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The Imprint of Immortality

By Rachel Galvin | HUMANITIES, September/October 2002 | Volume 23, Number 5

The Babylonian king Gilgamesh was said to be one-third human and two-thirds god. He ruled the city of Uruk on the Euphrates River more than four thousand years ago in what is now Iraq. According to legend, the gods sent him a series of ordeals, starting with the wild man Enkidu, who challenged the king and reformed his abuses of power. Once reconciled, the two embarked on a quest to fell all the cedar trees of southern Iran and slay Humbaba, the demon residing there.

So begin the tales of Gilgamesh. The heroic exploits of the king are recounted in cuneiform tablets that date as early as the second millennium B.C. and are currently held in the British Museum. Seminal Mesopotamian texts such as these are now being reunited in an online collection that makes them available to anyone with Internet access. “We are assembling a virtual repository of 120,000 cuneiform tablets from the third and fourth millennium B.C. in Babylonia,” says Robert Englund, director of the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative, or CDLI, at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Someone from San Jose should not have to go to the British Museum to look at these tablets, but should be able to look at them at home.”

The CDLI will be a database of digital images, transliterations, and translations. With support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Science Foundation through the Digital Library Initiative, Englund is collaborating with the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. By visiting the CDLI, users will be able to browse through the cuneiform collections of the British Museum, the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, the Louvre in Paris, the State Museum in Berlin, Yale University, and the University of Pennsylvania--all at one central site.

Invented by the Sumerians for the purpose of bookkeeping, cuneiform uses shapes pressed into clay to represent grain, sheep, and cattle. Early marks depict objects, numerals, or personal names. Some tablets measure only an inch in length, while others are the size of a large Bible; some can weigh several tons. Most are made of unfired clay and are highly fragile. Unlike their neighbors the Egyptians, who wrote with ink on degradable papyrus, Sumerians used squared-off reeds to make marks in clay tablets. Sumerians held the belief that writing would bring renown and assure immortality, and used the same word, mu, to signify both “name” and “fame.” By creating inscriptions and documenting their feats, Sumerian kings attempted to establish mu dari, or an “eternal name,” for themselves.

The desire for eternal life is a driving force in the Epic of Gilgamesh. After many adventures, the king’s companion Enkidu provokes the wrath of the deities and is sent to the House of Dust. Gilgamesh, in deep mourning, sets off alone to seek immortality. On his journey he encounters a siren-like innkeeper, a demon, a mysterious ferryman at the Waters of Death, and finally, Utanapishtim, the one man to survive the Great Flood--and the keeper of the secret of eternal life.

The similarities between the flood episode in Gilgamesh and the account from Genesis are striking. When George Smith of the British Museum rediscovered the Epic of Gilgamesh in the nineteenth century, its flood story became a sensation. Tablets had been arriving from archaeological expeditions near the Tigris river since 1854, and Smith, a bank note engraver and self-trained Assyriologist, had been working to decipher them. The London Daily Telegraph got wind of Smith’s efforts and sponsored an archaeological expedition to find the fragment that would complete the account of the deluge. In 1873, on the fifth day of excavation, Smith found the fragment. He published his findings--including a description of creation, the deluge, the tower of Babel, and the destruction of Sodom--in Chaldean Account of Genesis, which became a best seller.

“George Smith was able to recognize that you have the precursor to the Biblical story,” says Englund. “We know that Assyrian scribes were in Palestine at about the time these stories should have been developed. There are some motifs, such as the birds let go from the Ark to find land--those are things that I don’t think you can ascribe to any kind of chance, that have to be direct borrowing. . . .There was a lot of contact amongst those who would have best been able to do a cultural transfer of the idea of writing and literary traditions.”

As in the biblical episode in Genesis, the Sumerian flood caused great devastation and left one devout man--with his wife and some animals--to carry on the human race.

“According to Sumerian religion, the flood came to eliminate the noise makers--not the sinful people, but those who were making noise so the gods couldn’t sleep,” says Englund.

In Gilgamesh, the Sumerian Noah figure is named Utanapishtim, which means “he has found everlasting life.” He offers Gilgamesh the secret to immortality on the condition that the king pass a trial. The king fails, but Utanapishtim takes pity on him and gives him a plant of rejuvenation that will return his lost youth. When Gilgamesh hesitates to eat the plant, a snake makes off with it, shedding his skin as he slinks away, and the king must return home empty-handed. The epic concludes in a cyclical fashion, reiterating the verses with which it begins: adulating Gilgamesh’s achievements, the walls of the city, and the words of the epic.

The quest for immortality is recast in many of the Gilgamesh tales, says Steve Tinney, professor of Sumerian at the University of Pennsylvania. “At the beginning of one of the tales, he looks over the wall and sees bodies floating down the river. He’s unhappy and he asks what it is all for, what is the meaning of it all, and the meaning turns out to be that you can escape death by defeating a monster and setting up your name on a monument forever. So immortality comes to be represented by writing your name forever.”

The kings of Mesopotamia believed that by having certain texts inscribed, they would leave a legacy in perpetuity. But they also used writing to authenticate their rule while still in command. “I would call the priests the court propaganda ministers of the kings, because they would write up the justification of the king while he was in power,” says Englund.

The Sumerian king list, a chronology of dynasties of Mesopotamian kings, is an example of such a document. “It is a native historiographic text that attempts to organize a list of kings who ruled Sumer from deepest antiquity, before the flood, to the experience of the writers in the present day,” explains Tinney. “Most of these kings are genuine historical rulers of the cities in question and often had control over more than their own cities.”

The list was intended to substantiate the uninterrupted rule of Sumerian and Akkadian kings. It divides the succession into two periods, antediluvian and postdiluvian, with the great flood--around the turn of the second millennium B.C.--marking the shift from the mythological to the historical epoch.

The king list manipulates the accession of rulers and smoothes it into a seamless sequence. “The view that it presents is definitely in contradiction to what we know from other historical texts, which show us that in much of the south and middle of Mesopotamia, cities were competing for control,” says Tinney. “In a few cases the list has one king following another when we know they were synchronous. One very substantial city, Lagash, was omitted--either as political propaganda, or because by the time it was written down it was no longer an important city. So they have their own view of the historical sequence.”

Another text called the Curse of Agade, contained in tablets dating to 2000 B.C., tells the story of the fall of the Akkadian dynasty. “The dynasty’s fall occurred in 2150, in recent memory, but the text brazenly claims that the dynasty fell and the city was destroyed during the earlier reign of Naräm-Sîn,” says Tinney. “It’s likely that it was a backlash against Naräm-Sîn declaring himself a god. They were not shy to rewrite history for their own ends.”

The ancient Mesopotamian desire to leave a legacy meant that not only did rulers memorialize incidents by documenting them, but deposits containing inscriptions were also directly incorporated into the foundations of monumental buildings. Later generations renovating those constructions would search out the foundation deposits and integrate them into their own inscriptions, thereby linking themselves with their ancestors.

“We’re looking back at people looking back,” Englund says. “They thought they were members of an historical community that reached back many thousands of years. And they believed that future civilizations should have access to what a person had to say in his time.”

From the Old Babylonian period onward, or from about 2000 B.C., Sumerian was no longer a spoken language. The priesthood preserved it by continuing to copy Sumerian texts onto new tablets and employ the language in sacred rites. According to Englund, it was maintained much in the way that Latin was kept alive in the medieval monasteries of Europe. “Babylonians remained very interested in Sumerian, because they knew its cultural force and the great history of the Sumerian kings in literature,” he says.

Modern decipherment of Sumerian was aided by an 1854 rediscovery of a trove of literature in a ruined library at Nineveh, on the east bank of the Tigris river. The Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, who reigned during the seventh century B.C., was a patron of the arts and an avid reader. At the king’s command, copyists had compiled more than twenty thousand literary, religious, medical, epistolary, and administrative texts, creating the first cataloged library in the region. A twelve-tablet version of the Epic of Gilgamesh, was found at Nineveh, written by the first known author in history, Shin-eqiunninni. The library also contained copies of creation stories and folk tales such as “The Poor Man of Nippur,” a forerunner of The Thousand and One Nights. Only fourteen years after the king’s death, Nineveh was sacked and the library destroyed. It took twenty-four centuries for its treasures to be found again.

“Thousands of the tablets in Ashurbanipal’s library were bilingual--that is, ancient scribes translated them from Akkadian into Sumerian or vice versa,” explains Tinney. The bilingual tablets helped scholars crack the ancient language, but as of today, a complete Sumerian dictionary has yet to be published.

The first attempt to create a comprehensive Sumerian dictionary began in 1976, when Åke W. Sjöberg established the project at the University of Pennsylvania with support from NEH and other foundations. Tinney, Sjöberg’s successor, says his team expects to link their databases to the CDLI this fall and release a preliminary dictionary on CD-ROM in 2004. “The dictionary will represent a state-of-the-art combination of lexicon and primary corpora,” says Tinney. “We will provide a catalog of words and their definitions, similar to a conventional dictionary such as Harrap’s French dictionary, but augmenting that by linking words with the corpora, so it will be a very powerful research tool.”

The dictionary is configured as a flexible database with a range of entry points. “If somebody wants to find out what the word is for chair in Sumerian, and they find the word guza, they can then click on examples of guza and look at the text in which it occurs, and they can read about the kind of people who sit on the guza, which is a special kind of a chair--a throne,” he says. “You can find administrative texts from the CDLI corpus, which give accounts of the kinds of wood you use to make a guza, or whether you’re using leather, or whether it’s also decorated with golden bits.”

“I see the dictionary as a gateway to the culture,” says Tinney. “That is the larger, enduring value of the project.”

“Everyone in the field looks toward Philadelphia and what the project there is going to offer us in the near future,” Englund says of the Sumerian dictionary. “The philological tools we have developed, but also the digital tools we’re developing, help us to better understand these ancient texts--and how ideas and concepts moved from one culture to the next.”