Monday, December 16, 2019

The Secrets of Gilgamesh

I watched a video lecture about the Epic of Gilgamesh over the weekend, as well as a handful of different other videos over the last few weeks about ancient cultures, certain passages of the Bible, how to build an ark according to the Sumerian story, etc., and I've got all of this stuff in my head, along with the lyrics to The Mesopotamians by They Might Be Giants, which takes four of the more famous names from ancient Mesopotamian cultures -- Sargon, Hammurabi, Asherbanipal, and Gilgamesh -- and places them in some kind of "Hey, Hey, We're the Monkees" song about being in a band.

Who are these people?  Completely off the top of my head, Sargon was one of the earliest known Sumerian kings.  Gilgamesh (or Bilgamesh in Sumerian) was also an ancient Sumerian king, who somehow wound up being a hero figure in a lot of mythological poems, culminating in a poet from a different future society weaving many of these stories together into an epic poem, the Epic of Gilgamesh, which influence later epics such as the Illiad and the Odyssey.  Hammurabi is a famous king from... Akkad or Babylon, I forget, who created a set of laws that later scholars decided were the first such laws ever set down, although subsequently we've realized he was borrowing from kings who came before him.  And Asherbanipal... all I know is he had a library where the clay tablets with the Epic of Gilgamesh were found.  He was an Akkadian or Babylonian king.

I find all of this stuff fascinating.  I find ancient history fascinating.  It's pretty amazing to think that ancient Rome and the time of Christ was 2,000 years ago, an almost unimaginable span of time, and yet recorded history goes back nearly 4,000 years beyond that.  We think our country has existed a long time, but some of these ancient empires lasted hundreds of years, over a thousand years.  We think Shakespeare lived a long time ago and his English is difficult to understand, but stories about Gilgamesh survived in the Middle East for well over a thousand years, through several successive empires.

What fascinates me even more is what we don't know.  Stories were told before the advent of writing.  Stories were written down, then lost.  The stories which we have -- even as popular a story as that of Gilgamesh -- is still fragmentary, assembled from many sources.  We've never deciphered the ancient writing of the Minoan civilization, so we only know about them from excavation and from Mycenean/Greek writers.  The Phoenecians dominated trade in the Mediterranean for hundreds of years, but we know little of their own writing.  What scrolls existed at the library at Alexandria?  We'll never know.  There are hundreds of carbonized scrolls found at the Roman city of Herculaneum which were all but destroyed by mount Vesuvius, and yet we are still trying to figure out how to unroll them and read them.  What heroes existed in myths told for hundreds of years that no modern person knows anything about?

A lot of my fantasies from when I was young until now involve imagining ways such history could have been preserved.  I imagine I'm a part of some ancient alien race, some elf-like beings, shapeshifters or godlike creatures who have dwelt among humans since ancient times and recorded what society was like, what tribes moved where, how people lived, what their music and stories were.  They have some hidden fortress or perhaps a base on another world where all of this information is kept, and if you wish to know what life in a Mayan city was really like, or what tales people told each other 10,000 years ago, you could find out.

I also used to imagine that once you reach heaven, you could learn all of the secrets to the mysteries that you'd read about that were never solved -- like what happened to the crew of the Mary Celeste, who was Jack the Ripper really, or what happened to the lost colony of Roanoke Island?  I guess I've always been really big on the idea that somehow we could learn all of the things we want to know, even though the truth is that we not only will never know most of these things, but in many cases the truth is likely much less interesting than the mystery that surrounds it.  Not to mention, there are many more mysteries and histories that are so forgotten that we don't even know to ponder over them.

On the flip side, we know so much more about some of this stuff today than we did even a hundred or two hundred years ago.  Two or three hundred years ago, experts imagined that written history began with the Greeks.  Slowly people learned of forgotten ancient cultures much older -- ancient Egypt, the Hittite Empire, ancient Assyria, Babylon, Sumeria, the Minoans, etc.  In 1853 the Epic of Gilgamesh was first discovered, but translations in English did not appear until much later.  So from one viewpoint I'm living in a pretty amazing time where we know much, much more about the ancient world than we did only a few generations ago.  I have the opportunity to read about things that people of past generations could only dream about.

I'm not sure there's a point to this post, other than all of these things have been bouncing around in my mind over the last few days.  ^_^

The Epic of Gilgamesh poem is framed by a description of the city he ruled.  It begins the poem, and at the end when Gilgamesh returns, having learned that his quest for immortality is in vain, it ends the poem, as if to say everyone dies, but look at the city!  Life goes on.

Climb Uruk's wall and walk back and forth!
Survey its foundations, examine the brickwork!
Were its bricks not fired in an oven?
Did the Seven Sages not lay its foundation?

A square mile is the city, a square mile the date-grove, a square mile is the clay-pit, half a square mile the temple of Ishtar:  three square miles and a half is Uruk's expanse.

See the tablet-box of cedar,
release its clasp of bronze!
Lift the lid of its secret,
pick up the tablet of lapiz lazuli and read out
the travails of Gilgamesh, all that he went through.

No comments:

Post a Comment