Gilgamesh and the beginnings of literature

On my hikes through St. John’s I would often stop at a coffee shop overlooking the harbour and read the book I brought with me, The Buried Book : The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh, by David Damrosch. The book recounts the layered history of the Epic of Gilgamesh, from what we know about the real Gilgamesh and the initial stirrings of civilization, to the ancient Assyrian library in Ninevah which preserved copies of the epic tale of Gilgamesh, to the library’s rediscovery by archaeologists in the 1800s, and the work done by archivists and librarians in all of these layers of history.
As the epic tale would have it, Gilgamesh is not only the first hero of world literature but a founding writer as well. The preservation of the cuneiform tablets as found in the ruins of Nineveh are, in a sense, part of the story, since the wisdom contained therein is intended to be imparted to future generations. In the prologue, as found in ancient Akkadian in cuneiform are these words:
See the tablet-box of cedar,
release its clasp of bronze!
Lift the lid of its secret,
pick up the tablet of lapis lazuli and read out
the travails of Gilgamesh, all that he went through.
Thousands of years after these words were written, the epic of Gilgamesh was indeed dug up and read again– a testimony to the enduring power of the written word passing on wisdom through ages.
During the Canadian Library Association conference there were two other conferences going on in St. John’s. One was for archaeologists and one was for classics scholars (those who study Greeks and Romans). I had picked up the St. John’s newspaper, The Telegram, early in the week, and I saw that I had just missed a chance to sit in on some lectures on Greeks and Romans (a librarian crashing a classics conference– what a concept!). The newspaper article mentioned one curious fact about the classics conference– many of the speakers had come from abroad but had been born and raised in Newfoundland. I speculated on what kind of environment could produce such people dedicated to the past, and I could see that in this exotic isolation, nestled in some quaint house along the cold pounding surf of the north Atlantic, that people would be inspired to roam the past in their minds. The island itself is full of history– five hundred years back to Cabot, but also home to the Vikings (briefly) and to various native groups. The rocks and fossilized life are also quite ancient– some of the oldest rocks on the earth and fossils of the oldest multicellular life have been found in Newfoundland. And there is this point of pride in many of the people I met– a deep commitment to keeping the roots to the land and to the past strong. The memories of those who lived and survived seem to echo over the rocks and along the shores, not wanting to be buried (like Gilgamesh’s book) forever.
Newfoundlanders have faced the challenge of geography, with the land and the sea seeming to sever all connections between people at times. Perhaps looking into the past is the same. The desire for a connection, for an understanding encapsulated in our histories and our memories, may make us yearn to gaze across the vastness of time in the same way as this view from Cabot Tower makes us wonder about the vastness of what lies beyond the horizon.
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