And the Emmy goes to: the Sumerian scribes

Mesopotamian clay tablets at the NYC Metropolitan Museum

by cheri block sabraw

I understand the Emmy Awards were doled out last night.

Since my interest in anything Hollywood is akin to my interest in mortuary science, I have no idea who won what.

One thing is for sure: It’s tough to find much gravitas in television or film these days.

So I choose to read.

The story that is now playing in my imagination was first written sometime between 1800-1600 BCE. That’s about 3800 years ago.

That it showcases a handsome king, that this king misdirects his passions, that he suffers a deep emotional crisis which sends him on an archetypal journey in search of immortality, that he returns to his city a wise but lonely character— reinforces our humanness, say more than 30 Rock?

The king’s name is Gilgamesh. He was a real person who lived during the Early Dynastic II period (2700-2100 BCE) in the city of Uruk in Sumer, the earliest known civilization in human history.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is an old poem written on clay tablets in cuneiform a long time ago— before the Hebrew Bible, before the New Testament, before the Bhagavad Gita, before the Buddhist scriptures, and before Homer’s The Odyssey.

Archeologists found the eleven tablet story in the Library of King Ashurbanipal (ca. 668-627 BCE) This is a picture of King Ashurbanipal that I took last month at the NYC Metropolitan Museum.

First translated into English in 1885, the Epic was written in the Mesopotamian language of Akkadian, one of the languages in Ancient Babylonia, now present day Iraq.

The King Gilgamesh in the poem is a mythological one, 2/3 god and 1/3 human.

As with most who enter or are born into public service or royalty (think the Windsors, the Roosevelts ), Gilgamesh has, in modern parlance, issues.

He suffers from what many of today’s teenagers and 20 somethings expect: instant gratification. But hey, he’s a studly king, admired by Ishtar the Love and War Goddess. He erects monuments, participates in contests of strength, and regularly sleeps with virgins the night before their weddings.

He has it all. All except friendship and perspective.

Instead of inflicting him with a venereal disease or a vulnerable spot that is his undoing, as with the Greek Achilles or the biblical Samson, the Mesopotamian Gods put their heads together and with a big Marine oorah, come up with what might be one of the most creative solutions in all literature: they create a complement to Gilgamesh, the Wild Man of Mesopotamia, Enkidu.

Enkidu is Rousseau’s man: a natural guy, comfortable running with gazelle and resting by cool watering holes. All eight pistons are operational but his brain power is simple and functional. How to bring a guy like this to the palace for a visit?

Meanwhile, back in the forest, Enkidu startles a trapper who then goes home and asks his father for a solution to this hairy man who is 2/3 animal and 1/3 man, a guy who has been setting the animals free from the traps.

The trapper’s father suggests that his son follow the yellow brick road to Uruk where  King Gilgamesh, the strong and virile, lives. Perhaps the King might have a solution.

As Mel Brooks would say, It’s good to be the king.

Gilgamesh delivers by sending a prostitute, Shamhat, with the trapper in the hopes that when she unveils her whatever (translators disagree what was unveiled or spread), Enkidu, the animal, will not be able to resist his, uh, human, instincts.

The translation that I am reading says that he was aroused for six days and seven nights.


With no  help from Viagra.

To be continued.

About Cheri

Writer, artist, cable television host, grandmother to four!
This entry was posted in On fiction, Writing and Teaching and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to And the Emmy goes to: the Sumerian scribes

  1. Douglas says:

    Clay tablet porn? It would figure this would be something that would be preserved through the millenia; a racy poem.

    • Cheri says:

      I blogged about Tablet 1. There are 10 to go.

      ISBN-10: 0804717117

      This one is by Maureen Kovacs and is published by Stanford University Press.

      This poem is relevant to our lives. Trust me.

      • Douglas says:

        Aren’t there 11 to go? The stories in the poem are as relevant as any myth. They speak to man’s fear of death, of the power (and greed) of some, and the willingness of “common man” to be subservient. But that’s just my take on things. I am a cynic.

  2. Sir Jeremy says:

    Does Shamhat have a telephone number or e-mail address, I wonder?

  3. andreaskluth says:

    I’m ready to go deep with you on Gilgamesh. But I’m waiting till you’ve read the whole thing…

  4. Cheri says:

    Hmmmm…I have read it twice and then, the overly prepared (or insecure) student that I am, I read it again before my class.

    So, yes. I hope to blog about the epic before our class moves on to the Hebrew Bible.

    When was the last time your read this work?

  5. andreaskluth says:

    You’ll be shocked to know that I have not yet read G at all. I’ve only read and heard lectures about G.

    I sense that I should probably read it before I open my mouth here.

    • Cheri says:

      I’d rather you begin reading the Inferno.
      With your interest in Rome, strategy, dynamic thinkers, and mythology—this piece is well worth the time. Perhaps you could compare some of Dante’s thinking with Socrates’.

      One of my favorite works in the world.

  6. andreaskluth says:

    Ok, then Inferno goes into the rotation before Gilgamesh.

    I’m stocking up on toilet paper and eye liner, just in case.

  7. andreaskluth says:

    There are two Kindle editions of teh Inferno. 1) translator = Hollander, 2) T = Dore.

    Can u recommend either?

    • Cheri says:

      I was just up in my library looking for my edition, the one I used for my St. John’s class. Must be at my office.

      Let me check that for you before you order.
      I’ll also visit the St. John’s website.

  8. Cheri says:

    Not Dore, for sure.

    Maybe the Ciardi translation, but if you want to use the Kindle, then go with the Hollander.

    Look forward to your thoughts about this work of art.

  9. andreaskluth says:

    Oops. A snag. There is no Kindle version after all. All this will take some time. it will now go into my Paper Book rotation.

  10. Virgil says:

    Hi Andreas,
    In that case, wait until Cheri goes to her office on Monday when she can verify which translation might be the best.

    Until then, a little teaser (since you are one yourself)

    Midway this way of life we’re bound upon,
    I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
    Where the right road was wholly lost and gone.

    Ay me! how hard to speak of it–that rude
    And rough and stubborn forest! the mere breath
    Of memory stirs the old fear in the blood;

  11. Pingback: From Cleopatra to Shirley Temple « Notes from Around the Block

  12. Pingback: The “heart” of the Western Tradition: Dante « The Hannibal Blog

  13. lichanos says:


    I like your blog very much; I’m just exploring it now. I enjoy the fact that I don’t quite get where you’re coming from, as opposed to so many blogs that are all too clear from the start. And, I loved Gilgamesh!

  14. Cheri says:

    Thank you.

    I visited your intellectual blog and read your post on Moby Dick. Are you a teacher? Nicely presented.

    Probably my vision, but I did not see a place on the home page to subscribe.

    In most of my pieces, there is a story within a story. That’s the goal, at least.

    Thank you for taking your time to read.

  15. lichanos says:

    Thanks for visiting my blog, and I’m happy you enjoyed it. I have loved Moby Dick since high school.

    I never thought about the subscription thing – I’ll look into it.

    I’m not a teacher, I’m an engineer, but I’ve been described by a colleague as a “Luddite nerd.”

  16. lichanos says:

    Okay, I added a subscription option – thanks for the tip! You must be an engineer, or a teacher.

    I not sure I like the description “intellectual blog,” but it’s been called much worse!

    Merry Xmas!

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