Secret Library

Literature before Homer: The Epic of Gilgamesh

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle travels back 4,000 years to find the world’s first great epic

In 1850, a series of clay tablets came to light in the Middle East, in what is now Iraq. They were shipped back to the British Museum, where they sat for some fifteen years before anyone got round to giving them any serious attention. Then, in 1865, a young man named George Smith was tasked with deciphering the cuneiform script inscribed on the tablets. Smith worked for a printing firm by day, but his real hobby was trying to work out what these ancient tablets said. For seven years he worked tirelessly on the clay tablets and, in 1872, he published his translation of what we now know as The Epic of Gilgamesh, a poem that had been lost from the literary canon for millennia but which has a claim to being the oldest surviving epic poem in the history of the world.

And we’re talking old: the earliest surviving tablets which contain the story of Gilgamesh, known as the Old Babylonian tablets, date from c. 1800 BC, or a thousand or so years before Homer. What we get in The Epic of Gilgamesh is a story older than the Iliad or Odyssey and older still than the earliest surviving texts for the Old Testament. The Epic of Gilgamesh, not Homer nor the Hebrew bible, is the starting-point of ‘great’ recorded literature. It is not Hebraic or Hellenic, but Akkadian: the language used in Uruk (now Iraq) at the time and the language of the cuneiform script used in the later version of an original Sumerian story.

The Epic of Gilgamesh (to offer a very brief and crude summary) is split into two sections. (The following summary of the plot of Gilgamesh, I warn you, contains spoilers.) The first focuses on the titular Gilgamesh, king of Uruk in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq), and his friend, the wild man named Enkidu (who was created by the gods, ironically, to tame the more tyrannical instincts within Gilgamesh). After Gilgamesh has tamed Enkidu’s wilder instincts (which he manages, oddly, by sending a prostitute to seduce his new friend), the pair of them travel to the Cedar Forest, where they offend the gods by cutting down the sacred cedar tree, having killed its guardian, Humbaba the Terrible. The goddess Ishtar, whom Gilgamesh has spurned, sends the Bull of Heaven to attack them both, but they kill it. In retaliation, Ishtar kills Enkidu, and the first half of the Epic of Gilgamesh is brought to an end. The second section, following the great Flood (which has similarities to the story concerning Noah and the Flood recounted in the Book of Genesis) concerns Gilgamesh’s quest for eternal life. In the end (spoiler alert again), Gilgamesh learns that there is no possibility of immortality for man, who was created mortal by the gods; but he may achieve immortality of sorts if his name survives him after he has died. Fittingly, of course, Gilgamesh’s own name has survived in the name of the epic poem which features him, but also in the name of a research initiative, Project Gilgamesh, which is seeking the secret of immortality and ways of extending the human life span using medical science. As Yuval Noah Harari has discussed in his recent bestselling book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, such a search may not be as futile as it first sounds.

The science-fiction author Isaac Asimov once remarked that the archetypal hero is usually very, very stupid. Gilgamesh doesn’t exactly go against this archetype. It would take the ancient Greeks, with the hero Odysseus, to invent a hero who possessed brains as well as brawn. But Gilgamesh isn’t a bad starting point for literature’s heroes. According to some scholars, the Epic of Gilgamesh may even have been an influence on Homer (whoever he was), and so we may not have got the Iliad if Enkidu and his companion had never chopped down that cedar tree.

Yet perhaps Homer is the wrong writer to go to, in an effort to find the successors to the unknown Gilgamesh author: Steven Moore, in his provocative and fascinating book on the origins of the modern novel, The Novel: An Alternative History, claims The Epic of Gilgamesh as the first great story about growing up: it’s a Bildungsroman in all but name. And it’s hard to disagree with his analysis of Gilgamesh as more ‘novel’ than ‘epic’: although the edition I own, The Epic of Gilgamesh (Penguin Classics), is titled The Epic of Gilgamesh, the focus is on a small cast of all-too-human characters. There are no great battles to decide the future of civilisation, and no journeys into the Underworld, although we do have a quest/journey element. Nevertheless, following Moore and others, perhaps we should see this work not as the Epic of Gilgamesh but the Novel of Gilgamesh.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.

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