A few weeks ago, I read Stephen Mitchell’s rendition of the ancient epic poem Gilgamesh. I really, really enjoyed this poem, plus all the awesome background info that Mitchell provided about the history and culture of the time.
First, Gilgamesh was an actual historical figure, one that we know only a little about. Gilgamesh the poem is over 4000 years old. Try to compass that! It is estimated that we modern scholars have recovered ~2000 lines of the ~3000-line poem. There is always something more to hunt for in those smashed, burned, calcified clay tablets.
If you have an addiction, you know you must feed it. This week, I finished The Buried Book by David Damrosch, which is about the loss and rediscovery of the great epic of Gilgamesh. The tale of finding and deciphering Gilgamesh is just as fascinating as the ancient poem. Damrosch starts at the current time and leads us back in time to those explorers and early archaeologists that dug up the tablets and figured out what they had, to how the tablets got to be where they were found (think ancient Sumerians, Babylonians, and Akkadians), to the legendary historical figure of Gilgamesh himself.
Just some tidbits that I found interesting and feel the need to inflict on an audience (and which, if you spout off at the next party, will make you look that much smarter and more nerdy):
- Ancient Mesopotamian royalty did not, in general, know how to read and write; it was lowly scribes’ work
- Gilgamesh was likely still being sung by bards during the days of the Greek Homeric bards
- Saddam Hussein was a closet historical romance novelist and often compared himself to the mythical Gilgamesh
- Hormuzd Rassam is our unsung modern hero-archaeologist
- King Ashurbanipal was unusual in his ability to read and write and amassed a large library, from which we have found great chunks of Gilgamesh
- It is likely the historical figure Gilgamesh lived around 2750 BCE
This site has a half-hour video on Gilgamesh from various scholars, performers, authors, comic book artists, etc.