The Epic of Gilgamesh

Translated and Transliterated from its Original Language: Early Classical Arabic

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Gilgamesh in a relief from the Assyrian
capital Khorsabad (Louvre Museum)
Based on evidence of a Cuneiform tablet from the first Babylonian Dynasty time, the Epic of Gilgamesh belongs to a period earlier than 2000 BCE. This tablet explicitly mentioned the name of one of the heroes listed in the epic. However, the oldest recovered tablets of the epic itself belong to the 18th century BCE. Although most scholars believe the epic was originally written in the Sumerian language, all recovered tablets of the epic were written in the Akkadian language.

In its final form, which is commonly referred to as the Standard Babylonian Edition (SBE), the epic included 12 tablets, each tablet consists of 6 columns (3 on each side) with about 50 lines per column, or a total of about 3600 lines for the full epic. According to George, as of 2003, we have uncovered 184 tablet pieces from the standard edition, dating back to between the 9-8th and 2nd centuries BCE. Many of these tablet pieces were found among the 30,000 Cuneiform tablets and bits of tablets, which are the remains of the palace library of Assyrian king Ashurbanapal (668–626 BC) located at Nineveh of northern Mesopotamian. Layard discovered this palace in 1854 in the course of his excavations of a mound just outside the modern Iraqi city of Mosul.

As for the earlier edition of the epic, which is commonly referred to as the Old Babylonian Edition (OBE), only two of its tablets are discovered, so far. The two were recovered between 1902 and 1914 from a market in Baghdad. The two tables, which were dated to around 1800 BCE, are commonly referred to as the Penn and Yale tables, after their owners, the University of Pennsylvania and Yale University. Each of the two tablets also consisted of 6 columns (3 on each side), but most columns contained a much smaller number of lines. As a result, The Yale tablet contains 240 lines, while the Penn Tablets contains 292 lines. According to George, we have only discovered a total of 11 tablet pieces from the old edition, as of 2003.

Another Gilgamesh relief showing different
hair, face/head dress, and clothing

What does Gilgamesh Mean?

Gilgamesh was, according to the epic, both king and god. Most scholars believe he was an actual Mesopotamian Sumerian king. In the Old Babylonian Edition he was referred to as Giš, only, which could be the well-known old Arabic first names: Jiḥsh, meaning “fighter, defender, or loner” Jish, meaning “rough, tough”, or Jaysh, meaning “outburst, eruption.” However, Gilgamesh was called at least four different names in later tablets, which clearly indicates the name Gilgamesh is not an actual name, but a nick name (kunya). In fact his actual first name, at birth, was Nabu, a common old Arabic name meaning “the high one” or “the prophet”, according to this new translation of line #47 of the first tablet of the Standard Babylonian Edition (provided below).

In the newer Assyrian Standard Edition, which was written a thousand years later, Gilgamesh was referred to with the name GIŠ-gím-maš, clearly a compound name, adding the second word gím-maš. The word gím-maš can be Jíḥmas or Jímash, or Jímas meaning “the steadfast” or “the stubborn”, or “the rigid” respectively. This second word could have been a nick name (kunyah) added to his first name to form “Jish (or Jiḥsh or Jaysh) the Stubborn”. Alternatively, it could have been part of a compound nick name (kunyah) to form “Jiḥsh (or Jish or Jaysh) al-Jiḥmash (or al-Jimash, or al-Jimas)”, meaning “the stubborn (or steadfast or rigid) fighter or defender (or loner or eruptive one)”. All these nicknames fit accurately Gilgamesh's personality and roles according to the tales of the epic.

In few cases, in the Assyrian Standard Edition, he was also referred to with the compound name GIŠ-TUK, adding the word TUK. The second word here, according to the historical Arabic references, is tuk, tawk, or tayk, meaning “the extremely crazy one”, possibly referring to his obsession and strength in following his unrealistic goals, which clearly match the above meanings of “steadfast” or “the stubborn”, or “the rigid”.

The evidence from the twelfth-century (BCE) Ugaritic tablet piece strongly support the analysis above. Gilgamesh's name in that tablet was bil-ga-mas, which is clearly assimilated from big-ga-mas as in Abi al-Jamas, a nick name or kunyah, meaning “the father of stubbornness or tenacity" (the stubborn or tough one). The gradual assimilation of the sound of the Arabic letter Lam can be seen in many Akkadian words. Forming nicknames with Abu (father of) is very common in Classical Arabic, even today.

What is Gilgamesh's Real Name: Rereading Line 47 of the First Tablet

The exact Latin/Arabic transliteration of ine #47 in the first tablet, according to Andrew George and all other scholars, is:

GIŠ-gím-maš ul-tu u-um i’-al-du na-bu šum-šú
جِشْجِمَش أُلْتُ أُومْ إألْدو نَبو سُمْ ذو

Replacing older Akkadian Arabic words with their modern equivalents, as indicated in both modern Western and old Arabic etymological references, the line becomes in Arabic as follows:

جِش الجِمَش، أوّلُ يوم (حين) وُلِدَ، نَبو (كان) إسمُهُ
Gilgamesh, the first day (when) he was born, Nabu (was) his name

According to both Akkadian and Arabic grammar rules, the word na-bu is clearly not the verb nabû (Arabic nabu'a) but a noun. Treating this word as a verb to give the meaning of "was called his name", as it is currently being read, makes no sense, logically, either. Since the writer of the epic did not need to inform his/her readers that Gilgamesh was his name from the first day, if that was in fact the case. In conclusion, the line should read in modern language:

جِش الجِمَش، يوم وُلِدَ، نَبو (كان) إسمُه
Gilgamesh, the day he was born, Nabu (was) his name

To check the above-given words' meanings in the historical etymological Arabic references, see this page. For More details of the linguistic derivation of the word Gilgamesh can be found in this study, which was first published in a book by the translator titled Inscriptional Evidence of Pre-Islamic Classical Arabic: Selected Readings in the Nabataean, Musnad, and Akkadian Inscriptions (New York: Blautopf Publishing, 2011).

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