do we need a spoiler warning after 4000 years

I have now finished The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Penguin Classics edition edited by Andrew Geoge, as part of my current project of reading ancient Sumer. I’d read Gilgamesh before, and I will admit that I still catch my inner voice sometimes mirroring Jean-Luc Picard telling the story to the Tamarian Dathon on El-Adrel as the Tamarian lies dying, in the Start Treak – The Next Generation episode Darmok.

As strange a story as it is in places, and it can be a bit strange, Gilgamesh captured my imagination from my first encounter, I don’t remember how long ago. Part of the reason stems from the depths of my own ignorance. Gilgamesh stands for me as a stark reminder of the context inherent in stories.

Stories are born of and stories are told by people who share a context, a culture, a history. This won’t come as a revelation to anyone, and my reason for bringing it up isn’t to make some grand claim. Rather, I view it as a constant reminder of all of our interpretations of the world that have slipped through our fingers over the course of years.

What are the echoes, the associations that would have rung for an Akkadian or a Sumerian, listening to a bard recite Gilgamesh? I will admit to being filled with a sense of loss every time I think of this, because these echoes and associations are a key part of that culture, a web tying together more or less strongly so many different stories.

To take just one small such thing, there is a passing reference in Gilgamesh to the Stone Ones. They seem to be the crew of the ferryman Ur-shanabi, who is the only conduit to Uta-napishti across the Waters of Death, who alone among all men survived the great flood and was made immortal by the gods.

When Gilgamesh first encounters Ur-shanabi in his quest to find Uta-napishti, he falls upon the Stone Ones and smashes them, and so is forced then to help Ur-shanabi propel his boat across the Waters of Death.

Strangely, though, Ur-shanabi doesn’t scold or attack Gilgamesh for destroying his crew. And so I’ve become curious and want to know more about the Stone Ones, but there seems to have been very little that’s been written about them. Perhaps this is just how the stories been told and I’m reading too much into it, but Ur-shanabi doesn’t lament the destruction of the Stone Ones. Poetically, such a lamentation would have been an interesting juxtaposition, given that Gilgamesh himself wants to find Uta-napishti to learn the secret of immortality.

But what I would love to know is what a Sumerian would have understood the Stone Ones to be and to mean, if an allegory for something else, and what other stories they had that involved such beings as the Stone Ones.

~ by Jim Anderson on 2 February 2020.

One Response to “do we need a spoiler warning after 4000 years”

  1. […] after my last post, I’ve been thinking more about the Stone Ones from Gilgamesh. They have only a very brief […]

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