When one enters the world of The Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest epic poem we know of, one enters a world lost to time. Though its strange gods and customs would have seemed perfectly natural to its inhabitants, the culture of Gilgamesh has so far receded from historical memory that there’s little left with which we might identify. Scholars believe Gilgamesh the demi-god mythological character may have descended from legends (such as a 126-year reign and superhuman strength) told about a historical 5th king of Uruk. Buried under the fantastic stories lies some documentary impulse.
On the other hand, Gilgamesh—like all mythology—exists outside of time. Gilgamesh and Enkidu always kill the Bull of Heaven, again and again forever. That, perhaps, is the secret Gilgamesh discovers at the end of his long journey, the secret of Keats’ Grecian Urn: eternal life resides only in works of art.
And perhaps the only way to approach some common understanding of myths as both products of their age and as archetypes in realms of pure thought comes through a deep immersion in their historical languages. In the case of Gilgamesh, that means learning the extraordinarily long-lived Akkadian, a Mesopotamian language that dates from about 2,800 BCE to around 100 CE. In order to do so, archeologists and Assyriologists had to decipher fragments of cuneiform stone tablets like those on which Gilgamesh was discovered.
The task proved exceptionally difficult, such that when George Smith announced his translation of the epic’s so-called “Flood Tablet” in 1872, it had lain “undisturbed in the [British] Museum for nearly 20 years,” writes The Telegraph, since “there were so few people in the world able to read ancient cuneiform.”