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Tag: XIth Tablet

The Zodiacal Organization of the Gilgamesh Epic

“The doctrine of the necessity for ministering to the dead is here enunciated in no uncertain fashion.

Unless their bodies are decently buried and offerings of food and drink made at their graves, their lives in the otherworld must be abjectly miserable. The manner in which they meet their end is likewise taken into account, and warriors who have fallen on the field of battle are pre-eminently fortunate.

Eabani is evidently one of the ‘happy’ spirits; his ghost is designated utukku, a name applied not only to the fortunate dead, but likewise to a class of beneficent supernatural beings.

The term edimmu, on the other hand, designates a species of malevolent being as well as the errant and even vampirish spirits of the unhappy dead. The due observance of funeral and commemorative rites is thus a matter which touches the interests not only of the deceased but also of his relatives and friends.

We have seen from the foregoing that the epic of Gilgamesh is partly historical, partly mythological. Around the figure of a great national hero myths have grown and twined with the passing of the generations, and these have in time become woven into a connected narrative, setting forth a myth which corresponds to the daily or annual course of the sun.

Within this may be discerned other myths and fragments of myths—solar, seasonal, and diluvian.

But there is in the epic another important element which has already been referred to—the astro-theological. The zodiacal significance of the division of the epic into twelve tablets may be set aside, since, as has been indicated, the significance is in all probability a superficial one merely, added to the poem by the scribes of Assur-bani-pal, and not forming an integral part of it.

At the same time it is not hard to divide the epic naturally into twelve episodes, thus:

  1. Gilgamesh’s oppression of Erech;
  2. the seduction of Eabani;
  3. the slaying of the monster Khumbaba;
  4. the wooing of Ishtar;
  5. the fight with the sacred bull;
  6. Eabani’s death;
  7. Gilgamesh’s journey to the Mountain of the Sunset;
  8. his wanderings in the region of thick darkness;
  9. the crossing of the waters of death;
  10. the deluge-story;
  11. the plant of life;
  12. the return of Eabani’s spirit.

Throughout the epic there are indications of a correspondence between the exploits of the hero and the movements of heavenly bodies.

It is possible, for instance, that Gilgamesh and his friend Eabani had some relation to the sign Gemini, also associated in ancient Chaldean mythology with two forms of the solar deity, even as were the hero and his friend.

The sign Leo recalls the slaying of Khumbaba, the allegorical victory of light over darkness, represented on monuments by the figure of a lion (symbol of fire) fighting with a bull.

Following the sign of Leo, the wooing of the hero by the goddess Ishtar falls naturally into the sign of Virgo, the virgin. The sign of Taurus is represented by the slaying of the celestial bull, Alu, by Gilgamesh.

The journey of the hero to Mashu and his encounter with the scorpion-men at the gate of the sunset are, of course, mythological representations of the sign of Scorpio, as are also his wanderings in the region of thick darkness.

It is noticeable in this respect that Babylonian astrology often doubled the eighth sign (Scorpio) to provide a seventh; it is therefore not unlikely that this sign should correspond with two distinct episodes in the poem.

The first of these episodes is associated with Scorpio by virtue of the introduction of scorpion-men; and the second, on the assumption that the scorpion is symbolical of darkness.

Perhaps the sea-goddess Sabitu is associated astrologically with the fish-tailed goat which is the conventional representation of Capricornus.

Then the placing of the deluge-story in the XIth tablet, corresponding with the eleventh sign of the zodiac, Aquarius, the water-bearer, is evidently in keeping with the astrological aspect of the epic.

Chaldean mythology connected the rainy eleventh month with the deluge, just as the first month of spring was associated mythologically with the creation.

The healing of Gilgamesh’s sickness by Ut-Napishtim may possibly symbolise the revival of the sun after leaving the winter solstice.

Lastly, the sign of Pisces, the twelfth sign of the zodiac, corresponding to the return of Eabani from the underworld, and perhaps also to the restoration of Gilgamesh to Erech, is emblematic of life after death, and of the resumption of ordinary conditions after the deluge.

It has been suggested, though without any very definite basis, that the epic was first put together before the zodiac was divided into twelve—that is, more than two thousand years before the Christian era.

Its antiquity, however, rests on other grounds than these. In later times the Babylonian astrological system became very complicated and important, and so lent its colour to the epic that, whatever the original plan of that work may have been, its astral significance became at length its most popular aspect.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 181-3.

Ut-Napishtim and the Babylonian Deluge

Ut-Napishtim was indeed surprised when he beheld Gilgamesh approaching the strand. The hero had meanwhile contracted a grievous illness, so that he was unable to leave the boat; but he addressed his queries concerning perpetual life to the deified Ut-Napishtim, who stood on the shore.

The hero of the flood was exceeding sorrowful, and explained that death is the common lot of mankind,

“nor is it given to man to know the hour when the hand of death will fall upon him—the Annunaki, the great gods, decree fate, and with them Mammetum, the maker of destiny, and they determine death and life, but the days of death are not known.”

The narrative is continued without interruption into the XIth tablet. Gilgamesh listened with pardonable scepticism to the platitudes of his ancestor.

“‘I behold thee, Ut-Napishtim, thy appearance differs not from mine, thou art like unto me, thou art not otherwise than I am; thou art like unto me, thy heart is stout for the battle . . . how hast thou entered the assembly of the gods; how hast thou found life?’”

In reply Ut-Napishtim introduces the story of the Babylonian deluge, which, told as it is without interruption, forms a separate and complete narrative, and is in itself a myth of exceptional interest. Presumably the warning of the deluge came to Ut-Napishtim in a vision.

The voice of the god said:

“Thou man of Shurippak, son of Ubara-Tutu, pull down thy house, build a ship, forsake thy possessions, take heed for thy life! Abandon thy goods, save thy life, and bring up living seed of every kind into the ship.”

The ship itself was to be carefully planned and built according to Ea’s instructions. When the god had spoken Ut-Napishtim promised obedience to the divine command. But he was still perplexed as to how he should answer the people when they asked the reason for his preparations.

Ea therefore instructed him how he should make reply,

Bel hath cast me forth, for he hateth me.’

The purpose of this reply seems clear, though the remaining few lines of it are rather broken. Ea intends that Ut-Napishtim shall disarm the suspicions of the people by declaring that the object of his shipbuilding and his subsequent departure is to escape the wrath of Bel, which he is to depict as falling on him alone.

He must prophesy the coming of the rain, but must represent it, not as a devastating flood, but rather as a mark of the prosperity which Bel will grant to the people of Shurippak, perhaps by reason of his (Ut-Napishtim’s) departure therefrom.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 173-4.

The Gilgamesh Epic

“The most important of the various mythological strata underlying the Gilgamesh myth is probably that concerning Eabani, who, as has been said, is a type of primitive man, living among the beasts of the field as one of themselves.

The "animal man" Enkidu (aka Eabani) defeating the King of Erech, Gilgamesh, during their first encounter.

The “animal man” Enkidu (aka Eabani) defeating the King of Erech, Gilgamesh, during their first encounter.

But he is also, according to certain authorities, a form of the sun-god, even as Gilgamesh himself. Like the hero of Erech, he rises to the zenith of his powers in a triumphal progress, then descends into the underworld.

He is not lost sight of, however, but lives in the memory of his friend Gilgamesh; and in the XIIth tablet he is temporarily brought forth from the underworld (that is, his ghost, or utukkii), which in a dim and shadowy fashion may typify the daily restoration of the sun.

Another important stratum of myth is that which concerns Ut-Napishtim, the Babylonian Noah; but whereas the myths of Eabani and Gilgamesh, though still distinguishable, have become thoroughly fused, the deluge story of which Ut-Napishtim is the hero has been inserted bodily into the XIth tablet of the epic, being related to Gilgamesh by Ut-Napishtim himself.

When he first appears in the narrative he has the attributes and powers of a god, having received these for his fidelity to the gods during the flood, from whose waters he alone of all mankind escaped.

The object of his narrative in the Gilgamesh epic seems to be to point out to the hero that only the most exceptional circumstances—unique circumstances, indeed—can save man from his doom.

Other distinct portions of the epic are the battle with the monster Khumbaba, the episode of Ishtar’s love for Gilgamesh, the fight with the sacred bull of Anu, and the search for the plant of life. These, whatever their origin, have become naturally incorporated with the story of Gilgamesh.

Gilgamesh defeating the Bull of Heaven.

Gilgamesh defeating the Bull of Heaven.

But besides the various historical and mythical elements herein presented, there is also a certain amount of Babylonian religious doctrine, evident to some extent in the XIth tablet (which points the moral that all men must die), but doubly so in the XIIth tablet, wherein the shade of Eabani appears to Gilgamesh, relates the misfortunes of the unburied dead or of those uncared for after death, and inculcates care for the deceased as the only means whereby they may evade the grievous woes which threaten them in the underworld.

Let us examine in detail the Gilgamesh epic as we have it in the broken fragments which remain to us. The Ist and Ilnd tablets are much mutilated. A number of fragments are extant which belong to one or other of these two, but it is not easy to say where the Ist ends and the Ilnd begins.

One fragment would seem to contain the very beginning of the Ist tablet—a sort of general preface to the epic, comprising a list of the advantages to be derived from reading it. After this comes a fragment whose title to inclusion in the epic is doubtful. It describes a siege of the city of Erech, but makes no mention of Gilgamesh.

The woeful condition of Erech under the siege is thus picturesquely detailed :

“She asses (tread down) their young, cows (turn upon) their calves. Men cry aloud like beasts, and maidens mourn like doves. The gods of strong-walled Erech are changed to flies, and buzz about the streets.

The spirits of strong-walled Erech are changed to serpents, and glide into holes. For three years the enemy besieged Erech, and the doors were barred, and the bolts were shot, and Ishtar did not raise her head against the foe.”

If this fragment be indeed a portion of the Gilgamesh epic, we have no means of ascertaining whether Gilgamesh was the besieger, or the raiser of the siege, or whether he was concerned in the affair at all.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 159-61.

Spence on the Gilgamesh Epic

“The Gilgamesh epic ranks with the Babylonian myth of creation as one of the greatest literary productions of ancient Babylonia. The main element in its composition is a conglomeration of mythic matter, drawn from various sources, with perhaps a substratum of historic fact, the whole being woven into a continuous narrative around the central figure of Gilgamesh, prince of Erech.

It is not possible at present to fix the date when the epic was first written. Our knowledge of it is gleaned chiefly from mutilated fragments belonging to the library of Assur-bani-pal, but from internal and other evidence we gather that some at least of the traditions embodied in the epic are of much greater antiquity than his reign.

Thus a tablet dated 2100 b.c. contains a variant of the deluge story inserted in the XIth tablet of the Gilgamesh epic. Probably this and other portions of the epic existed in oral tradition before they were committed to writing—that is, in the remote Sumerian period.

Assur-bani-pal was an enthusiastic and practical patron of literature. In his great library at Nineveh (the nucleus of which had been taken from Calah by Sennacherib) he had gathered a vast collection of volumes, clay tablets, and papyri, most of which had been carried as spoil from conquered lands.

He also employed scribes to copy older texts, and this is evidently how the existing edition of the Gilgamesh epic came to be written. From the fragments now in the British Museum it would seem that at least four copies of the poem were made in the time of Assur-bani-pal.

They were not long permitted to remain undisturbed. The great Assyrian empire was already declining; ere long Nineveh was captured and its library scattered, while plundering hordes burnt the precious rolls of papyrus, and buried the clay tablets in the debris of the palace which had sheltered them.

There they were destined to lie for over 2000 years, till the excavations of Sir A. H. Layard, George Smith, and others brought them to light. It is true that the twelve tablets of the Gilgamesh epic (or rather, the fragments of them which have so far been discovered) are much defaced; frequently the entire sense of a passage is obscured by a gap in the text, and this, when nice mythological elucidations are in question, is no light matter.

Yet to such an extent has the science of comparative religion progressed in recent years that we are probably better able to read the true mythological significance of the epic than were the ancient Babylonians themselves, who saw in it merely an account of the wanderings and exploits of a national hero.

The epic, which centres round the ancient city of Erech, relates the adventures of a half-human, halfdivine hero, Gilgamesh by name, who is king over Erech.

Two other characters figure prominently in the narrative—Eabani, who evidently typifies primitive man, and Ut-Napishtim, the hero of the Babylonian deluge myth. Each of the three would seem to have been originally the hero of a separate group of traditions which in time became incorporated, more or less naturally, with the other two.

The first and most important of the trio, the hero Gilgamesh, may have been at one time a real personage, though nothing is known of him historically.[1] Possibly the exploits of some ancient king of Erech have furnished a basis for the narrative.

His name (for a time provisionally read Gisdhubar, or Izdubar, but now known to have been pronounced Gilgamesh[2]) suggests that he was not Babylonian but Elamite or Kassite in origin, and from indications furnished by the poem itself we learn that he conquered Erech (or relieved the city from a besieging force) at the outset of his adventurous career.

It has been suggested also that he was identical with the Biblical Nimrod, like him a hero of ancient Babylon; but there are no other grounds for the suggestion.

So much for the historical aspect of Gilgamesh. His mythological character is more easily established. In this regard he is the personification of the sun. He represents, in fact, the fusion of a great national hero with a mythical being.

Throughout the epic there are indications that Gilgamesh is partly divine by nature,though nothing specific is said on that head. His identity with the solar god is veiled in the popular narrative, but it is evident that he has some connexion with the god Shamash, to whom he pays his devotions and who acts as his patron and protector.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 154-6.

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