unfortunately, only the lower portion of the obverse and the upper of the reverse have been preserved (57 lines in all); and in default of a colophon we do not know the numeration of the tablet in this old Babylonian edition. Its chief value, apart from its furnishing a proof for the existence of the Epic as early as 2000 B. C., lies (a) in the writing Gish instead of Gish-gi(n)-mash in the Assyrian version, for the name of the hero, (b) in the writing En-ki-dũ—abbreviated from dũg—() “Enki is good” for En-ki-dú () in the Assyrian version,9 and (c) in the remarkable address of the maiden Sabitum, dwelling at the seaside, to whom Gilgamesh comes in the course of his wanderings. From the Assyrian version we know that the hero tells the maiden of his grief for his lost companion, and of his longing to escape the dire fate of Enkidu. In the old Babylonian fragment the answer of Sabitum is given in full, and the sad note that it strikes, showing how hopeless it is for man to try to escape death which is in store for all mankind, is as remarkable as is the philosophy of “eat, drink and be merry” which Sabitum imparts. The address indicates how early the tendency arose to attach to ancient tales the current religious teachings. 
“Why, O Gish, does thou run about?
The life that thou seekest, thou wilt not find.
When the gods created mankind,
Death they imposed on mankind;
Life they kept in their power.
Thou, O Gish, fill thy belly,
Day and night do thou rejoice,
Daily make a rejoicing!
Day and night a renewal of jollification!
Let thy clothes be clean,
Wash thy head and pour water over thee!
Care for the little one who takes hold of thy hand!
Let the wife rejoice in thy bosom!”
Such teachings, reminding us of the leading thought in the Biblical Book of Ecclesiastes,10 indicate the didactic character given to ancient tales that were of popular origin, but which were modified and elaborated under the influence of the schools which arose in connection with the Babylonian temples. The story itself belongs, therefore, to a still earlier period than the form it received in this old Babylonian version. The existence of this tendency at so early a date comes to us as a genuine surprise, and justifies the assumption that the attachment of a lesson to the deluge story in the Assyrian version, to wit, the limitation in attainment of immortality to those singled out by the gods as exceptions, dates likewise from the old Babylonian period. The same would apply to the twelfth tablet, which is almost entirely didactic, intended to illustrate the impossibility of learning anything of the fate of those who have passed out of this world. It also emphasizes the necessity of contenting oneself with the comfort that the care of the dead, by providing burial and food and drink offerings for them affords, as the only means of ensuring for them rest and freedom from the pangs of hunger and distress. However, it is of course possible that the twelfth tablet, which impresses one as a supplement to the adventures of Gilgamesh, ending with his return to Uruk (i.e., Erech) at the close of the eleventh tablet, may represent a later elaboration of the tendency to connect religious teachings with the exploits of a favorite hero. 
We now have further evidence both of the extreme antiquity of the literary form of the Gilgamesh Epic and also of the disposition to make the Epic the medium of illustrating aspects of life and the destiny of mankind. The discovery by Dr. Arno Poebel of a Sumerian form of the tale of the descent of Ishtar to the lower world and her release11—apparently a nature myth to illustrate the change of season from summer to winter and back again to spring—enables us to pass beyond the Akkadian (or Semitic) form of tales current in the Euphrates Valley to the Sumerian form. Furthermore, we are indebted to Dr. Langdon for the identification of two Sumerian fragments in the Nippur Collection which deal with the adventures of Gilgamesh, one in Constantinople,12 the other in the collection of the University of Pennsylvania Museum.13 The former, of which only 25 lines are preserved (19 on the obverse and 6 on the reverse), appears to be a description of the weapons of Gilgamesh with which he arms himself for an encounter—presumably the encounter with Ḫumbaba or Ḫuwawa, the ruler of the cedar forest in the mountain.14 The latter deals with the building operations of Gilgamesh in the city of Erech. A text in Zimmern’s Sumerische Kultlieder aus altbabylonischer Zeit (Leipzig, 1913), No. 196, appears likewise to be a fragment of the Sumerian version of the Gilgamesh Epic, bearing on the episode of Gilgamesh’s and Enkidu’s relations to the goddess Ishtar, covered in the sixth and seventh tablets of the Assyrian version.15
Until, however, further fragments shall have turned up, it would be hazardous to institute a comparison between the Sumerian and the Akkadian versions. All that can be said for the present is that there is every reason to believe in the existence of a literary form of the Epic in Sumerian which presumably antedated the Akkadian recension, just as we have a Sumerian form of Ishtar’s descent into the nether world, and Sumerian versions of creation myths, as also of the Deluge tale.16 It does not follow, however, that the Akkadian versions of the Gilgamesh Epic are translations of the Sumerian, any more than that the Akkadian creation myths are translations of a Sumerian original. Indeed, in the case of the creation myths, the striking difference between the Sumerian and Akkadian views of creation17 points to the independent production of creation stories on the part of the Semitic settlers of the Euphrates Valley, though no doubt these were worked out in part under Sumerian literary influences. The same is probably true of Deluge tales, which would be given a distinctly Akkadian coloring in being reproduced and steadily elaborated by the Babylonian literati attached to the temples. The presumption is, therefore, in favor of an independent literary origin for the Semitic versions of the Gilgamesh Epic, though naturally with a duplication of the episodes, or at least of some of them, in the Sumerian narrative. Nor does the existence of a Sumerian form of the Epic necessarily prove that it originated with the Sumerians in their earliest home before they came to the Euphrates Valley. They may have adopted it after their conquest of southern Babylonia from the Semites who, there are now substantial grounds for believing, were the earlier settlers in the Euphrates Valley.18 We must distinguish, therefore, between the earliest literary form, which was undoubtedly Sumerian, and the origin of the episodes embodied in the Epic, including the chief actors, Gilgamesh and his companion Enkidu. It will be shown that one of the chief episodes, the encounter of the two heroes with a powerful guardian or ruler of a cedar forest, points to a western region, more specifically to Amurru, as the scene. The names of the two chief actors, moreover, appear to have been “Sumerianized” by an artificial process,19 and if this view turns out to be correct, we would have a further ground for assuming the tale to have originated among the Akkadian settlers and to have been taken over from them by the Sumerians.
New light on the earliest Babylonian version of the Epic, as well as on the Assyrian version, has been shed by the recovery of two substantial fragments of the form which the Epic had assumed in Babylonia in the Hammurabi period. The study of this important new material also enables us to advance the interpretation of the Epic and to perfect the analysis into its component parts. In the spring of 1914, the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania acquired by purchase a large tablet, the writing of which as well as the style and the manner of spelling verbal forms and substantives pointed distinctly to the time of the first Babylonian dynasty. The tablet was identified by Dr. Arno Poebel as part of the Gilgamesh Epic; and, as the colophon showed, it formed the second tablet of the series. He copied it with a view to publication, but the outbreak of the war which found him in Germany—his native country—prevented him from carrying out this intention.20 He, however, utilized some of its contents in his discussion of the historical or semi-historical traditions about Gilgamesh, as revealed by the important list of partly mythical and partly historical dynasties, found among the tablets of the Nippur collection, in which Gilgamesh occurs21 as a King of an Erech dynasty, whose father was Â, a priest of Kulab.22
The publication of the tablet was then undertaken by Dr. Stephen Langdon in monograph form under the title, “The Epic of Gilgamish.”23 In a preliminary article on the tablet in the Museum Journal, Vol. VIII, pages 29–38, Dr. Langdon took the tablet to be of the late Persian period (i.e., between the sixth and third century B. C.), but his attention having been called to this error of some 1500 years, he corrected it in his introduction to his edition of the text, though he neglected to change some of his notes in which he still refers to the text as “late.”24 In addition to a copy of the text, accompanied by a good photograph, Dr. Langdon furnished a transliteration and translation with some notes and a brief introduction. The text is unfortunately badly copied, being full of errors; and the translation is likewise very defective. A careful collation with the original tablet was made with the assistance of Dr. Edward Chiera, and as a consequence we are in a position to offer to scholars a correct text. We beg to acknowledge our obligations to Dr. Gordon, the Director of the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania, for kindly placing the tablet at our disposal. Instead of republishing the text, I content myself with giving a full list of corrections in the appendix to this volume which will enable scholars to control our readings, and which will, I believe, justify the translation in the numerous passages in which it deviates from Dr. Langdon’s rendering. While credit should be given to Dr. Langdon for having made this important tablet accessible, the interests of science demand that attention be called to his failure to grasp the many important data furnished by the tablet, which escaped him because of his erroneous readings and faulty translations.
The tablet, consisting of six columns (three on the obverse and three on the reverse), comprised, according to the colophon, 240 lines25 and formed the second tablet of the series. Of the total, 204 lines are preserved in full or in part, and of the missing thirty-six quite a number can be restored, so that we have a fairly complete tablet. The most serious break occurs at the top of the reverse, where about eight lines are missing. In consequence of this the connection between the end of the obverse (where about five lines are missing) and the beginning of the reverse is obscured, though not to the extent of our entirely losing the thread of the narrative. 
About the same time that the University of Pennsylvania Museum purchased this second tablet of the Gilgamesh Series, Yale University obtained a tablet from the same dealer, which turned out to be a continuation of the University of Pennsylvania tablet. That the two belong to the same edition of the Epic is shown by their agreement in the dark brown color of the clay, in the writing as well as in the size of the tablet, though the characters on the Yale tablet are somewhat cramped and in consequence more difficult to read. Both tablets consist of six columns, three on the obverse and three on the reverse. The measurements of both are about the same, the Pennsylvania tablet being estimated at about 7 inches high, as against 72/16 inches for the Yale tablet, while the width of both is 6½ inches. The Yale tablet is, however, more closely written and therefore has a larger number of lines than the Pennsylvania tablet. The colophon to the Yale tablet is unfortunately missing, but from internal evidence it is quite certain that the Yale tablet follows immediately upon the Pennsylvania tablet and, therefore, may be set down as the third of the series. The obverse is very badly preserved, so that only a general view of its contents can be secured. The reverse contains serious gaps in the first and second columns. The scribe evidently had a copy before him which he tried to follow exactly, but finding that he could not get all of the copy before him in the six columns, he continued the last column on the edge. In this way we obtain for the sixth column 64 lines as against 45 for column IV, and 47 for column V, and a total of 292 lines for the six columns. Subtracting the 16 lines written on the edge leaves us 276 lines for our tablet as against 240 for its companion. The width of each column being the same on both tablets, the difference of 36 lines is made up by the closer writing.
Both tablets have peculiar knobs at the sides, the purpose of which is evidently not to facilitate holding the tablet in one’s hand while writing or reading it, as Langdon assumed26 (it would be quite impracticable for this purpose), but simply to protect the tablet in its position on a shelf, where it would naturally be placed on the edge, just as we arrange books on a shelf. Finally be it noted that these two tablets of the old Babylonian version do not belong to the same edition as the Meissner tablet above described, for the latter consists of two columns each on obverse and reverse, as against three columns each in the case of our two tablets. We thus have the interesting proof that as early as 2000 B.C. there were already several editions of the Epic. As to the provenance of our two tablets, there are no definite data, but it is likely that they were found by natives in the mounds at Warka, from which about the year 1913, many tablets came into the hands of dealers. It is likely that where two tablets of a series were found, others of the series were also dug up, and we may expect to find some further portions of this old Babylonian version turning up in the hands of other dealers or in museums.
Coming to the contents of the two tablets, the Pennsylvania tablet deals with the meeting of the two heroes, Gilgamesh and Enkidu, their conflict, followed by their reconciliation, while the Yale tablet in continuation takes up the preparations for the encounter of the two heroes with the guardian of the cedar forest, Ḫumbaba—but probably pronounced Ḫubaba27—or, as the name appears in the old Babylonian version, Ḫuwawa. The two tablets correspond, therefore, to portions of Tablets I to V of the Assyrian version;28 but, as will be shown in detail further on, the number of completely parallel passages is not large, and the Assyrian version shows an independence of the old Babylonian version that is larger than we had reason to expect. In general, it may be said that the Assyrian version is more elaborate, which points to its having received its present form at a considerably later period than the old Babylonian version.29 On the other hand, we already find in the Babylonian version the tendency towards repetition, which is characteristic of Babylonian-Assyrian tales in general. Through the two Babylonian tablets we are enabled to fill out certain details of the two episodes with which they deal: (1) the meeting of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, and (2) the encounter with Ḫuwawa; while their greatest value consists in the light that they throw on the gradual growth of the Epic until it reached its definite form in the text represented by the fragments in Ashurbanapal’s Library. Let us now take up the detailed analysis, first of the Pennsylvania tablet and then of the Yale tablet. The Pennsylvania tablet begins with two dreams recounted by Gilgamesh to his mother, which the latter interprets as presaging the coming of Enkidu to Erech. In the one, something like a heavy meteor falls from heaven upon Gilgamesh and almost crushes him. With the help of the heroes of Erech, Gilgamesh carries the heavy burden to his mother Ninsun. The burden, his mother explains, symbolizes some one who, like Gilgamesh, is born in the mountains, to whom all will pay homage and of whom Gilgamesh will become enamoured with a love as strong as that for a woman. In a second dream, Gilgamesh sees some one who is like him, who brandishes an axe, and with whom he falls in love. This personage, the mother explains, is again Enkidu.
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