Monday, November 10, 2014


Alhena Gadotti, 'Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Netherworld' and the Sumerian Gilgamesh Cycle. Untersuchungen zur Assyriologie und vorderasiatischen Archäologie, Bd 10. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2014. Pp. xiv, 430. ISBN 9781614517085. $322.00.

Reviewed by Scott B. Noegel, University of Washington (

Version at BMCR home site

This volume is a revised version of Gadotti's 2005 Ph.D. dissertation written under the supervision of Jerrold Cooper at John Hopkins University. Gadotti puts forward two major arguments. First, she asserts that the Sumerian composition known as Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Netherworld (hereafter GEN), is a unified work and not a mélange of divergent traditions, as others have maintained. Second, also diverging from previous scholarship, she argues that, already by the 18th c. BCE, there existed a collection of written traditions about Gilgamesh that we may call a "cycle." This cycle (not to be confused with a unified "epic") consisted of four texts that Gadotti proposes one should read in the following order: GEN, Gilgamesh and Huwawa: version A (GH A), Gilgamesh and the Bull of Heaven (GBH), and the Death of Gilgamesh (DG). Gadotti sees the Sumerian tale of Gilgamesh and Akka as belonging to a separate cycle of textual traditions.

After providing a useful overview of the text, its difficulties, and previous scholarship, as well as a summary of GEN's narrative (Chapter I), Gadotti compares the text's prologue with others in Sumerian literature (Chapter II) and concludes that it serves two primary functions in GEN: First, it provides a general and cosmological introduction to the larger cycle (ll. 1-13); and second, it introduces the main topic of GEN—the netherworld (ll. 14-26). Further, the prologue's references to netherworld regulations and Enki's journey to the netherworld prepare us for Gilgamesh's later warning that Enkidu must obey netherworld protocols and the role that Enki plays in bringing Enkidu back from the netherworld. The primordial time in which the prologue is set, Gadotti avers, lends the text and the cycle greater authority.

In Chapter III, Gadotti turns to the episode in GEN involving the ḫalub-tree whose "presence and role in the composition has led to much debate concerning the nature of the tree itself, its practical and ontological meanings, and its identification" (p. 27). It has been variously rendered as a willow, carob-tree, oak, Turanga poplar, and palm. This section offers an exhaustive analysis of references to the tree in lexical lists, royal inscriptions, Early Dynastic IIIb and Ur III administrative texts, incantations, and literary texts, and of the Akkadian cognate ḫaluppu in later sources. On the basis of the tree's attested non-native origins southeast of Mesopotamia, of references to it as a hard, non-porous, and precious wood that bears edible seeds or fruit, and of its use in pharmacopeia and magic, Gadotti proposes that we identify it as a "Cherry Maḥaleb," to which the name ḫalub may be linguistically related.

Chapter IV's foci are the text's narrative and poetic structures. Here Gadotti surveys previous theoretical approaches to Sumerian literature, and then moves to an analysis of the text's composition. Most of the discussion centers on various types of two-line, tercet, and quatrain parallelism, but she periodically points out cases of alliteration (which she calls assonance), rhyme, enjambment, punning, repetition, simile, and metaphor as well. The chapter also presents a narratological analysis of what Gadotti sees as the text's six major units: 1) prologue (ll. 1-26); 2) ḫalub-tree episode (ll. 27-150); 3) ball game story (ll. 151-176); 4) descent into the netherworld (ll. 177-254); 5) description of the underworld (ll. 255-306-Ur4 16'); and 6) return of Gilgamesh to Uruk (Ur6 1'-17').1 Gadotti uses the narrative sections (which she also subdivides into smaller units), their thematic elements, and their various devices to demonstrate that the composition is a coherent whole with a chiastic structure.

Gadotti next examines Enkidu's return from the netherworld (Chapter V) and argues that Enkidu did not die, but was merely trapped in the netherworld. She points out that, unlike the Akkadian Gilgamesh Epic (XII:87), in which Enkidu ascends from the netherworld as a "ghost" (zāqīqu), the Sumerian text makes no such reference. GEN l. 243 does employ the Sumerian term to describe him, but whereas Babylonian scribes rendered this term into Akkadian as zāqīqu "wind, ghost," in Sumerian it only means "wind, dream." Thus, she renders the pertinent line: "By means of his (Utu's) gust of wind, he sent his (Gilgameš') servant up from the Netherworld" (l. 243, p. 91). Of course, the notion that Enkidu returned alive is vital for Gadotti's larger argument for the existence of a Gilgamesh cycle, for it helps her to make the case that the content in GEN chronologically precedes that of all the other Gilgamesh texts. Moreover, she bolsters her argument by pointing out that the tablets from Meturan (Tell Haddad) conclude with Gilgamesh turning his attention to the land of the living, a theme that corresponds to the first line in GH A. This fact demonstrates (at least at Meturan) a sequential relationship between the two compositions. She also submits that, since Gilgamesh performs his parents' funerary rites at the end of GEN, it is more plausible that he should seek to immortalize his name afterwards. Thus, the contents of GEN must precede all other texts in the cycle chronologically.

In Chapter VI, Gadotti presents evidence for the existence of a larger Gilgamesh cycle. Here she reviews the problematic terms "epic" and "cycle," and ultimately justifies their use as heuristic tools: "It is of the uppermost importance to use familiar labels as they facilitate the scholarly discourse not only among specialists, but between the field of Assyriology and other areas of scholarship" (p. 95). After reviewing previous approaches to the Sumerian Gilgamesh literary tradition, she contends that the more cohesive Akkadian epic encouraged previous scholars to understand the Sumerian accounts as entirely unconnected before they were reworked into Akkadian. A reassessment of this view, Gadotti asserts, is particularly needed, given that the more recent texts from Meturan and advances in Sumerology generally that have changed our understanding of the texts and their dates. Her evidence for the existence of a Sumerian Gilgamesh cycle includes: the cosmological prologue of GEN (discussed above); the appearance of doxologies in each text in the proposed cycle; tablet numbers in the colophons of Old Babylonian Akkadian versions that indicate a tradition of textual sequencing; the version of GEN from Meturan that contains a catch-line that connects it to GH A (also discussed above); and the archaeological context of some of the Nippur tablets, which shows that the scribes organized the Akkadian Gilgamesh stories into an "epic" at a time when they also were copying the Sumerian versions. The combined evidence leads Gadotti to propose the Ur III period as a likely historical setting for the creation of the written Sumerian Gilgamesh cycle. Though all the extant texts date a few hundred years later, it was then that a massive curriculum reform took place. Moreover, it was during the Ur III period that kings legitimated their rules by claiming Gilgamesh as an ancestor.

Gadotti treats the subject of Enkidu's return and the so-called Catalogue of Ghosts (ll. 255-end) in Chapter VII. She departs from previous approaches that understand the pericope as a canonical description of the underworld or as a list of moral precepts, and contends that it serves two primary purposes. First, it underscores the importance of properly maintaining the funerary cult, especially that of the royal house. Second, the text offers Gilgamesh the knowledge he needs to become a judge in the netherworld. Given the pericope's list-like structure and difficult grammar and lexion, Gadotti also opines that it might have served doubly as a tool for teaching Sumerian.

Chapter VIII is given to a discussion of the extant tablets of GEN and their dates, provenience, relevant features, and archaeological contexts, as well as a translation, eclectic text, and commentary. An appendix, bibliography, indices, and a series of high quality plates conclude the book.

This is an important work that doubtless will encourage further discussion and research. Gadotti's arguments are novel and offer a healthy corrective to the tendency to read Sumerian texts through the lens of their later Akkadian analogues. My only points of criticism center on two aspects of the book that betray its origin as a dissertation. The first is the book's editorial infelicities. One encounters numerous typographical and grammatical errors, and a good deal of redundancy between the chapters.2 Portions of discussions in one chapter often appear again in other chapters, especially in the commentary. Indeed, the author already published much of what appears in Chapter III on the ḫalub-tree several years ago,3 and, in any event, the chapter is tangential to the book. It does not contribute to the author's major theses concerning textual unity and a Sumerian Gilgamesh cycle.

The book's second dissertation-like aspect is its inaccessibility to non-specialists. While this is fairly normative for monographs in Assyriology, the author's aforecited impassioned justification for using the terms "epic" and "cycle" raises the question why Sumerian technical terms like emegir (i.e., "normative dialect"), emesal (i.e., "dialect or sociolect often used for the speech of women and goddesses" (passim) and eršemma (i.e., "hymn") (p. 19) remain undefined. Indeed, technical discussions abound. This is most noticeable in the narratological study in Chapter IV (pp. 62-82), which contains many lengthy, untranslated Sumerian texts. Ironically, the narratological study is likely to be of the greatest comparative interest for non-Assyriologists.

Such observations notwithstanding, there is much in this book that will benefit the patient reader familiar with cuneiform. It is filled with insightful philological comments and fresh perspectives on both Sumerian texts and earlier scholarship. While a few of the arguments for seeing GEN as a unified whole and for positing the existence of a Sumerian Gilgamesh cycle might strike some as circumstantial, or in some cases "cyclical," it is their sum that compels and persuades. The critical edition and commentary of GEN are among the book's most valuable contributions.


1.   The penultimate section marks the end of the Nippur version and continues with the version from Ur.
2.   Other errors are more difficult to explain. For example, in her discussion of the water that Enki crosses, Gadotti states: "...the Netherworld was situated above the Apsu; as such, to reach earth from the Apsu one would—at least in theory—cross the Netherworld" (p. 19). Yet, cuneiform sources show that the netherworld rested below the Apsu. Indeed, the work by J. Black and A. Green, An Illustrated Dictionary of Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia. London: British Museum Press, 1992, that Gadotti cites (n. 87) in support explicitly states: "The underworld was located even further down, beneath the abzu" (p. 27). See also Wayne Horowitz, Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1998.
3.   Naomi F, Miller and Alhena Gadotti, "The KHALUB-tree in Mesopotamia: Myth or Reality?," in Andrew S. Fairbairn and Ehud Weiss, eds., From Foragers to Farmers: Papers in Honor of Gordon C. Hillman. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2009, pp. 239-243. At the very least, the portions of the chapter on the tree that do not appear in the published article could have been published separately in a more technical journal.

1 comment:

  1. The price of this book ($322) is forbidding for many individuals and libraries--how is this field going to remain alive, when important publications like Gadotti's keep it hermetically confined to a close group of experts?