Reading the World’s Oldest Book

The Epic of Gilgamesh, dating to 2100 BC, tells the story of Gilgamesh, king of the city of Uruk, who, demented with grief following the death of a friend, goes on a journey in search of eternal life.

Andrew George, in his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition, describes how The Epic of Gilgamesh takes us back to the earliest days of writing, which emerged around 3000BC in the Euphrates and Tigris valleys. Humanity’s first cities developed here, writing evolving when the work of administering these increasingly sophisticated societies became too much for human memory to cope with. Scribes then used the resulting cuneiform script to record The Epic of Gilgamesh on stone tablets. This is a truly ancient story, the starting place of literature. The Bible, which in parts clearly owes much to The Epic of Gilgamesh is, by comparison, a recent and somewhat derivative publication.

People designed writing to record life. It is fitting they should use it to tell a story about a man trying to hold onto his life. To read what remains of their efforts thousands of years later is a moving experience. The text is fragmented in places, where time has eaten away at the stone manuscripts. This most revered of stories, stored in ancient libraries ordered by futile royal decree to endure forever, comes to me in shards, partially pieced together. And yet survive it did, writing fulfilling its function to help us hold onto life.

Writing is the defining quality of Gilgamesh’s complex society, a means for people to aspire to a new kind of immortality for their thoughts. There is certainly danger in this development, a sense of vertigo. The friend whose loss caused Gilgamesh so much pain was a man who was the antithesis of the sophisticated city dweller – a man raised by animals. This man, endowed with a sense of natural justice, taught Gilgamesh valuable lessons. This was the kind of instinctive existence that life in the cities with its writing and learning had left behind. Gilgamesh mourns the passing of his friend. He mourns both the loss of the individual and, more symbolically, the natural life he represented. Gilgamesh tries to find a way to escape his own death and the passing of the old life of humanity. While his efforts are frustrated, humanity’s new society ironically seems to offers new ways to preserve experience and guard against loss.

Writing has a resilience that outlasts buildings, walls and statues. The story of Gilgamesh remains for us to read today.

“He came a far road, was weary, found peace, and set all his labours on a tablet of stone.”

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