An Assyriologist at the University of London (UCL) has discovered that a stolen clay tablet inscribed with ancient cuneiform text that was recently acquired by a museum in Iraq, contains 20 previously unknown lines to the epic story of Gilgamesh, the oldest known epic poem and widely regarded as the first great work of literature ever created. The discovery provides new details about Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, and Enkidu, a wild man created by the gods to rid Gilgamesh of his arrogance, as they travel to the Cedar Forest, home of the gods, to defeat the monstrous giant Humbaba.
reports that the tablet, which measures 11 cm x 9.5 cm, was purchased in 2011 by the Sulaymaniayh Museum in Slemani, Iraq, from a known smuggler of Mesopotamian antiquities. While such a move is controversial, in that it feeds the black market in antiquities dealing, the museum argues that it is the only way to regain some of the valuable artifacts that have been looted from historical sites in Iraq.
While the exact provenance of the tablet is unknown, the style of script and the circumstances of acquisition, lead experts to believe it was unearthed at a Babylonian site, and may date back ask far as the Old Babylonian period (2003 – 1595 BC).
When the text was translated by Farouk Al-Rawi, a professor in the Department of Languages and Cultures of the Near and Middle East at UCL, with the help of Andrew George, associate dean of languages and culture at UCL, the pair soon discovered that it added fascinating new details to the fifth tablet in the Epic of Gilgamesh.
Statue of Gilgamesh with a possible representation of Enkidu, from the palace of Sargon II at Dur Sharrukin (now Khorsabad, near Mossul), 713-706 BC. ()
A new perspective on the Cedar Forest
The Cedar Forest is the glorious realm of the gods of Mesopotamian mythology, described in Tablets 4 – 6 of the Epic of Gilgamesh. The forest, guarded by the demigod Humbaba, was generally thought to be a quiet and reflective place. However, the new section of Tablet 5 translated by Al-Rawi offers an entirely different perspective.
“Perhaps more surprising is the revelation that the Cedar Forest was, in the Babylonian literary imagination, a dense jungle inhabited by exotic and noisy fauna. The chatter of monkeys, chorus of cicada, and squawking of many kinds of birds formed a symphony (or cacophony) that daily entertained the forest’s guardian, Humbaba,” writes Al-Rawi and George in their paper ‘. “Humbaba emerges not as a barbarian ogre and but as a foreign ruler entertained with music at court in the manner of Babylonian kings, but music of a more exotic kind, played by a band of equally exotic musicians”
The newly translated text reads:
17 [Through] all the forest a bird began to sing:
18 […] were answering one another, a constant din was the noise,
19 [A solitary(?)] tree-cricket set off a noisy chorus,
20 […] were singing a song, making the … pipe loud.
21 A wood pigeon was moaning, a turtle dove calling in answer.
22 [At the call of] the stork, the forest exults,
23 [at the cry of] the francolin, the forest exults in plenty.
24 [Monkey mothers] sing aloud, a youngster monkey shrieks:
25 [like a band(?)] of musicians and drummers(?),
26 daily they bash out a rhythm in the presence of Ḫumbaba.
From the newly translated text, .
Early translators of the Epic assumed that the “Cedar Forest” refers to the Lebanon Cedars. A Cedar Forest in Lebanon ()
The remorse of Enkidu
The newly discovered verse also reveals new details about the inner conflict experienced by Enkidu as he and Gilgamesh kill Humbaba, guardian of the Cedar Forest and a childhood friend of Enkidu.
After slaughtering Humbaba and destroying the Cedar Forest, cutting down its trees and ripping down branches, Enkidu expresses remorse for his actions.
“Their reaction after the event is now tinged with a hint of guilty conscience,” write Al-Rawi and George in their paper. “The anxiety about offending the gods seems to a modern reader compounded by ecological regret…. This newly recovered speech of Enkidu adds to the impression that, to the poets’ minds, the destruction of Humbaba and his trees was morally wrong.”
302 [Enkidu] opened his mouth to speak, saying to Gilgameš:
303 “[My friend,] we have reduced the forest [to] a wasteland,
304 [how] shall we answer Enlil in Nippur?
305 ‘[In] your might you slew the guardian,
306 what was this wrath of yours that you went trampling the forest?’ ”
From the newly translated text, .
The translation of the new text reveals that, even thousands of years after it was first inscribed, the epic tale of Gilgamesh is still offering new and exciting discoveries.
The tablet and its translation is now on display at the Sulaymaniyah Museum in Iraq.
Featured image: This clay tablet in inscribed with one part of the Epic of Gilgamesh. It was most likely stolen from a historical site before it was sold to a museum in Iraq. Credit: Farouk Al-Raw