Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 11 (2011) - Review

Fleming, Daniel E. and Sara J. Milstein, The Buried Foundation of the Gilgamesh Epic: The Akkadian Huwawa Narrative (CM, 39; Leiden: Brill, 2010). Pp. xx + 228. Hardcover. €93.00, US$132.00. ISBN 978-90-04-17848-9.

This study had its aegis in an Akkadian seminar taught by Daniel Fleming at New York University in the fall of 2005. A student in that seminar, Sara Milstein, co-wrote the work with her teacher, and the result was “a truly collaborate project, with every page of the book the product of collective thought” (xviii). The authors note (111) the importance of Andrew George's magisterial edition (The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Introduction, Critical Edition and Cuneiform Texts [2 vols.; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003]) in presenting all of the Old Babylonian (henceforth: OB) evidence for the epic. Their comparison of this evidence revealed significant differences in perspective, themes, and language that led the authors to posit that the majority of the OB tablets (ten of twelve) reflects an independent Akkadian Huwawa narrative that came between the Sumerian Huwawa poems and the OB epic. The study is thus an exercise in the tradition history of the Gilgamesh Epic, from the Sumerian Huwawa tales to the OB version.

Before turning to the details of this reconstruction, it will be helpful to sketch conventional wisdom on the subject and how Fleming and Milstein's new proposal relates to that picture. In his recent Das Gilgamesch-Epos: Mythos, Werk und Tradition (Munich: C. H. Beck, 2008), Walther Sallaberger outlines three main phases of development: (1) Six Sumerian Gilgamesh poems which likely originate ca. 2100, but which are copied ca. 1800; (2) The OB Epic in ca. 1800, which joined themes from the Sumerian poems into a unified work; (3) The Standard Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic (henceforth: SBV), composed by Sin-leqi-unninni in the Middle Babylonian period, ca. 1100. A similar picture may be found in Jeffrey Tigay's The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1982) and in Andrew George's Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic, where he emphasizes the poetic genius of the OB epic author and his dependence upon oral tradition (1:20–22). While not denying the genius of the OB poet, Fleming and Milstein assert that the epic author had before him a substantial written work in Akkadian—the “Akkadian Huwawa narrative,” as they call it—which would come between phases (1) and (2) in Sallaberger's sketch. Fleming and Milstein believe that this narrative included, at the very least, the planning and undertaking of the expedition to the Cedar Forest (xvii). In summarizing their argument, I take the liberty of moving according to the sequence of the compositional history that Fleming and Milstein propose.

Chapter Four treats the Sumerian Huwawa tales and their relationship to the hypothetical “Akkadian Huwawa narrative,” which Fleming and Milstein believe sprang from them. The Sumerian tales survive in two parallel versions—A and B. While version A is longer and became the standard version that was used in scribal education in early second millennium Babylonia, they believe that the simplicity of version B points to its primacy among the two. Fleshing out a suggestion taken from D. O. Edzard (72 and n. 5), the authors argue that a significant portion of the differences between these two versions can be accounted for by supposing the influence of an “Akkadian Huwawa narrative” on Sumerian Huwawa A. While the oldest copy of a Sumerian Gilgamesh poem dates to ca. 2100, most of the copies date to ca. 1800, making them contemporaneous with the OB Gilgamesh texts. The picture of the relationship between the Sumerian Huwawa tales and Fleming and Milstein's “Akkadian Huwawa narrative” is, therefore, one of mutual influence: The Sumerian tales in oral form inspired an Akkadian story that represents “a massive transformation of the Sumerian story” (56). Nevertheless, scribes familiar with the Akkadian story in its literary form also transformed the Sumerian copies of Huwawa A in light of it. The more basic point of the chapter is that the Sumerian tales attest to the fact that the Huwawa story can, and did, stand alone. This lends some credibility to the idea of an indepenent Huwawa narrative in Akkadian as well.

If the next step in the evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic was one individual's re-working of the Sumerian Huwawa stories into an OB epic, as the conventional picture suggests, then one would expect the OB material to be basically unified in perspective. The crucial point of Fleming and Milstein's study is that this is not, in fact, the case. In Chapters Two and Three they argue that the twelve OB tablets of Gilgamesh represent two competing authorial visions. On the one hand, ten Huwawa-oriented texts (Yale, UM, Schøyen -1, Schøyen -2, Schøyen -3, Nippur, Harmal -1, Harmal -2, Ishchali, and IM) “reflect the existence of a freestanding Akkadian Huwawa narrative that became the foundation for the composition of the longer Gilgamesh Epic. At the center of this composition stood Huwawa himself, with Enkidu as guide and counselor to Gilgamesh based on his firsthand knowledge of Huwawa's domain” (66). On the other hand, two other (epic) texts (Penn and Sippar) are the only ones that treat events outside of the Cedar Forest campaign. These reflect a coherent, literary expansion of a simpler and shorter Akkadian Huwawa narrative. One important expansion is the addition of four characters in Penn and Sippar: Gilgamesh's mother, the lady tavern keeper, Sursunabu the boatman, and Uta-naishtim (43, 66).

Out of these two groups of texts, Yale and Penn are the two largest blocks of OB evidence. In fact, both were copied as consecutive tablets of the same series by the same scribe. The colophon of Penn reads, “Tablet II, ‘Surpassing above k[ings]’,” which became the incipit of the original OB epic (now embedded in line 29 of the SBV). Yale was Tablet III of that same šūtur eli šarrī series. Furthermore, as Andrew George notes, these two tablets are “[v]ery similar in clay, size and general appearance, they exhibit the same format of three columns on each side, [and] the same orthographic conventions… In addition, the two tablets have in common the presence on their edges of rounded lumps of clay of irregular size” (Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic, 1:159). Comparison of Yale and Penn, however, suggests significant differences, and Fleming and Milstein treat each of them as a representative of one of the above-mentioned groups: Yale represents the ten Huwawa-oriented tablets, while Penn represents the epic expansion of that simpler foundational story in the other two tablets.

One of the central differences between Yale and Penn is the portrayal of Enkidu, which is the subject of Chapter Two. While Yale suggests that he is the progeny of herdsmen, Penn introduces him as one born in the wild and nursed by beasts. In Yale, then, Enkidu needs no acculturation into society, since he is already familiar with the human company of the herdsmen. In Penn, however, he is raised among animals and so must be introduced to human society (20). In the Yale text, Enkidu's experience in the wild equips him with crucial knowledge for guiding Gilgamesh into the Cedar Forest. In Penn, however, Enkidu's origins among animals results in his wild habits and sheer physical strength, making him a perfect match for Gilgamesh, who is similarly endowed. The focus on Enkidu's knowledge in Yale is, thus, largely lost in Penn (38). But even as Penn suppresses Enkidu's role as sage, it redistributes that knowledge among the three leading female roles in the larger epic story: Gilgamesh's mother, who dreams of Enkidu's arrival; Shamhat, who acculturates Enkidu to human society through ritual sex; and the tavern keeper, who offers Gilgamesh sage advice after Enkidu's death (32, 40). In each of these cases, the authorial vision of Penn becomes that which dominates the OB epic, not least because the arrangement of the two tablets in the šūtur eli šarrī series would encourage reading Tablet III (Yale) in light of the vision of Tablet II (Penn), not vice-versa. And if they are correct, Fleming and Milstein may have pinpointed an important moment in the development of ancient Near Eastern wisdom literature, in which the tavern keeper, known in the SBV as Shiduri, takes on the role of an epic sage. For her wise advice in the OB Gilgamesh Epic (Sippar iii 6–15) seems ultimately to be the inspiration for that counsel which finds its way into Eccl. 9:7–9: “Go, eat your bread in mirth, and drink your wine with a glad heart, for God has already favored your deeds. Let your clothing be white at all times, and do not let oil be lacking upon your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love all the days of your vaporous life which he has given to you under the sun all your vaporous days. For that is your lot in life and in your toil which you toil under the sun.”

After outlining several essential differences between Yale and Penn in Chapter Two, Fleming and Milstein define the limits and content of their proposed “Akkadian Huwawa narrative” in Chapter Three. They state, “Although the Akkadian Huwawa narrative adds new themes and a long plot development to the early phases of the [Sumerian] story, it keeps the bounds of the Sumerian tale, which is constructed entirely around the expedition to obtain cedar in the distant highlands” (66). Fleming and Milstein list three essential features of their “Akkadian Huwawa narrative”: “Enkidu is the expert guide, born in the steppe; Huwawa is the central objective, and the cedar follows as a benefit of his defeat; and Gilgamesh undertakes the whole adventure in order to win fame or valor, not title” (44). The epic author then adds further characters, themes, and foci to this received written narrative. The OB Gilgamesh Epic, was, in fact, a “massive expansion of a received text” (55 n. 20)—a literary expansion of a literary Vorlage. Yet at the conclusion of the monograph, Fleming and Milstein suggest that scribes who copied this new OB epic would likely have understood the composition as “an elaboration of the Huwawa composition” (114) which they were, in fact, preserving in a new, epic form (114).

Chapter Five focuses on the meeting of Gilgamesh and Enkidu and the role of the harlot in that meeting. Since the ten texts in the Yale group begin in media res, part of the burden of the chapter is to try to reconstruct how they might have met in the original introduction to the “Akkadian Huwawa narrative.” To do this, Fleming and Milstein examine the evidence of the texts in the Yale group and juxtapose these with the new vision of the Penn group. They state, “In order to reconstruct the original introduction to the Huwawa narrative, we must work backward from the details of the OB Huwawa material, without assuming the contents of Penn or of the SB epic” (99). Furthermore, they investigate the ways that the new vision of the epic version necessitated the re-casting of the relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu, since their partnership had now to reach beyond the Huwawa adventure (99–103, 108–110). One way this relationship was revised was by placing new material “in front of existing narrative in order to lead the reader to respond differently…” (92). The latter phenomenon of “revision through introduction” is, in fact, the subject of Milstein's dissertation, entitled “Reworking Ancient Texts: Revision through Introduction in Biblical and Mesopotamian Literature” (Ph.D. diss., New York University, 2010).

The book is well written and tightly argued. The lone exception is Chapter Five, which is not well introduced and feels a bit tacked-on. Nonetheless, this reviewer finds the main argument of an original Akkadian Huwawa narrative both persuasive and interesting. Part of the cogency of the argument is due to the presentation of the material, the order of which seems to mimic the path of Fleming and Milstein's own discovery of what they believe to be the OB epic's foundation stone. The value of the volume is greatly enhanced by fresh translations of all the OB evidence and of the Sumerian Huwawa tales, along with philological notes. This makes it a first point of reference for anyone interested in the OB evidence for the Gilgamesh Epic. I look forward to the discussion that this book will spawn not only about the evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic, but about the evolution of biblical literature as well.

Scott C. Jones, Covenant College