Mythos 21 – Bilgamesh of Unug

 

The most famous of the Sumerians was Bilgamesh of Unug, also known in Akkadian as Gilgamesh of Uruk, sometime between 4,800 and 4,500 years ago.(1)Stephanie Dalley (2000) Myths from Mesopotamia, Page 40 He was the protagonist in the Epic of Gilgamesh, an Akkadian poem that is considered the first great work of literature,(2)David Keys (16 November 1998) “First lines of oldest epic poem found” The Independent was well as many earlier Sumerian poems. In the epic, Bilgamesh is a demigod of superhuman strength who built the city walls of Uruk to defend his people and traveled to meet the sage Utnapishtim (Atra-Hasis), who survived the Great Deluge of the Lord of Phantoms. According to the Sumerian King List, Bilgamesh ruled his city for 126 years. It is generally accepted that Bilgamesh was a historical figure, since inscriptions have been found which confirm the historical existence of other figures associated with him, such as the kings Enmebaragesi and Aga of Kish.

Traditional South Iraqi Marshland Village

Traditional South Iraqi Marshland Village

The Sumerians mytho-history recorded that they colonized Mesopotamia after a great flood had destroyed that land. Archaeologists are divided on this issue with some believing that they were the original inhabitants of Iraq, and others believing they colonized from elsewhere. Excavations in Iraq have revealed evidence of severe localized flooding at Shuruppak near modern Tell Fara, Iraq,(3)Harriet P. Martin (1998) FARA: A reconstruction of the Ancient Mesopotamian City of Shuruppak, Pages 44 and 117 Ur near modern Tell el-Muqayyar, Iraq,(4)Georges Roux (1992) “Introduction” Ancient Iraq, Third Edition and various other Sumerian cities. A layer of riverine sediments radiocarbon dated to around 4,900 years ago interrupts the continuity of settlement, extending as far north as the city of Kish. Polychrome pottery from the Jemdet Nasr period around 5,000 to 4,900 years ago was discovered immediately below the Shuruppak flood stratum.(5)Harriet Crawford (2004) Sumer and the Sumerians

The Early Dynastic Period began after the cultural break with the preceding Jemdet Nasr period that has been radio-carbon dated to about 4,900 years ago at the beginning of Early-Dynastic-1 Period. The Early-Dynastic-1 period is distinguished from the Early-Dynastic-2 period by the narrow cylinder seals of the Early-Dynastic-1 period and the broader wider Early-Dynastic-2 seals engraved with banquet scenes or animal-contest scenes.(6)Georges Roux (1992) Ancient Iraq, Page 129 The Early-Dynastic-2 period is when Bilgamesh (Gilgamesh), the famous king of Unug (Uruk), is believed to have reigned(7)Georges Roux (1992) Ancient Iraq, Page 502. Texts from the Early-Dynastic-2 period are not yet understood. Later inscriptions have been found bearing some Early-Dynastic-2 names from the King List. The Early-Dynastic-3a period, also known as the Fara period, is when syllabic writing began. Accounting records and an undeciphered logographic script existed before the Fara Period, but the full flow of human speech was first recorded around 4,600 years ago at the beginning of the Fara Period.(8)Claus Wilcke (2003) Early Ancient Near Eastern Law, Page 26

Map of Sumerian Cities in the Ancient Marshlands of Mesopotamia

Map of Ancient Sumerian Cities

Throughout this time, there developed a very intimate cultural symbiosis between the Sumerians and the Akkadians, which included widespread bilingualism. The influence of Sumerian on Akkadian, and vice versa, is evident in all areas, from lexical borrowing on a massive scale, to syntactic, morphological, and phonological convergence.(9)Guy Deutscher (2007) Syntactic Change in Akkadian: The Evolution of Sentential Complementation Pages 20–21 Akkadian gradually replaced Sumerian as the dominant language of Mesopotamia somewhere around between 4,000 and 3,000 years ago.(10)C. Woods (2006) “Bilingualism, Scribal Learning, and the Death of Sumerian” in S. L. Sanders editor Margins of Writing, Origins of Culture, Page 91-120 The cultural power shift in the region took place when the Akkadian Sargon usurped the throne of Lugal (King) Zage-Si, and seized control of the Sumerian Kingdom(11)Georges Roux (1992) Ancient Iraq, Page 138 around 4,300 years ago.

Sargon founded the Akkadian Empire that lasted for around 180 years of near constant warfare, collapsing into total anarchy, to be invaded by barbarians known as Guti(12)Christophe Wall-Romana (1990) “An Areal Location of Agade” Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Volume 49, Number 3, Pages 205–245. The Guti period is the first recorded Dark Age in Mesopotamia. It was followed by the Neo-Sumerian Empire which restored order for about a century, until being invaded by neighboring Elam, in modern southwestern Iran. This marked the end of Sumerian dominance, but the succeeding rulers adopted much of Sumerian civilization as their own. The descendants of the Akkadians founded the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires. Akkadian dialects developed into the Assyrian and Babylonian languages,(13)Encyclopædia Britannica (2015) “Akkadian language” Encyclopædia Britannica however both were replaced as the lingua franca of Mesopotamia by the Aramaic language between 3,000 and 2,500 years ago. Sumerian continued to be used as a sacred, ceremonial, literary and scientific language in Mesopotamia until around 2,000 years ago,(14)Joan Oates (1986) Babylon (Revised Edition) Pages 30, 52-53 similar to the way that Latin continued to be used as a religious and later scientific language after the fall of Rome.

Since the writing of the early periods is generally undeciphered before around 2,600 years ago, it is strange that archaeologists are so insistent that it was Sumerian and not Akkadian or some other language that was being written at the time. The belief seems to be rooted in the idea that the Sumerians were wrong about where they’d come from, and that it was the Akkadians that had migrated into the area, well after the Sumerians were established. This seems quite inconsistent with the Sumerian and Akkadian records. The Sumerians and Akkadians used one of the oldest existent writing systems known as cuneiform, and before that they had a logographic (pictures) writing system. The “proto-literate” period of Sumerian writing spans around 5,300 to 5,000 years ago, prior to the Shuruppak flood stratum. In this period, records are purely logographic, with no linguistic or phonological content. The oldest document of the proto-literate period is the Kish tablet,(15)John L. Hayes (1990) A Manual of Sumerian Grammar and Texts, Pages 266 which has not been translated, and cannot be proven to be in Sumerian as it is logographic, yet it is assumed to be Sumerian.(16)Christopher Woods (2010) “Visible language. Inventions of writing in the ancient Middle East and beyond,” Oriental Institute Museum Publications 32, Pages 33–50

References   [ + ]

1. Stephanie Dalley (2000) Myths from Mesopotamia, Page 40
2. David Keys (16 November 1998) “First lines of oldest epic poem found” The Independent
3. Harriet P. Martin (1998) FARA: A reconstruction of the Ancient Mesopotamian City of Shuruppak, Pages 44 and 117
4. Georges Roux (1992) “Introduction” Ancient Iraq, Third Edition
5. Harriet Crawford (2004) Sumer and the Sumerians
6. Georges Roux (1992) Ancient Iraq, Page 129
7. Georges Roux (1992) Ancient Iraq, Page 502
8. Claus Wilcke (2003) Early Ancient Near Eastern Law, Page 26
9. Guy Deutscher (2007) Syntactic Change in Akkadian: The Evolution of Sentential Complementation Pages 20–21
10. C. Woods (2006) “Bilingualism, Scribal Learning, and the Death of Sumerian” in S. L. Sanders editor Margins of Writing, Origins of Culture, Page 91-120
11. Georges Roux (1992) Ancient Iraq, Page 138
12. Christophe Wall-Romana (1990) “An Areal Location of Agade” Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Volume 49, Number 3, Pages 205–245
13. Encyclopædia Britannica (2015) “Akkadian language” Encyclopædia Britannica
14. Joan Oates (1986) Babylon (Revised Edition) Pages 30, 52-53
15. John L. Hayes (1990) A Manual of Sumerian Grammar and Texts, Pages 266
16. Christopher Woods (2010) “Visible language. Inventions of writing in the ancient Middle East and beyond,” Oriental Institute Museum Publications 32, Pages 33–50