Category: Ancient Mesopotamian literature

2. Code of Laws promulgated by Hammurabi, King of Babylon, c.1700 BC

Version : I had an old (1903) copy in my library, and there are copies available in print via online booksellers for around $4-$5, but the text can also be found online at http://www.constitution.org/ime/hammurabi.htm

Content : A list of laws, penalties, fines, wages and fees in ancient Babylonia. What is a fairly dry list of laws actually provides a lot of insight into life in ancient times. Reading the laws provides evidence of the presence of
• agriculture, irrigation canals, tillage, tenancy of land, corn and sesame, orchards, sheep grown for wool (and prey to lions), and allowance for storm, flood and drought
• belief in magic and witchcraft
• slavery
• doctors and veterinarians (with set fees, and penalties if their patients died)
• merchants keeping written records and using money
• marriage, separation, divorce, adoption and inheritance
• adultery, incest, rape, kidnapping and manslaughter
• theft, assault, defamation, brawling
with much resulting “put to death” or “bound and thrown into the water”, with the occasional burning alive, impalement and maiming. Even governors and magistrates were not immune to such harsh treatment. Also, the famous Old Testament “eye for an eye, and tooth for a tooth” is literally recommended as fair retribution.

My thoughts : Certainly not a volume for repeat reading for pleasure, but interesting nonetheless, and shows how original sources can inform historians about many social practices of the time. It also provided some legal protection for women and the poor in an age when their rights surely would not have been recognized otherwise, including a minimum wage and the presumption of innocence.

Favourite lines/passages
#109 If a wine merchant has collected a riotous assembly in her house and has not seized those rioters and driven them to the palace, that wine merchant shall be put to death.

Personal rating 3/10

Next : The Egyptian Book of the Dead.

1. The Epic of Gilgamesh : “He who saw the Deep” : circa 2000 BC

Plot : King Gilgamesh of Uruk is tyrannizing his subjects so they call on the Gods for relief. The Gods create an equal and companion for Gilgamesh, the hairy wild man Enkidu, born of clay and raised by gazelles. After their initial battle, the two become brothers and set off on adventures, including slaying the ogre Humbaba and the Great Bull of Heaven. Enkidu sickens and dies, leaving an inconsolable Gilgamesh fearing his own death and wandering the wilderness seeking immortality, where he faces scorpion-men and stone men, and must run the Path of the Sun.

My thoughts: Within the limitations of the style (and I admit the repetition of long tracts was tiresome), I thought the essentials of the story were worthy and my imagination provided an excitement and interest to the various trials of Gilgamesh. I loved the character of Enkidu, the noble savage who provided friendship, counsel and a moral voice to Gilgamesh.
Scholars have pointed out the similarities of the Great Deluge and Uta-napishti with the Biblical Flood and Noah. Like the Egyptians, the Mesopotamians were reliant on the rivers for their fledgling agriculture so naturally minor floods were part of their everyday experience. I was more taken with other Biblical similiarities such as Enkidu’s seduction leading to his loss of innocence and banishment from the natural world.

The story is not a well known one today, and has not been ‘adapted’ by Hollywood, probably because there is no climactic ending, although Gilgamesh’s own journey does come full circle and his personal story shows him grow in wisdom.

Favourite line/passages:
From tablet III
Ninsun, Gilgamesh’s goddess mother, calls on Shamash the Sun God to send the thirteen winds to assist Gilgamesh and Enkidu in their battle against Humbaba
“O Shamash, rouse against Humbaba the mighty gale winds:
South Wind, North Wind, East Wind and West Wind,
Blast, Counterblast, Typhoon, Hurricane and Tempest,
Devil-Wind, Frost-Wind, Gale and Tornado.”

And a little later she entreats Gilgamesh to take care and rely on Enkidu
“Who goes in front will save his comrade,
Who knows the road shall guard his friend”

Diversions and digressions: I am tempted to find out more about the Mesopotamian pantheon of gods, but as they do not seem to impact significantly on world literature like their Greek counterparts, I think I will move on.

Personal rating : 6/10

Next : The Code of Hammurabi , a list of laws and penalties attributed to the Babylonian king Hammurabi around 1750 BC. Which raises the question : what will I consider literature on this journey? Each reader must answer for themselves. I will read titles I find interesting or have resonance to later works. So for me, sacred texts (The Bible, The Koran, The Vedas, etc. ) are definitely ‘in’, and basic works on politics, history, science, etc. are also ‘in’. But you must read what you consider worthy : your time is precious. If you want to stick solely to fiction, I’ll meet you again at Homer’s twin works The Iliad and The Odyssey.

PS Any Doctor Who fans out there should try John Peel’s novel Timewyrm : Genesys (ISBN 0426203550) where the Doctor and Ace team up with Gilgamesh and Enkidu to defeat the alien/goddess Ishtar.

The Epic of Gilgamesh (around 2000 BC)

gilgamesh tabletGilgamesh gilgamesh2

I have two copies of Gilgamesh at hand, both are published by Penguin. I love the image chosen for the cover above with King Gilgamesh swinging lions about by their tails! It is a slim volume (around 100 pages) translated by N. K. Sanders (ISBN 014044100X) and is written in easy to read text, and very welcoming to start our epic journey. Personally I prefer Penguin publications as they always have a useful introduction and are very accessible to new readers (and look great spine out on shelves). The other Penguin version is a later edition translated by Andrew George (ISBN 9780140449198) which is in verse and presented in separate chapters corresponding to the original dozen clay tablets into which the story was carved. As I have read Gilgamesh some time ago, I think I will try the verse format and keep the prose beside me for reference. Will be back once the story is told.