Newly discovered fragments of the epic of Gilgamesh complicate its ecological legacy. In this series, we explore the intellectual, archeological, and political implications of the new source material.
We Have Reduced the Forest to a Wasteland
In late 2011, the Assyriologist Farouk N. H. Al-Rawi came into possession of fragments of a Neo-Babylonian clay tablet that turned out to contain 20 new lines of verse from the epic of Gilgamesh. The story of Gilgamesh—attested in various accounts of early Sumerian and Akkadian poetry (late 3rd-1st millennia BCE)—describes the ancient warrior king’s confrontation with his own mortality in the wilderness beyond the walls of the Mesopotamian city of Uruk.
Al-Rawi's findings, published last year in the Journal of Cuneiform Studies, offer insight into the fascinating material history of the epic (one of the oldest surviving written texts), while expanding our sense of its psychological intricacy. They also compel us to reassess the role of the myth in the genealogy of environmental consciousness by suggesting that Gilgamesh's pivotal destruction of the Cedar Forest and beheading of Humbaba, its guardian, carried not only spiritual but moral and ecological consequences.
Driven to immortalize his name, Gilgamesh, with his companion Enkidu, sets out from Uruk to the Cedar Forest, a landscape where, in Andrew George’s translation, “[thick] tangled was the thorn, the forest a shrouding canopy” (39). Before al-Rawi’s new findings, the description ended abruptly at this point. After a battle, Enkidu and Gilgamesh behead Humbaba and proceed to deforest his sacred mountain. The scene ends in downpour: “[Rain] in plenty fell on the mountain, / … in plenty fell on the mountain” (44).
The new source provides a fuller picture of the relationship between the landscape and its guardian. Al-Rawi argues that the Cedar Forest now appears as “a dense jungle inhabited by exotic and noisy fauna,” the “chatter of monkeys, chorus of cicada, and squawking of many kinds of birds [forming] a symphony (or cacophony) that daily entertained the forest’s guardian.” Humbaba, meanwhile, “emerges not as a barbarian ogre but as a foreign ruler entertained with music at court in the manner of Babylonian kings” (74). In the new source, the battle between Gilgamesh and Humbaba becomes less a confrontation of civilization and barbarism, or culture and nature, but of two complex moral and ecological systems, one agricultural (expansionary, industrial), the other sylvan (diverse, opaque).
“The aftermath of the heroes’ slaying of Humbaba is now better preserved,” al-Rawi argues. While Gilgamesh knew in advance that killing Humbaba would anger the gods, their “reaction after the event is now tinged with a hint of guilty conscience, when Enkidu remarks ruefully that [ana] tušār ništakan qišta, 'we have reduced the forest [to] a wasteland.’ The anxiety about offending the gods seems to a modern reader compounded by ecological regret” (74). Although the “ethical ambivalence” of the quest to the Cedar Forest has long been recognized by scholars, the newly discovered fragments underscore the sense that “the destruction of Humbaba and his trees was morally wrong” (74).
The new findings, al-Rawi concludes, “add to the poem’s reputation for insight into the human condition” (75). They also trouble its ecological legacy: Gilgamesh's experience of guilt, even grief, makes it more problematic to figure his story as an origin myth of our destructive relationship to the natural world, something which the field of ecocriticism has done since its inception. The story, like the reality of our ecological crises, is simply more complicated.
In Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, a foundational text of the ecocritical canon, Robert Pogue Harrison describes the psychological conditions that motivated Gilgamesh’s journey into the kingdom of Humbaba. Early in the story, Gilgamesh looks out over the city walls and is stunned by the sight of shrouded corpses floating downriver. Witnessing these funeral rites, he is made suddenly and painfully aware of his own mortality. “He has peered over the wall of history and seen the remorseless transcendence of nature,” Harrison writes. “With despair in his heart he has looked at the outlying earth: dumb, inert, insurmountable, revolving her relentless cycles, turning kings into cadavers, waiting impassively to draw all things into her oblivion” (16).
For Gilgamesh, the archetypical builder of “walls that divide history from prehistory, culture from nature, sky from earth, life from death, memory from oblivion,” this vision of dissolution is intolerable. “It is in direct response to his aggravated sense of transience that Gilgamesh decides to undertake his forest journey” (15). Because the voyage to the Cedar Forest and subsequent death of Enkidu precipitates much of the action that follows, the myth of Gilgamesh, in a sense, concerns the tragic consequences of humanity’s efforts to exist apart from the cycles of nature
“In revolt against the scene of finitude,” Harrison continues, “Gilgamesh has a vision: he will go to the forests, cut down the trees, and send the logs down the river to the city. In other words, he will make the trees share the fate of those who live within the walls. Logs will become the cadavers” (18). If he cannot be like a forest—rooted, expansive, eternal—he will compel the trees to share the fate of humans. “It is a sorry fact of history that human beings have never ceased reenacting the gesture of Gilgamesh,” Harrison concludes, “as if one would project onto the natural world the intolerable anxieties of finitude which hold humanity hostage to death” (18). Although Gilgamesh is punished by the gods for his crime, he nevertheless succeeds in laying waste to the Cedar Forest, making corpses of its trees, and, ultimately (through the literary tradition) achieving a form of immortality.
It’s unlikely that the new source would have much altered Harrison’s profound argument: the myth remains fundamentally a story of what he calls the “abstraction” of the city—ethnicity, religion, philosophy—against the earthly contingency embodied by the forest. And yet the way that the new source colors the wrath of Gilgamesh with grief does complicate the ecological lesson in the text. For Gilgamesh (i.e., anyone) to see trees as corpses, and to grieve, implies a kinship between the forest and the city that Harrison’s text does not address.
In the context of Anthropogenic climate change, some of our most provocative thinkers advocate grief as an ethically useful response. Given what we have come to know about ourselves and our fables, perhaps it is useful to think of the myth of Gilgamesh, and of our own bitter history with the environment, not as epic but as elegy.
F. N. H. al-Rawi, and A. R. George. “Back to the Cedar Forest: The Beginning and End of Tablet V of the Standard Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh”. Journal of Cuneiform Studies 66 (2014): 69–90.
Harrison, Robert Pogue. Forests: The Shadow of Civilization. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
George, Andrew, ed. The Epic of Gilgamesh: The Babylonian Epic Poem and Other Texts in Akkadian and Sumerian. Trans. Andrew George. London; New York: Penguin, 2002.