Peeps at Ancient Assyria - Jamse Baikie

Hero Stories of the Ancient East

Now let me try to tell you some of the stories that have been found written in this strange arrow-headed writing on these curious clay books of the Assyrians. It is rather a pity that really none of the stories that used to be told round the fires and in the nurseries of Assyria have come down to us. We have a lot of the Egyptian stories of that kind—stories of wizards, and fairy godmothers, and magic crocodiles and boats, and so on; and I suppose the Assyrians must have had something of that sort too. Even though they were such a terribly serious and savage nation, they must surely have had some fun with their children once in a while and some fanciful tales to tell them. But if they had, nothing of that has come down to us. Perhaps the stories were never written down, or, if they were, they may not have been counted worth preserving in the great libraries. So we have histories of the wars of the Assyrian kings, and tales of how the world was made and how the gods dealt with men in the early days, and books of science, and books of magic, with all kinds of charms against evil spirits, and plenty of accounts of law cases, and records of tradesmen's business; but we have no real "once upon a time" stories.

Perhaps I shouldn't quite say that either, for the stories that I am going to tell you have some romance and fancy about them, too; but, compared with the wonder-tales of Ancient Egypt, they are very grim and serious business indeed, just as the Assyrian was a very grim and stern being compared with his light-hearted, laughter-loving rival on the banks of the Nile.

Our first story then comes from what is really the great Babylonian epic poem. The Assyrians copied it from Babylonian writings, but it actually belongs to the older nation, and to times long before there was an Assyrian people at all. It tells of the deeds of a great hero called Gilgamesh, who lived ever so long ago in the ancient city of Erech, and of his faithful friend Eabani—how they warred with beasts and men, how they quarreled with a great goddess, and all the trouble that came upon them because of their quarrel. Unfortunately, the clay tablets on which the story is written are not quite perfect, and there are gaps here and there, especially at the beginning and the end; still we can make out most of the tale.

Khumbaba's Castle


When the story, as we have it, begins, the good people of Erech are in great trouble. Evidently an enemy of some kind is fighting against them, but who he may be, we can't tell. By and by we find that a great champion called Gilgamesh is ruling over the city. Whether he was the enemy, and had conquered Erech, or whether he was the champion of the city against its foes, we don't know. Anyhow, it didn't make much difference to the people of the town; for, conqueror or defender, Gilgamesh was a hard master. All the young men of the city he drafted into his bodyguard, all the young maidens were taken to be servants in his palace. So when his tyranny had become unbearable, the townsfolk appeal to the goddess Aruru who had created Gilgamesh, and ask her to create a champion who will be able to resist him. The goddess obligingly proceeds to do so. She washes her hands, takes a piece of clay, and out of it she models a strange creature. He is half man and half beast, his body is covered all over with hair, and he lives with the beasts of the field, a wild, savage, invincible champion fit to encounter even the hero Gilgamesh. His name is Eabani.

Gilgamesh, however, is as wily as he is mighty. He has no intention of being drawn into a battle with so redoubtable an opponent if he can help it. So first of all he sends his chief huntsman to see if he cannot catch the half-savage Eabani in a snare. For three days the huntsman Sadu watches the strange creature going about with the beasts and drinking at their watering-places; but he is quite unable to catch this wild man of the woods, and indeed is terrified at the very sight of him. At last he returned to his master and told him how he had fared. Then Gilgamesh fell upon another plan. He sent the huntsman away again; but this time Sadu took with him a beautiful girl, Ukhat, and when Eabani saw her, the wild man fell in love with her at once. He forgot all about his wildness, and his mission to conquer Gilgamesh, and the wild beasts with whom he dwelt, and cared for nothing but to sit all the day long at Ukhat's feet, and to enjoy her company. When Ukhat felt that she had got complete command over her strange lover, she told him that it was time for him no longer to live with the beasts but to come to the city of Erech, and to live there in friendship with the mighty Gilgamesh; and Eabani, unable to deny her anything or to be separated from her, followed her to the town. A dream warned him against contending with Gilgamesh when the two should meet; and so Aruru's plan failed altogether, and the two great heroes, instead of slaying one another, became friends and brothers-in-arms.

Now it befell that a great enemy from the East threatened the town of Erech. His name was Khumbaba, and he was lord of the land of Elam, which lay east of the Euphrates. Gilgamesh and Eabani resolved to attack him in his own stronghold, and set out together on their great adventure. The way was long and difficult, and the terror of Khumbaba's name lay on all the country around, so that the hearts of the two heroes were almost discouraged at the thought of facing such a champion; but night after night, for three nights together, dreams came to Gilgamesh from the gods, telling him that he would be victor in the fight, and would come off unscathed.

So at last the long march was ended, and the brothers-in-arms arrived before the castle of the Elamite tyrant. All around it, for a vast distance on every side, there stretched a great dark wood, of wonderful grandeur, so dense that none could penetrate it save those who knew the secret paths to the dark castle in the midst; and beside the castle, monarch of the wood, grew a huge cedar, which cast its shade far and wide and sent out a sweet perfume upon the air. Indeed, the task that lay before the Babylonian champions was much like that of the Prince in "The Legend of the Briar Hose"; only it was no Sleeping Beauty who lay within the walls of the castle in the midst of the thicket, but a fierce and terrible warrior, whose roaring was like the storm, and who had never allowed an enemy to enter the wood and return alive to tell the tale. How the two heroes found their way through the wood, and how the battle raged in the dark stronghold in the shade of the weird forest, we may never know, for just at this most interesting point the tablets are broken; but the struggle ended in the victory of Gilgamesh and Eabani, and when they emerged from the wood they carried with them the gory head of the dead Elamite tyrant.

But the great victory that they had gained was to be only the beginning of sorrows for them both. On their return they made a triumphant entry into Erech. Gilgamesh laid aside his blood-stained garments and put on white robes, burnished his armor, and placed a crown upon his head. Now, as he thus came in splendor into the city, the great goddess Ishtar, the goddess of love, beheld him, and her heart was filled with love towards this magnificent hero. She came to him and besought him to be her husband. Goddess as she was, she said, she would serve him. Splendors beyond all imagining, chariots of lapis-lazuli and gold, with golden wheels and poles and yokes of sapphire, should be his, and all the kings and great ones of the earth should bow before him. But Gilgamesh would have none of her love. He knew the miserable lot of the mortal who presumes to mate with the immortal gods, and he rejected her offer with scorn.

The insulted queen of heaven flew to her father, the chief of the gods, and craved for vengeance upon the man who had scorned her. Then the great father of the gods created a mighty and fierce bull, and sent him forth to ravage the lands of the presumptuous mortal who had defied Ishtar. But Gilgamesh and Eabani were more than a match even for this tool of divine vengeance. As the great bull Alu approached, Eabani grasped it by the tail, and his friend plunged his spear into its heart, and the bull of the gods fell down dead before the men who thus defied high heaven. And when Ishtar in her rage cursed them for the slaughter of the bull, Eabani added insult to the injury he had done; for he tore the entrails from the dead body of the bull and threw them in the face of the goddess, crying: "Woe to thee! For I will conquer thee, and will do to thee even as I have done to him."

But Eabani had done, in his pride, what no man might do and live. A deadly stroke fell upon him from the gods. For twelve days he lingered in pain and weakness, and three times in the night there came to him a vision of fire and lightning that warned him that his death hour drew nigh. Then at last he died, and Gilgamesh, in the midst of his bitter mourning for the loss of his companion and friend, found that, even so, the vengeance of Ishtar had not run its course, for he himself was stricken with a sore sickness, so that he bore upon his body, plain for all men to see, the marks of the anger of the gods. Then the terror of death laid hold on him, and in his anguish he resolved to seek his great ancestor, Ut-napishtim, and ask for counsel and help from him. For in the days of old the gods had granted unto Ut-napishtim alone of all men to escape from death and to enjoy unending life.

Now Ut-napishtim was "the distant one," and he lived afar off at the meeting-place of the rivers, and the way to his abode was both long and dreary and full of dangers. As Gilgamesh journeyed he came to a wild mountain gorge, guarded by lions, for all the world like the road to the House Beautiful in the "Pilgrim's Progress"; but the Moon-god showed him in a dream a path across the mountains by which he might avoid this danger. Then came a still more terrible gorge of the Mountain of Mashu. Its gate was guarded by strange beings of terrible aspect, half scorpions and half men, and when Gilgamesh beheld them "his face grew dark with fear and terror, and the wildness of their aspect robbed him of his senses." But the scorpion-men had received warning that Gilgamesh was coming, and had been ordered to pass him on his way. The monster in charge of the gate described to the hero all the dangers that lay before him, and the stage of thick darkness through which he would have to travel; but Gilgamesh refused to turn back, and so the scorpion-man opened the mountain-gate and allowed him to pass through.

For four-and-twenty hours the pilgrim marched drearily onward through the blackness, "and the darkness was thick and there was no light." And then at last he came out into the blessed sunlight again, and before his eyes stood a wonderful tree.

"Precious stones it bore as fruit,

Branches hung from it which were beautiful to behold.

The top of the tree was lapis-lazuli.

And it was laden with fruit which dazzled the eye of him who beheld."

This wonderful tree was surrounded with others which were also laden with precious stones; but Gilgamesh could not stop to gather. He was too eager to get to the sea and cross it, to find Ut-napishtim.

But when he came to the sea-shore, the Princess Sabitu, who ruled over the coast and dwelt in a palace by the shore, refused to see him, and shut her doors upon him. As Gilgamesh could not cross without her advice, he demanded entrance, and threatened to break down the door if it was not opened. So at last he got an interview with the princess, and asked her to tell him how he might cross the sea. She warned him that it was a hopeless task to attempt, for these were Waters of Death which none but a god had ever crossed; but when he would not be denied, she told him of a pilot, Arad-Ea, who might be able to help him. At last Gilgamesh found the pilot, and succeeded in persuading him to risk the voyage; and when they had equipped their vessel with new and strong tackle, they set out on their perilous journey. The voyage was one of a month and five days, but the hero and his companion accomplished it in three days, though not without great risks and exertions.

At last they landed on the shore where the two immortals, Ut-napishtim and his wife, dwelt apart from mankind. They saw Gilgamesh coming, and wondered that any man should have crossed the Waters of Death; but Gilgamesh, still sitting in his boat, told the whole story to his ancestor, and asked eagerly how he might escape the death which had fallen upon Eabani. But Ut-napishtim's answer was sad and hopeless. "Death comes to all," he said, "and no man can escape from it."

"As long as houses are built.

And as long as brethren quarrel.

And as long as there is hatred in the land.

And as long as the river beareth its waters to the sea."

No man, he said, might know the day of his death.

"The Annunaki, the great gods, decree fate,

And with them Mammetum, the maker of destiny.

And they determine death and life.

But the days of death are not known."

Not unnaturally, Gilgamesh asked his relative how it came to pass, if all this were true, that he had escaped from the doom which, as he said, came upon all men. In answer, Ut-napishtim tells the story of the Deluge, which we shall hear when we come to talk of how the Babylonians and Assyrians regarded their gods. He told how he and his wife had been saved from the flood which overwhelmed the world because of its wickedness, and how, when the god who sent the flood saw that they had escaped, he decreed that they should no longer be like other men, but should be immortal like the gods, and dwell apart from men.

All the time of this long story, Gilgamesh sits in his boat, sick and weary, and unable to stir. Ut-napishtim's sympathy was moved at the sight of his misery, and he bade him sleep; and at last sleep came upon the hero "like a storm." Then, while he slept, the wife of Ut-napishtim gave him magic food which healed him of his disease; and when he wakened, they told him what had been done to him, and added that, though they could not keep him from death, they knew of a magic plant which would renew his youth whenever he ate of it.

So Gilgamesh and his pilot set out again on a long journey in search of this wonderful plant which has the power of eternal youth. At last they find it, and Gilgamesh, in his joy, cries out that he will carry it back to Erech with him, and so be forever young. Then, as the travelers journeyed, they came to a fountain of cool and sweet water, and Gilgamesh stooped down to drink; but, as he drank, a demon in the shape of a serpent darted upon him and wrenched the plant out of his hand. There was no regaining it, and with bitter sorrow Gilgamesh had to return to Erech, healed, indeed, of his disease, but only too well aware that for him there was no escape from the death which must claim him as it had claimed his friend Eabani.

After a while he grew more reconciled to his fate; but there still lay upon his spirit a great desire to know the secrets of the world beyond the grave. So he asked god after god to call Eabani back from the dead that he might speak with his friend. At last Nergal, the god of the dead, consented. "He opened the ground, and caused the spirit of Eabani to come forth from the earth like a wind." You remember how King Saul, the night before his death in battle, besought the witch of Endor to bring back Samuel from the dead, and how the shade of the old prophet warned the king that he must die: "To-morrow shalt thou and thy sons be with me." This picture of Gilgamesh and his dead friend reminds one almost exactly of that scene; and Eabani has no more comfort for his old comrade than Samuel had for Saul. Gilgamesh cried to him, "Tell me, my friend, tell me; tell me the appearance of the land which thou hast seen"; but Eabani answered, "I cannot tell thee, my friend, I cannot tell thee." The reality was too terrible and dreary for words, and there was nothing to do but sit down and weep over such a fate. Only there was one thing: if the man who fell in battle received due and honorable burial, his lot beyond was better than that of him who was left unburied.

"But he whose corpse remains in the field,

As you and I have seen,

His spirit has no rest in the earth.

The one whose spirit is not cared for by anyone,

As you and I have seen,

He is consumed by gnawing hunger, by a longing for food,

The refuse of the streets he is obliged to eat."

It was cold comfort, but it was all that Eabani had to give. Man must die, and Gilgamesh cannot escape. The best he can do is to provide for his proper burial when death does overtake him. Then, at least, he will not starve in the other world.

So the long story of Gilgamesh closes in rather a lame and unsatisfactory fashion. There may have been more of it, to tell us how the hero came to his end; but we have no more as yet, and the twelve tablets leave us with nothing but the sad thought that the hope of immortal life is only a delusion, for the plant of eternal youth slips out of one's hand in the very moment when it seems to have been secured.