Immortal life: a 4,000-year-old ambition

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
One of the features of this newspaper's office is that it overlooks the Millennium Dome. From this angle it looks anything but historic: on a muddy building site miles from anywhere stands what looks like a giant eyeball or an absurdly neat poached egg. But in certain lights it does give off a shimmer of historical significance. It celebrates a thousand years of cultural history, after all, and a thousand years ... well, that's a long time, even in journalism. The cuttings library isn't sure what happened back then.

But a thousand years is not very long in more epic forms of writing. Indeed, one of the reasons why epics stand the test of time so well is that they are themselves so spacious. A thousand years is long enough for the gods to have a snooze, and for mortals to send despairing cries up to the capricious heavens; but that's about it. And the events in epics - the tussles between heroes and deities - are so much larger than life that they float free of anything as parochial as a historical context. So it was a resonant moment last week when news came that the first few lines of the 4,000-year-old Epic of Gilgamesh, in cuneiform script on shattered clay tablets, had been "discovered" in the British Museum. Four millenniums - now we're talking. Gilgamesh is the earliest work of literature in the known world, twice as ancient as Homer, and tw#ice as mysterious. In fact, it is stretching a point to call it an epic at all: it feels almost modern in that it tells the story of an individual and his struggle to come to grips with life.

If the Iliad - to put it crudely - is a thriller, and the Odyssey a travel book, then Gilgamesh addresses a fundamental human dilemma more explicitly (though with less charm and depth) than either. The entire story is an account of one king's search for everlasting life. And it is a great story: a cautionary tale advising us that even the mighty die. Gilgamesh knows - from a dream - that his destiny is merely to be the strongest, wisest, most beautiful and powerful man on earth. This is not enough; nothing but immortality will satisfy him. "Where is the man," he cries, "who can clamber to heaven?" And away he plunges on great treks and adventures.

To the extent that it is known at all in Britain, Gilgamesh is cited as the source book for Noah's flood. The coincidence certainly is unmissable. The six days and six nights of tempest grow, as such things do in 2,000 years of repetition, into 40. But the dove and the raven were sent out two millenniums before Noah's; and both arks settle on remote mountain tops. The most striking difference is that in Gilgamesh it is the express intention of the gods to exterminate mankind (it has become noisy, and is disturbing the gods' sleep). The plan goes wrong; but only because of human wiliness. In the tamer, biblical version, God #himself comes up with the let-out clause. A Christian soldier's job is to be grateful, not defiant.

Anyway, the story of the missing first sentence was suggestive in several ways. First it told us something about the durability of epic as a literary form. Second, it was a salutary reminder, last week of all weeks, that the civilisation of Babylon is an ancient one - much older than our own. At a time when our bombers have been revving their jets in the Mesopotamian sky it is useful to recall that the bones which fertilised the soil of modern Iraq belonged to men who read and wrote such books. Their civilisation crashed so comprehensively that we still know little of it. Gilgamesh itself we owe to the efforts of a young English explorer, Austen Henry Layard, who picked it out of the rubble of Assyria in 1853. Interestingly, one of his follow-up excavations was financed partly by the Daily Telegraph, which contributed a thousand guineas - evidence that cheque-book journalism is an ancient art, though these days it rarely involves the outing of ancient texts.

There are other reasons to read Gilgamesh now. If nothing else, it leads us to wonder what our progeny will make of us in 4,000 years time? #There won't be anything left of the Dome by then, though presumably the Independent on Sunday will still be going strong. Naturally, what people will think will depend almost entirely on what happens to survive - but what if only one book escapes the apocalypse#, and what if that book is by, say, Rosemary Conley? Will it seem epic? Will scholars suggest that we imagined a world ruled by the twin deities "Hip" and "Thigh" - both of them hard taskmasters demanding strenuous physical and spiritual exercise. It doesn't seem all that likely. But maybe the thought will at least keep them busy for a while.

Comments