New clay tablet adds 20 lines to Epic of Gilgamesh

A newly discovered clay tablet in the Sulaymaniah Museum in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq has corrected the order of chapters, filled in blanks and added 20 lines to the Epic of Gilgamesh. Since the invasion of Iraq and subsequent orgy of looting, the museum has a matter of policy paid smugglers to keep artifacts from leaving the country, no questions asked. The tablet was acquired by the museum in late 2011 as part of a collection of 80-90 tablets sold by an unnamed shady character. Professor Farouk Al-Rawi examined the collection while the seller haggled with museum official Abdullah Hashim. When Al-Rawi he saw this tablet, he told Hashim to pay whatever the seller wanted: $800.

Even caked in mud the tablet’s importance was instantly recognizable to the expert. Once it was clean, Al-Rawi identified it as a fragment of Tablet V of the Standard Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh.
The tablet is the left half of a six-column tablet written in Neo-Babylonian. It’s composed of three fragments that have been glued together, oddly enough, probably either by the original excavators or the seller. It is 11 centimeters (4.3 inches) high, 9.5 cm (3.7 inchs) wide and three cm (1.2 inches) thick.

The tablet adds new verses to the story of how Gilgamesh and Enkidu slew the forest demigod Humbaba. Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, gets the idea to kill the giant Humbaba, guardian of the Cedar Forest, home of the gods, in Tablet II. He thinks accomplishing such a feat of strength will gain him eternal fame. His wise companion (and former wild man) Enkidu tries to talk him out of it — Humbaba was set to his task by the god Enlil — but stubborn Gilgamesh won’t budge, so Enkidu agrees to go with him on this quest. Together they overpower the giant. When the defeated Humbaba begs for mercy, offering to serve Gilgamesh forever and give him every sacred tree in the forest, Gilgamesh is moved to pity, but Enkidu’s blood is up now and he exhorts his friend to go through with the original plan to kill the giant and get that eternal renown he craves. Gilgamesh cuts Humbaba’s head off and then cuts down the sacred forest. The companions return to Uruk with the trophy head and lots of aromatic timber.

The newly discovered tablet casts a new whole light on Humbaba and his forest home. From the absolutely fascinating paper about the find (pdf), which includes the entire text of the tablet both transliterated and translated into English, published by Farouk Al-Rawi and Andrew George of the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies:

The most interesting addition to knowledge provided by the new source is the continuation of the description of the Cedar Forest, one of the very few episodes in Babylonian narrative poetry when attention is paid to landscape. The cedars drip their aromatic sap in cascades (ll. 12–16), a trope that gains power from cedar incense’s position in Babylonia as a rare luxury imported from afar. The abundance of exotic and costly materials in fabulous lands is a common literary motif. Perhaps more surprising is the revelation that the Cedar Forest was, in the Babylonian literary imagination, a dense jungle inhabited by exotic and noisy fauna (17–26). The chatter of monkeys, chorus of cicada, and squawking of many kinds of birds formed a symphony (or cacophony) that daily entertained the forest’s guardian, Ḫumbaba. The passage gives a context for the simile “like musicians” that occurs in very broken context in the Hittite version’s description of Gilgameš and Enkidu’s arrival at the Cedar Forest. Ḫumbaba’s jungle orchestra evokes those images found in ancient Near Eastern art, of animals playing musical instruments. Ḫumbaba emerges not as a barbarian ogre and but as a foreign ruler entertained with music at court in the manner of Babylonian kings, but music of a more exotic kind, played by a band of equally exotic musicians.

The aftermath of the heroes’ slaying of Ḫumbaba is now better preserved (300–308). The previously available text made it clear that Gilgameš and Enkidu knew, even before they killed Ḫumbaba, that what they were doing would anger the cosmic forces that governed the world, chiefly the god Enlil. Their reaction after the event is now tinged with a hint of guilty conscience, when Enkidu remarks ruefully that [ana] tušār ništakan qišta, “we have reduced the forest [to] a wasteland’ (303). The anxiety about offending the gods seems to a modern reader compounded by ecological regret. Enkidu goes on to imagine the angry questions that Enlil will ask them when they arrive home: minû uzzakunūma taraḫḫisā qišta, “what was this wrath of yours that you went trampling the forest?” (306). In the theme of the angry gods, the poems about Ḫumbaba in both Sumerian and Akkadian already displayed an ethical ambivalence toward the expedition to his Cedar Forest, arising from what one commentator has called the “double nature” of the forest’s guardian as ogre and servant of Enlil (Forsyth 1981: 21). This newly recovered speech of Enkidu adds to the impression that, to the poets’ minds, the destruction of Ḫumbaba and his trees was morally wrong.

Here is a video of Hazha Jalal, curator of the Sulaymaniyah Museum, displaying the tablet and talking about it in Kurdish. Translation below courtesy of neurologist and Mesopotamian history buff Dr. Osama S. M. Amin.


“The tablet dates back to the Neo-Bablyonian period, 2000-1500 BCE. It is a part of tablet V of the epic. It was acquired by the Museum in the year 2011 and that Dr. Farouk Al-Raw transliterated it. It was written as a poem and many new things this version has added, for example Gilgamesh and his friend met a monkey. We are honored to house this tablet and any one can visit the Museum during its opening hours from 8:30 morning to noon. The entry is free for you and your guests. Thank you.”

31 thoughts on “New clay tablet adds 20 lines to Epic of Gilgamesh



    Or so I’ve heard.


    Well, at least don’t try to read them in the native tongue okay. I don’t know if That Which Shan’t Be Named understands English.


  2. A small portion of the Gilgamesh epic was the basis of my doctoral dissertation in music composition from the University of North Texas! I happened to see a translation in the university library and it was much more interesting than what I was studying!
    In musical terms it became a recitative and aria: “Thou Gilgamesh, let full be thy belly . . ” and “When the Gods created mankind, life for themselves was set aside.”
    My DMA let to a 33 year tenure as a professor of music composition at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
    My wife performed it in both Texas and Alaska and she survived!

  3. I love the way that sounds,thank you I didn’t know that!.. when the Gods created mankind life for themselves was set aside…!:)!

  4. God withdraws in order for the creature to be free… related notion that Simone Weil developed… associating love with the freedom without which no love is possible…

  5. This is an awesome discovery! This new passage dramatically confirms a supposition I have long had in my years of teaching the Gilgamesh epic–that there is a strong ecological subtext to this ancient story. Humbaba, far from being a gloomy, Grendel-like monster as he is normally imagined by modern readers, is the wise and protective guardian–the personification, as it were–of this rich, diverse forest, throbbing with life. The Cedar Forest is clearly a sanctuary, sacred to Enlil and the other gods, until Gilgamesh and Enkidu, in their macho vanity, crudely violate it, kill its guardian, and–as the new text makes clear–“lay waste” to it, as they clearcut it for personal gain. (Sound familiar?) Bad karma all around for the two protagonists, as they later discover. Later, after Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh’s long and hopeless quest could be seen as a kind of expiation for this crime against the gods…

  6. Indeed, this is how it struck me also, please see Sharif S. Elmusa “The Ax of Gilgamesh: Splitting Nature and Culture.” In Sharif S. Elmusa, ed., Culture and the Natural Environment: Ancient and Modern Middle Eastern Texts. The American University in Cairo Press, Cairo, Egypt, 2005.

  7. Speaking of cuneiform tablets, some news on a devoutly religious family of US billionaires trying to smuggle tablets to their bible museum. Money quote:

    “allegedly tried to sneak the artifacts into the country by misstating the contents of FedEx packages as “hand-crafted tiles” worth $300”

    Apparently being technically true satisfies the “thou shalt not lie” commandment.

  8. fedex? why put the true value which cant really be valued (priceless!) and pay the fedex fees which may be astronomical based on value? or.. if anything they short changed themselves if the item got lost by fedex…they were taking a chance… oh but they stole them??? oy.

  9. The mountains of Lebanon were once shaded by thick cedar forests and the tree is the prime wood in ancient time for bulding palaces :hattip: and tamples,… King Solomon procured cedar timber to build his temple in Jerusalem,so very likely that this is the place in gilgamesh

  10. Studio Ghibli was bought by Disney, and Miyazaki is retired, unfortunately, but it would be cool. The only ancient story anybody seems to want to tell is the Moses story. I would love to see this – anime, animated, live action, whatever.

  11. Humbaba or Humwawa is a king listed in the “Mesopotamian” kingdom lists, I think of Kish. Also, it is very important to realize his name wasn’t originally “Gilgamesh” it was Bilgames. I have found this character, and I can assure everyone he did “help build the walls of babylon”…he is a baby elephant.

    Bil=Ba’al. Ga=Ka. mes is a smithie…the Ka of a smithie? No, “Ka” is a Mycenaen military title. He is Lord Officer Blacksmith…Bilgames. But he is aka Ganesh. And I found a small statue of “Bilgames” the baby elephant. Enkidu is a later insertion into the original tale.

  12. “We have reduced the forest to a wasteland”…only elephants can perform that type of carnage on a forest. Trust me, this tale was “twisted” from the original…Bilgames was a baby elephant. That’s why his mother “worries about him” and asks Enki the Duke to watch over him.

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