Archive for July, 2011

The Novgorod Codex

July 29, 2011 7 comments
A page from the Novgorod Codex

A palimpsest is a writing surface that has been written on at least twice; the original text has been erased (at least partially) and the new text added on top. Usually the writing surface is parchment, which is made from animal skin and therefore more durable than paper or papyrus–though palimpsests written on papyrus have survived.

This seems straightforward: until modern times, writing materials were scarce and expensive, and authors would often wash away (with milk and oat bran) an unimportant text and use the “blank” surface for their writing project. The problems (or challenges, if you prefer) start when the overwritten material (the “underscript”) has not been completely erased and is in fact important.
In case readers might think that palimpsests are rare, wholesale destruction of old volumes has occurred in periods during which new writing materials were extremely expensive and hard to find: after the collapse of the Roman Empire, for example, so many biblical manuscripts were overwritten that the practice was forbidden by ecclesiastical order in 691.
And then there are the important manuscripts that exist only as overwritten material–the Archimedes Palimpsest is a famous instance, as is the Sinaiticus Palimpsest.
In the past, the deciphering of underscripts was mainly a matter of a keen eye and discipline. But new technologies, such as ultraviolet photography and the manipulation of digitized images, are making it possible to read very faint underscripts. In fact, the process of decipherment can be seen as emblematic of the scholarly struggle to reconstruct lost versions of stories through analysis of the newer materials that replaced them (as was done to reconstruct the Q Gospel from its surviving text in the Synoptic Gospels).
Some double palimpsests survive–the writing surface has been overwritten twice–and we now possess a hyper-palimpsest, the Novgorod Codex–which consists of three wooden tablets covered with wax that has been overwritten hundreds of times.
Discovered in July 2000 in Novgorod, one of the oldest cities in Russia (first mentioned, 859 A.D.) the Codex dates from the first quarter of the 11th Century and perhaps even from the end of the 10th, making it the oldest text composed  in East Slavic discovered so far. Thus the Codex is contemporary with the reign of Grand Prince Yaroslavl, who controlled both Novgorod and Kiev, and reflects the society of Russia during the time of its Christianization (official date, 988).
To provide further historical perspective, Russia’s conversion to Christianity occurred during the reign of Emperor Basil II, the last great emperor of the middle Byzantine Empire; he brought Byzantine power to its apex and, intensely devout, encouraged missionary efforts in areas lying north of the Black Sea. The Byzantines were Orthodox Christians, but their missionaries competed with adherents of Bogomilism, a gnostic faith which had its origins in the Balkans during the 10th Century.
The uppermost level of writing in the Codex (the so-called “basic text”) records the text of Psalms 75 and 76, written in the medieval dialect of Novgorod. The basic text has been read without difficulty, but the levels underneath it have presented a challenge unlike anything ever encountered during the decipherment of a palimpsest. Leading the efforts at decipherment is the linguist Andrey Zalizniak, Russia’s foremost expert on the Novgorod dialect. Zalizniak believes that the Codex contains traces of thousands of texts, written over a period of decades.
Zalizniak tackles the seemingly impossible challenge of reading the underscripts of the Codex by dividing the Codex into letter-sized sectors and searching for individual symbols in each section. After identifying letters at a certain position, he moves to the next sector and reconstructs its letters. In this way, he builds up “symbol chains” that eventually grow into words and sentences. Linguist Izabel Vallatton has repeated this process behind Zalizniak, confirming some of his shorter chains (20-30 symbols long).
Here is a partial list of the texts that Zalizniak has deciphered so far: 1) numerous psalms, 2) the beginning of the Apocalypse of John, 3) a so-far unknown tetralogy, From Paganism to Christ, 4) a fragment of the unknown text, Instructions of Alexander of Laodicea on Forgiveness of Sins, and 5) a fragment of the unknown text, Spiritual Instruction of the Father and the Mother to the Son. These last two texts Zalizniak believes were written by the schismatic monk Issakiy, who followed the teachings of a self-proclaimed prophet Alexander, who claimed God-like powers of salvation. The tenor of these teachings is Bogomil. Issakiy is apparently the author of the Codex, and it seems likely from some of the writing uncovered that he converted pagan Slavs to gnostic Christianity.
Why might any of this matter? Bogomilism survived into the 17th Century in the Balkans and has been linked to the development of Catharism in the Provence in the 13th Century. Byzantium went into sharp decline after the death of Basil II, but its missionaries prevailed in their struggle with Gnosticism and Russia today is Orthodox. Worth noting is the fact that the sack of Constantinople in 1204 occurred during the pontificate of Innocent III, who authorized the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars. In short, the struggle between mainstream Christianity and Gnosticism lasted centuries and has had significant political and cultural consequences. The Novgorod Codex offers us a window onto an early chapter of that struggle.
Image: WikiCommons; Public Domain.

Is Cursive Obsolete?

July 24, 2011 4 comments


Some worthwhile thoughts from a teacher in Seattle. Enjoy!   RT

Is Cursive Obsolete?.

Moon Walk

July 23, 2011 2 comments


DNA evidence suggests that mankind’s exodus out of Africa began 70,000 years ago. We are still at it, and in the next couple of centuries may settle Mars. Then someone or another will overturn (or more likely, complete) Einstein, and we will be hopping from star to star…


Photo: Buzz Aldrin on the Surface; WikiCmns; NASA; Public Domain.

How to Eat an Essay

July 22, 2011 5 comments

The Rag Tree has spent a fair amount of its time offering examples of poetry & discussing the art that makes a poem. But so far, prose has been off limits. In fact, one could do worse when answering the question, What makes a poem a poem?, by saying, “Whatever else it is, it’s not an essay!”

Poetry is a state of mind, and so if it were to appear on a menu, I might compare it to a kick-in-the-rear-of-the-pants cup of coffee, a dollop of superb ice-cream, or caviar on buttered toast–it’s in the moment and it had better be fresh and satisfying. But prose challenges our digestion more than it does our need for novelty or taste, and we expect long-term sustenance from it. Not that it shouldn’t taste like something (especially if it aspires to the status of a fine steak or wild-caught salmon), but it had better keep the animal spirit in us alive and kicking, rejuvenate our plans and hopes, and send us out into the world with a keener purpose and an ability to reach the next milestone.

Everything is grist for the mill. Roast goose, calves’ feet jelly, pigeons, blancmange (not to mention such modern challenges as Ox-tail soup–a delicacy that the author has had occasion to sample), so our digestions require instruction and fortification. I think it best to approach this topic, then, with a sample essay presented as a menu, divided into appetizer, first and second courses, dessert, and digestif (for the sake of simplicity ;)).

Without further ado, then, I invite you to a supper of essay fare and techniques, an inspiration for the next time you dig through words, however well prepared they may be:

1) The Appetizer. Beginning (or tired) essayists invariably offer an undercooked and somewhat troublesome item called the introduction. This is the moment when the essay is most likely to remind us that its very name comes from a French word meaning “an attempt.” If well done, the introduction bears some other name (hopefully savoring of the main body’s interests and idiosyncracies); points out the main attractions to be encountered further along–for instance, an unusual interpretation of the causes of the French Revolution; explains why the topic is important; and offers a sample of the author’s style and wit. From the culinary perspective, introductions can vary from teeth-cracking breadsticks to fiery buffalo wings to perfect dumplings to wilted iceburg lettuce. Get it right and people will start shouting and snapping their fingers for the entree…

2) The First Course. Readers of course look for rib-sticking, belly-filling material here, but the secret to satisfying them lies elsewhere–in an odd item known as the Thesis Statement. The TS is the heart of the essay, what the author has to say boiled down into a brief and compelling sentence or two. Or, if you prefer, you can think of the TS as the chef’s secret ingredient–the ultra-fresh lobster or outstanding, family-recipe chutney–that sets his or her cooking apart from the mediocre. This is what the gourmand/jaded reader comes looking for. For instance, our TS might be: “In contrast to the many, overly familiar explanations for the French Revolution–the desperation of the poor, the corruption of the monarchy and aristocracy, the stifling of scholarship and scientific research–this essay proposes a simpler reason behind the collapse of the Old Regime: namely, the need for better instruction in language skills.” (with pardons to RT’s readers–you are welcome to suggest a more plausible cause, such as “the political radicalization of the Intelligentsia” or “a lack of innovation on the part of chefs across the nation“).

Once the TS has been sampled, the reader expects arguments and evidence in its support. Brief, eloquent, or witty language is also part of the experience–the spicing of the meal, in other words. No style, no fun, no spice, and people will stop eating.

For instance, we could include the following argument in support of our TS: “The lack of an effective educational system, the overweening power of France’s political institutions, and the refusal to recognize the great strides being made in the practical arts and sciences elsewhere all discouraged the pursuit of new methods and applications in France.” Or again, “The clear lack of inspiration in food choices among the elite, the use of high-cholesterol and other unhealthy ingredients, and the preference for large meals all lead to the stultification of original thought among the aristocracy and educated class.” Needless to say, some arguments are tougher to make than others, so beware! You don’t want to overstuff your patrons.

3) The Second Course. This is where the exceptional essayist pulls away from the pack. A good essay will provide an unexpected, persuasive TS and argument; an excellent essay will go farther afield, offering connections to developments and theories that might not immediately suggest themselves. Once again pursuing the French revolution, we might write: “The American Revolution, inspired in part by the constitution of the Iroquois Confederation in New York State, made the revolution in Paris inevitable. In particular, we should consider the effect of native American polities on the constitutional deliberations in Philadelphia and thus on the development of political theory in Europe.” Or, on a saucier note, “The descent into a flat and uninspired cuisine on the part of those charged with the feeding of the most acute French minds, and especially the overemphasis on serving truffles and spun-sugar wedding cakes, is a principle culprit in the decline that lead to the revolution.” Examine your ingredients closely, all you aspiring essayists out there!

4) Dessert. And you thought we were never going to get to the best part! Any essayist worth his sugar knows that without the extra oomph of a little sweet and the yumminess of lemon, or orange, or chocolate at the end of his thoughts, he has left his readers dangling. And in fact, there is no reason why dessert should only be offered at the end–some unexpected flashes of genius and taste, perhaps even a digression into a seemingly irrelevant topic, can build suspense and a grander finale at the close of the meal. For the French Revolution, consider the following: “And in fact, the political and fashion contribution of Marie Antoinette to her husband’s style and decisions (just think of those hairdos!) is often overlooked.” Or, for the chefs out there, “I can state unequivocally that the lack of proper training of truffle-snuffling pigs lead to the revolution.” There’s more in a pig’s snout than you might think.

5) The digestif. I prefer pear liqueur myself–but never overlook the importance of foot and endnotes. Footnote style isn’t that important–but offering unexpected readings and overlooked authors adds tremendously to any word meal! Scholarship (or a good farmer’s market) is after all the heart of the enterprise.

So there it is folks, a meal that should help you tackle all manner of surprising and odd essays and arguments–and enjoy yourself in the process.   RT

* P.S. & thank you to the chef who inspired this post!

* P.P.S. & of course, Margo: we would miss many a feast without your blog, Wordgathering


Image: Menu for Dinner in Honor of General Lafayette, 1824; WikiCmns; Public Domain.

“Contact Light!”– Apollo 11 on the Surface of the Moon

On July 20, 1969 (at 4:17 p.m. EDT), the lunar module (LM) Eagle landed on the surface of the moon. The descent to the surface was tense, peppered as it was by several alarms indicating that the guidance computer couldn’t handle all its tasks as they were received–a nonproblem that didn’t affect the LM. The real problem was that no one was able to predict in advance the actual spot the LM would land on–and there were plenty of places that everyone wanted to avoid–craters, for instance. As the spaceship neared the surface, it passed over a field of boulders, but Neil Armstrong steered clear of it, and with fuel running low (28 seconds remaining), Buzz Aldrin, who had been calling out altitude and velocity data, said, “contact light.” One of the contact sensors dangling from the feet of the LM had hit the ground. Three seconds later, the Eagle landed, and Armstrong said, “Shutdown,” with Aldrin confirming, “OK, engine stop.”

The descent had taken two and a half hours; the LM had landed about 12 miles southwest of crater Sabine D in the Sea of Tranquility. Few events in history have involved the scope of effort, the precision, the courage, and the teamwork that got Armstrong and Aldrin to the surface. A great moment for America–and for mankind.  **


Photo: Shadow Cast by the LM on the Moon’s Surface, JSC Digital Image Collection, NASA, Public Domain.

Cape Kennedy, Apollo 11 Launch

Here, folks, is the Apollo 11 launch in all its glory–the second stage booster ignites as the first stage booster is still firing. Apologies for being a little belated on this; the launch’s anniversary was actually yesterday, July 16 (I’ve got an ear infection that’s slowing me down).  Enjoy!   RT

Happy Bastille Day!

July 14, 2011 2 comments

On the morning of July 14, 1789, a crowd of less than 1,000 people stormed and took the moribund Bastille prison. Though the event had no military significance, it marked the moment when the French Revolution, up until then largely a political crisis, became a popular revolt. The storming of the Bastille also set the stage for the National Assembly’s dramatic Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, issued in August 1789. The brief and powerful Declaration helped sweep away the Old Regime and its aristocracy and gave the principles of revolution and republican government that had been recently enacted in America its first political expression in Europe. Here is the Declaration, and Vive La Revolution!

Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen

(adopted by the National Constituent Assembly, 26 or 27 August 1789)


  1. Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good.
  2. The aim of all political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.
  3. The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation. No body nor individual may exercise any authority which does not proceed directly from the nation.
  4. Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights. These limits can only be determined by law.
  5. Law can only prohibit such actions as are hurtful to society. Nothing may be prevented which is not forbidden by law, and no one may be forced to do anything not provided for by law.
  6. Law is the expression of the general will. Every citizen has a right to participate personally, or through his representative, in its foundation. It must be the same for all, whether it protects or punishes. All citizens, being equal in the eyes of the law, are equally eligible to all dignities and to all public positions and occupations, according to their abilities, and without distinction except that of their virtues and talents.
  7. No person shall be accused, arrested, or imprisoned except in the cases and according to the forms prescribed by law. Any one soliciting, transmitting, executing, or causing to be executed, any arbitrary order, shall be punished. But any citizen summoned or arrested in virtue of the law shall submit without delay, as resistance constitutes an offense.
  8. The law shall provide for such punishments only as are strictly and obviously necessary, and no one shall suffer punishment except it be legally inflicted in virtue of a law passed and promulgated before the commission of the offense.
  9. As all persons are held innocent until they shall have been declared guilty, if arrest shall be deemed indispensable, all harshness not essential to the securing of the prisoner’s person shall be severely repressed by law.
  10. No one shall be disquieted on account of his opinions, including his religious views, provided their manifestation does not disturb the public order established by law.
  11. The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man. Every citizen may, accordingly, speak, write, and print with freedom, but shall be responsible for such abuses of this freedom as shall be defined by law.
  12. The security of the rights of man and of the citizen requires public military forces. These forces are, therefore, established for the good of all and not for the personal advantage of those to whom they shall be intrusted.
  13. A common contribution is essential for the maintenance of the public forces and for the cost of administration. This should be equitably distributed among all the citizens in proportion to their means.
  14. All the citizens have a right to decide, either personally or by their representatives, as to the necessity of the public contribution; to grant this freely; to know to what uses it is put; and to fix the proportion, the mode of assessment and of collection and the duration of the taxes.
  15. Society has the right to require of every public agent an account of his administration.
  16. A society in which the observance of the law is not assured, nor the separation of powers defined, has no constitution at all.
  17. Since property is an inviolable and sacred right, no one shall be deprived thereof except where public necessity, legally determined, shall clearly demand it, and then only on condition that the owner shall have been previously and equitably indemnified. ♦


Photo:  July Fireworks in Paris; Celeste Hutchins; WikiCmns; CC 2.0 Generic.

Synopsis of Gilgamesh

July 13, 2011 8 comments

As I continue to post selections from my version of the Epic of Gilgamesh, readers probably are growing more curious about the story in its entirety. So I’m following a friend’s suggestion and posting my synopsis of the epic; hope this gives a good idea of the plot!



Tablet I: Prologue. Gilgamesh is two-thirds god, only one-third human. He built the walls around Uruk, the city he rules, and restored the proper worship of the gods. He is divinely powerful and handsome, and endured great suffering to bring humanity forgotten wisdom: the story of the Flood.

Story starts. Gilgamesh’s sexual energy oppresses his subjects, the people of Uruk. They complain to Anu, Father Sky, and ask him for help. To absorb his divine energy, Anu decrees a companion for Gilgamesh—Enkidu.  Aruru, Mother Earth, fashions Enkidu and places him in the wilderness. Enkidu grows up among wild animals, and protects them by ripping up the nets that trappers lay for the herds. One of these trappers complains to Gilgamesh, who sends a gorgeous woman, Shamhat, to seduce Enkidu and bring him into Uruk. Shamhat accompanies the trapper and seduces Enkidu.


Tablet II: Shamhat takes Enkidu into a shepherd’s camp to learn the settled way of life. While at the camp, Enkidu is outraged when he learns of Gilgamesh’s duty to sleep with brides on their wedding night. He vows to go to Uruk and stop this practice; when he arrives at the city, he wrestles with Gilgamesh, who barely wins the match against the newcomer. Enkidu acknowledges Gilgamesh’s authority and the two take vows as partners.

Gilgamesh takes Enkidu to meet his mother, the Goddess Ninsun. Ninsun denounces Enkidu, saying that he has treated Shamhat with disrespect and intends to introduce changes in marriage that will harm Uruk. She ends by saying that unless Enkidu changes his views on marriage and women, he must leave the city.

The next day Gilgamesh and Enkidu discuss ways to circumvent Ninsun and remain together. Gilgamesh hits on the idea of undertaking an expedition to the Cedar Forest to cut down the precious trees. To do this they must kill Huwawa, the ferocious monster who guards the forest. Gilgamesh persuades both Enkidu and Uruk’s Assembly of Men that this expedition will bring great wealth into the city and increase the prestige of men, who are still largely subservient to women and the Goddess Inanna. Gilgamesh believes that once the expedition has succeeded, Ninsun will be forced to bless his love for Enkidu.


Tablet III: Utu, the Sun God and Gilgamesh’s divine father, tells Gilgamesh that he has blessed the Forest Expedition. The Assembly of Men considers this sufficient protection for the adventure, and consents to Gilgamesh’s plan. But Ninsun is distraught; she understands that the expedition will rouse the anger of the Goddess Inanna, with unknown consequences for her son and Uruk. She prays to Utu the Sun to withdraw his blessing and protect their child; but Utu tells her that the expedition is part of Gilgamesh’s fate and can’t be prevented. He ends by saying that Inanna’s authority in Uruk will not be compromised.

Ninsun reluctantly consents to the adventure, and accepting fate, adopts Enkidu as her son, thereby blessing his union with Gilgamesh. She undertakes rituals to ensure Inanna’s support for the adventure. Gilgamesh instructs the Assembly in how to rule in his absence. He and Enkidu leave Uruk.


Tablet IV: Gilgamesh and Enkidu cross six mountains on their way to the Cedar Forest. At each mountain Gilgamesh has a dream; initially, the dreams warn of disaster, but Enkidu interprets each positively. Gilgamesh is nonetheless on the edge of turning back when the dreams become more favorable. On the seventh day, they reach the Cedar Mountain.


Tablet V: The heroes climb the Cedar Mountain and marvel at the forest.

Utu breaks their reverie, telling them that they must attack Huwawa immediately; he is not wearing his full complement of radiant armor and is vulnerable. But Huwawa has heard them enter his territory and attacks them, even though he isn’t fully prepared. The monster’s radiant presence temporarily paralyzes and hinders the heroes, but they struggle free and injure him. Huwawa runs deep into the forest.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu follow, and when they find Huwawa, the monster is wearing all of his deadly haloes. This time his magic paralyzes them completely, and he closes in to kill them. Gilgamesh prays to Utu for deliverance, and the Sun God overcomes Huwawa, binding him in an unbreakable net. Huwawa is now at the heroes’ mercy.

Huwawa pleads for his life, acknowledging Gilgamesh and Utu as his masters and pledging to deliver whatever timber that Gilgamesh wants.

Gilgamesh is moved by the monster’s plea, but Enkidu urges the king to kill him, arguing that if they let Huwawa live, he will turn against them and report their successful incursion to Enlil, the patron of the forest and the most powerful of the gods. Enlil will kill them in revenge; he is stronger than Utu. Gilgamesh can’t find a way around this reasoning, and so he kills Huwawa. The heroes cut down many trees, including the Tree of Heaven, and return with their booty to Uruk.


Tablet VI: The Goddess Inanna comes naked to Gilgamesh, offers to sleep with him, and tells him that she wants him for her husband, which would make him an immortal god. Gilgamesh replies with contempt, refusing her offer and cataloguing the terrible fates of other lovers she has taken.

Inanna replies, telling him that he is scorning his duty as king and thereby jeopardizing the safety of his people. She explains why each of the lovers he catalogued had failed her, and reminds him that men remain indebted to women because they need the civilizing influence that women provide. Gilgamesh rejects her argument, and the offer of immortality, saying that to do so would compromise the prestige of men.

Inanna goes up to heaven and reports Gilgamesh’s behavior to her father, Anu, Father Sky. He sides with Gilgamesh, and tells her that she should accept the king’s decision. Furious, Inanna threatens to let the dead up from the underworld to eat the living unless she can punish Gilgamesh—she asks for the Bull of Heaven (the constellation Taurus) to be let loose against Uruk. Terrified, Anu consents, and Inanna takes the Bull down to Uruk.

The Bull attacks Uruk, devastating the outlying fields and houses. But Gilgamesh and Enkidu attack the Bull, find its weak spot, and slaughter it. They are received in Uruk as heroes and the city feasts Gilgamesh that night, as Inanna and her votaries mourn over the haunch of the slain bull.


Tablet VII: The night of the feast, Enkidu dreams that the gods have condemned him to death. He tells Gilgamesh that Enlil has condemned him because they killed Huwawa and the Bull of Heaven. Utu defends Enkidu, but loses the argument when Enlil reminds him that they killed Huwawa in spite of his plea for mercy—Utu is the god of justice and mercy and therefore the heroes broke the code of their champion when they refused the monster’s plea. Enkidu’s dream breaks off at this point, but it seems clear that Utu was forced to consent to his death.

Gilgamesh tries to hold out hope that the gods can be persuaded to change their minds, but Enkidu is certain that his death is near. He curses the Cedar Door, Shamhat, and the trapper, the agents he believes responsible for his death, but Utu reminds him that these people helped him. Enkidu then blesses both of them.

The next night Enkidu dreams that the Angel of Death takes him to the Underworld, and there the Queen of the Dead reads out the Writ of Execution, but says that because Enkidu is Gilgamesh’s beloved, he will enjoy a better condition in the underworld than most mortals. Enkidu reports his dream to Gilgamesh in the morning, and that day falls ill. He lingers for several days, but dies horribly. Gilgamesh begins to mourn.


Tablet VIII:  Gilgamesh makes a powerful lament for Enkidu. He orders a memorial statue of Enkidu to be crafted and begins preparations for the burial: he selects elaborate and expensive funeral gifts for the gods from the city’s treasury and dedicates each of these to its proper deity in the underworld. Gilgamesh orders the construction of a burglar-proof tomb in the bed of the Euphrates River. When the tomb has been built, he places Enkidu in his sarcophagus and lets the river back into its bed.

That night, still devastated by grief and the fear of death, Gilgamesh leaves Uruk to search for Utnapishtim, the only man to win eternal life. He hopes to learn the secret of immortality from him.


Tablet IX:  Gilgamesh travels to the edge of the world and finds a pass over the Dividing Mountains into the deathless lands. But while crossing the pass he sees a pair of lions playing in moonlight, and in a fit of ravenous hunger, kills and eats them. The Moon God tells him that in punishment, he must travel the difficult path over the mountains, which lies far to the east.

Gilgamesh travels east and meets the scorpion-guardians, gods who watch over the Path of the Sun through the mountains. Seeing his mortal blood, they initially forbid him passage, but he convinces them that he is more god than man, and so they let him pass.

Racing through the passage, he reaches a garden of jeweled fruit at the entrance to the Immortal Lands. Ravenous once more, he eats fruit from the garden, which restores his strength and vigor. On the far side of the garden lies the shore of the Sea of Death; on the shore Gilgamesh discovers a tavern.


Tablet X:  Gilgamesh reaches the tavern and its keeper, Siduri, the Goddess of the Temple-as-Tavern. Siduri begs Gilgamesh to become her husband, which would confer eternal life and ease. He refuses; he wishes immortality in the mortal lands, so he can rule and protect his city forever (thus rivaling the power of his mother, Queen Ninsun). Siduri is crushed and at first refuses to speak any more with him, but Gilgamesh persuades her to tell him how to cross the Sea of Death: he must win passage on the boat captained by Urshanabi the Ferryman.

Gilgamesh finds the ferry boat with its crew, but Urshanabi is absent, cutting wood for repairs. The crew disgusts him: they are grotesque monsters, men made of jewels and stones in the same way that the trees of the jeweled garden are, but horrible to look on. Gilgamesh kills them just as Urshanabi returns from his errand. The ferryman is furious, and refuses passage over the waters. Gilgamesh threatens to kill him, and Urshanabi says that he will guide him across, but Gilgamesh must do the work that the crew would have done, a terrible labor. They sail across the Sea and reach Utnapishtim.

Gilgamesh pleads with Utnapishtim for eternal life. Utnapishtim says that the gift is not his to give: only the Assembly of Gods can confer immortality. He advises Gilgamesh to return to Uruk, where his skills and experience are needed to restore the city’s proper worship. Utnapishtim then says that he will tell Gilgamesh a secret that explains the wisdom and necessity of death: the Story of the Flood.


Tablet XI: Part 1, the Flood.  Utnapishtim says that in ancient times the gods decided to destroy mankind because men had become too powerful. The gods were unable to resist the beauty of mortal women, and so fathered many half-gods on them, people who were almost divine and demanded to be admitted into heaven. The gods were afraid that these mortals would supplant them. Lead by the Goddess Inanna, who was jealous of the beauty of mortal women, they decreed the Flood. Only Enki, the God of Wisdom, and Utu, the God of Justice, dissented. Enki decided to defy the Assembly and save his own son, Utnapishtim.

Enki told Utnapishtim about the imminent catastrophe and instructed him in how to build a ship to save himself, his family, and all land animals. Utnapishtim built the ark and the Flood came, wiping out all life. But the Gods lost control of the Waters: they were powerful enough to start the catastrophe, but not powerful enough to stop it. Specifically, they called to their aid the demons of the underworld, gods who were banished beneath the earth because they refused to obey the Assembly. In revenge, these demons urged the Waters higher, destroying the courts of heaven and forcing the gods to flee to the farthest walls of the world, where they cowered like dogs.

Only Inanna, in her capacity as Goddess of Battle, had the courage to fight these demons. She fought Ushamgallana, the Nine-Headed Worm, and cut off two of his heads. She shrieked out her Battle Cry, which paralyzed the Worm. She moved in for the kill, but Enlil, the God of Storms, attacked her: he did not want to lose his overlordship of the gods to a woman. Enlil held Inanna down until Ushamgallana recovered and raped the Goddess.

The Gods were then helpless, utterly defeated. They would have been killed, if they had not been immortal. The Demons, knowing that they could inflict no further destruction, moved back to the Underworld, taking the Waters with them.

The retreating waters revealed the peaks of seven mountains; the ark landed on one of them, and Utnapishtim released a series of birds, hoping that they will find land; the third bird, a raven, found land, and Utnapishtim burned incense in thanks to the gods. He opened the ark and releases its inmates.

The gods smelled the incense and came down to feed on the offerings. Enlil, however, was outraged: no man was meant to survive the Flood. Enki explained that he has outwitted him and saved mortal life. Enki then cursed Enlil for allowing the Flood, stripping him of overlordship of the gods, which he took for himself. The God of Wisdom then condemned Inanna, saying that in punishment for her role, the children she will bear as a result of her rape will be doomed to live in the Underworld after death. The new mortals, moreover, will not worship the Goddess as they had before. But Enki also commended her courage in fighting against the Worm and said that in reward eventually her prestige will be restored and mortals will gain wisdom and prolong their lives. Finally, Enki took Utnapishtim and his family to live at the Source of Rivers for eternity.


Tablet XI: Part 2, Envoi.  After hearing the story, Gilgamesh still wants eternal life, so Utnapishtim challenges him to defeat death by staying awake for seven days. Gilgamesh immediately falls asleep, and Utnapishtim devises a way of proving that he has indeed been asleep. When Gilgamesh awakes, he is forced to accept the evidence that he is unworthy of eternal life. But as consolation Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh how to find an underwater plant that restores youth. Gilgamesh starts his journey home, guided by Urshanabi, and retrieves the Plant of Youth Renewed.

Gilgamesh decides not to eat the plant immediately, however; he wants to test it on someone else before eating it. The next day a snake enters their boat and eats the plant, shedding its skin as a result. Gilgamesh breaks down, sobbing out his sense of total defeat. But Urshanabi consoles him, reminding him of his achievements and that he had brought back the story of the Flood.

The pair reach Uruk and the sight of his city restores Gilgamesh’s spirits. He praises Uruk and its place in the world.

© 2011, Eric Quinn

Images: At top: Gilgamesh Holding a Lion; WikiCmns; Public Domain. Earrings: Parthian earrings found at Nineveh; Nickmard Khoey; WikiCmns; CC 2.0 Generic. Map: Sumer During the Uruk Period; John Croft; WikiCmns; Public Domain; Painting: The Great Flood; Michaelango, Sistine Chapel; WikiCmns; Public Domain.


Apollo 11


As the anniversary of the first lunar landing nears on July 20, I feel the need to share this photo of the lunar module in orbit, beginning its descent to the surface of the moon. Always stirring, impossible to forget…     RT


Photo: WikiCmns, NASA, Public Domain.


Audience Gifts from Tablet VIII

July 10, 2011 3 comments

As the completion of Tablet VIII looms ever closer, it’s time for me to keep my promise and post an excerpt from the material. I’ve chosen the list of audience gifts (that is, burial goods) included in Enkidu’s tomb.

The list, which has been only partially reconstructed, is important not only for the individual items it lists, but also for the light it sheds on ancient attitudes towards death. In ancient Sumer,  one’s position in the afterlife very much depended on the tribute one received from the living; Hell, as Heaven, was a reflection of our earthly existence, and Gilgamesh’s concern with eternal fame was for him necessary if he was to continue receiving the sacrifices of material goods that ensured his well-being in the House of Dust. Then, as  now, our conduct in life was largely responsible for our fate in death.

And here it is, sections iv and v from Tablet VIII, the audience-gifts:


iv. Possessions of the Dead


When two weeks had passed since Enkidu’s death,

a worm dropped out of the rotting cadaver’s nose.

Sickened, the king resolved to master his dread,

entomb the body swiftly and with singular respect.

He must prepare Enkidu, convey him with rich gifts.

Gilgamesh could no longer delay his friend’s funeral.


Gilgamesh opened, ransacked his cavernous treasury;

he broke the seal and entered the enormous vault.

There were stored the booty of his many campaigns

and tribute from peoples far-distant and wealthy.

He selected the rarest luxuries for the departed,

items to win him honor and advantage in the shadows:


Gems unmatched, the most precious he provided—

carnelian, turquoise, agate, ruby, lapis lazuli,

pearls, quartz—all these he gave to his friend.

Neither did he keep back the most valuable gold,

reject objects useful for comfort and idleness,

begrudge objects needful for status and esteem:


   Ten rings of gold he gave his companion,

   a mask of the departed’s face in red gold,

   A belt of silver superbly worked and fitted,

   ten cups of glass rimmed with mountain rubies,

   a couch of oak, its cushions of fine wool:

   All these he gave with thanks to Enkidu.


   A dagger of obsidian, its shaft of bone;

   An axe of bronze, its handle ebony;

   A bow of polished ash, its grip of rope;

   A quiver of ostrich hide holding fifty arrows;

   A shield of five skins, studded with bronze:

   All these and more he gave with gratitude.


   An ostrich egg in gold; a lyre of wood and bone;

   A bull and a ram carved in oak and cedar,

     each with eyes of shell and lazurite, golden horns;

   Two snakes of wisdom, their teeth of crystal;

   A bear in filigree, its eyes of topaz:

   All these he dedicated with heartfelt tears.


v. Offerings for the Great


For the Morningstar:

For the radiant Queen Inanna:

   A javelin of boxwood, sleek and polished,

   pointed with bronze, gold, and copper.

The javelin he presented to the Sun, saying,

“May the Queen of Stars accept this javelin,

cherish and guide my friend.”


For the Queen of Dusk:

For Ereshkigal, Ruler of the Dead:

   A flask of lapis lazuli,

   patterned with gold, stopped with glass.

The flask he presented to his Champion, saying,

“May the blessed Ereshkigal accept this flask,

instruct and guard my friend.”


For the Shepherd:

For gentle Dumuzi, beloved of the Night:

   A slender flute of carnelian,

   its music sweet and wistful—

Presented to Utu the Hero:

“May Dumuzi accept this flute,

serenade and refresh my friend.”


For the Great Steward:

For wise Namtar, Steward of the Dead,

   A headman’s chair in silver;

   A staff of polished olivewood—

Presented to Utu the Just:

“May Namtar accept the chair and staff,

guide and guard my friend.”


For the Lady of Winnows:

For Qassu-Tabat, who holds the Flail of Death,

   A golden necklace, its clasp of silver,

   A silver bracelet with bangles also—

and to Utu the Great Friend:

“May Qassu-Tabat, the exalted, accept these gifts,

receive and esteem my friend.”


For the Lady of Rakes:

For Ninshuluhha, who cleans the House of Death,

   A chest of alabaster, inlaid with serpentine,

   its top patterned with sodalite and coral.

and to Utu the Far-Seeing:

“May Ninshuluhha the humble accept this chest,

acknowledge and honor my friend.”


For the Attendants and Guardians:

To many others in the House of Death

Gilgamesh offered gifts:

   Hushbisha the Stewardess, Bibbu the Butcher,

   Urmahlullu, the lion-centaur, Neti, the gate-keeper:

each received a proper present, an offering

to earn Enkidu good-will.


For the Gods Gilgamesh prepared the richest meat;

he slaughtered the fattest ox, the tender lamb;

he piled up the sizzling cuts for their feasting.

The Sun inspected, sampled the food, blessed it.

The priests of his several temples came at dusk,

carried the offering to the rulers of the Dead.


© 2011, Eric Quinn


Photo: Golden Funeral Mask from the Svetitsata  Tumulus (King Teres); National Archaeological Museum, Sofia; WikiCmns; CC 2; Author: Ann Wuyts.