The first evidence that the epic of Gilgamesh existed came to light when English archeologists in the nineteenth century discovered an archive of ancient clay tablets in the Middle East. In subsequent years, more tablets were found at other archeological sites in the region. The inscriptions on these tablets were written in cuneiform, an early form of writing that inscribed wedge-shaped characters into soft clay. The clay was often baked into tablets, just like pottery, to make a permanent record, and many of these have survived for thousands of years.
Cuneiform writing was used by the ancient Sumerian, Akkadian, Assyrian, and Babylonian peoples, and their strange and difficult languages resisted translation for many years. What finally emerged after years of diligent research was the fragmentary narrative of Gilgamesh, a legendary king of the great city of Uruk, which is mentioned in the Bible as Erech. Archeologists have located the site of this city near the present-day village of Warka in southern Iraq. The city of Uruk stood at the center of the kingdom of Sumer, which flourished around 3000 B.C. in the area of southern Mesopotamia.
The epic's geographic setting is real, and some of the characters may also have been real. Gilgamesh himself is probably based on a historical figure, whose life was later embellished with myth and legend. The time of the story is impossible to fix exactly, since there are so many versions and translations of the various texts. Bryson's interpretation is simply placed in and around Uruk on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in very ancient times.
Some locations mentioned in the text, while probably based on places in the actual world, are presented as the Mesopotamian and Sumerian imagination pictured them. Many can now be tentatively identified with real places. For example, the "Bitter River" which Gilgamesh crosses late in the narrative is probably the Persian Gulf.
While much of the appeal of the story derives from the essential qualities of the original narrative, Bryson's skillful use of language and the coherence of her characters adds considerably to the reader's enjoyment. Because of the episodic structure of the narrative, Bryson must quickly and concisely reveal the nature of her characters. She accomplishes this primarily through believable dialogue. For example, when Enkidu laments his loss of natural purity after the wild animals turn away from him, the reader is sympathetic with the pain he expresses. Both Enkidu and Gilgamesh are unquestionably brave. Yet both have moments of fear and self-doubt, making them seem well-rounded and human.
Through focused description, Bryson provides added touches of realism to the people and events. When Ninsun prays to Shamash for help, she first ascends to the roof so that her words can more easily reach the heavens. After her opening appeal, she waits a few moments to give the phrases time to rise to the god's ears. This passage not only suggests a sensible reverence for the deity but also enforces the presence of Nunsun as an experienced and devout priestess. Pertinent figures of speech also enliven the story, as when Humbaba's enormous moving arms are compared to the masts of a ship.
Bryson's text supplies a useful introduction of the gods and a helpful map of the territory of the story. Some of the places, such as the city of Uruk, are real. Other places are imaginary, such as the tunnel under the earth that connects night and day; or Dilmun, the Mesopotamian equivalent of the Garden of Eden. Authentic cuneiform quotations are sprinkled throughout the pages of the book, giving a sense of the ancient language in which the original was written.
Bryson has blended the very old and complicated set of fragments of an absorbing myth in her retelling so that modern readers may not only enjoy it but also ponder its mysteries. One may never know why Gilgamesh does not immediately eat the magic plant of eternal life when he has gotten it from the depths of the Bitter Riverbut, one might surmise that he wishes to take most of it home to help his people. Such open-ended matters remain a subject for lively speculation.
For Further Reference
Heidel, Alexander. The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949. This scholarly book provides a tablet-by-tablet translation, with variants, of the epic; there is also a study of parallels between Gilgamesh and the Old Testament.
Kirk, G. S. The Nature of the Greek Myths. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1974. Kirk discusses the parallels between Gilgamesh and the Greek myths.
Leaning, David Adams. Mythology: The Voyage of the Hero. New York: J. B. Lippincott, 1973. This volume examines major themes of world myths, and includes several passages about Gilgamesh.
Mason, Herbert. Gilgamesh: A Verse Narrative. New York: New American Library, 1970. This verse edition of the epic supplies some interesting and revealing interpretations. It also contains a useful listing of names and places that appear in the story, and a note about the background and themes. An afterword by John H. Marks discusses the history of the texts and several of the many versions of the epic.
Rodman, Selden. Portrait of the Artist as an American. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1951. This biography of Ben Shahn provides some interesting and informative background on Bryson.
Sandars, N. K. The Epic of Gilgamesh. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1972. This is probably the most readable of the scholarly prose editions of the epic. It includes a detailed and fairly readable introduction, a glossary of names, and a useful map of the ancient Middle East.
Steinberg, S. K., ed. Cassell's Encyclopedia of World Literature. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1953. The first volume of this reference work contains short but informative articles on Sumerian literature and on Gilgamesh.
Tomlin, E. W. F. The Oriental Philosophers. New York: Harper & Row, 1963. In the chapter on Babylonian philosophy, the author discusses the historical accuracy of the Gilgamesh story and examines several of its themes.
Wolff, Hope Nash. A Study in the Narrative Structure of the Three Epic Poems: "Gilgamesh," "The Odyssey," and "Beowulf." New York: Garland Publishing, 1987. A scholarly study that examines structural similarities among these epics.