George Smith Announced Gilgamesh
ON THIS DAY, 3 December 1872, George Smith read a paper before London’s Society of Biblical Archaeology. An assistant at the British Museum, he studied cuneiform tablets, or clay writings from the middle east. His paper announced that among his tablets he had found a flood account similar to the Bible story of Noah, seeming independent confirmation of the flood story. Unfortunately, the poem on the tablet broke off at mid point. The Times of London offered a large reward for anyone who could produce the missing tablets.
George Smith thought he himself knew where to dig for the missing pieces in Nineveh. He set off to win the reward. Incredibly, he located the missing pieces among thousands of other tablets within a short time. The flood story was part of a larger poem known as the Gilgamesh Epic, whose text shortly became available to the west.
The epic recounts the tale of Gilgamesh, a brutal king whose subjects hired an even nastier brute to fight him—Enkidu. After battling to a draw, the two became friends. When Enkidu died and Gilgamesh became ill, he set out to find the secret of immortality. Along the way, he made love to a goddess and battled jealous gods. He met a maiden named Sabitum who taught him that everyone must die, and therefore he should fill his belly, keep his clothes clean, wash, care for his family, and rejoice in his wife. Most importantly, he met an old man named Utnapishtim—the Noah of the Gilgamesh Epic.
Utnapishtim told Gilgamesh how he had been warned by a god to make an ark because rain was coming and how he had sealed it with pitch and made his family go in, after which he shut the door. According to the Epic, it rained six days and the water rose to the roofs of the houses. After the water receded, Utnapishtim released a dove, a sparrow, and a crow to see if the land had dried.
In tone, the Gilgamesh and Bible accounts differed greatly. Gilgamesh was boastful, self-exalted, contemptuous of his subjects, and battled the gods. Noah was faithful, obedient to God, and warned his neighbors so that they might be saved.
George Smith died of hunger and disease in 1876, just thirty-six years old. But his search contributed wonderfully to our knowledge of the Assyrian Empire.