A new edition of the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Author:Foster, Benjamin R.
Position:The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Introduction - Book review
 
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  1. R. George's new edition of the Epic of Gilgamesh is in every respect worthy of its great subject. No other work of Mesopotamian literature has attracted as much scholarly and non-scholarly interest. For well over a century, virtually every Assyriologist has written about the epic and many have translated it. Many more writers, innocent of any knowledge of the ancient texts, have produced their own renderings, for adults and children, in numerous languages of Europe and Asia. A recent entry in the amateur field, Stephen Mitchell's Gilgamesh: A New English Version (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), has the distinction of being the first based on consultation with George's edition, but has the sancta simplicitas to claim that George's own rendering was not, for Mitchell at least, a "genuine voice for the poem" (p. 2).

Serious students of the poem have long faced daunting challenges even by the standards of Assyriology. The many fragments of the ancient manuscripts were scattered in collections across three continents. Some of the most important were published in the early days of Assyriology using widely varying epigraphic standards. For key fragments or manuscripts, a vast specialized literature burgeoned: conflicting proposals for difficult signs, words, and passages, conflicting collations, some published, some circulated privately. A few fragments remained technically unpublished but were quoted by a privileged elite over a period of decades (one piece, identified in 1961, is definitively published here for the first time!). The two most important collected text publications, P. Haupt, Das babylonische Nimrodepos, Assyriologische Bibliothek 3 (Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1891), and R. Campbell Thompson's The Epic of Gilgamish: Text, Transliteration, and Notes (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1930) were major achievements in their own times, but, their merits notwithstanding, they have been dwarfed into insignificance by George's work and are now wholly superseded. After Campbell Thompson's collection of sources of 1930, the inventory of manuscripts has nearly doubled, much of it scattered through the technical literature of Assyriology. The professional had to assemble a most diverse group of material and was always plagued with doubts as to the reliability of his text, much less his understanding of it. One marvels at George's years of patient effort and arduous travel to collections in Europe, the United States, Israel, Syria, Turkey, and Iraq. One marvels even more at the exquisite new copies of the sources, in so many periods and styles of cuneiform writing, including some major projects like exact new copies of the large Yale and Pennsylvania tablets. Epigraphically, no other text edition in the history of Assyriology can compare with this. We now have a reliable text of what remains of the Epic of Gilgamesh for the first time and we can hope that the usual flurry of clever and sometimes forced and fantastic new readings that often follow a new text edition will be smaller than usual.

The door to solving problems in Gilgamesh by emending cuneiform signs seems to me to be pushed shut; we must accept that we now have what the tablets read, whether or not we are comfortable with the reading. George himself rarely emends (for example, Standard Babylonian Version [hereafter: "SB"] V 177). Many students of the epic may feel, as I did, regret to see some favorite ideas or readings of his weighed in the balance and found wanting, but will have to concede that no one has George's mastery of the original manuscripts. The epigraphic portion of this book alone is a colossal achievement and a monument to the extraordinary skills, industry, and devotion of its author. Honorable mention should also go to scholars, such as Irving Finkel, who allowed manuscripts they had discovered to be published here for the first time, denying themselves the small eclat of Assyriological immortality that comes with publishing new Gilgamesh pieces. There are also some new decipherments of old passages, even if sometimes received sense rather fades away with them (Old Babylonian Version [hereafter "OB"] II 6-7). With George's publication, the Epic of Gilgamesh has gone from being one of the worst texts of a major work of cuneiform literature to the best.

There is a rich harvest of nearly two dozen new sources here, for example large pieces in the Standard Epic involving Ninsun's prayer and Gilgamesh's funeral, plus two hitherto unknown Old Babylonian Gilgamesh manuscripts. Since these were obviously exported from Iraq illegally, they raise a moral quandary most Assyriologists prefer to ignore on the assumption that a new text, even if stolen goods, is best published anyway rather than left out of account. Since most discoveries of cuneiform tablets consist of a majority of fragments and only a few intact texts, one can only wonder what fascinating fragments found with these treasures were discarded by illegal diggers.

Yet complete, authoritative republication of all original manuscripts is only the beginning of George's Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic. The work includes a full scientific edition with the most exacting attention to detail, a long introduction teeming with new ideas...

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