The Imprint of Immortality

By Galvin, Rachel | Humanities, September/October 2002 | Go to article overview

The Imprint of Immortality


Galvin, Rachel, Humanities


THE BABYLONIAN KING GILGAMESH WAS SAID TO BE one-third human and two-thirds god. He ruled the city of Uruk on the Euphrates River more than four thousand years ago in what is now Iraq. According to legend, the gods sent him a series of ordeals, starting with the wild man Enkidu, who challenged the king and reformed his abuses of power. Once reconciled, the two embarked on a quest to fell all the cedar trees of southern Iran and slay Humbaba, the demon residing there.

So begin the tales of Gilgamesh. The heroic exploits of the king are recounted in cuneiform tablets that date as early as the second millennium B.C. and are currently held in the British Museum. Seminal Mesopotamian texts such as these are now being reunited in an online collection that makes them available to anyone with Internet access. "We are assembling a virtual repository of 120,000 cuneiform tablets from the third and fourth millennium B.C. in Babylonia," says Robert Englund, director of the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative, or CDLI, at the University of California, Los Angeles. "Someone from San Jose should not have to go to the British Museum to look at these tablets, but should be able to look at them at home."

The CDLI will be a database of digital images, transliterations, and translations. With support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Science Foundation through the Digital Library Initiative, Englund is collaborating with the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. By visiting the CDLI, users will be able to browse through the cuneiform collections of the British Museum, the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, the Louvre in Paris, the State Museum in Berlin, Yale University, and the University of Pennsylvania-all at one central site.

Invented by the Sumerians for the purpose of bookkeeping, cuneiform uses shapes pressed into clay to represent grain, sheep, and cattle. Early marks depict objects, numerals, or personal names. Some tablets measure only an inch in length, while others are the size of a large Bible; some can weigh several tons. Most are made of unfired clay and are highly fragile.

Unlike their neighbors the Egyptians, who wrote with ink on degradable papyrus, Sumerians used squared-off reeds to make marks in clay tablets. Sumerians held the belief that writing would bring renown and assure immortality, and used the same word, mu, to signify both "name" and "fame." By creating inscriptions and documenting their feats, Sumerian kings attempted to establish mu dari, or an "eternal name," for themselves.

The desire for eternal life is a driving force in the Epic of Gilgamesh. After many adventures, the king's companion Enkidu provokes the wrath of the deities and is sent to the House of Dust. Gilgamesh, in deep mourning, sets off alone to seek immortality. On his journey he encounters a siren-like innkeeper, a demon, a mysterious ferryman at the Waters of Death, and finally, Utanapishtim, the one man to survive the Great Flood-and the keeper of the secret of eternal life.

The similarities between the flood episode in Gilgamesh and the account from Genesis are striking. When George Smith of the British Museum rediscovered the Epic of Gilgamesh in the nineteenth century, its flood story became a sensation. Tablets had been arriving from archaeological expeditions near the Tigris river since 1854, and Smith, a bank note engraver and self-trained Assyriologist, had been working to decipher them. The London Daily Telegraph got wind of Smith's efforts and sponsored an archaeological expedition to find the fragment that would complete the account of the deluge. In 1873, on the fifth day of excavation, Smith found the fragment. He published his findings-including a description of creation, the deluge, the tower of Babel, and the destruction of Sodomin Chaldean Account of Genesis, which became a best seller.

"George Smith was able to recognize that you have the precursor to the Biblical story," says Englund. …

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