The Buried Book

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

Sometime around 1200 b.c.e., the Babylonian priest Sin-leqe-unninni edited and incised on clay tablets a story that first had been written down more than half a millennium earlier. This story told of a quasi-legendary king of Uruk, Gilgamesh, who, according to Sumerian king lists, had reigned in Uruk for 126 years in the early third millennium b.c.e. David Damrosch notes in The Buried Book that inscriptions from as early as 2600 b.c.e. invoke Gilgamesh’s aid in the afterlife, revealing that by that date he had already assumed mythic qualities. In the story that Sin-leqe-unninni recorded, Gilgamesh initially rules badly. Among his outrages, he sleeps with every bride before he allows her husband to do so. Uruk’s violated women appeal to the gods; in response to their pleas, the goddess Aruru creates a wild man, Enkidu, who will reform the king. As Damrosch retells the epic, he glosses the text. He observes that the gods’ indirect response to the women’s pleas reflects the poem’s realism, since in the poem a deity could simply have ordered Gilgamesh to repent. Enkidu grows up among the wild animals, a condition that Damrosch likens to Adam and Eve’s in their innocence. To protect the animals, Enkidu destroys hunters’ traps. The hunters seek Gilgamesh’s help, and he sends a temple prostitute, Shamhat, to seduce and tame Enkidu.

She succeeds, thus alienating Enkidu from the beasts who were his former companions. Damrosch comments that, whereas in the Bible Adam and Eve’s banishment from Eden is presented as a loss, Enkidu’s transformation is regarded as a beneficial step toward civilization. He does not move to the city, though, until he hears from a passing wedding guest about Gilgamesh’s habit of deflowering virgins on their wedding day. Enraged, Enkidu travels to Uruk, where he confronts Gilgamesh as the king is about to ravish a bride.

The two men fight to a draw. Recognizing that he has met his equal, Gilgamesh befriends Enkidu and abandons his wicked ways. Subsequently, Enkidu proves a less satisfactory adviser; Damrosch comments that the issue of good and bad counsel emerges as a theme in the epic. Gilgamesh and Enkidu travel to the Cedar Forest to secure trees for a temple. Damrosch notes that in early versions of the story, the cedars grow in western Persia, but after this region was deforested, accounts relocate the adventure to Lebanon. Guarding the forest is the ogre Hum-baba, placed there by the god Enlil. With the aid of the sun-god, Shamash, the two men capture Hum-baba. Gilgamesh wishes to spare the ogre, but Enkidu unwisely convinces the king to slay him. The dying Hum-baba curses the two: “May the pair of them not grow old together!/ None shall bury Enkidu beside Gilgamesh his friend!”

The curse is fulfilled after Gilgamesh spurns the advances of the goddess Ishtar, who has fallen in love with him. Enraged, she unleashes the Bull of Heaven. Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill him; then Enkidu taunts Ishtar by throwing a haunch of the slain bull at her. The gods condemn Enkidu to a lingering death that occupies two of the poem’s twelve tablets. Mourning his friend, Gilgamesh flees the city to find his ancestor Uta-napishtim, a mortal who survived a great flood and who has attained immortality. Gilgamesh wants to learn the secret of eternal life. In early versions of the poem, Uta-napishtim teaches his descendant various lost rituals; in the redacted version, Uta-napishtim tells about the flood in a...

(The entire section is 1455 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

American Scholar 76, no. 2 (Spring, 2007): 129.

Library Journal 132, no. 1 (January 1, 2007): 108-110.

The New York Times Book Review 156 (March 25, 2007): 25.

Publishers Weekly 253, no. 46 (November 20, 2006): 47-48.

The Washington Post, March 4, 2007, p. BW10.