I recently went to an exhibit at the Sterling Memorial Library at Yale entitled “Monarchs of Mesopotamia.” On display were cuneiform tablets* spanning over one thousand years, including one of the tablets from the Epic of Gilgamesh.
The tablets’ minute size surprised me more than anything else. The Gilgamesh tablet, one of the largest, measures about about 7 1/8 inches by 6 ½ inches—similar in size to a trade paperback book. Most of the others on display were much smaller. The cuneiform script was tiny and cramped.
But each tablet was filled with information.
One describes how a king who had a great deal of difficulty conceiving a child, bemoaned the lack of filial devotion once he has children. “You may have six, or seven, or eight children. They are not worth it!” In another tablet, a king administering justice orders that a murderer be put death in the same way he killed his victim, by being thrown into an oven. A minuscule tablet announces the beginning of the harvest season couched in terms of the magnificence of the king.
The one from the Epic of Gilgamesh kept me the longest. The third tablet of twelve, it concerns the episode where Gilgamesh has decided to kill the giant Humbaba despite his friend Enkidu’s warnings. The bulk of the tablet relates advice given by the elders of Uruk, Gilgamesh's plea to his mother (a goddess) to intervene with the sun god on his behalf, and her decision to adopt Enkidu as her own son.
This is not the most riveting moment of the story, yet seeing this over-three-thousand-year-old document, broken and incomplete as it was, I was awestruck. How often do you get to meet one of your heroes?
* Ancient Sumerian scribes wrote on clay. They used a wedged-shaped stylus that they pushed into the soft clay to create symbols. On occasion, when a permanent record was needed, the clay might be fired.