Episode 20: Ashurbanipal’s Library and Gilgamesh
Ancient Mesopotamia: Life in the Cradle of Civilization
Dr Amanda H Podany
This lecture concerns the library Assyrian king Ashurbanipal II built at Nineveh (which became the Assyrian capitol in the 8th century BC) in 668 BC. Aside from his military conquest and his prowess in killing lions from his chariot, Ashurbanipal II is best known as an intellectual and arts patron. In addition to his ability to read Akkadian and the classical language Sumerian, he had specialized knowledge of advanced mathematics and the interpretation of omens.
The library of Ashurbanipal II mainly contained texts about the interpretation of omens, although there also numerous texts concerning the most advanced medical knowledge. It also contained several copies of the Epic of Gilgamesh, the world’s oldest epic poem.
The Epic of Gilgamesh was already 500 years old when Ashurbanipal’s scribes made copies for his library. Gilgamesh was a real king (of Uruk in Sumeria) ruling somewhere around 2600 BC.
The poem concerns his friendship with a wild man named Enkidu. According to the myth, the latter was a wild man tamed by a prostitute. After Gilgamesh and Enkidu fight each other to a draw, they became fast friends and go off on adventures together. After they slay a ferocious creature named Humbaba, the goddess Ishtar falls in Enkidu with him. Infuriated by Enkidu’s rejection, she asks her father the moon god to send the Bull of Heaven after him. After Enkidu dies (as punishment for killing the Bull of Heaven), Gilgamesh is distraught. Determined to thwart off his own eventually death, he sees out Utnapishtim who has been rewarded with eternal life after saving his family from the Great Flood.