One of the most recurrent fantasies in science fiction is the invention of a machine capable of transporting us through time. Only it already exists. It has been around for about five thousand years and answers to the written name. The Epic of Gilgámesh – He who saw the abyss is a very eloquent proof of this. It is the oldest narrative recorded by mankind that is known to this day. And the story of how she was discovered demonstrates how amazing the world is.
Stories about Gilgámesh had been circulating throughout the Mesopotamian world at least since 2000 BC – but all this fame was lost at some point and remained totally forgotten until 1859, when a British archaeologist discovered in Nineveh (today Mosul) the buried ruins of what had been a large library, with tens of thousands of small clay plaques marked with cuneiform writing. It was King Ashurbanipal’s library, destroyed in a fire, a momentary tragedy that turned out to have a positive side: fire may have helped to conserve clay until contemporary discovery.
Then began the work of decoding the plates, a slow process that started with the names of the kings (the formula for mentioning them was always repeated) until in 1872 the decipherment of the 11th tablet left the world with a jaw dropping: it told the story of a great flood which only one man had survived with his family, in a boat built according to divine instructions, and in which he guarded the species of all the animals and seeds that existed on earth. It was discovered at that time that the story of Noah narrated by the Torah and the Old Testament had an origin even older than that linked to the Judeo-Christian tradition.
The flood episode is just one of several stories told in the Epic of Gilgamesh . It is truly amazing to know that the narrative already circulated like a best-seller throughout the ancient world, translated into several languages ??by order of Ashurbanípal, a scribe king who understood before anyone else the power of circulating and systematized information. Thanks to him, the Epic was reproduced from Egypt to Persia and even today, in the XXI century, new fragments are being discovered, decoded, translated, retranslated and reordered, enriching the narrative and revealing its regional variations.
I had heard of Gilgamesh many times before. A few months ago, I read more about the narrative and about Assurbanípal in one of the chapters of The World of Writing, by Martin Puchner , one of those books that makes you buy many other books. But the decisive impulse to chase Gilgámesh in earnest came with a participation by Ronaldo Correia de Brito in a class by Raimundo Carrero, at Sesc Paulista.
The theme was Sertão, and Ronaldo then spoke about how João Guimarães Rosa may have been inspired by Gilgámesh to create the jagunços Riobaldo and Diadorim de Grande Sertão: Veredas . One of my books in life, it carries the most painful love narrative in Brazilian literature: a story of homo-affective passion between two warriors seeking to prove their worth in battles that unfold in a wide and inhospitable space. A scholar who was Guimarães Rosa, Ronaldo said, he certainly knew Gilgámesh. The relationship, therefore, could not be just coincidence, but a deliberate interpretation of the Mesopotamian narrative (I describe it from memory: unfortunately, I couldn’t find the course notes to write this post).
For the Epic is the story of a young, urban king who goes out into the world to prove his worth. At the beginning of the journey, he finds the perfect partner in Enkidu, a creature created from clay by the goddess Arúru. They are antagonistic in every way: Gilgámesh is refined, dresses well, and always has his hair and beard treated with care. Enkindu is a wild animal that needs to learn to drink beer and eat food prepared by human hands. Still, the connection between the two is immediate and prophesied by the gods:
You will love him as a wife, for him you will be excited,
He is strong, he will always save you!
Mother, through the mouth of the counselor Énlil such happens to me!
A friend, a counselor I will win.
I will gain a friend, a counselor!
Together, they go out into the world looking for adventures, defying the gods, in this friendship relationship that to today’s reader will seem to be filled with sexual desire. Translators and scholars tend to think that it was just a joke (in the end, that doesn’t matter – as women over the millennia are already tired of knowing, there is no love stronger than one male for another).
Until Enkidu dies and Gilgámesh goes into deep mourning, which makes him abandon the values ??and habits of the city to wander the world like a savage – as Enkidu had been – totally shaken by the idea of ??mortality. That’s when he decides to go to the end of the world to find the only immortal man known to be: Uta-napishti, who had survived the mythical flood, gaining immortality from the gods – the Mesopotamian character who inspired the Judeo-Christian Noah.
Mesopotamia was located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which suffered periodic flooding. It is to be expected that one of these, more severe and possibly lethal to thousands of people, inspired the flood myth. Sensational is the reason why the gods (in the Mesopotamian case) or god (Judeo-Christian) decided to fill the earth with water: purely and simply population control. In the Bible, as in Gilgámesh, there is no moral judgment or punishment involved with the divine decision to eliminate a considerable part of humanity – only the objective assessment that it was time to make a numerical cleanup, without distinction between virtuous and sinners.
One thing has impressed Gilgámesh since the first time he sees Uta-napishti: despite his immortality, he leads an absolutely normal life – tedious, even. This point summarizes a little one of the great virtues of the Epic of Gilgámesh – it is not just an incredible story of love and adventure, but one permeated from end to end by great existential and social life issues.
King Gilgamesh might be strong and imposing in battle, but he had a world of caraminho in motion beneath the curls of his hair. Despite being two-thirds god, the remaining one-third was all too human. I don’t remember having this feeling about the Greek narratives consolidated by Homer, for example. Ulisses is so perfect that it makes you want to hit him. As for Gilgámesh, we want to pick you up, give you a friendly hug, call the bar and say “dude, we’re together”.
Why are your temples consumed, your face dug,
Unfortunate your heart, annihilated your figure?
There is grief in your bowels (…)
Furthermore, the Epic portrays the clash between two ways of life: urban and rural, or wild. The hero being the king, the scales tipped slightly to the city’s side. But it is interesting to see that ambiguity with regard to nature (or the countryside) was already as present in cities in the 27th century BC as in São Paulo in 2020.
Gilgámesh is a delight to read. The story is written in verse and has a rhythm that has reminded me all along of contemporary musicals: the repetitions are skillfully used by the scribe to imprint rhythm and style to the narrative. Some excerpts are used as true refrains that, repeated by different characters with slight variations, are very reminiscent of contemporary operas or musicals.
The work is not just a wonder for its antiquity or the way it was rediscovered: it is also a wonderful aesthetic creation. There are several excerpts suppressed because of flaws in the tablets, and even that is beautiful to see: the story that has come down to us is also a bit of chance. From time to time, discoveries of new tablets and other versions fill the gaps, but we may never actually know the complete work.