The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with Shana Zaia
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
Well, there are many options for potential sources of comfort from ancient Mesopotamian texts. We have many beautiful hymns of praying to gods for help or thanking them for solving problems; literature about the nature of suffering, mortality, and life after disaster; and incantations for everyday concerns, everything from calming a crying baby to soothing toothaches. There’s not one specific text or item that I personally turn to, but I’ve selected one passage from the famous Epic of Gilgamesh that I find quite nice, plus it’s short enough that I can include it below in full for those who aren’t as familiar with the work!
The passage reads:
“(Gilgamesh is speaking) ’My friend, whom I love deeply, who with me went through every danger, Enkidu, whom I love deeply, who went with me through every danger: he went to the destiny of mankind, I wept over him day and night. I did not give him up for burial—‘maybe my friend will rise at my cry!’—for seven days and seven nights, until a maggot dropped from his nostril. After he was gone I did not find life, as I wandered like a trapper through the midst of the wild. Now, ale-wife, I have seen your face, but I would not see death, that ever I fear.’
The ale-wife spoke to him, to Gilgamesh: ‘O Gilgamesh, where are you wandering? You cannot find the life that you seek: when the gods created mankind, for mankind they established death, life they kept for themselves. You, Gilgamesh, let your belly be full, keep enjoying yourself, day and night! Every day make merry, dance and play day and night! Let your clothes be clean! Let your head be washed, may you be bathed in water! Gaze on the little one who holds your hand! Let a wife enjoy your repeated embrace! Such is the destiny of mortal men.’”
(Translation by A. George The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic (2003), pp. 277-279)
When did you first come across this text?
I first read Gilgamesh in high school as part of our world history curriculum, but to be honest I didn’t retain a lot of it at that time. It was only years later, after completing a BA in Classics and Literature and enrolling in a PhD program in Assyriology at Yale, that I returned to the text during my coursework. It’s pretty amazing to think about—that teenager in high school had no idea that she would end up studying this ancient text in its original Akkadian, much less sitting right next to an actual tablet of this epic in the Yale Babylonian Collection!
Can you tell me a bit about the text and its context?
The Epic of Gilgamesh is the world’s first known epic. It was written down on clay tablets in Akkadian, the oldest known Semitic language, though there are earlier, shorter stories about Gilgamesh written in Sumerian. The Akkadian epic is known at least from the 18th century BCE, during the Old Babylonian period. It tells the story of the adventures of Gilgamesh (the king of Uruk) and his companion Enkidu, who travel through dangerous territories and fight mythical beasts.
In the passage above, Enkidu has died and Gilgamesh is completely heartbroken. He is haggard and hunched, sitting in a tavern at the end of the world, pouring his heart out to Siduri, the tavern-keeper. Gilgamesh’s grief has made him resolute in his quest for immortality, which involves him crossing through the Netherworld to consult with the only mortals to attain this goal, a man named Uta-napišti and his wife, who had been granted immortality after surviving an ancient great flood that the gods had sent to destroy humankind. Siduri responds to him as a voice of wisdom, enjoining Gilgamesh to realize that what he seeks is impossible to achieve because only the gods are immortal. She urges him to focus on life, not death, and to make the most of his time on earth, doing things he enjoys and spending time with the people he loves, even if it will all come to an end eventually. In what follows, she nonetheless takes pity on him and gives him advice for finding Uta-napiši, and he continues his quest. In the end, however, he finds out that there is indeed no path to immortality.
What is it about this passage that appeals to you most?
I find that it’s such a relatable moment in an epic about a legendary hero whose exploits are extraordinary, and who is himself often portrayed as larger than life. The loss of a partner, family member, friend, the feelings of being lost and helpless in an emotional wilderness, the difficulties of reconciling with mortality—these are universal experiences, and ones that this pandemic has brought even more into focus. The tavern-keeper’s advice I take not so much as “eat, drink, and be merry” and forget about the troubles of the world, but as an observation that Gilgamesh has his eyes fixed so firmly on death that he has entirely forgotten about living. She reminds him to take the immediate into consideration instead of being consumed by the end, to simply observe the moment he’s in. It’s certainly not easy advice to take with so many worries and a future that often seems uncertain or unknown. Siduri is herself a fascinating character, as she is one of the few women featured in the Epic and it’s unusual that she would be running a tavern by herself—much less one en route to the Netherworld.
And finally… what do you do, outside of studying the ancient world, to cheer yourself up?
If the weather’s nice (or nice enough), I like to go running in the parks near where I live. Otherwise, I enjoy reading, especially re-reading Terry Pratchett books for the millionth time, or watching Netflix. Home office also comes with the perk that I get to spend much more time with my cat.
Shana Zaia is a Postdoctoral Researcher and Lecturer in Assyriology at the University of Vienna, Austria. She received her doctorate in Assyriology from Yale University after completing a BA in Classics and English Literature at Washington University in St. Louis. Her research focuses on the Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian Empires (c. 1000-539 BCE), particularly on state religion and urbanism. More information about her work can be found at shanazaia.com.
Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.