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Male and Female in the Epic of Gilgamesh: Encounters, Literary History, and Interpretation.

Male and Female in the Epic of Gilgamesh: Encounters, Literary History, and Interpretation. By TZVI ABUSCH. Winona Lake, Ind.: EISENBRAUNS, 2015. Pp. ix + 236. $39.50 (paper)

The Epic of Gilgamesh as represented by tablets from the "libraries" of first-millennium BCE Mesopotamia is the best known and most accessible to modern readers of all the literature of the ancient Near East, save that of the Hebrew Bible. As a result, it is often included in introductions to world literature, both in print and in the classroom. Similarly, it has frequently caught the attention of literary scholars and translators, even of some ignorant of the ancient Akkadian language in which it was composed.

Indeed, scholarship on the Epic has tended to cluster at two poles--on the one hand, the reconstruction of the basic text from its numerous fragmentary preserved exemplars and attention to technical philological problems of lexicon, grammar, and poetic practice, and on the other, as the author of this volume states, close reading that endeavors "to understand the meaning of the text on its own terms" (p. 1), paying attention "primarily to personal and psychological levels of the narration" (p. 2).

Over thirty years, Tzvi Abusch has written nine essays (one with the collaboration of Indologist Emily West) that combine his philological acumen with a literary-critical approach to the matter of Gilgamesh. The book under review collects these pieces, now minimally edited for internal consistency and provided with a short introduction. Read together, these contributions set forth a grand scheme of the development of the tales featuring the Mesopotamian hero from the third through the first millennium BCE, as evidenced most clearly in chapter 6, "The Development and Meaning of the Epic of Gilgamesh: An Interpretive Essay."

Abusch's conclusion in short: "Gilgamesh seeks immortality as a human being, and in all three versions of the text, he learns that this is impossible. In the Old Babylonian version, Gilgamesh finds a meaningful context within the bosom of the family ... and accepts the role of builder-king. In the eleven-tablet version, he becomes a responsible ruler who rules his community with wisdom.... In the twelve-tablet version, he readies himself to become a normal god who judges dead human beings for eternity" (pp. 142-43).

In the course of fashioning this arc of development, Abusch not only compares the extant textual witnesses from the earliest and latest periods, but posits the existence of lost stages of the story, such as an early version in which the seduction of the primeval man Enkidu is undertaken by the harlot Shamhat on her own initiative (p. 156), and another wherein Gilgamesh's quest ends with marriage to the divine bar-maid Siduri (p. 115).

Such a daring approach has not been to the liking of all readers of these essays in their earlier incarnations. See, for instance, Andrew George's dismissal of what appears here as chapter 5 ("The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Homeric Epics") as unsubstantiated (The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Introduction, Critical Edition and Cuneiform Texts [Oxford, Oxford Univ. Press, 2003], 55 n. 140), as well as Abusch's rebuttal in this work (p. 144 n. 1).

I must admit to being among the sceptics (see also p. 178) who demand stronger evidence than literary analysis alone in positing such historical events as the composition of a text now lost to us. And can we really conclude what a character in an ancient text, laconic in comparison to most modern literature, is thinking if its author doesn't see fit to inform us? Abusch repeatedly deduces the thoughts and motivations of the Epic's actors, as of Gilgamesh when propositioned by Ishtar (pp. 15-16), and he even suggests that another personage discloses crucial information "inadvertently, perhaps" (p. 80). For me, such psychologizing is unconvincing, as is the invoking of Freud and E. Kubler-Ross when examining a very distant and alien culture (p. 50 n. 77).

More serious perhaps is the interpretation of Gilgamesh's remark to Siduri that "Now, alewife, that I have seen your face / The death that I constantly fear may I not see" (Old Babylonian Meissner Tablet ii 12'--13') as a formulaic proposal of marriage (pp. 69-70). There is simply no evidence to support this assertion, despite the parallels adduced from later Near Eastern folk customs. Abusch's observation that in any case, such a union could never be, "for it is a mingling of human and god" (p. 79), ignores the fact that Gilgamesh himself is the product of such a coupling and is consequently two-thirds divine (Twelve-Tablet Version I 48). Or are we to attribute this description of the hero's genetic makeup to a later editor? I think not, since the goddess Ninsun is mentioned as his mother already in the Old Babylonian Pennsylvania Tablet (vi 236).

Furthermore, the idea that an embryonic stage of the narrative functioned as a kind of Mirror for Princes (pp. 172-76) that had accreted around a core of instruction in hunting for a crown prince is more than questionable. Abusch sees the lore of venery in the killing of Huwawa, guardian of the Cedar Forest (Tablet V), as well as in Gilgamesh's activities during his wanderings in the steppe following the death of Enkidu (Tablet IX). But it is stretching things to characterize the tutelary monster Huwawa as game (so p. 168), and while on his trek through the wilderness Gilgamesh is not preparing to assume kingship but has adopted the mode of life followed by his lost beloved companion prior to the latter's civilizing at the hands--or loins--of Shamhat.

Finally, the contention that the anomalous Tablet XII, a more or less direct translation of the Sumerian tale "Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Underworld," is "a simple description of the norms and procedures that govern life in the netherworld" (p. 142), appended in order to prepare the hero (pp. 56, 142) for his role attested elsewhere as a divine judge in the afterlife, falters upon the observation that while its contents indeed depict the sad lot of the inhabitants of that realm, they say nothing concerning its administration.

So much for the objections of a cranky old philologist, which are by no means intended to discourage readers from picking up this book. On a literary-critical level, Abusch has given us much to think about and has presented a plausible, if uncertain, reconstruction of the Epic's long and complicated history. Of his posited developmental path, one might say "Kann sein, muB aber nicht."

I can certainly affirm Abusch's statement that the basic conflict here "is that between the extraordinary and the normal" (p. 131). However gifted a person might be, he or she must come to terms with the constraints inherent in the human condition. But I would hold that this lesson of the Epic applies not only to a semi-divine ruler, but to any person, which helps to account for the great popularity of the tale(s) of Gilgamesh--in the ancient Near East and in the present day.


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Author:Beckman, Gary
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Oct 1, 2018
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