Food & Culture

Some Random Guy Stumbled Upon and Translated a Legendary Ancient Text

Even if you don't remember the story of The Epic of Gilgamesh, you've probably heard of it — it is the oldest piece of literature in the world, after all. It's the story of a man who attempts to bully and cajole the gods into granting him immortality, only for his best friend to die in the process. That's pretty ironic when you consider that the story itself has only been immortalized thanks to the efforts of a talented amateur — who ended up dying in the process.

Making a 'Mesh of It

Meet George Smith. In 1860, he was a 20-year-old engraver's apprentice who had left formal schooling some six years previous. Despite his lack of education, his engraving work had two features that would set him up to transform the written record of humanity's existence on Earth. First, it gave him a knack for recognizing visual patterns, especially those carved into a hard surface. Second, his shop was located on Fleet Street, within walking distance to the British Museum in the neighborhood of Bloomsbury. He began spending his lunch hours there and soon took a special interest in a set of 2,500-year-old shattered clay tablets uncovered in Ninevah by the world-renowned archaeologist Sir Austen Henry Layard.

These tablets weren't the first representation of Mesopotamian writing discovered, but virtually all of what had been found and translated up to that point essentially consisted of receipts for clothing and livestock. But as Smith sat in front of the new, densely filled tablets on his lunch breaks, he began working to translate the shattered lines. Two things became clear: Smith had a knack for puzzling the translations together, and this ancient tablet was no receipt. Cuneiform scholar Sir Henry Rawlinson was called in and within a year, he convinced the museum to hire Smith to organize the rest of their broken collection.

The Epic of The Epic of Gilgamesh

The actual story of Gilgamesh (who may or may not have been a real king from about 2,100 B.C.E.) is a bit strange to modern readers, but much has been written of how it echoes the hero's journey of Joseph Campbell. Here's the TL;DR version:

Gilgamesh is a demi-god (two-thirds god, one-third man to be exact) and the king of his people. He's also extremely strong. That's a problem for all the citizens, who are sick of him walking around like he owns the place just because he does. They beseech the gods to do something about Gilgamesh, and so the wild man Enkidu suddenly appears in the wilderness. Gilgamesh and Enkidu get in a fight, and Gilgamesh wins, but both are so impressed by the other's strength that they become best buddies.

They make a great team, and the two of them end up causing a lot more chaos — this time, by picking a fight with the gods themselves. After getting the better of the divine on several occasions, it's decided that one of them must pay. Enkidu falls ill, and Gilgamesh is powerless to help as his wrestling buddy dies. Gilgamesh decides to bring the pain to the gods again, and goes out in search of a cure for death. He doesn't find it, but what he does find is perhaps even more exciting — it certainly was to George Smith and the museum.

See, according to the legend, there was one man who had achieved immortality, and his name was Utnapishtim. It was a gift from another god, Enlil, who owed ol' Utnapishtim for having flooded the world during a temper tantrum. Utnapishtam survived by building a giant boat, taking his family and a menagerie of animals on board, and floating until he released a bird and it never came back. Sound familiar at all? The epic ends with the conclusion that Gilgamesh had done something great by bringing back news of the flood, and George Smith probably agreed. The Epic of Gilgamesh showed that the Biblical story of Noah's Ark was much older than anyone had ever thought.

An Epic Tragedy

As we mentioned earlier, this story has no happy ending for George. While his scholarly star continued to rise, it wasn't until 1873 that he would finally have the opportunity to travel to the land with which he had become so well acquainted. He did not do well with travel, and complained often of seasickness. Still, he returned and returned again, making his third trip in 1875. By this time, he'd penned a total of eight books on the subject of Sumerian cuneiform, and much of that writing is the foundation of our current understanding of the culture. But Smith wouldn't survive the final trip. He contracted dysentery in August of 1876 and died at just 36 years old. The tablets that were his life's work end with a declaration from Enlil that Gilgamesh will be remembered longer than any other man. What Enlil didn't mention, however, was that an engraver's apprentice from London would have to help.

Now you can't wait to hear the whole story, right? Try listening to "Gilgamesh: The New Translation" by Gerald J. Davis on Audible (free with a trial membership). We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Crash Course World Mythology: The Epic of Gilgamesh

Written by Reuben Westmaas May 25, 2018

Curiosity uses cookies to improve site performance, for analytics and for advertising. By continuing to use our site, you accept our use of cookies, our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.