Listen to the Epic of Gilgamesh being read in original Akkadian

epic-of-gilgamesh-read-original-akkadian_1Imposing figure choking a lion that guarded the palace of Assyrian king Sargon II at Khorsabad in northern Iraq – often identified with the hero Gilgamesh. Credit: Musée du Louvre, Paris.

In many of our previous articles, we have talked at length about the fascinating history behind the world’s oldest known epic work of literature – the Epic of Gilgamesh. And now we finally present some passages from this Mesopotamian literary scope in the form of authentic Akkadian – the language in which the Epic of Gilgamesh was mostly known to the ancient Babylonians (as opposed to Sumerian).

The following audio clip presents a segment of The Epic of Gilgamesh found in a part of Tablet II. This Old Babylonian (a dialect of Akkadian) version was read by Antoine Cavigneaux.

And in case one is interested in an English transcription accompanying a passage (read in Akkadian) from the Epic of Gilgamesh, you can also take a gander at the YouTube video below, courtesy of Harith Sahib


The confusion of legacy –


Neo-Assyrian seal depicting an ax-wielding Enkidu (on left) and sword-wielding Gilgamesh (on right) slaying the Bull of Heaven. Source: Bible Origins

Now for the uninitiated, there could be a confusion over the origins and language of the actual Epic of Gilgamesh. And in a bid to alleviate any such befuddlement, we will make use of excerpts from one of our previous articles that sheds light on this very subject –

The multilayered history of the character of Gilgamesh himself is fascinatingly derived from five Sumerian poems (dating from circa 3rd millennium BC) that portray a King of Uruk named ‘Bilgames’. To that end, historians are aware of the existence of few such independent stories of Gilgamesh (or his Sumerian counterpart) that were composed before the epic itself. Some of these pieces of ‘pre-epic’ evidence are also derived from 3rd millennium BC inscriptions that credit Gilgamesh with the building of the great walls of Uruk, corresponding to present-day Warka in Iraq.

This historical narrative naturally brings up the question – so when was the Epic of Gilgamesh written? Well, for starters, rather than being ‘written’ as a separate work of literature, the first surviving version of this epic was actually compiled from the aforementioned different tales. Better known as the Old Babylonian version, dating from circa 18th century BC, the compilation is also titled after its incipit, Shūtur eli sharrī (“Surpassing All Other Kings”). However, the ‘best’ known version of the Epic of Gilgamesh comes from a later Babylonian compilation dated from circa 13th to the 10th centuries BC and is titled Sha naqba īmuru (“He Who Saw the Deep”).

So is the epic Sumerian or Babylonian?


The Sumerian Gods. Source: One Furious Llama

Once again another query can be put forth – is the Epic of Gilgamesh Sumerian or Babylonian? And the answer is –

As we mentioned before, the origins of Gilgamesh undoubtedly lie in ancient Sumerian. However, on the other hand, the epic and its controlled narrative as we know today (and even during the late Babylonian period), comes exclusively from the works of Babylonian writer Shin-Leqi-Unninni (circa 1300-1000 BC) who not only translated and edited the original story (or compilation) but also made his own modifications to the Sha naqba īmuru – the ‘standard’ version of the epic.

Simply put, while the provenance of these literary works is based on Sumerian language and literature, the end product/s (as available to the common people of the era after 2nd millennium BC) of the epic were probably composed in Babylonian and related Akkadian – languages that were theoretically different from Sumerian, based on their Semitic origins.

This is what Sumerian scholar Samuel Noah Kramer had to say (in his book History Begins at Sumer) –

Of the various episodes comprising The Epic of Gilgamesh, several go back to Sumerian prototypes actually involving the hero Gilgamesh. Even in those episodes which lack Sumerian counterparts, most of the individual motifs reflect Sumerian mythic and epic sources. In no case, however, did the Babylonian poets slavishly copy the Sumerian material. They so modified its content and molded its form, in accordance with their own temper and heritage, that only the bare nucleus of the Sumerian original remains recognizable. As for the plot structure of the epic as a whole – the forceful and fateful episodic drama of the restless, adventurous hero and his inevitable disillusionment – it is definitely a Babylonian, rather than a Sumerian, development and achievement.

The relation between Akkadian and Sumerian –


Reconstruction of ancient Babylon.

And while Akkadian (of which Babylonian was a dialect) and Sumerian were different languages, they were connected on a practical level (in spite of different origins) –

It should be noted that ancient Sumerian as a language almost died out by 20th century BC, and was only used in limited official capacity by scholars (much like Latin and Sanskrit in our modern times) when the first instances of the Epic of Gilgamesh were as compiled. However, at the same time, it heavily influenced ancient Akkadian (of which Babylonian was a variant), the lingua franca of much of the Ancient Near East. And beyond just cultural affiliations with the advanced Sumerians, the Akkadians also adopted (and loaned) many of the military systems and doctrines of their Mesopotamian brethren.

In any case, 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’. So in essence, the Epic of Gilgamesh alludes to a cultural synthesis, evolution, and identity of the thriving ancient Mesopotamian society.

And finally, there is a veritable collection of Old Babylonian recordings that can be found at this SOAS University of London online archive.

Via: Open Culture

About the Author

Dattatreya Mandal
Dattatreya Mandal has a bachelor's degree in Architecture (and associated History of Architecture) and a fervent interest in History. Formerly, one of the co-owners of an online architectural digest, he is currently the founder/editor of The latter is envisaged as an online compendium that mirrors his enthusiasm for ancient history, military, mythology, and historical evolution of architecture.
       ROH Subscription

To join over 5,110 other subscribers, simply provide your email address: