The dream that lies in fragments

The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic
March 5, 2004

Stephanie Dalley salutes epic editing but disagrees with editorial interpretation.

The Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh has been retrieved gradually, written on clay tablets in small pieces giving several versions, during the past 150 years. It was last edited in 1930, in a volume of 93 pages and 59 plates of cuneiform texts. This exhaustive work supersedes it. The edition is comprehensive: every fragment, however small, is given, with a new or collated copy, transliteration, translation and very detailed notes.

Despite an increase in cuneiform text recovered from museums and excavations, gaps remain in the standard version of the late 2nd millennium BC, and enormous gaps in earlier versions of the early 2nd millennium, because the fragments that have come to light since 1930 often run parallel to text already known. The main new piece gives two dreams of Gilgamesh in their entirety from a pre-standard version, and Andrew George gives, for the first time, a full edition of an extremely interesting piece in which Ninsun, divine mother of Gilgamesh, formally adopts Enkidu. George had previously published only a translation of this.

George is an excellent cuneiformist and, despite the occasional misjudgement, his edition is as complete as anyone might hope. It is a great achievement to have brought to fruition transliteration and translation from a single hand, uniting the work of different scholars, languages and presentations that have changed over time as Assyriology has progressed.

The introduction is a different matter. It forms part one and consists of four chapters. With a profusion of footnotes, it refers to every study of Gilgamesh traditions and the characters in them, together with the author's opinion of their worth - sometimes approving, often dismissive by assertion rather than by argument based on evidence. George is not shy about declaring his views, which occasionally appear contradictory amid the mass of material. It is not surprising, in the face of so much disparate stuff, that the reader finds it hard to gain a clear view of major problems. The immense difficulties of the various traditions might have been better served with a clear exposition of problems rather than piecemeal attempts to force conclusions. Whether the reader approves of his decision to include more than is strictly necessary, particularly in the matter of notes and extended studies on, for example, scribal education, or female court singers of the 3rd millennium, is a matter of personal preference; he has emptied his files wholesale into his publication, ensuring that the book is suitable for only the hardened specialist, who will find much of interest. Part one is a separate work and might have made a book in its own right.

The reader who steps back from the almost-overpowering detail will look in vain for answers to key questions. For what occasions or purposes was the epic written down? At one point the author hints at a ritual connection with the so-called festival of lights, an annual commemoration of the dead, but elsewhere court entertainment is briefly mooted. How were the various versions composed? An oral tradition is presumed, but for fragments of the pre-standard version George deduces the work of a single poetic genius who was literate, simply on the basis of the power and beauty of the text; yet when another scholar takes in essence the same view, he is castigated for ignoring the "profusion of deviant texts". For the standard version, George deduces a genius author, Sin-leqe-unninni, a deduction drawn from the tendentious translation of a single phrase. Is it likely that Sin-leqe-unninni would have written a poem on 11 tablets and then given as his own work the different prose "appendix" of tablet 12?

To suggest a model of gradual evolution, occurring in fits and starts, combining local, oral traditions and occasional royal input might fit the evidence better. Until we have complete versions, we will not be able to assess whether a single hand has eliminated inconsistencies and unclear disjunctions. The approach favoured by George is inspired more by a modern need to identify a single author than by an evaluation of the complexity which is so tirelessly demonstrated in his own pages.

In evaluating how much the epic of Gilgamesh influenced Homeric writing, the Alexander Romance and certain Arabic stories, George dismisses the work of several scholars, refusing to allow that essential threads of the story, as well as individual motifs and characters, might have escaped from cuneiform Babylonian into alphabetically written languages. Earlier evidence for a diffusion into the Hittite and Hurrian languages might count against this, as well as the useful clue of a piece of the cuneiform epic dating to the Parthian period. His refusal allows him to draw a very simple conclusion, that the epic died out with the cuneiform writing system. Few will agree, partly because he has confused the distinction between the Babylonian epic and the motifs and characters derived from it.

From these observations it should be clear that George is a collector of information rather than an interpreter of it, and his zealotry in dismissing the work of others makes for distasteful reading. His views of the epic and how to understand the tradition are not thoroughly argued. He takes for granted the old view that there was an essential tension between secular and religious power throughout Mesopotamian history, but does not explain how this relates to the Gilgamesh Epic (if indeed it does), and nowhere will the reader find an understanding of how the Epic explores the duality of human action, or the importance of kingship and its support from the gods. That is work for a different kind of scholar, but George will be thanked by Assyriologists for the labour of producing such a comprehensive edition of all known pieces of text, great and small.

Stephanie Dalley is senior research fellow in Assyriology, Oriental Institute, University of Oxford.

The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Introduction, Critical Edition and Cuneiform Texts (2 vols)

Author - Andrew R. George
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 986
Price - £175.00
ISBN - 0 19 814922 0

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