The Epic of Gilgamesh | Study Guide


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Sîn-lēqi-unninni | Biography


The author or authors of Gilgamesh are lost to antiquity. The study of its authorship instead focuses on the epic's first recording, compilation, and rediscovery.

Widely thought to be the oldest recorded story still in existence, it is a millennium older than the oldest biblical writings or Greek epics. The epic reports the adventures of a historical king, Gilgamesh, who ruled the Mesopotamian city of Uruk, present-day Warka, Iraq, around 2750 BCE. The first authors of the stories of the great king who longed to escape death belonged to an oral tradition. The earliest surviving texts of the tales date to about 2100 BCE. Five interrelated poems, written in Sumerian (a language spoken in ancient Mesopotamia), relate five adventures of Gilgamesh, including several not in the epic. Around 1700 BCE a more complete and unified story, a proto-epic, was written in Akkadian (Old Babylonian). Written, in this case, means cut into clay tablets. Cuneiform is a writing system based on combinations of wedge- and circle-shaped markings pressed into wet clay. The clay is then hardened to form long-lasting clay tablets. The Old Babylonian stories of Gilgamesh survive on 11 such tablets.

Sîn-lēqi-unninni, a scholar, priest, and poet working in Babylon around 1200 BCE, used this proto-epic as he revised the more ancient stories of Gilgamesh to create what is known as the Standard Version of Gilgamesh. All modern translations are based on this text. Sîn-lēqi-unninni deals with Gilgamesh's triumphs and ultimate failure to escape death. He writes sympathetically and often with a touch of wry humor. He added original sections—the Prologue and Shamhat's invitation to Enkidu to go to Uruk.

Sîn-lēqi-unninni's epic was lost and lay buried in the ruins of the ancient city of Nineveh (near present-day Mosul, Iraq) until the 19th century. The recovery of the epic began in 1844 when Austen Henry Layard, an Englishman, interrupted a trip to Ceylon, present-day Sri Lanka, to investigate the ruins of Nineveh's ancient palace. When Nineveh was Assyria's capital, it housed the library of King Ashurbanipal (d. 627 BCE). Layard found rooms filled with clay tablets inscribed in cuneiform, writings that scholars would not learn to translate until 1857. About 25,000 of these tablets were sent to the British Museum. Among them were some containing Sîn-lēqi-unninni's epic. However, no one knew about the epic until 1872, when George Smith, a curator at the museum, recognized the story of a great flood cut into fragments he was studying. The flood story predated the biblical Genesis flood story significantly and prompted further excavations of the library's ruins and other ancient sites. In 1876 Smith published the first modern translation of Gilgamesh, based on the tablets that had been discovered at that time. The story of the king who tried to escape death fell on human ears again after centuries of silence.

Fragments of the Standard Version continue to be unearthed occasionally; more than 70 have been recovered, though only about 2,000 of the 3,000 or so lines of text are clear enough to read. Modern writers and translators of the epic may mark the missing sections with ellipses, fill in the gaps with information from the Old Babylonian version, draw from other stories of Gilgamesh, or create plausible text to fill the gaps.

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