Reading Akkadian literature: things to look for


Much of the following is based upon Ben Foster's fabulous analysis of Akkadian literary forms in his introduction to Before the Muses (Bethesda, MD, CDL Press, 1993).

PARALLELISM. "This refers to repeated formulation of the same message such that subsequent encodings of it restate, expand, complete, contrast, render more specific, complement, or carry further the first message"(Foster, p.14). In other words things often get said more than once in slightly different ways, from the less specific to the more specific. For example, in Tablet 1 lines 233ff: "The Land of Uruk was standing around it/ the whole land was assembled about it/ the populace was thronging around it/ the Men clustered about it". The device is often used to create suspence or for emphasis.

REPETITION. This is one of the most popular devices employed in Akkadian literature. You will find that whole sections are repeated. This is not lack of imagination on the part of the author, but is done consciously. You will notice in Gilgamesh that things are repeated from tablet to tablet and serve not only to help the reader remember what has happened but to focus our attention on what is important. Note, for example, that much of the dream told at the end of tablet 1 is repeated as it comes true in tablet 2, just as it was foretold.

FORMULAE AND WORD PAIRS. Phrases such as "day and night" or "heaven and earth" are frequently found in Akkadian literature as, indeed, they are found in our own. Also common are number progressions such as, "Take a second, Gilgamesh, a third and a fourth pole..." (tablet 10)

SIMILE AND METAPHOR. This type of figurative language is the core of Akkadian literature. Take care to notice the similes and metaphors. They are exceptional in their power of expression and their power derives from the fact that they are so mundane. For example, "the gods...collected like flies over a sacrifice" (tablet 11) is a powerful image because it is so unexpected.

INTERTEXTUALITY. You should be aware of the fact that the author of the Standard Babylonian version of Gilgamesh borrowed from various other works of literature. This was done not as plagiarism but as one would consciously make a clever literary reference. It shows how erudite the author was.

TIME. You may notice in reading Gilgamesh that the exact passage of time is given little, if any, attention. More on this in class.

PLACE. Again, you may notice that in Gilgamesh there is very little description of locale. In fact, location is seldom described at all and is only identified when it supplies a specific meaning. For example, the "steppe" and "the mountains" in Akkadian literature represent barbarism and chaos. Hence Enkidu is born in the wilderness and only becomes civilized when he comes to a city. Likewise, the forest is a place of chaos and frightening disorder. The city, palace, temple and home represent order and civilization.

SPEECH, ACTION, CLAMOR AND SILENCE. As B. Foster so aptly puts it, "Direct speech is used to bring aoubt or to explain action, to predict it, or to advance it" (Foster, p. 30). Noise is generally a negative thing. On the other hand silence can be eerie and frightening. Note that Enkidu is said to have been "born of silence" (tablet 1, ln. 85). Speech usually denotes action, that is action is narrated, rather than described by an omniscient narrator.

KNOWLEDGE. One of the main themes of Akkadian literature is the nature and acquisition of knowledge/wisdom. This is an important theme in the epic of Gilgamesh and it is noteworthy that in line 9 of tablet 1 Gilgamesh is described as having written all his toils on a stone stela. This is a very important point, for anything worth knowing was worth writing down. Or, to put it differently and perhaps better, nothing was really important unless it had been written down. This is an extremely important aspect of the Mesopotamian point of view. Think about it.