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     Volume 2 Issue 32| August 8, 2010|


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Last & Least

The epic of Gilgamesh

The epic of Gilgamesh is probably the most ancient epic in literary history. It is older than Homer's Odyssey or Valmiki's Ramayan or Vyasa's Mahabharat. It is the story of about five thousand years ago while the Greek and Indian epics are at best three thousand years old. It is an excellent window of the past, through which we can see the lives of our ancestors. We can gain knowledge of the society of lost times which had influence on the development of subsequent cultures. Such an old text is supposed to be lost in the gloom of history but surprisingly it was discovered. Its discovery is also 'epical'.

The epic of Gilgamesh was discovered from Ashurbanipal's library at Nineveh (now in Iraq). Ashurbanipal reigned over the ancient empire of Assyria from 668 to 627 BC. During his reign he sent men to find out ancient texts at such historical sites of learning as Babylon, Uruk and Nippur. He then instructed his scholars to translate the collected texts into the language of his day -- Akkadian Semitic. They had a writing system called 'cuneiform', making use of wedge-shaped symbols. The writings were made on clay tablets. The epic of Gilgamesh was found in such tablets. As the kingdom of Ashurbanipal fell, the clay tablets were lost. These were discovered by the British archeologist Austen Henry Layard in the nineteenth century. In 1839 when he was going through Mesopotamia on his way to Ceylon (today's Sri Lanka) he found some mounds which he decided to investigate. Here the famous library of Ashurbanipal was unearthed. An astonishing twenty-five thousand broken tablets, which included the legendary epic, were brought to light.

The central hero of the epic is Gilgamesh. The character is full of mystery as it is the case with other epic characters. We may speculate whether the Trojan War was really fought and Helen, Paris and Achilles were actual characters; or whether the wars as described in Ramayan and Mahabharat really took place and these were participated by actual characters as Ram, Laksman and Raban, or Juthisthir, Arjun and Bhim. All traces are lost in the mist of time. Nothing can be said with certainty. However, Gilgamesh is strongly claimed to be a historical character. It is said that he lived between 2800 and 2500 BC and reigned over the ancient Sumerian city-state of Uruk (now located in central Iraq). He lived a heroic life with many expeditions and conquests. During the first several hundred years of his death, people recited tales of his adventures as separate stories. Then during the first half of second millennium BC, story-tellers began to string them together, forming the longer work, now known as the 'epic of Gilgamesh'. The total epic is divided into twelve episodes (with connection to twelve tablets).

In one episode of the epic, we find that Gilgamesh takes ambition to build great walls and temples to glorify his name and he goes to a forest on the Cedar Mountain in search of building materials. There, he and his friend Enkidu plan to chop down a great cider tree, but their attempts are hindered by Humbaba, the mighty guard of the forest. Gilgamesh seeks the help of sun-god Shamash promising a great temple for Him. The appearance of Humbaba has been described in the following verse lines (retold by Herbert Mason):

“Suddenly the wind sprang up,
they saw the great head of Humbaba,
like a water buffalo's bellowing down the path,
his huge and clumsy legs, his flailing arms
thrashing at phantoms in his precious trees.”
Enkidu was attacked by Humbaba. The scene of attack was horrifying, watched by Gilgamesh helplessly:
“Gilgamesh in horror saw him strike the back of Enkidu
and beat him to the ground until he thought
his friend was crushed to death.”
Scared Enkidu made a desperate move to free himself from Humbaba and this made the monster tilt. Gilgamesh took this opportunity to jump on Humbaba. He put him under his feet and struck with his axe:

“And then he raised his axe up higher
and swung it in a perfect arc
into Humbaba's neck.”

Humbaba is dead. Gilgamesh and his friend returns to palace and visits the forest again late night to ensure that the monster does not rise from ground any more.

“The stars against the midnight sky
were sparkling like mica in a riverbed,
In the slight breeze the head of Humbaba
was swinging from a tree.”

This is one of the heroic deeds narrated in the epic of Gilgamesh. In the above part, we see Gilgamesh with an axe, defeating a monster. The text has a sublime quality of great poem. We can find the vivid imagery, which are not lost even in translation, capable of evoking a mood of terror needed for the desired effect. In the last few lines we get a soothing touch of nature by virtue of such diction as star, midnight sky, sparkle, mica, riverbed, slight breeze, swinging and tree. This piece of epic holds not only historical value but also aesthetic value. It is a rare collection in the museum of ancient poetry.

I find many similarities between the Sumerian/Assyrian names and the Indian (and Bangla) names. First, take the name of the king 'Ashurbanipal'. It sounds like a Bangla word. 'Ashur' is a word well documented in Bangla dictionary, which means 'evil'. In mythological explanations, Ashurs are the enemies of gods as well as humans. Anthropologically, they belong to the human race that revolted against the supremacy of ruling elite, whose literature depicted the rebels as 'evil powers'. 'Ashur' might have originally meant something good but later its meaning degenerated. The other part of the name 'banipal' conforms to the sub-continental naming convention. 'Pal' is a familiar title so we get Ram Pal, Shyam Pal, Jadu Pal, Madhu Pal, etc. The land we call Bangla was once ruled by Pal dynasty (during 750-1174). Some of the important Pal kings are Gopal, Govindapal, Dharmapal, Devapal and Mahipal. Banipal is a valid Bangla name in phonological and semantic considerations. 'Bani' means 'message' and 'pal' means 'protector'. So 'banipal' may be taken to mean 'message of the protector'.

Also consider other words. The protagonist of the epic 'Gilgamesh' -- its sound characteristics are congruent with Bangla phonology. The three syllables 'gil+ga+mesh' have wide currency in Bangla words. The first syllable is related with the meaning of 'swallow', the second with 'body/village/sing' and the third one may be found in the reduplicated compound word 'sheshmesh' meaning 'at last'. The last two syllables rhyme with the common Bangla names like 'Ramesh' and 'Umesh'. The monster mentioned in the episode above -- 'Humbaba' -- also bears similarity with Bangla words. 'Baba' is a Bangla word meaning 'father' and 'hum' is a consent-expressing diminutive. 'Humbaba' also comes close to 'Hirimba', a monster character in Mahabharat. The sun-god 'Shamash' also bears a remote phonic resemblance with 'Surja', Bangla word for sun. It seems that 'Samash', 'surja' and 'sun' have come from the same source.

It may be said that the origin and diversification of 'Indo-European Family of Languages' has to do with the tongues of Sumeria/Assyria. Though the north of Black Sea is thought to be the place of origin of the aforesaid language family, Sumeria/Assyria might have a role in it. It is evident from the striking similarities between the words and legends they commonly share. People, from Sumeria/Assyria, or via those places, migrated to different directions carrying their language, which changed in different ways in course of time. Some changes can be traced back through reconstruction while some changes are now beyond recognition. The epic of Gilgamesh is open to linguistic research on a wider scale, whereby historical, geographical and ethnological factors could be taken into account.

We may discern a shadow of the Greek hero Hercules in the character of Gilgamesh. Like Hercules, Gilgamesh, a mixture of god and human traits, had several heroic expeditions. In one of the expeditions Gilgamesh killed the Bull of Heaven, sent by goddess Ishtar, just like Hercules killed Hydra. Many think that the epic of Gilgamesh had a great influence on the composition of Odyssey. I think, it has also influence on the epics of Ramayan and Mahabharat. And maybe, it left its legacy, in identifiable and unidentifiable forms, in the chronicles of Abrahamic religions as well.

Being a man, Gilgamesh wanted to be immortal. He attempted to learn the secret of eternal life by undertaking a long and perilous journey to meet the immortal flood hero, Utnapishtim, (in some accounts he is identified as Noah, who survived the Great Flood mentioned in religious scriptures) who refrained from entertaining Gilgamesh's appeal. However, he gained knowledge of 'Ea', whose cosmic realm is seen as the fountain of wisdom. Gilgamesh became a wise man -- a wise hero.

The epic of Gilgamesh is an invaluable treasure of antiquity. Gilgamesh was lost for about five millennia. He then rose from the depth of ground into air like volcanic lava. He has sprung from darkness to light. From historical oblivion, he has appeared in the collective recollection of humans. Hades, as it were, has sent him back from the world of death to Earth to live forever. Gilgamesh has resurrected. Now he will continue to live in the minds of people amid love and admiration. He attained in his death what was denied in his life.

(The writer is Assistant Professor and Head, Department of English, Daffodil International University.)


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