Category Archives: Tablets

Part IV: Gilgamesh!

A statue of Gilgamesh overpowering a lion. It was found in Khorsabad, Iraq, at the palace of Sargon II. Now housed at the Louvre. (Source)

He’s the other guitarist with The Mesopotamians band, wearing a pointy helmet. He can’t seem to be able to keep himself together- he plays his guitar and his arm falls off, he joins Hammurabi at the microphone and his teeth start flying out of his mouth, his jaw falls off, and at one point he ends up a heap on the floor.

He is Gilgamesh! (And our last king in The Mesopotamians series of kings!)

Gilgamesh is a name steeped in myth, but there are some things sprinkled here and there that support the idea that Gilgamesh, or Izdubar as his name was erroneously translated in 1872, was an actual historical figure we can discuss, albeit briefly when not talking about the oldest story the world has ever known…

An Epic King

Most people know Gilgamesh through the Epic of Gilgamesh, which holds great importance to humanity today as the world’s oldest piece of literature. It appears to have been just as important to humanity in ancient times, too. For one thing it was written down centuries after the death of the enigma that is its hero, and was circulated in the ancient world so much, that aside from various sites across Mesopotamia (most notably in the Library of Ashurbanipal), fragments of it were also found written in non-Mesopotamian languages, in non-Mesopotamian regions.

This means that Gilgamesh was a figure known across the Ancient Near East for centuries, which leads us to asking: why was Gilgamesh so important?

Before we delve into the Epic, it’s important to know that Gilgamesh’s name appears in material other than the Epic, like the Sumerian King List, which identifies him as the fifth king of Uruk. According to the List, his reign took place between 2500 and 2800 BC (a date I have been unable to pinpoint exactly because of differing dates from different sources), and lasted for 126 years. Bilgames, as he is known in the earliest Sumerian texts, also appears on tablets that list deities, like this one. Gilgamesh also appears in Mesopotamian mythology as a demigod, and a judge of the dead. Although Gilgamesh’s parents had cult followings and temples built for their worship, nothing other than a god’s epitaph in texts has been found to prove that Gilgamesh himself was an actively worshiped deity.

Going back to the The Epic, which paints the clearest picture of this mysterious man, we are presented with Gilgamesh as the king of Uruk, the builder of its great walls and its all-powerful ruler. The Epic begins with a prologue that introduces us to Gilgamesh, part of which is:

He had seen everything, had experienced all emotions,

from exaltation to despair, had been granted a vision

into the great mystery, the secret places,

the primeval days before the Flood. (Mitchell, 69)

“Gilgamesh between two Bull-Men with Sun-Disc (Wikimedia Commons)” (Source)

The Epic’s Gilgamesh possesses incredible physical strength, thanks to his parentage and demigod status, with two-thirds god and one-third human DNA. He needs no sleep and can complete a six weeks’ journey in three days. He need only eat after covering 400 miles, and pitch a camp after 1,000.

But he is also described as an arrogant ruler, and does what he wants to those he rules, including bedding all brides on their wedding night, even before their husbands do.

The people of Uruk cry out to the heavens from such tyranny, and the gods respond by sending down Enkidu, a wild man who lives with the animals in the wilderness. He is Gilgamesh’s equal in strength and ability, he is sent down to balance Gilagamesh. After a series of fantastical and sexually explicit events involving one of the most enigmatic women represented in literature, Enkidu is tamed and brought to Uruk, where he and Gilgamesh face off and become the best of friends. Together, they take on challenges that defy vengeful gods and end with a tragic loss that sends Gilgamesh on a journey in search of immortality. Gilgamesh’s journey to the Great Deep in search of immortality brings him face to face with Utnapishtim, a figure whose description of the biblical Flood marks him as a non-biblical representation of Noah.

“This, the eleventh tablet of the Epic, describes the meeting of The Gilgamesh with Utnapishtim. Like Noah in the Hebrew Bible, Utnapishtim had been forewarned of a plan by the gods to send a great flood.” Source:

In his article titled “The Flood of Noah and the Flood of Gilgamesh,” for the Institute for Creation Research website, the archaeologist Frank Lorey, M.A. writes of Gilgamesh’s deeds, which are also listed in the Epic: “He was one who had great knowledge and wisdom, and preserved information of the days before the flood. Gilgamesh wrote on tablets of stone all that he had done, including building the city walls of Uruk and its temple for Eanna,” Lorey writes.

The Eternal Significance of Gilgamesh to Humanity

It is safe to say that Gilgamesh represents a most human hero, despite his supernatural credentials. What could be more human than arrogance, or love, or fear of death?

In his essay, “Storytelling, the Meaning of Life, and The Epic of Gilgamesh,” Arthur A. Brown writes, “We read stories — and reading is a kind of re-telling — not to learn what is known but to know what cannot be known, for it is ongoing and we are in the middle of it.”

To this day, Gilgamesh’s story resonates with us, not with its fantastical and ancient details, but with its profound reflection on the human condition that seems to have changed little over the centuries.

Gilgamesh’s surviving legacy, beyond the Epic or the walls he built around the city he ruled is his humanity.

Sources and further reading:

Mitchell, Stephen. Gilgamesh: A New English Version. New York: Free Press, 2006. (Version used for the Prologue except.) (First picture) (Louvre description of Gilgamesh statue) (Wikipedia) (Study guide that talks about Epic) (The Flood Tablet at the British Museum website) (Translated text of the Epic of Gilgamesh tablets) (Storytelling, the Meaning of Life,
and The Epic of Gilgamesh
essay by Arthur A. Brown) (Brief biography on Encyclopedia Mythica) (The Noah Flood and the Epic of Gilgamesh, by Frank Lorey, M.A., who is believes the Genesis was preserved as an oral tradition before it was handed down to Moses, who finally wrote it down, making the Genesis the influence for the Epic of Gilgamesh, and not the other way around.) (Translation of the Epic of Gilgamesh with an introduction that includes a bit of the history behind the historical aspects of the story and the tablets and translations.) (Gilgamesh and the Cedar Forest interactive story.) (Encyclopaedia Britannica entry that talks about the Epic of Gilgamesh and its hero. Gives titles of each poem in the Epic.) (Background of the Epic of Gilgamesh, which has footnotes and sources.) (Wikipedia entry about Sumerian King List.) (Wikipedia entry about Uruk.) (Picture of Walls of Uruk.)

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Posted by on June 5, 2012 in Kings, Mythology, Tablets


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Guest post: Where the world’s first literature was found

By Dr. Jane Moon

Since writing was invented, life has never been the same again. The ability to transfer something we want to say onto a physical object, which can be read in a place where we can’t be in person, makes a fundamental difference to human interaction. It is one of the basic features of civilization. And because written things can have a longer lifetime than humans, our words can be read even after we are dead, so that humans, uniquely, have a sense of their own past.

It’s a sad fact that writing was devised not to write poetry, or love letters, but to keep accounts. But the ever-resourceful Sumerians, who knew a bit about luxury and refinement, soon adapted it to better things. The earliest literature found so far comes from a Sumerian city not far from Nippur, now in the Maysan province of Iraq. We don’t know its original name, but today people call the mound that covers it ‘Abu Salabikh’, which means ‘father of clinker’. The mound is littered with potsherds, like most Mesopotamian ancient sites, and because of the severe salination of the ground (the downside of all that Sumerian irrigation), only the sherds that were accidentally overfired to clinker have survived.

Salt on the surface of the ground near Abu Salabikh.
Photo Credit: Prof. Nicholas Postgate, University of Cambridge

Under this inauspicious surface, expeditions first from Chicago (1963-65) and then from the UK (1975-89) found a whole city, occupied from Uruk times and finally abandoned around 2,000 BC. Work concentrated on the Sumerian levels (c. 2,900 to 2,300BC), and in these were found about 500 clay tablets, including the world’s first literature. Among them were the earliest known version of compositions famous in later times, such as the list of proverbs and wisdom known as ‘The Instructions of Shuruppak’, written in the form of advice to the Flood hero Utnapishtim (also known as Ziusudra, and in the Bible as Noah) from his father Shuruppak. Some of it is a bit obvious: ‘Don’t make a field on a road’, and some of it absolutely ageless: ‘Don’t play around with a young married woman’. Other tablets had school exercises, hymns, and incantations.

This one is an incantation against digestion problems:

Photo Credit: Prof. Nicholas Postgate, University of Cambridge

Excavations revealed monumental public buildings as well as city quarters of narrow lanes and intersecting houses. High-tech methods for detecting buried architecture do not work well on sites like this, so much of the city layout was mapped by simply scraping away the top crust of earth, revealing wall lines and other features underneath.

Photo Credit: Prof. Nicholas Postgate, University of Cambridge

The city was divided into different ‘quarters’ including an area where pottery manufacture was carried out. A potter’s workshop was found, with part of the wheel still discernible.

Photo Credit: Prof. Nicholas Postgate, University of Cambridge

The citizens of Abu Salabikh liked to bury their dead under the floors of their houses, equipped for the afterlife with household goods and items of value. Under the potter’s house was the skeleton of an adult, perhaps the potter him/herself!

Photo Credit: Prof. Nicholas Postgate, University of Cambridge

The contents of graves varied according to the status of the deceased, and sometimes even children were richly equipped.

Photo Credit: Prof. Nicholas Postgate, University of Cambridge

Photo Credit: Prof. Nicholas Postgate, University of Cambridge

Child’s grave, as found (left) and the miniature vessels after cleaning. Note the double-compartment stone cosmetic jars on the right, and the shells in the foreground – also used to hold make-up.

The excavations at Abu Salabikh were a model of interdisciplinary research, using a whole range of different techniques to decipher the material remains left by hundreds of years of city life. The vast majority of the objects recovered were of everyday things, and the salty conditions meant that few were of spectacular museum display quality, but it is the painstaking research, still ongoing, on items such as these that really gives us insight into the world of early civilization.

The tablets and many of the objects from Abu Salabikh were destroyed when the Iraq Museum was looted, but the information they contain is preserved for us, meticulously recorded and published, thanks to that great Sumerian invention, the written word – with a little help from some later ones, such as photography and the internet!

It is my honor and pleasure to present a very special guest post. It is not only special because it is our first such post, but also because its author is an archaeologist with a background rich in Mesopotamian knowledge.

Dr. Jane Moon is co-director of the Ur Region Archaeology Project (URAP), and an honorary research fellow at the University of Manchester, and one of those people who do wonderful things for Iraq, and in turn, humanity.

She was assistant director of the Abu Salabikh project in the 1970s and 1980s, and plans to return to Iraq for further excavations at Ur in January 2013. “We’ve all grown old waiting to get back to Iraq, but I certainly intend to take some youngsters with me, and especially to do what I can to encourage young Iraqis while I am there.” Good luck to Dr. Moon!

You can follow Dr. Moon on Twitter- @EaNasir. To learn a bit more about URAP, visit

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Posted by on April 30, 2012 in Sumerian, Tablets, Writing


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Some Mesopotamian romance for Valentine’s Day

It’s that time of year when love is on everyone’s mind and I thought I’d throw together a little something of the romance variety.

First, I thought I’d remind you that the world’s first love poem ever written down was Sumerian, and dates back to 2025 BC.

“This inscription, dating from the 8th century BC and belonging to the Ancient Babylonian Era, is described as the world’s oldest known love poem. According to the Sumerian belief, it was a sacred duty for the king to marry every year a priestess instead of Inanna, the goddess of fertility and sexual love, in order to make the soil and women fertile. This poem was most probably written by a bride chosen for Shu-Sin in order to be sung at the New Year festival and it was sung at banquets and festivals accompanied by music and dance.” (Source)

I introduced this poem back in October, and thought it perfect to revisit for Valentine’s Day. I’ve also added a  new link for you to read about it further. It is just lovely.

So forget all that violent history of Valentine’s Day madness from Ancient Rome being posted all over the internet and go back to a simpler time, when a ritual between a king and the goddess of love conjures up nothing but images of romance.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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Posted by on February 14, 2012 in Music, Sumerian, Tablets, Writing


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Beer, beer and more beer!

I’m really beginning to think that Mesopotamians were aliens, because they seem to have invented everything under the sun, and made it look like they knew what they were doing from the get-go. Beer is no exception.

It is so that 6,000 years ago, through the need to preserve grain, Sumerians stumbled upon a process that would produce the most wonderfully-tasting, intoxicating substance that did not require much more than neglecting the baked bread of the sweetest grain, with a dab of moisture. Beer was that substance, and it became so important to the ancient Mesopotamians, that it was the national fermented drink of Babylonia.

Ninkasi, the goddess of beer. (Source)

Beer was so important to the Sumerians, that they had a goddess dedicated solely to beer. This Sumerian goddess of beer was named Ninkasi. What is believed to be the oldest written recipe in the world, found on 4,000-year-old tablets, is for beer, and is written in the form of a hymn to Ninkasi, which you can read here. (What a cool name for a beer! Heineken, move over! Ninkasi Beer is here!)

Now, the coolness doesn’t stop there, because Ninkasi isn’t the only woman associated with beer in ancient Mesopotamia. You see, Sumerians preserved grain by way of baking, and beer was really nothing more than liquid bread, and since women were the bakers, well, naturally, the business of brewing beer became a woman’s specialty…you hear that, makers of Chick Beer?!?

As simple as “liquid bread” sounds, however, and this is where the possibility that Mesopotamians were aliens becomes more likely to me, Mesopotamian beer came in white, russet, light, dark and cloudy brews.

See what I mean?

Also, honey was used as a sweetener and various aromatics were used for flavoring. You can try these experimental recipes for Sumerian beer from Micah Joel’s blog here and here.

I should mention that the beer Mesopotamians drank was rather strong, and full of bits and pieces of bread and floaties and what-not, which would sink to the bottom of the liquid, making it kind of unpleasant to gulp down the way beer is consumed today. Leave it to the Sumerians, though, to come up with a solution to that problem. Mesopotamian art depicts a jar of beer that is usually shared between figures sipping the beer through long straws, and voila! No more floaties!

A mythical scene in which the gods drink beer the Mesopotamian way, which is through long straws that act as filters for bits and pieces of bread. (Source)

There were even laws pertaining to beer in Mesopotamia. Hammurabi took the time to include a law that covers beer in his code, and he wasn’t the only one. You can read a bit more about the specifics of beer laws in Mesopotamia here.

Now, how would you like a gallon of beer every month as part of your benefits package?

Sumerian tablets show that ration lists were kept to detail the distribution of beer to palace workers based on their rank. There were also social ranks that determined who received a quart of beer, and who received a gallon of beer.

Naturally, there was a cuneiform symbol for beer, and it appears three times on an early writing tablet that dates as far back as 3100 BC and records the distribution of beer rations for palace workers. The tablet is housed at the British Museum, and like all others it is fascinating.

The symbol for beer is simply an upright jar with a pointed base, and it kind of reminds me of an upside-down version of the modern-day symbol for sobriety, or Alcoholics Anonymous.

The beer symbol appears three times in this administrative tablet that dates as far back as 3100 BC. (Source)

So, now that you’ve learned all this cool stuff about beer, I’m sure your future conversations about beer will not lack in sophistication or fascination. And if you’re not sure how to bring up the subject of the origin of beer in casual conversation, you can simply carry this cool key chain that is sure to turn heads and pique curiosities.

This key chain is a tiny replica of a tablet that bears a recipe for beer and details a huge order of beer. The tablet dates back to the mid-13th century BC. (Buy it!)




Posted by on November 8, 2011 in Recipe, Sumerian, Tablets


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Tablet #36 by Sumerian Shakespeare

If you like a good mystery and if you’ve been swept up into the hullabaloo of the authenticity of Shakespeare’s works as a result of the movie Anonymous, then you’ll really gobble this stuff up, as it’s just as intriguing…

The mysterious “Tablet #36”. (Source)

This tablet, Tablet #36, is shrouded in mystery.

The only sure thing about it is that it is Mesopotamian, that it’s 4,000 years old, and that it bears Sumerian writing. The sureness stops there.

Ever since this tablet was acquired in 1929 by the Library of Congress from a private collector, it has given even the most seasoned of Sumeriologists a headache in deciphering its message. For years, scholars have speculated that it could be anything, from nothing but Sumerian gibberish to an administrative tablet, though in any case, the writing on it is incomprehensible.

Enter Jerald Jack Starr, who maintains a website dedicated to Mesopotamian history at He has come up with his own theory about Tablet #36, and writes that he believes it is a cryptogram of the world’s first work of literature; a murder mystery, dark comedy and political satire written entirely in code by nothing short of a Sumerian Shakespeare.

“There are some terrible things happening in this story, but it’s told in a humorous manner. No other Sumerian story is so completely comical throughout the text. This tablet is also the world’s first “murder mystery”. There are at least two attempted murders on this tablet. The perpetrators are never named, but clues to their identity and their motives are deliberately planted in the story (Hint: in this murder mystery, the butler didn’t do it).”

Starr points to one detail that led him to the idea that the tablet was encoded. That detail is a key, or a hint, inscribed on the tablet itself, which deciphers only one character, much like with today’s newspaper cryptogram-type puzzles. It was that little hint that helped him unlock what he believes is an ancient literary masterpiece consisting of 40 lines, and a missing ending, thanks to damage to that part of the tablet.

Through his work deciphering, Starr has titled the work as “The Great Fatted Bull.” (Language lovers, you can read the details of how he came to this title here.)

You might be wondering why a mere story much like any bestseller would be written in code. Starr writes that the reason such a story might have been encoded by its scribe is most likely because of its political satire aspect.

“When this tablet was written,” Starr writes, “Sumerian kings were worshiped as living gods; so it’s unlikely that they would allow themselves to be the objects of public ridicule. This is why the tablet is written in code; so it couldn’t be easily read by anyone, except the one who wrote it.”

I urge you to read Starr’s detailed explanation of how he came to the conclusion that Tablet #36 is a 4,000-year-old literary masterpiece. Just keep in mind that this is one individual’s interpretation of a piece that has baffled many for years.




Posted by on November 1, 2011 in Sumerian, Tablets, Writing


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The first love poem is Sumerian

The tablet that holds the world’s oldest love poem, “Istanbul #2461” at the Istanbul Archaeology Museum. (All Mesopotamia, 2012)

Love has been celebrated in song, dance and literature since humans set foot on Earth, but because nothing was put in writing for a while, the world’s oldest love poem only dates back to 2025 BC.

The poem is the celebration of a ritual that took place each Mesopotamian new year, an event that took place around the Spring Equinox. It was written on the tablet found for King Shu-sin (2037-2029 BC), the fourth ruler of the Third Dynasty of Ur. The 29 lines are written in Sumerian and celebrate the sacred marriage between the Sumerian king and the Sumerian goddess of love and war, Inanna.

You can find a more detailed explanation of the ritual here, and an English translation of the poem here.

The tablet on which the poem is written is housed at the Istanbul Archaeological Museum in Turkey.

Sources & further reading:

“The World’s Oldest Love Poem”

“Inanna and the Sacred Marriage” by Johanna Stuckey:

Picture and another English translation:

*This post has been updated to reflect the latest information and links available online dealing with the subject.

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Posted by on October 28, 2011 in Sumerian, Tablets


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