An Abnormal Interest in Gilgamesh

I’ve written about Gilgamesh and ancient Mesopotamia several times in the past, but my articles and posts are nothing near the original work that Duane is doing at Abnormal Interests in translating ancient texts.

I’m a frequent reader of his blog (but one of the worst, I’m afraid, since I rarely post comments) and I highly recommend reading his work if you have even a passing interest in the translations of ancient texts.

His latest post is a translation of The Letter of Gilgamesh. In the letter, Gilgamesh, the King of of Ur, citizen of Kullab, creation of Anu, Enlil and Ea, favorite of Shamash, and the beloved of Marduk, makes a “gentle” request ruler of another land: “send me a large portion of your wealth and come visit me. If I have to come to you, it won’t be pretty and I’ll not only take everything I want but pulverize your cities.” Okay, I’m paraphrasing. Here’s a quote:

I[f ]on the fiftieth day of Teshrit, I do not meet you in the gate of my city Ur, (then) I swear by the great gods, whose oath can not to be revoked, (and) I swear by my gods, Lugalbanda, Sin, Shamash, Palil, Lugalgirra and Meslamtaea, (that) I will send (35) to you Zamana, and the divine lord of my person (‘head,’ my personal god?), the aggressor(?), whose name you honor. He will pulverize your cities. Your [palac]es he will pillage (and) your orchards he will [plunder(?)].

You gotta love Gilgamesh! He was two-thirds god and one-third human, so his threats weren’t to be taken lightly!

One of the things that I found so compelling about the Gilgamesh story is the love and friendship he had with Enkidu. Thousands of years have passed since the story was written, and yet the emotion of loss still comes through loud and clear in a tale written in a language long since dead, forgotten then deciphered and translated thousands of years later.

Gilgamesh was clearly pressuring this ruler, and probably other rulers in the region, to align with him. The demonstration of their alignments and their commitments was a substantial sacrifice of their national wealth, but what they received in return was the protective umbrella of his Empire.


  1. Carl,

    Thanks for the very kind comments and the link. At one level, I think your interpretation is dead on. But, I’m 99.9% certain that this letter is a wonderful work of fiction. All examples of the text, three badly broken tablets, are from Sultantepein Turkey. There are no examples from anywhere else. That does not mean that it wasn’t copied elsewhere but it at least contains a suggestion of local origin. The language is neo-Babylonian with neo-Assyrian intrusions or the other way around. It is more or less the same dialect found in other locally produced tablets from Sultantepe. And then there are the unbelievable numbers and the weird requirements (“100 thousand mares whose bodies are marked with the face of the mountain kanaktu, 40 thousand young calves which never stop frolicking, 50 thousand teams of piebald mules, 50 thousands [???] calves with sound hooves and intact horns . .” ). There is also quite strong evidence that a scribal school at Sultantepe used this text as a training exercise for novice scribes. Among other things, on the only tablet where we learn anything about the scribe, the colophon tells us that he or she is an apprentice. Unfortunately, we don’t know the first part of the scribe’s name nor can we read the determinative. If we could read either, we would know the gender of the scribe. Female scribes were uncommon but not unknown in antiquity. What better way to learn to write a letter for a king than to practice with a letter from the KING, Gilgamesh.

  2. Actually, that it was a work of fiction was something I considered, particularly with the quantities of animals demanded (what kingdom could be said to possess a 100,000 mares and still be expected to cave to threats so easily?).

    I suppose I became mired in the language and romanticized the grandeur of Gilgamesh as a character and failed to even mention that possibility. I find it so easy to get caught up in these old stories, letters and texts, especially when you consider the underlying meanings.

    Thanks for adding the comment above since it grounds the letter in a bit of necessary reality. In fact, it’s equally fascinating that this letter was used in a scribal school.

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