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June 27, 2022

The Search for Gilgamesh

By Jerry Seeger

Part of the seductiveness of the Internet is that its structure is more like human memory that any other archive of knowledge. It is a wild, disorderly place of associations rather than categorizations. To surf is to daydream, to allow one idea to lead to another without direction. Serendipity is the rule, rather than the exception. Searching, on the other hand, is like concentration. As long as you continue to return to the search results page and to refine your search, you are digging deeper into a specific area of knowledge. Some days my concentration is better than others.

My search for Gilgamesh included both these models. At first, I didn't even know it was Gilgamesh I was searching for. Later, I was chasing down details about particular bit players in the epic. From the general, wide, serendipity-seeking surfing I moved to filling specific gaps in my knowledge.

A man in a bar somewhere in the Middle East is given a carving of a snake. What does that mean? I turned to Google with the phrase "Islamic snake symbol". Symbol, it seems, is a busy word in politics. After a few near misses I had the phrase "babylonian serpent image" Pay dirt. Through that search I was reminded of Gilgamesh and the role of the serpent in his story. In the process, I found many sites that I can turn to in the future for more background on different cultures. Sometimes getting there is much more than half the fun.

As a side note, many of the sites I found are sadly lacking in footnotes and citations. In some cases there is evidence of a great deal of research, but without citation of sources they become useless as references for any sort of scholarly study. That's too bad, because many of them have very interesting perspectives. Nonetheless, for a writer these sites offered a wide variety of interpretation of the epic and the surrounding characters. To taste the legend in all its flavors the Internet is indeed a wonderful source.

The biggest disappointment for lack of citation is also one of my new favorite references. SparksNotes not only gave me a thorough and balanced analysis of Gilgamesh, but has since answered an argument in my own head about the name of the main character in 1984. It provides an excellent summary of the story of Gilgamesh, and even discusses some disparities between translations--without citing the translations themselves. So close.

Much of the "definitive" story of Gilgamesh comes from a set of twelve tablets created some time before 612 b.c. Some sites recognized that the person who created these tablets was as much an editor as an author--the story had already been around for well over a thousand years, and there are many other permutations. There are parts of the story as told on the twelve tablets that assume the reader has knowledge of the characters from other sources. Siduri, veiled goddess of beer and wine, part-time tavern keeper, is especially underrepresented.

Part of the dream in Serpent is based on an image of a cup dating from around 2000 b.c., some 1000 years after Gilgamesh lived. Its image is here. This site is about the Tower of babel and seems to have taken a bit too much inspiration from the legend. I got completely lost in the overwhelming number of names for each deity on this page, and the one whose aspect is a pair of coiled snakes is referred to as both male and female. In the end I'm not sure what point the author of this site was trying to make.

Everywhere, but especially on the Web, one must recognize the message the source of your information is trying to put across. Here is one incredible source of background information on ancient civilizations from Assyria to Atlantis. Crystals Links has its own agenda, but it's easy to spot and the (mostly uncited) sources cover an incredible variety. I could get lost in that site for a long, long time. The Assyrian page I first found is here.

Most of the sites devoted to the legend of Gilgamesh compare it to later-written religious texts. Indeed, much of the modern interest in Gilgamesh is due to those similarities. There is a serpent who possesses knowledge (in the Babylonian version the serpent takes knowledge away, while in the Bible the serpent condemns man by bestowing knowledge.) In Gilgamesh there is a flood, and the only man to survive is one who created a huge boat and collected all the seeds of the Earth. Among the sites devoted to comparison, I found this Secular Humanist, this Christian (most focus more on the flood than the serpent), and this I'm-not-sure-what site to be very interesting. Alas, there was also an excellent work by a Hebrew scholar, possibly the best of the bunch, but I didn't save the link and I was unable to retrace the steps that led me there.

Which brings up an important lesson: When in the early parts of a search, err on the side of saving too many links. It's easy enough to clear them up later, and you never know what nugget you will want to go back and review. Scan, save, and move on, but always save. Bookmarks are free.

Finally, if you really do want to get to the source, there is The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, a monumental, ongoing, project. When I got to this site I realized my brain was full and it was time to write the darn story.

Above is only a fraction of the fascinating sites I found during my search. When I first went looking for the serpent, I did not know what I would find. The Internet is beautiful that way, leading you to what you didn't even know you were searching for. By moving through a vast body of knowledge and opinion in a freeform way based on association, you can reach fascinating conclusions. In this unstructured Universe fact, opinion, and myth can be hard to differentiate; indeed, I wanted to remember the name of the man in 1984 because his job had been to transform myth into fact through the media.

Once I discovered Gilgamesh I knew I had my story. Then I was able to dig deep, honing my search, to learn about the characters and their symbolism, give up trying to keep the names (let alone genders) straight, and write Serpent.

Article © Jerry Seeger. All rights reserved.
Published on 2005-02-06
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