The Development and Meaning of the Epic of Gilgamesh: An Interpretive Essay
Abusch, Tzvi, The Journal of the American Oriental Society
This essay traces the history of the several major versions (Old Babylonian, eleven-tablet, and twelve-tablet) of the Akkadian Epic of Gilgamesh and examines the development of meaning from one version to the next. The focus is on the underlying conflict or conflicts that define and impart power to the work, that is, the conflict between the extraordinary and the normal. We will notice that in the Epic there is a constant conflict between the heroic values that the warrior-hero Gilgamesh represents and those other existential values that defined Mesopotamian culture and that appear in the Epic in the form of Gilgamesh's several non-heroic identities: in the Old Babylonian version, the conflict is that of hero versus man; in the eleven-tablet version that of hero versus king; and in the twelve-tablet version that of hero versus god.
THE EPIC OF GILGAMESH (1) combines the power and tragedy of the Iliad with the wanderings and marvels of the Odyssey. It is a work of adventure, but it is no less a meditation on some fundamental issues of human existence. The Epic explores many issues; it surely provides a Mesopotamian formulation of human predicaments and options. Most of all, the work grapples with issues of an existential nature. It talks about the powerful human drive to achieve, the value of friendship, the experience of loss, the inevitability of death.
The story draws together the many strands that make up the identity of Gilgamesh: man, hero, king, god. Gilgamesh must learn to live. He must find ways to express his tremendous personal energy but still act in a manner that accords with the limits and responsibilities imposed upon him by his society and universe. But the work emphasizes the theme of death and explores the realization that in spite of even the greatest achievements and powers, a human is nonetheless powerless against death. Thus in the final analysis, Gilgamesh must also come to terms with his own nature and learn to die, for he is both a man and a god, and as both he will experience loss and will die.
In the present essay, I shall discuss the changing emphases of three major versions of the Akkadian Epic of Gilgamesh. About 1700 B.C.E., a Babylonian author created a unified Epic about the hero Gilgamesh. The new epic "bear[S] witness to a wholesale revision of Gilgamesh material to form a connected story composed around the principal themes of kingship, fame, and the fear of death." (2) This Old Babylonian (OB) account of Gilgamesh is the earliest, perhaps also the most immediately felt and compelling, version of the Akkadian Epic. Subsequent to the Old Babylonian period, the Epic circulated throughout the ancient Near East. Not surprisingly, the work underwent many changes and developments, and a number of new versions took form in Akkadian as well as in other languages. The Babylonian version(s) changed and developed during the course of the second and early first millennium. While a number of new recensions and versions took form, the Standard Babylonian (SB) eleven- and twelve-tablet versions represen t without doubt the two most important post-Old Babylonian Akkadian versions that we possess. Accordingly, in this essay we will examine the Old Babylonian, the eleven-tablet, and the twelve-tablet versions. (3)
THE EPIC: DEVELOPMENT AND MEANING
To understand the Epic, we should now turn to its inner development and meaning. But first we must say a few words about the nature of epic itself, and then we shall assess the evolving meaning of the work by identifying and explicating the particular conflict that is central to it at each major stage of its development.
Epic. Epic deals with a hero, (4) that is, a powerful warrior who shows his mettle in battle. He is aggressive and courageous, even impetuous, and battles strong enemies. He shows little concern for his own safety and focuses all of his energy upon battle, obligation, honor, and victory. …