Joseph Azize and Noel Weeks, eds., Gilgameš and the World of Assyria. Proceedings of the Conference held at Mandelbaum House, The University of Sydney, 21-23 July 2004
(Ancient Near Eastern Studies Supplement Series, 21; Leuven/Paris/Dudley, MA.: Peeters, 2007). Pp. viii + 240. Cloth €84.00. ISBN 978-90429-1802-3.
Reviewed by Scott Noegel
University of Washington

This volume brings together fourteen essays originally delivered at a conference on Gilgameš held at the University of Sydney in 2004. The editors have organized the articles into three sections: I) “Gilgameš and the World of Assyria,” II) “Gilgameš and the Hebrew Bible,” and III) “Phoenician and Assyrian Studies.” Below I offer a general synopsis of each article as it appears by section. I conclude with a brief remark concerning the volume as a whole.

Section I

Opening the book is “An Anti-Imperialist Twist to The Gilgameš Epic” by T. Davenport. By employing a structuralist approach Davenport argues that one should read the epic as a form of covert political criticism against the monarchy, and thus see it in line with the Babylonian texts known as “Advice to a Prince” and the so-called “Letter of Gilgameš.” To illustrate how the Gilgameš epic addresses the “fate of imperial powers under the cover of a heroic image” (p. 21) Davenport underscores the many anti-heroic aspects of Gilgameš’s character (such his tyranny over his subjects that is revealed from the start of the epic) and the paradigmatic nature of the epic itself, which serves to demonstrate what a good king should and should not do. Thus Davenport suggests that we see the epic conveying “the fate of imperial powers as unavoidable decline” and the epic’s closing scene, in which Gilgameš finds solace in gazing at Uruk’s walls, as a “mockery on the mentality of imperial powers, in which expansion and imperialism was viewed as a source of fame and immortality” (p. 21).

J.-D. Forest, “L’Epopée de Gilgameš, ses origins et sa postérité” provides another structuralist reading of the epic. Here, however, Forest views the epic through a cosmological lens, one that he feels conveys the cyclical nature of archetypal history. Specifically, Forest seeks to establish correspondences between the twelve episodes that comprise the epic and the twelve astrological (zodiacal) phases. Thus Forest argues that the epic’s opening with Gilgameš in his ascendant phase portrays him as a solar hero, who, like the sun, embodies a cosmic journey. The opening of the epic, therefore, corresponds to the winter solstice (i.e., the period of Capricorn), an association that is brought out by the text’s reference to Ea (whose boat elsewhere is labeled the “Ibex of the Apsu,” i.e., like Capricorn who is half horse and half fish) and the episode concerning the birth of Enkidu, who, like Capricorn, represents the embryonic nature of life. The pericope involving the Bull of Heaven relates to Taurus, the fall, death, and funeral of Enkidu represent the period from Cancer to Virgo. The remaining portions of the epic are similarly tied to the various astrological symbols that mark the progression of the solar cycle. While a few of the cosmological readings of the epic offered provoke interest, most are strained, requiring that one accept the associations given to these periods as universals. One wonders what evidence exists contemporaneous with the Gilgameš epic for the associations that the author attributes to the zodiacal phases, especially since Babylonian “horoscopes,” as they have come to be called, did not emerge until late in the 5th c. BCE.1.

A. R. George’s “The Epic of Gilgameš: Thoughts on Genre and Meaning” examines the epic from the perspective of genre. While acknowledging the difficulty in establishing literary genres in Mesopotamia generally, George nevertheless is able to show how the epic integrates hymnic praise, prayer, blessing, lament, and many other genres. Indeed, as he remarks, the epic represents “an anthology of genre” (p. 52). Moreover, these genres developed over time, interacted, and modulated each other through the course of the epic’s reworking. In its most recent reworking, the Standard Babylonian version, the text underscored “the new mood and actively didactic tone of the poem,” thus serving as a “vehicle for wisdom” (p. 57). As such George’s contribution offers a useful exploration of native function and generic taxonomy.

V. A. B. Hurowitz’s “Finding New Life in Old Words: Word Play in the Gilgameš Epic” examines the epic for its manifold use of word play, with particular attention to alliteration and polysemy. Especially insightful is his treatment of the word napištu “life” as a Leitwort that is punned upon in various ways throughout the epic. Hurowitz builds nicely upon the works of authors who have examined the topic previously2 and demonstrates the need for further attention to the topic of word play in Assyriology generally.

Concluding this section is “Assyrian Imperialism and the Walls of Uruk,” by N. K. Weeks. As Weeks observes, the epic opens by self-referentially identifying itself as the text one is reading, and thus as a royal inscription now placed as a foundation deposit in the walls of Uruk. It therefore classifies itself as a royal inscription, and not a text for general consumption. Since Assyrian royal inscriptions typically are addressed to future rulers and not contemporaries, they cannot serve as forms of royal propaganda (a purpose that some scholars have asserted for royal inscriptions generally). The implied audience for the epic thus underscores the “social and psychological isolation of the Assyrian king” (p. 85) and has at its primary purpose the legitimation of imperialism “in terms of divine selection and endowment” (p. 89). Weeks’ attention to the implied audience of the text raises important questions as to its interpretation and gives reason to reconsider the commonly held assumption concerning how “popular” the epic of Gilgameš really was.

Section II

The second section of the tome opens with “L’Epopée de Gilgameš et la Genèse” by J.-D. Forest. As in his other study summarized above, Forest offers a structuralist analysis of a text, this time the narrative cycles in Genesis. Here, however, Forest argues that the redacted and cyclical structure of Genesis (especially with regard to moments of divine interaction and alliance and the births of the patriarchs) correlates to seasonal patterns, solstices, equinoxes, and astrological cycles, and that as such, the book reflects the integration and adaptation of portions of the Gilgameš epic into the patriarchal narratives.

David L. Jackson’s “Demonising Gilgameš” focuses on the mention of Gilgameš in two Aramaic fragments found at Qumran, where he appears as one of the giants produced by the elicit offspring of angels and mortal women. Jackson places these references within the context of the sectarian religious beliefs concerning order and purity represented in the Qumran texts, especially the belief that Gentile wisdom derived from the spirits of this elicit offspring. According to Jackson, the identification of Gilgameš and the other giants as a “demonic Gentile force” (p. 112), served as a sort of anti-language code that represented Seleucid culture as a whole.

In “The Biblical Flood Story in the Light of the Gilgameš Flood Account,” G. A. Rendsburg draws attention to the difficulties posed for source critics when reading Genesis 6–8 in conjunction with its parallels in the Gilgameš flood narrative. Though source critics have long suggested that the biblical flood story shows the hands of the J (Yahwist) and P (Priestly) sources, neither of the hypothesized sources provides all of the parallels. In fact, only when one reads Genesis 6–8 as a complete story does it provide complete point-by-point parallels with the Gilgameš flood account. Rendsburg also examines the instances in which the biblical and Akkadian flood stories differ for what they tell us about the theological agendas of the Israelites.

M. A. Shields, “To Seek but not to Find: Old Meanings for Qohelet and Gilgameš” examines a number of themes that the book of Qohelet and the Gilgameš epic share in common. For example, Shields notes that both employ a “motif of failure as a method for conveying meaning” (p. 129), and hold as central to their message, death and the belief that one should make the best of life while alive. There are, of course, differences: Qohelet looks for what is advantageous in life, whereas Gilgameš looks for eternal life; Qohelet’s failure “reflects the ultimate failure of the wisdom movement” (p. 132) and serves to “deter prospective novices from enrolling as students of the sages” (p. 144), whereas Gilgameš’s failure, when coupled with the knowledge that he now serves as a ruler and judge in the underworld, tends to personalize the great king and thus allow his readers to empathize with him when facing their own deaths.

R. Todd Stanton’s, “Asking Questions of the Divine Announcements in the Flood Stories from Ancient Mesopotamia and Israel” compares the different methods by which news of the biblical and Mesopotamian floods come to their heroes. In the Sumerian flood story the news of the deluge is revealed in a vision, whereas in Gilgameš it is revealed in a dream. The biblical account is silent on the matter. Based on a number of linguistic and thematic links that connect Noah to Adam and Moses, Stanton argues that the pattern of revelation given in the biblical account is that of a direct face-to-face encounter with the divine.

The final piece in this section is I. M. Young’s, “Textual Stability in Gilgameš and the Dead Sea Scrolls.” Young here compares the types, numbers, and relative proportions of textual variants as found in the various recensions of the Gilgameš epic with those found among the Qumran biblical fragments and Masoretic Text. He finds that “the Hebrew evidence seems to move from fluidity to stability rather rapidly. The evidence for the Standard Babylonian Gilgameš epic stretches across much of the first millennium” (p. 181). In the final analysis Young observes: “The scribal transmission of Gilgameš adds therefore to the case that the transmission of Biblical Hebrew was subject to high fluidity” and that the “language of the current texts may tell us much more about the scribes who transmitted the text than the original authors” (p. 183). He adds that this suggests that the trigger for rapid stabilization for the Hebrew text should perhaps be sought in the influence of Hellenism or other factors within early Judaism.

Section III

The final section of the book is the least connected in terms of content. The first article, J. Azize, “Was There Regular Child Sacrifice in Phoenicia and Carthage?” argues for a more nuanced treatment of the topic of child sacrifice and suggests that some of the texts that scholars have seen as evidence for the practice may attest to sacrifice for children, not of children. He also calls attention to the potential polemical nature of ancient claims of child sacrifice, which may belie defamatory motives.

In S. Jackson’s second contribution to the volume, “Phoenicians and Assyrians versus the Roving Nomad: Western Imperialism, Western Scholarship and Modern Identity” the author delves into the racial stereotyping and political motives of Ernest Renan, whose well-known travels in the Middle East and written works reveal an anti-Semitism that nevertheless found redeeming qualities in the Phoenicians, whom Renan associated with the Maronites (an association that Maronites were quick to accept). As allies of the French, the understanding of Maronites as descendents of the Phoenicians, allowed Renan to distance the obvious accomplishments of Phoenician cultures from the Muslim Semitic population, underscore what he saw as the victory of Christianity, and to fit the Maronites neatly into French imperial designs. The author offers a similar, albeit more brief, treatment of the writings of Henry Layard and Hormuzd Rassam with respect to modern Nestorian Christian claims of genealogical descent from the ancient Assyrians.

Concluding the volume is L. R. Sidall, “A Re-examination of the Title ša reši in the Neo-Assyrian Period.” Sidall revisits the long-debated meaning and role of the office of the ša reši (also rab ša reši) in the Neo-Assyrian period. Though often understood as an eunuch, sources prior to the Neo-Assyrian period offer little evidence for this connection. Instead, these texts suggest only a court official with inner access to the king. Sidall also argues that although some texts may suggest that the title is used of an eunuch in the Neo-Assyrian period, not all of the pictorial bas-reliefs of beardless men that some have connected to this figure can be used as evidence. It is not until the Persian period, Sidall asserts, that the title is clearly used of eunuchs. The author also dates the references to these titles in Gen 40:7 and Isa 56:3–5 to the Persian period, and thus sees them as referring to eunuchs. The article concludes by suggesting that the ša reši in Assyria may have been a “symbolic institution” (p. 235) connected to the Ishtar cult, which would also explain the ambiguous gender of some of the beardless figures securely connected with the title.

Taken as a whole the volume lacks consistency in the quality of its papers and cohesiveness; the book’s third section appears as something of a “catch-all” for papers falling outside the conference’s central theme. Nevertheless, we may thank the editors for organizing the conference that brought these papers together and for reminding scholars in both Biblical Studies and Assyriology that there is still reward in comparative analysis, especially when demonstrating influence or dependence is not the ultimate goal.

[1] See Francesca Rochberg, “Babylonian Horoscopes,” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 88 (1998), pp. 1-164. Of course, there is a long history of collecting celestial omens from the Old Babylonian period on, but the omen materials are not considered in Forest’s article.

[2] Though appearing too late to be incorporated into Hurowitz’s study, I note here the recently published in-depth study of word play in the Gilgameš epic. See Scott B. Noegel, Nocturnal Ciphers: The Allusive Language of Dreams in the Ancient Near East (American Oriental Series, 89; New Haven, CT, 2007), especially pp. 57-82. I also take this opportunity to note what appears to be an editorial oversight. Though the studies by Carl Frank (“Zu den Wortspielen kukku und kibâti in Gilg. Ep. XI,” ZA 36 [1925], 216) and myself (“Raining Terror: Another Wordplay Cluster in Gilgameš Tablet XI [Assyrian Version, ll. 45-47],” Nouvelles Assyriologiques Brèves et Utilitaires-75 [1997], 39-40) appear in the bibliography, they do not appear in the footnotes on pp. 71-73 where the author discusses the dual meanings of the words kukku, kibâti, and zanânu, i.e., the subjects of the aforementioned articles.