Gilgamesh Is from Ancient Sumer

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GILGAMESH IS FROM ANCIENT SUMER

Gilgamesh is one of the oldest recorded stories in the world. It tells the story of an ancient King of Uruk, Gilgamesh, who may have actually existed, and whose name is on the Sumerian King List. The story of Gilgamesh, in various Sumerian versions, was originally widely known in the third millennium B.C. After a long history of retellings, this story was recorded, in a standardized Akkadian version, in the seventh century B.C., and stored in the famous library of King Assurbanipal.

Later, the story of Gilgamesh was lost to human memory, except for occasional fragments. The story was rediscovered in the mid-nineteenth century A.D., and made available in translation to German by the beginning of the twentieth century. People were especially amazed when they read this most ancient of stories, and realized that the flood story in Gilgamesh was a close analogue of the flood story in the Hebrew Bible.

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SUMER WAS IN MESOPOTAMIA

Mesopotamia was in the geographical area that is today called Iraq. The name we call it, "Mesopotamia," is actually Greek for "between two rivers." The two rivers were the Tigris and the Euphrates.

Mesopotamia was the site of one of three earliest urban civilizations (along with the Indus Valley in India and the Nile Valley in Egypt).

During the fourth millennium B.C., human settlements underwent a surprisingly rapid transformation from villages into developed cities with large populations, temples and palaces. During this period, "writing is invented, large buildings, temples and ziggurats, appear for the first time. . . . it was the organization of the canal system, of irrigation, that made the further developments possible." (Kirk,98)

In Mesopotamia there were constant tensions between the radically new cities in the fertile river valley and the ancient ways of the nomadic and hill peoples outside of the cities. Some of these conditions still exist today, as can be seen in the conflicts between the cities and the outlying areas in modern Iraq. The basic conflict is between the ways of civilization and the ways of the wilderness.

Mesopotamia was a land of intermittent drought and violent floods; this was not a kindly tame nature at all, as can be seen in the conflict between the wild Enkidu, who undoes traps, interfering with people's livelihood, and the civilizing Harlot, who lures Enkidu into the delights and responsibilities of civilization. The taming of Enkidu by the Harlot can be seen as a metaphor for the taming of the land by the means of civilization, especially the system of canals that controlled the wild waters and allowed for predictable, irrigated farming.

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WRITING

The reason the recorded story of Gilgamesh survived thousands of years was that it was written on clay, in a set of symbols we call cuneiform, and then fired. "Clay ... especially when fired...[is] the best--that is, the cheapest and most durable--writing material yet utilized by man, while papyrus, parchment, leather, wood, metal, and stone survive mainly by chance." (Oppenheim, 229)

Another reason for survival of ancient Mesopotamian texts is that the language itself was very difficult to learn. There were schools for scribes that taught a set curriculum of texts to copy precisely and in a fixed order. This resulted in lots of copies being made of many stories, with few variations, because accuracy of transcription was highly desired.

This tradition of exact copies can still be seen in the copying of the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament), which is supposed to be a perfect copy.

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ORAL AND WRITTEN TRANSMISSION OF GILGAMESH

Without a fixed written text, stories can be...
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