FYP Texts: The Epic of Gilgamesh: a work of archaeological reconstruction

This article, the first in the FYP Texts series, originally appeared in the Spring 2005 issue of Tidings.

The great virtue of FYP is that it offers our students the opportunity of embarking on a spiritual pilgrimage, where they immerse themselves in the eternal questions of death, judgment, heaven and hell.

– Tom Curran

The Deluge tablet of the Gilgamesh Epic in Akkadian

SHORTLY AFTER THE OUTBREAK OF THE WAR IN IRAQ, the BBC reported that a German archaeological team claimed to have discovered “the lost tomb of King Gilgamesh”: this was the mighty monarch of the walled city of Uruk, whose antique name has been preserved in the modern name of Iraq, where ancient civi­lization took root between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers (i.e., Mesopotamia). Gilgamesh has in one respect achieved the immortal­ity which he sought: he has become the eponymous protagonist of the so-called Epic of Gilgamesh, and this ancient king has the distinction of being the hero of the first identifiable extended work of poetic literature in the history of the world.

By tradition, the historical reign of Gilgamesh is placed somewhere around 2750 BCE. However, writing in both Mesopotamia and Egypt predates Gilgamesh’s reign by near­ly 300 years. And, whatever we choose to identify as his Epic, it may have taken well over a thou­sand years for his story to be told in the form that we now receive it. To begin with “writing” was a practical art, useful in the first instance for inventory and transaction; the development of a poetic style was halting and gradual, not least in the composition of the Epic. It is certain that our Epic contains orig­inal traces of the poetry transcribed in the 21st Century BCE, but the canonical form in which we read the Epic in translation is at least three removed from these 3rd millennium roots: the ancient Sumerian poetry was taken up by both Akkadian and Babylonian scribes and scholars, so that the final product is a gigantic hodge-podge of a thousand years and more of cross-cultural fertilization.

Another remarkable oddity about the Epic is that we only have it for our enjoyment because of the awesome destruction of Nineveh (famously called to repentance by the prophet Jonah) in the year 612 BCE. The invading coalition of Medes and Babylonians in sacking Nineveh provided a secure resting place for the Epic in the king’s ruined library until the Gilgamesh tablets were rediscovered in the 19th Century, and slowly pieced together and laboriously translated, a work which still continues. Gilgamesh is then quite unlike other works that we tend to read in the Foundation Year Programme.

Even though we begin our studies every September with this first great statement of the human spir­it, we are not reading a work with an unbroken tradition, but in fact are engaged in a work of archaeo­logical reconstruction. The Epic‘s ominous account of a great Flood has become an indelible part of our tradition only through the Hebrew Book of Genesis.

So the great adventures of Gilgamesh were lost in antiquity and recovered in the modern era. The work has had an enormous legacy, but its influence has suf­fered an historical abyss, unlike the canonical works with which the Foundation Year Programme then proceeds. Nothing expresses the vast distance of the centuries (and millennia) better than the title. We call it The Epic of Gilgamesh, but the ancients for whom this was a living (not a historical poem) knew the work by its opening line: “He who saw the Deep”, that is to say Gilgamesh looked into that abyss of suffering, death and oblivion, which will inevitably swallow each human being in turn. A terrible way to start the year you might think to yourself; but the great virtue of the FYP is that it offers our students the opportunity of embarking on a spiritual pilgrimage through the centuries, where they immerse themselves in the eternal questions of death, judgment, heaven and hell. Not to have confronted these questions at some stage of the jour­ney renders the individual the play­thing of fate, tossed in all directions by capricious chance. Here the students at the beginning of their great voyage are given an opportunity “to reconnoitre” the lie of the land: “In my end is my beginning” as T.S. Eliot would have it.

There is hardly a more poignant sentence to be discovered in the whole Epic than the interpretation of Gilgamesh’s dream:

The father of the gods has given you kingship, such is your destiny, everlasting life is not your destiny.

Gilgamesh deeply resents the injustice of the world: was he not after all a noble amalgam of two-thirds divinity and one-third humanity? Without any regard for our noble or divine aspi­rations (placed within us apparently by the gods), each of us must con­front the fact of limit, of border and boundary, first as demonstrated in the lives of those we love, and then also for ourselves. Psalm 82 picks up the theme directly: ‘”Ye are gods, and ye are all the children of the Most High. But ye shall die like men…”

Paradoxically, what we can learn when we pay attention to our great tradition is that the meaning of life is in its end, or, to speak more pre­cisely, the meaning of life is to be found in its having an end. The famous Latin tag respice finem can be understood to exploit the rich ambiguity of the English concept of “end” just as fully as the finis of which it speaks. Respice finem sug­gests that each of us must “take care for”, “remember” or “consider” the end, whether this is to be understood as either the end and purpose for which something is undertaken, or the end term in a series, which, in our case, is the days, months and years of a human lifetime.

We shall take a look at what this principle might mean for ancient Egypt in the next issue of Tidings, as we continue to follow the red thread by which students are led through that Labyrinth that Alumni will remember (fondly!) as the Foundation Year Programme.

Post Script

For the Mesopotamians, this poem could not have been called The Epic of Gilgamesh – since there was no Sumerian/Akkadian word for “epic” and the name of this Sumerian king was not actually Gilgamesh, even if his actual name had the same kind of resonance.


FYP Texts originally appeared in Tidings magazine, published on behalf of the University of King’s College Alumni Association. View the archive.

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