Prelude to the Epic of Gilgamesh

So I’ve hit a major milestone in my reading of Ancient Literature, in that I’ve cracked open the Epic of Gilgamesh. I haven’t really started on the text proper because I’m reading the Penguin classics edition, and there are copious notes at the beginning about how the tablets were found, and some of the context of the story. This will actually be the third time I’ve read this book, because I was assigned it twice over the course of my time in college. I remember enjoying the story, especially since I’d already heard and seen pictures and parts of the story as a child through several books we had in the house (probably something from Dorling Kindersley, given the illustrations I recall). The crazy thing is though, now that I’ve devoted the time to the translation notes, I’m seeing a whole lot of things I didn’t see before. When they talk about the connection that Ziusudra was actually the mythological Utnapishtim (called Utu-Napishtimi in the notes), as well as Atra-hasis from a different epic, this time around, I actually have something to go on! I remember that guy! Shurrupak was telling him how to be a good king waaayyy back in the 2600’s. Probably no surprise he became a mythological figure, it happens all the time.

More than that, when I first encountered Gilgamesh back when I was a wee college student, I barely knew Uruk from Ur, much less the difference between Sumeria and Akkad. I’m not even sure my teachers really knew given how general those survey courses tended to be. No judgment on them of course, and I could be wrong, but somehow I doubt they tore the ECTSL apart looking for more samples of literature the way I have the last few months, and now that I’m back at what they actually assigned me to read, I wonder what sort of book report I would have given them, if I had that assignment to do again.

The milestone I’ve hit is that I’ve actually reached the first major literary work in history that a lot of college students actually get to read some version of, much less have any knowledge of. And because of the context I’ve gotten reading all the other stuff, the notes about how Shulgi of Ur and Ashurbanipal in Ninevah were so instrumental in creating libraries that preserved these documents actually had context. (I was joking in an earlier article about how Shulgi liked to toot his own horn, but apparently it wasn’t all bluster. He had some accomplishments under his belt that really were worth bragging about, and that were really to our benefit in the pursuit of understanding the world as it was in his time.) And to actually know what they are talking about and to say that I’ve read them changes things. All of a sudden… Hey! This stuff is not completely academic gibberish anymore! It actually means something!

There were also some notes in the introduction about what the meaning of the story was of course, being that it had to do with Gilgamesh’s struggle with mortality and the actual responsibilities of a king, but I’ll get into that next time as I actually read the direct translations. I was just so tickled by this indicator of how much I’ve learned that I felt like sharing.

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