Male and Female in the Epic of Gilgamesh: Encounters, Literary History, and Interpretation

By Beckman, Gary | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, October-December 2018 | Go to article overview

Male and Female in the Epic of Gilgamesh: Encounters, Literary History, and Interpretation


Beckman, Gary, The Journal of the American Oriental Society


Male and Female in the Epic of Gilgamesh: Encounters, Literary History, and Interpretation. By TZVI ABUSCH. Winona Lake, Ind.: EISENBRAUNS, 2015. Pp. ix + 236. $39.50 (paper)

The Epic of Gilgamesh as represented by tablets from the "libraries" of first-millennium BCE Mesopotamia is the best known and most accessible to modern readers of all the literature of the ancient Near East, save that of the Hebrew Bible. As a result, it is often included in introductions to world literature, both in print and in the classroom. Similarly, it has frequently caught the attention of literary scholars and translators, even of some ignorant of the ancient Akkadian language in which it was composed.

Indeed, scholarship on the Epic has tended to cluster at two poles--on the one hand, the reconstruction of the basic text from its numerous fragmentary preserved exemplars and attention to technical philological problems of lexicon, grammar, and poetic practice, and on the other, as the author of this volume states, close reading that endeavors "to understand the meaning of the text on its own terms" (p. 1), paying attention "primarily to personal and psychological levels of the narration" (p. 2).

Over thirty years, Tzvi Abusch has written nine essays (one with the collaboration of Indologist Emily West) that combine his philological acumen with a literary-critical approach to the matter of Gilgamesh. The book under review collects these pieces, now minimally edited for internal consistency and provided with a short introduction. Read together, these contributions set forth a grand scheme of the development of the tales featuring the Mesopotamian hero from the third through the first millennium BCE, as evidenced most clearly in chapter 6, "The Development and Meaning of the Epic of Gilgamesh: An Interpretive Essay."

Abusch's conclusion in short: "Gilgamesh seeks immortality as a human being, and in all three versions of the text, he learns that this is impossible. In the Old Babylonian version, Gilgamesh finds a meaningful context within the bosom of the family ... and accepts the role of builder-king. In the eleven-tablet version, he becomes a responsible ruler who rules his community with wisdom.... In the twelve-tablet version, he readies himself to become a normal god who judges dead human beings for eternity" (pp. 142-43).

In the course of fashioning this arc of development, Abusch not only compares the extant textual witnesses from the earliest and latest periods, but posits the existence of lost stages of the story, such as an early version in which the seduction of the primeval man Enkidu is undertaken by the harlot Shamhat on her own initiative (p. 156), and another wherein Gilgamesh's quest ends with marriage to the divine bar-maid Siduri (p. 115).

Such a daring approach has not been to the liking of all readers of these essays in their earlier incarnations. See, for instance, Andrew George's dismissal of what appears here as chapter 5 ("The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Homeric Epics") as unsubstantiated (The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Introduction, Critical Edition and Cuneiform Texts [Oxford, Oxford Univ. Press, 2003], 55 n. 140), as well as Abusch's rebuttal in this work (p. 144 n. 1).

I must admit to being among the sceptics (see also p. 178) who demand stronger evidence than literary analysis alone in positing such historical events as the composition of a text now lost to us. And can we really conclude what a character in an ancient text, laconic in comparison to most modern literature, is thinking if its author doesn't see fit to inform us? …

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