Previously, we had talked about the oldest known song in the world, better known as the Hurrian Song to Nikkal, which was originally composed in the northern Syrian settlement of Ugarit almost 3,400-years ago. Well this time around we are witness to yet another Mesopotamian cultural achievement in the form of Epic of Gilgamesh – possibly the oldest known epic in the world and also the earliest surviving great work of literature. Now the literary history of the titular character Gilgamesh comes down to us from five Sumerian poems, though the first iterations of the epic itself were possibly compiled in ‘Old Babylonian’ versions (circa 18th century BC). Simply put, while the provenance of these literary works is based on Sumerian language and literature, the end product/s (as available to common people) of the epic were possibly composed in Babylonian and related Akkadian – languages that were different from Sumerian, based on their Semitic origins.
But since we are talking about origins, few ancient Mesopotamian bards and scholars might have still sung some of Gilgamesh’s heroic exploits in Sumerian. To that end, Canadian musician Peter Pringle has presented his version of the Epic of Gilgamesh in ancient Sumerian, with the video covering the opening lines of the epic poem. According to the musician –
What you hear in this video are a few of the opening lines of part of the epic poem, accompanied only by a long-neck, three-string, Sumerian lute known as a “gish-gu-di”. The instrument is tuned to G – G – D, and although it is similar to other long neck lutes still in use today (the tar, the setar, the saz, etc.), the modern instruments are low tension and strung with fine steel wire. The ancient long neck lutes (such as the Egyptian “nefer“) were strung with gut and behaved slightly differently. The short-neck lute known as the “oud” is strung with gut/nylon, and its sound has much in common with the ancient long-neck lute although the oud is not a fretted instrument and its strings are much shorter (about 25 inches or 63 cm) as compared to 32 inches (82 cm) on a long-neck instrument.
As a reconstruction ‘disclaimer’, Pringle also adds –
The location for this performance is the courtyard of Nebuchadnezzar’s palace in Babylon. The piece is four minutes long and is intended only as a taste of what the music of ancient Sumer MIGHT have sounded like.
Now historically it should be noted that Sumerian as a language almost died out by 20th century BC, and was only used in limited official capacity by scholars (much like Latin in our modern times) when the Epic of Gilgamesh was compiled. However at the same time, it heavily influenced Akkadian (of which Babylonian was a variant), the lingua franca of much of the Ancient Near East. This scope of common influence and lexical borrowings were so heavily pronounced that many scholars consider both the languages to have linguistically converged, known as sprachbund or ‘federation of languages’.
Video Source: Peter Pringle (YouTube)
Book Reference: Syntactic Change in Akkadian: The Evolution of Sentential Complementation (by Guy Deutscher)
Featured Image Credit: Wael Tarabieh (Saatchi Art)
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