Dedicated to Morris Jastrow, Albert Clay, Bernarda Bryson, Thorkild Jacobsen and Andrew George, for their tireless work translating these ancient tablets, and to our families the source of our love, support and inspiration.
This book contains the complete text for the Epic of Gilgamesh based, as much as possible, on the original Old Babylonian tablets. It also discusses both the teachings of Siduri and how Siduri's ancient advice may help guide us to a happier life.
King Gilgamesh, from the Epic of Gilgamesh
The Epic of Gilgamesh is the first great work of literature. We are extremely fortunate to still possess fragments of the original Old Babylonian version of the Epic of Gilgamesh thanks to the methods the ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia used when they first invented writing. The Sumerians made wedge shaped letters in soft clay that we call cuneiform. This was originally invented around 5,000 years ago as a method for keeping track of taxes paid, in the form of grains and livestock, to the central city temples.
The Sumerians and their ancestors created the Epic of Gilgamesh, a story of gods, kings, battles, friendship, loss, the fear of death, the search for immortality and advice on how one should live life. It is probable that this story had been verbally transmitted for a very long time before the invention of writing, but we have no way of knowing the exact date when the story actually originated or how many original contributors there were. What we do know is that the story encompassed a large number of concepts, ideas and philosophies and was considered important enough that it was told from generation to generation for hundreds of years, before being immortalized in clay around 1,800 BC. Unfortunately, the original “Old Babylonian” version of the Epic of Gilgamesh is incomplete, making it difficult for us to piece together the exact story our ancient ancestors considered so important. However, several important fragments of the original Epic have been recovered and differ in significant ways from later more complete versions. One of the most fascinating of these original fragments is the Sippar tablet which was discovered near the city of Sippar, on the Euphrates river upstream of the Babylonian region in present day Iraq. The tablet is comprised of two fragments, one of which is currently located in the British Museum in London (BM 96974) and the other in the Vorderasiatishes Museum in Berlin (VAT 4105). The Sippar tablet contains the earliest recorded advice (found on the larger VAT 4105 fragment) given to Gilgamesh by a beautiful young girl called Siduri, on how we should live our lives. Interestingly, in a later version of the Epic of Gilgamesh (referred to as the “Akkadian” version) Siduri’s advice was removed from the Epic and much of her original role was given to Utnapishtim, an immortal wise old man. One theory for the diminishment of Siduri’s role is that Siduri being young, female and working class (wine maker), and Utnapishtim being old, male and high class (wise man/immortal) may have played a role, and may suggest possible cultural differences between Sumerian culture and Akkadian culture. Specifically, this change may highlight a degree of ageism, sexism and/or classism in Akkadian culture, and the removal of Siduri's advice could represent the first recorded case of censorship.