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by David Damrosch

How the Epic of Gilgamesh Moved a City

The Epic of Gilgamesh may have played a role in the shift of Assyria's capital to Nineveh. The epic ends with Gilgamesh's return to Uruk at the close of the eleventh tablet, but the full "Series of Gilgamesh" consists of twelve tablets. The final tablet is a direct translation of portions of one of the Sumerian poems about Bilgamesh, known in ancient times by its first line, "In those days, in those distant days," and now often called "Bilgamesh and the Netherworld." Attached to the epic as a kind of appendix, the twelfth tablet came to be read as providing important information about the underworld, and it was consulted at the time the decision was made to establish Nineveh as Assyria's capital.

In the twelfth tablet, Enkidu descends into the underworld to retrieve some wooden implements, apparently a ball and mallet, which Gilgamesh has dropped into a fissure in the ground. Enkidu, here portrayed as Gilgamesh's servant, offers to bring them back. Gilgamesh gives Enkidu detailed instructions about how to behave so as not to arouse the notice and the anger of the beings of the underworld; rashly, Enkidu disobeys all his instructions, drawing attention to himself with his beautiful clothing, perfume, and active behavior not befitting a dead person. Realizing that he is an intruder, the underworld forces seize him.

Weeping, Gilgamesh approaches a series of gods to ask for their aid; turned down by two gods, he is pitied by Enki, god of fresh water and of wisdom. Enki conjures Enkidu in the form of a phantom, so that Gilgamesh can see his friend and learn about life in the underworld. Enkidu informs him that people who die childless fare poorly, while the more sons they have the better off they are, thanks to the offerings their sons make for them on earth. The poem breaks off with the sobering information that unburied corpses find no rest in the netherworld, while "the one whose shade has no one to make funerary offerings ... eats scrapings from the pot and crusts of bread thrown away in the street."

Sin-leqe-unninni, or another editor in the late second millennium, included a translation of this tale as an appendix to Gilgamesh, though it is clearly not a continuation of the epic. Enkidu is alive as the episode begins and is Gilgamesh's servant rather than the wild man and intimate friend shown in the epic. Moreover, Sin-leqe-unninni created the standard version of the epic by expanding the Old Babylonian version, not by direct translation from the still older Sumerian poems. The tablet's readers were surely aware of all these differences, but it was not uncommon for ancient texts to conclude with some miscellaneous matter at the close of the main story.

The tale of Enkidu's underworld descent had a particular utility, moreover, greater even than the association of Gilgamesh with well digging early in the epic, for the story gave important clues as to how to behave and thrive in the underworld. At least for some readers, the twelfth tablet had a usefulness that overshadowed literary interest. On the twenty-seventh day of the fourth month of 705 BCE, a scribe in the Assyrian city of Kalah wrote out a careful copy of the twelfth tablet. He did this soon after his king, Sargon II, had been killed in battle in Anatolia. As the Assyriologist Eckart Frahm has argued, news of Sargon's death had probably just reached Kalah, an important scribal center and former capital of Assyria.

It has long been known that Sargon's son Sennacherib was so shocked by his father's death that he shunned his father's memory, abandoned his father's capital, Dur-Sharrakun, and established a new capital at Nineveh. Yet death in battle was generally regarded as a glorious sacrifice, not as a disgraceful death for a king. It might cause succession conflicts among his heirs, but it appears not to have been an issue for Sennacherib, who quickly and decisively assumed power shortly after his father's death. What was shocking was the manner of Sargon's demise: he had been overwhelmed by the enemy and his army had been routed, unable even to retrieve his body and bring it home for burial. This was a serious matter indeed, for unburied phantoms were likely to haunt their old homes, increasingly restless and malevolent. If not appeased, they could render a home unlivable — a motif that survives to this day in horror movies centered on nightmarish haunted houses.

Nabû-zuqup-kenu was acting in his official capacity when he copied the twelfth tablets. It closes with its description of the fate of the unburied and the unattended. As the next to last couplet says: "'Did you see the one whose corpse was left lying on the plain?' 'I saw him. / His shade is not at rest in the Netherworld.'" Nabû-zuqup-kenu, then, was studying the tablet in the same way he would study an omen text: to gain insight on what would happen in a situation that could be dangerous not only for the new king but for the entire kingdom. In copying the tablet, he was making it available for consultation by the new king and other priests, no doubt along with other relevant omen texts in his possession. Perhaps the tablets would also be used in rituals designed to appease Sargon's angry shade.

Evidently the prognosis was unfavorable and the rituals were unavailing. Certainly the Gilgamesh tablet could not have been reassuring to Nabû-zuqup-kenuor to Sennacherib, since it speaks of the deprived phantom's restlessness as a permanent condition. In the end, Sennacherib decided to undertake the huge expense and disruption of moving his capital to Nineveh rather than stay in the haunted palace of his doomed and unresting father. The twelfth tablet of Gilgamesh is regarded today as an expendable appendix, often not included in translations of the epic; yet its presence may be a prime reason why Sennacherib's grandson Ashurbanipal kept copies of the epic in his library.

Preserved in part through its advice on dealing with the dead, the epic has once again become, as it was for Sin-leqe-unninni, its own best answer to the problem of death and the transience of human life. Kings and heroes die, and even the greatest of cities can become a flood-swept mound; yet the buried book waits, reposing in darkness, for the distant day when it will be recovered, telling a new era's readers about the quest for immortality, the perils of advising headstrong monarchs, and the pleasures of beer and fresh-baked bread.

From the book The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh by David Damrosch. Reprinted by arrangement with Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Copyright © 2006 by David Damrosch. All rights reserved.

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Articles in this Issue

Bela Lugosi's Legacy, by Eric Nuzum
Days of Overblown, by Albert E. Martinez
The Chief Mourner, by Brenda Yun
Cleveland 1954, by George Sparling
Those New York City Faces, by Randall Dana
Engraving, by Russell Streur
Theater, by Austin Bunn
Assyriology, by David Damrosch
September 2007


David Damrosch is a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. He is the author of books on the Bible and on world literature and is the general editor of The Longman Anthology of World Literature. He lives in New York City.

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