Notes on the Origins of the Epic of Gilgamesh

Pieces of the Gilgamesh story have been found all over Mesopotamia (a word coming from the Greek for “land between rivers” in reference to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers). According to Sumerian myth, Gilgamesh may have been the fifth king to rule after the great deluge, a flood narrative strikingly similar to the Biblical story of Noah. The standard text of the Gilgamesh epic was found on 12 damaged clay tablets compiled by a scribe named Sin-liqe-unninni. The language is that of the Akkadian language, and though the tablets are incomplete, other poems and writings of the Gilgamesh story have been used to fill in the story. Many of these early poems were written in the cuneiform Sumerian language.

The tablets were found by a Turkish historian, Hormuz Rassam, in the mid-1800s. They were found during the unearthing of the library at Ninevah in ancient Assyria, or modern Iraq – the library of the famous king Ashurbanipal. The ancient kingdom was Ur and the library at Ninevah was possibly the most famous library of the ancient world prior to the library at Alexandria in Egypt.

The original title of the epic was based on the opening words: “He Who Saw the Deep” (“Sha naqba imuru”) or, in the earlier Sumerian versions, “Surpassing All Other Kings” (“Shutur eli sharri”).

The origins of the Gilgamesh epic are intertwined with the origin of language and literature. We derive the word “literature” from Latin, meaning “letters”. The earliest form of writing we have discovered are not vast epics of the Homeric kind. They are merely documentations of business transactions, or political agreements, or other administrative requirements. For humans, written language appears to originate with the rise of commerce between cities. It is a common understanding which lays the basis for exchange. The earliest writings from Meospotamia are pictographic, such as the head of an ox. It is not a complicated enough script to handle vast artistic creations. By 2800 BC, a new form of writing had emerged. Scribes began using the wedge-end of a stick to make marks, rather than the pointed end to draw pictures. Today, we call this script “cuneiform”, a word which originates from the Latin “cuneus” meaning “a wedge”. It is in this script that we find the earliest examples of the Sumerian Gilgamesh epic. It was a complex written language, and likely only the scribes would have been able to read and write it. At the same time, the Egyptians invented an even more complex written system which we today call “hieroglyphics” coming from the Greek words for “sacred” and “carving.”

However, the Phoenicians, a Semitic trading people, were the first to develop an enduring written language. It initially consisted of twenty-two signs, each representing a different sound. By means of trade it spread all throughout the Mediterranean world. For example a version of the Phoenician alphabet was used by the Hebrew people in their representation of God as YHWH, though we do not know how this name would have been pronounced, as the Phoenician alphabet was devoid of vowels. For a long time the English representation was as “Jehovah” but now is commonly called “ya-way.” However, it was the Greeks who took the Phoenician alphabet and perfected it by adding vowel sounds to the consonants, while still preserving their original named. For example, “alpha” was derived from the Phoenician aleph (meaning “ox”) or beta (meaning “house”). From these original written words, we derive our word “alphabet.” This was likely accomplished by the earliest Greek peoples of Minos, famed for the island of Crete and its mythical king Minos. Grand works from the palace at Minos still survive today and continue to inspire wonder. The Romans later adopted the Greek-infused written language as their own in Latin, which eventually spread throughout the world with its own branches, like French and Spanish.

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