OUT OF DARKNESS
Before the flood
Literary history in three minutes:
Ruling gods above the earth, and monsters beneath it, inspire literature, but they are also its harshest censors. Obliteration is a constant threat: Tiamat may get loose and erase all the tablets, or a giant may rise from hell and bury or burn all of the libraries. Below: a medieval manuscript contemplates the end of the world by comet impact.
A mass extinction of texts, a general break in the literary record of humankind, a so-called "dark age," occurred generally throughout Eurasia both at the beginning and at the end of the classical period.
Fascination with classical times remains today, but in modern cultures, during the last 200 years or so, literature generally has refocused away from its traditional obsession with glories of the past. Moderns commonly presume that their own cultures are the most advanced that ever have existed on this planet, so that old models often are regarded as superseded. However, beliefs remain today that the past can help to explain the present or to forecast the future. So premodern times are still alive in the modern imagination, and indeed they now are studied by researchers more intensively than ever.
So classical literature (volume "A" in your Damrosch set) is preoccupied with pre-classical times, and postclassical literature (Damrosch volumes "B" and "C") dwells on the bygone classical age. In the mainstream literature of both of these periods, the ancient dead are viewed as possessors of wisdom or power that the living have lost. The time before the last catastrophe is an "age of heroes," that must be recalled to restore the degenerated world to a semblance of its former greatness.
This broken and anxious literary record of humankind poses the overarching question of why dark ages occur? The short answer is that we do not know for certain. In the premodern explanation, downfall is caused by malignant or offended gods, as in Utanapishtim's flood in Gilgamesh, Noah's flood in Genesis, or the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden in John Milton's retelling, Paradise Lost. Victims always are seen as bringing catastrophe upon themselves through misconduct, wrong belief, or violation of law. This view is essentially magical or priestly. It teaches that right conduct, right belief, or obedience to law prevents the anger of the gods and thereby saves humanity from extinction.
By contrast, modern explanations for world collapse are scientific: global catastrophes are thought to be caused by natural phenomena or human technological developments rather than angry spirits. Scientists theorize that Dark Ages have resulted from collisions of the earth with extra-terrestrial objects, epidemics, climate changes, crop failures, volcanism, or the development of deadly new technologies (e.g., the Bonze Age ended when new iron weapons came into use). Scientific theories have been proposed for what happened to the earth after 1135 BCE and 534 CE, and there is evidence for various theories, especially global cooling and plague, but it is a stretch to claim that there is scientific consensus as to precisely what happened. This has been the big story for thousands of years, and we are still trying to tell it right!
Early literature timeline
proto-writing develops cir. 3400 BCE(?) with syllabic script by about the time of the ruler Gilgamesh, cir. 2700 BCE.
BRONZE AGE (cir 3300-cir. 1200 BCE)
Harappan civilization in South Asia, cir. 3300-1300 BCE
Sumerian ascendency, 3100-2000 BCE
Minoan civilization on Crete, cir 2700-1627 BCE
Old Kingdom in Egypt, cir. 2696-cir. 2134 BCE
Shang dynasty in China 1550-1050 BCE
Cir. 3123 BCE. Sumerian astronomical record indicates the fall of a comet or meteor. Scientists have linked this event to abrupt climate change in Eurasia and north Africa. Some argue this event is referred to in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis. It may be the basis also for the Gilgamesh story, as discussed below on this page.
Cir. 1728–1686 BCE. Hammurabi
Cir. 1500 BCE. Hittite sack of Babylon.
Cir. 1135 BCE. Bronze Age collapse is complete. Exodus of Hebrews from Egypt? End of New Kingdom of Egypt, Middle Period in Babylon, Helladic period in Greece. Hekla 3 eruption in Iceland, famines in Europe. Approximate time of the Trojan War, described in the Homeric songs.
CLASSICAL AGE (1200 BCE-500 CE)
1100-1000 BCE. The Gilgamesh story is reworked in a composition by Sin-liqe-unninni.
1000 BCE. The first Jewish temple, the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. Rig Veda in India
727 BCE. Babylon is conquered by neo-Assyrians under king Tiglath-Pilesar III.
627 BCE. Death of Assyrian king Assurbanipal
612 BCE. Sack of Nineveh by Babylonians and Medes, destruction of Assurbanipal's library; the Gilgamesh story is buried in sand for the next 2500 years.
POSTCLASSICAL AGE (500 CE-1700 CE)
MODERN AGE (after 1700 CE)
1853 CE. Archaeological discovery of Assurbanipal's library in Iraq
1872 CE. Discovery that the Gilgamesh story contains a flood myth like the Hebrew Bible's Noah story.
Gilgamesh is like the world itself: old, broken, eroded, burned, hard to decipher. Its biggest fragments come from the ancient library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh, Assyria. That library was destroyed during a Babylonian uprising against Assyria in 612 BCE, and the tablets then disappeared under the rubble and sand until 1853 when they were unearthed by Iraqi archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam. The pieces were shipped to the British Museum in London, where scholars worked for years to decode the language and reassemble the puzzle. This work even now remains unfinished. The most noteworthy breakthrough came in 1872 when curator George Smith realized that tablet 11 contains an account of a universal flood very similar to the Noah story in the Hebrew Bible (Genesis 6-9). Widespread interest in Gilgamesh ensued. Right: Babylonian relief, thought to represent Gilgamesh, now in the Louvre, Paris.
The Ashurbanipal text is not Assyrian but Babylonian. It is thought to date back to 1000 BCE or perhaps earlier. Its scribe Sin-liqe-unninni is the first author in the world whose name is known, but older fragments concerning Gilgamesh exist in Old Babylonian (cir 1650 BCE) and Old Sumerian (cir 2100 BCE). A king of Uruk (=Iraq) named Gilgamesh is mentioned on an early Sumerian king list. His reign dates far back in the Bronze Age to about 2700 BCE.
Nobody knows the context or intended purpose of the original Gilgamesh story or its later versions. Repetition in the Ashurbanipal text may indicate that it was meant for oral recital or perhaps memorization, rather than reading. Repetition exists not only at the level of the word, phrase, and line but also in episode where foretelling is followed verbatim by the foretold events. Dreams materialize, giving the composition its strangely surreal qualities.
Repetition also exists at the level of the overall narrative structure, with the Humbaba adventure (tablets 2-5) parallel to the quest to Utanapishtim the Far-Away, the sole survivor of the universal flood (tablets 9-11). The Humbaba episode is quite fragmentary, but the monster appears to represent everything that can go wrong.
Humbaba's roar is a flood, his mouth is fire, his breath death
In his nightly dreams as he travels to do battle with the monster, Gilgamesh confronts his fears that Humbaba is a volcano (day 3, dream 1, page 70), that he is an earthquake and rift in the surface of the earth (day 4, dream 2, page 71), that he is an extra-terrestrial impact (day 5, dream 3 page 71), and that he is some other terror so fearful that Gilgamesh must consult Shamash the sun for help (day 6, dream 4 is missing; it may have represented solar disaster).
Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu put an end to Humbaba and their fears, but their presumption makes the earth goddess Ishtar so angry that she persuades her father the sky to send down the Bull of Heaven to starve Uruk with famine (page A77). Gilgamesh and Enkidu overcome the bull also, which makes them consider themselves to be greater than the gods, but this arrogance is fatal. The gods doom Enkidu, and Enkidu dies.
Foreseeing his own end in the death of his friend, Gilgamesh searches out the secrets of immortality by visiting the oldest man on earth, his ancestor Utanapishtim Far-Away. Together with Mrs. Far-Away, this ancient flood survivor had prepared wisely for the great catastrophe by building a particular kind of boat and waiting out the storm. After the rain was over, the god Enlil was sorry he had caused the couple so much trouble, so he made them immortal. However, Mr. Far Away predicts that no such happy unending awaits Gilgamesh. He and all humans must die. It's not a happy ending.
Does Gilgamesh itself encode an ancient cosmic catastrophe? Does it predict a future disaster that will wipe out all humans on earth?
Back in the middle of the Bronze Age, in about 2160 BCE, the constellation Taurus (the bull) ceded its rule in planetary precession to the next constellation in line in the zodiac, Aries the ram [for precession, recall lesson 1]. Why? In the night sky, Taurus appears to be slain by the figure we call Orion the hunter, a constellation that the ancient Babylonians associated with the awesome and troublesome mortal god Gilgamesh. In the Babylonian story, Gilgamesh and a cosmic partner are responsible for slaying the bull of heaven, but where in the heavens today is Enkidu, the dead companion who once helped Gilgamesh (Orion) kill the bull? He's not there any more in the sky. He has fallen to the earth, the story says:
The death of the bull (ending the age of Taurus) upset Ishtar (the earth), who gets her father Enlil (ruler of stars) to throw down Enkidu (a companion of Orion). Following the fall of this stellar object, Gilgamesh takes on the appearance of a hunter dressed in lion skin: he becomes almost as uncivilized as Enkidu was before arriving at Uruk. This is the apparently mighty figure that today we see prominent in the night sky, but he is not as strong as he looks, the story seems to warn. Orion has not yet fallen, but Enlil will make him fall one day, and all mortals then are going to die.
It is often said that Enkidu in the Gilgamesh story repeats the evolution and development of the human race, beginning as animal, progressing to nomad, and finally becoming a city-dweller. But there is a reverse of this developmental pattern in the story when, following the death of Enkidu, Gilgamesh leaves the city and wanders in the wilderness like a madman. Does the story suggest that the cycle of civilization, from wilderness to city and back to wilderness, is the result of cosmic impact? Is its meaning that Orion also will fall in the future, and so earthlings will go extinct? Is there any boat that can take just a pair of us, with wisdom's help, to the happy home of Mr. and Mrs. Far Away?
(As it happens, one of the chief stars in Orion, the fast-lived red giant Betelgeuse is expected to explode as a supernova in the near future! Keep watch for fallout when "Gilgamesh" falls! His death could make all of us very sad indeed!)
Above: Gilgamesh slays the bull of heaven? The constellation Orion (the hunter) is associated with Gilgamesh. "Gilgamesh took the axe, he slung the quiver from his shoulder, and the bow of Anshan, and buckled the sword to his belt; and so they were armed and ready for the journey."
Below: Sumerian tablet cir. 2700 BCE, approximately the time of the historical ruler of Uruk named Gilgamesh. Fragments of the Gilgamesh story exist in Sumerian, but the hero's name in those fragments is Bilgames. The name Gilgamesh was not associated with the story until much later (cir 2000-1600 BCE), in retellings in the Akkadian language. The story achieved the form we know cir. 1200-1000 BCE by a Babylonian scribe named Sin-liqe-unninni. We cannot be sure how creative Sin may have been, whether he added new elements to the story or simply recopied from older texts. Perhaps he was responsible for attaching the flood story to the older Sumerian legends of Bilgames and Enkidu.
Parallels between the Babylonian Enuma Elish and the Hebrew Bible's Genesis were noted in Lesson 1. Parallels between the flood stories in Gilgamesh and Genesis also make it clear that one borrowed from the other, or else both borrowed from a common source story. In both accounts, a deity (Enlil, Yahweh) determines to destroy mankind, but there is also a divine decision (by Ea, by Yahweh) to save one human family (Utanapishtim's, Noah's). Warned of the coming flood, the head of this chosen household builds a boat of many chambers, seals the vessel with pitch, takes on board his family and a variety of animals, and rides out the storm. Rains raise the flood level to higher than the mountain tops, but the storm subsides, and after a number of days (7, 40) the boat comes to rest on a mountaintop (Nimush, Ararat). The survivor sends out a series of three birds to find land, and the third does not return to the boat, signifying that dry land has emerged. The family goes ashore, and gives sacrifice that delights the deity (gods, Yahweh). The anger of the deity then is replaced by compassion (Enlil makes Utanapishtim and wife immortal; Yahweh makes a new covenant with Noah and family that there will be lasting peace).
Readers also may note similarities between Enkidu/Shamhat in Gilgamesh and Adam/Eve in Genesis. Shamhat replaces Enkidu's animal companions as Eve arrives in Eden to console Adam. She teaches the naked man at the watering hole ("edin" in Akkadian language) to wear clothes, much as Adam and Eve learn to clothe their nakedness after eating from the tree of knowledge.
Both stories concern immortality, and the early human quest to become gods or godlike. In both, immortality was lost because of a sneaky serpent.
The God of Genesis, Adam, Eve, the serpent and Noah may be Hebrew transformations of ancient Near Eastern legends. Fragments of Gilgamesh have been found at Ur, dating to the period when the father of the Hebrews, Abraham, is said to have lived there (Genesis 11:31) serving other gods (Joshua 24:1). Another possibility is that the Genesis story was derived from the Babylonians during the time that the Jews were captive in Babylon, 586-537 BCE. However, the dating of Genesis and Gilgamesh remains uncertain. Some Jews and Christians believe that Genesis is the original story from which Gilgamesh borrowed; others believe the reverse.
For all of the similarities between Gilgamesh and Genesis, fundamental differences between settled Mesopotamians and wandering Jews are reflected in the texts. The city-dwellers of Mesopotamia saw nomads of the surrounding territories as threats to the cities. The urbanizing of Gilgamesh's friend Enkidu reflects this bias: Enkidu is uncouth in the wild and then only semi-civilized while he lives with the shepherds (A65). By contrast, the Hebrew Bible contains a defense of the pastoral way of life in the great out-of-doors (the life under Aries); its paradise, Eden, is well watered and delightful country companioned with animals, a perfect place to raise kids and to talk to God.
In Genesis Adam originally lives naked among the wild animals, much as Enkidu lives until he is tamed by Istar's priestess Shamhat. However, the change from wild man to civilized man in Genesis is a falling away from Yahweh and nature, where in Gilgamesh it is a rejection of beastliness and isolation--an evolution into a life of pleasure and glory in Uruk. Gilgamesh is the king and defender of the city. Abraham and the Jewish patriarchs are shepherds and nomads. In Genesis, the founder of cities is no king or star: he is Cain, the first grower of crops and first murderer of a shepherd. Yahweh commands Abraham, Lot and Moses to get out of town. Jerusalem, the city established later in Jewish history, and the settled land of Israel will be problematic for the Jewish people.
Differences between Shamhat and Eve also are related to environment. Uruk and other sites in ancient Sumer were dependent on agriculture and large military populations to defend the crops. The cultural life of these cities featured ceremonial sex between the king and the fertility goddess Inanna/Ishtar. The goddess was portrayed by her temple priestess, a Mother Earth figure believed to be responsible for the abundant harvests and numerous healthy children that city life required. In Gilgamesh, her image carries over to Shamhat, whose union with Enkidu civilizes him. The priestess' image seems also to carry over in Genesis, however, to the lady of Eden, Eve, whose disobedience to Yahweh causes the unhappiness of infertile ground and painful child bearing. Eve's attributes derive from a patriarchal culture, but they also reflect a nomadic way of life where excess population is a curse because the land cannot sustain it. Left: Bronze Age harp from Ur. The harp is an essential token of civilization in settled Mesopotamian cultures, but in Genesis, the murderer Cain is the father of harp players. Nomads must travel light.
Key concept: literary history is shaped in general by global catastrophes. Major disruptions in the literary record occurred at the end of the Bronze Age (after 1627 BCE), and at the end of the classical period (cir. 536 CE). Gilgamesh's attempt to learn the wisdom of a survivor of global catastrophe is characteristic of classical literature which looks back at pre-classical "heroic" times for guidance.
Key concept: Literature tends to produce culture when it is so attuned to the environment of its audience that it enhances their survival. Gilgamesh and Genesis reflect competing urban and nomadic lifestyles.
1. Reading tip #1: find a quiet place.
Reading is an unnatural act. Our minds naturally wander away from texts to sounds, motions, food, partners, children, commercials and all media hype, no matter how foolish. To enter the quiet and motionless world of a text, ignore diversions If female, get thee to a nunnery; if male, stay away from there, too. Where are you trying to read? Have you got the place that you need?
2. Reading Tip #2: read actively with your hands
Mark up the text that you are reading. Make notes in the margins, underline and highlight key passages. These activities will help to hold your attention on the text. They also will help to reinforce the reading experience. They let you skim back through the pages and quickly review important points. This exercise builds synaptic strength in the networks of your brain.
Underlining, highlighting, margin writing make memory where eyeball rolling makes tired eyes. Do something with a text, do anything besides stare at it, and eventually it will teach you its messages.Right: homunculus image of the human body, with body parts in proportion to the brain mass that controls them. An extraordinarily large amount of brain is devoted to the hands. When eyes and hands work together, much more of the brain is engaged.
Our attention follows our hands. Try using colored markers or colored pencils. When I really want to study and remember a text, I use three or four separate colors to identify three or four major themes or ideas that I discover as I read. As I read Gilgamesh in preparation to write this web page, I used blue for astronomical passages, gray for catastrophic, yellow for urban/civilized, green for nomadic/pastoral/wild. It helped.
3. Reading tip #3:
write after reading
I do NOT write what I already understand. I do NOT write about anything that I want to forget. Writing these things would waste my time and brain space--both of which are very limited. Instead, I write what I want to understand or remember. How could Gilgamesh relate to cosmic catastrophe? How could it reflect the environment in which was written? These were the two main questions that I had about Gilgamesh. To find the answers, I had to write.
Your questions may be much different from my questions. You may find a text to be so confusing that it is hard to know where to begin writing about it. (That is a common experience in a world literature course.) In that case, simply summarize the reading or outline it. With a longer narrative like Gilgamesh, make a list of the episodes or scenes in the story, and briefly summarize each of them. Include specific details, such as character names, to avoid vagueness and over-simplification in your description. Condensing the story into a couple of pages of your own words gradually will yield a sense of control over the text. And this control can put you on the path toward understanding.
Here is a sample Gilgamesh summary that I wrote. Yours will differ, and mine will differ too, when next I write another outline.
Got it! I punctuated this summary with questions that were occurring to me as I read, so the result is less an outline of the story than a summary of my reading experience.
4. Modern adaptations: Unlike the Enuma Elish and Hesiod's poems, Gilgamesh continues to attract strong literary interest as a "classic" worthy of adaptation and presentation to modern audiences. As noted in the Bryn Mawr Classical Review, the popularity of Gilgamesh is indicated by many translations, imitations, and references today. See Ludmilla Zeman's trilogy Gilgamesh the king, The revenge of Ishtar, and The last quest of Gilgamesh, London and Montreal: Heinemann/Tundra Press, 1992-95, and Irving Finkel's more faithful Gilgamesh the hero king, London: British Museum Press, 1998. For an imitation try Philip Roth's The great American novel (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1973), with its baseball star antihero Gil Gamesh, or there is Joan London's Gilgamesh (London: Atlantic, 2003), set in the Australian outback. See also Bohuslav Martinu's opera Gilgamesh (1954) and Augustyn Bloch's ballet-pantomime Gilgamesz (1968). What do you suppose might account for this continuing popularity?
5. How about those disaster sites? There must be thousands. What is the link between disaster and entertainment? National Geographic: The Search for Noah's Flood. Space.com: Comets, Meteors and Myths. BBC News: Disaster that Struck the Ancients. USGS Earthquake Hazards Center. Contemporary interest in "global warming" and climate change now colors global history, including Near Eastern studies. The Akkadian empire collapse cir. 2000 BCE, for instance, is said to have resulted from very prolonged drought: Columbia University abrupt climate change. USGCRC: abrupt climate change. Is this draught personified in Gilgamesh as the Bull of Heaven?
6. Map of Mesopotamia. Aerial photos show the limited green space available for agriculture in the immediate river valleys of Mesopotamia. The human conundrum is that this fertile area must be defended from invaders, so big populations are needed, but growth in the number of mouths to feed puts additional pressures on the land. Are there parallels today? Are there invasions or immigrations of nomadic peoples into settled civilizations? (By civilizations, we mean cultures based on cities ["civitas" in Latin] or settlements.) What roles is literature playing today in on-going confrontations of nomadic and civilized cultures around the world?
7. Geographical features and environmental conflicts. What about these subjects for your own writing: geographical or geological features of the landscape in your area, migrations and settlement history in your area, environmental conflicts or competing land uses in your area. Can you do for your locality what Hesiod did for Mount Helicon or what Sin-liqe-unninni did for Uruk? What story might best reflect the environmental situation of your community? Take a look around. To what extent are the people that you see created by the world in which they live?
8. A universal flood? Because there are so many stories from so many pre-modern cultures that tell of humanity's narrow survival from a great flood, lots of speculation has been offered that such a flood actually must have taken place, much as the old stories say. However, if we recall Lesson 1, and the idea that giants might be volcanos, it may be that the flood stories are simply explaining why marine fossils can be found on dry land almost everywhere on earth. Prior to modern earth science, anyone wondering about the remains of fish on mountaintops might well have assumed that in days of yore there had been a really, really big rain!