The Epic of Gilgameš

The Gilgameš epic tells the deeds of Gilgameš, the legendary king of Uruk, the man who sought immortality. He is the main character of many stories and legends found all over the Middle East, even after the end of the cuneiform culture.

Narratives relating to Gilgameš are known from at least the late third millennium BC. However, the most complete version of the Gilgameš epic that has come down to us is mostly known in seventh-century manuscripts from Nineveh. It is now usually called the Standard Babylonian Epic, and it was divided into eleven Tablets. About ten sources, some quite idiosyncratic, are known from the three CAMS/GKAB libraries.

No more of the Gilgameš story is known from the Uruk manuscripts. However, the end of the story is provided by Neo-Assyrian manuscripts, notably from Nineveh, but some passages are also known from Kalhu and Huzirina.

The latter manuscript shows many particularities compared with the version of the Epic known in Nineveh, both in its language and content. The numerous erasures and badly formed signs may suggest that it was written by an apprentice, perhaps under dictation. It is also characterized by many Aramaic features, that are common in other texts from Huzirina. Finally, the content itself differs so much from Tablet 8 of the so-called Standard Babylonian Epic, that the epic's most recent editor, Andrew George, suggested that the Huzirina manuscript should be considered a witness of "an older edition once current in Assyria and its provinces", thus different from the version known from Nineveh.

There are in all only few surviving manuscripts of this passage, none from either Huzirina or Kalhu. However, CTN 4, 153 [/cams/gkab/P363567/] from Kalhu relates the end of the Epic, recounted on Tablets 10-11 according to the Nineveh recension, but offering significant variants from it. The manuscript probably dates from the beginning of the Neo-Assyrian period and would thus be one of the oldest in the Kalhu "library". It is a unique example of an Assyrian manuscript that contains more than one Tablet of the Epic.

It is clear, then, that one manuscript from Kalhu and the two from Huzirina witness alternative traditions of the Epic in Assyria, either regional or older than the version known in Nineveh. They mostly belong to the second part of the Epic. The six manuscripts from Uruk are all excerpts of the first five Tablets, thus confirming they were used for teaching and learning. The situation is similar in other Late Babylonian archives, by contrast with Nineveh where the known manuscripts are distributed relatively evenly across all Tablets.

Further Reading

Marie-Françoise Besnier

Marie-Françoise Besnier, 'The Epic of Gilgameš', The Geography of Knowledge, The GKAB Project, 2019 []

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