Hear The Epic of Gilgamesh Read in its Original Ancient Language, Akkadian


Cre­ative Com­mons image by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin

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.”

Cuneiform is not a lan­guage, but an alpha­bet. The script’s wedge-shaped let­ters (cuneus is Latin for wedge) are formed by impress­ing a cut reed into soft clay. It was used by speak­ers of sev­er­al Near East­ern lan­guages includ­ing Sumer­ian, Akka­di­an, Urart­ian and Hit­tite; depend­ing on the lan­guage and date of a giv­en script, its alpha­bet could con­sist of many hun­dreds of let­ters. If this weren’t chal­leng­ing enough, cuneiform employs no punc­tu­a­tion (no sen­tences or para­graphs), it does not sep­a­rate words, there aren’t any vow­els and most tablets are frag­ment­ed and erod­ed.

Nonethe­less, Smith, an entire­ly self-edu­cat­ed schol­ar, broke the code, and when he dis­cov­ered the frag­ment con­tain­ing a flood nar­ra­tive that pre­dat­ed the Bib­li­cal account by at least 1,000 years, he report­ed­ly “became so ani­mat­ed that, mute with excite­ment, he began to tear his clothes off.” That sto­ry may also be leg­end, but it is one that cap­tures the pas­sion­ate­ly obses­sive char­ac­ter of George Smith. Thanks to his efforts, those of many oth­er 19th cen­tu­ry aca­d­e­mics, trea­sure hunters, and tomb raiders, and mod­ern schol­ars toil­ing away at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Lon­don, we can now hear Gil­gamesh read not only in Old Akka­di­an (the orig­i­nal lan­guage), but also lat­er Baby­lon­ian dialects, the lan­guages used to record the Code of Ham­mura­bi and a lat­er, more frag­ment­ed ver­sion of the Gil­gamesh epic.

The Uni­ver­si­ty of London’s Depart­ment of the Lan­guages and Cul­tures of the Ancient Near East hosts on its web­site sev­er­al read­ings in dif­fer­ent schol­ars’ voic­es of Gil­gamesh, The Epic of Anzu, the Codex Ham­mura­bi and oth­er Baby­lon­ian texts. Above, you can hear Karl Heck­er read the first 163 lines of Tablet XI of the Stan­dard Akka­di­an Gil­gamesh. These lines tell the sto­ry of Utnapish­tim, the myth­i­cal and lit­er­ary pre­cur­sor to the Bib­li­cal Noah. So impor­tant was the dis­cov­ery of this flood sto­ry that it “chal­lenged lit­er­ary and bib­li­cal schol­ar­ship and would help to rede­fine beliefs about the age of the Earth,” writes The Tele­graph. When George Smith made his announce­ment in 1872, “even the Prime Min­is­ter, William Glad­stone, was in atten­dance.” Unfor­tu­nate­ly, things did not end well for Smith, but because of his efforts, we can come as close as pos­si­ble to the sound of Gil­gamesh’s world, one that may remind us of a great many mod­ern lan­guages, but that unique­ly pre­serves ancient his­to­ry and age­less myth.

The Uni­ver­si­ty of Lon­don site also includes trans­la­tions and translit­er­a­tions of the cuneiform writ­ing, from Pro­fes­sor Andrew George’s 2003 The Baby­lon­ian Gil­gamesh Epic: Intro­duc­tion, Crit­i­cal Edi­tion and Cuneiform Texts. Fur­ther­more, there are answers to Fre­quent­ly Asked Ques­tions, many of which you may your­self be ask­ing, such as “What are Baby­lon­ian and Assyr­i­an?”; “Giv­en they are dead, how can one tell how Baby­lon­ian and Assyr­i­an were pro­nounced?”; “Did Baby­lon­ian and Assyr­i­an poet­ry have rhyme and metre, like Eng­lish poet­ry?”; and—for those with a desire to enter fur­ther into the ancient world of Gil­gamesh and oth­er Akka­di­an, Baby­lon­ian, and Assyr­i­an semi-myth­i­cal figures—“What if I actu­al­ly want to learn Baby­lon­ian and Assyr­i­an?”

Then, of course, you’ll want to learn about the 20 new lines from Gil­gamesh just dis­cov­ered in Iraq.…

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Lis­ten to the Old­est Song in the World: A Sumer­ian Hymn Writ­ten 3,400 Years Ago

Hear the “Seik­i­los Epi­taph,” the Old­est Com­plete Song in the World: An Inspir­ing Tune from 100 BC

Hear Beowulf Read In the Orig­i­nal Old Eng­lish: How Many Words Do You Rec­og­nize?

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (14)
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  • Ann M Penso says:

    Thank you ever so much. What a thrill.

  • Basem says:


  • K says:

    And this sup­pos­ed­ly being so old, how do we know this dude is a real repro­duc­tion of the sound from that long ago? Sounds like a big BS to me

  • Paul Enwia says:

    I am an Assyr­i­an speak­er of mod­ern Ara­ma­ic, I know that Akka­di­an influ­enced Ara­ma­ic (or per­haps the oth­er way around) but there are words that I can under­stand, like ‘Ana’ (I am) and ‘oo’ (and). This is very cool!

  • FAQ says:

    It pays to read the arti­cle: http://www.soas.ac.uk/baplar/faqs/. You might also Google “recon­struct­ing lan­guages”.

    Because sounds often change over time in pre­dictable ways and because descen­dant lan­guages exist in mod­ern times, it is pos­si­ble, to an extent, to recon­struct sounds from ancient lan­guages that are no longer spo­ken. These are best guess­es and will change as new infor­ma­tion becomes avail­able.

  • Omega says:

    I think the pro­noun­ci­a­tion is off, it feels too close to mod­ern hebrew which itself is a far call from the pro­noun­ci­a­tion of ancient hebrew

  • Gunnel Tapper says:

    Spara åt mig!

  • Nina Gyourgis says:

    I must cor­rect some­thing writ­ten above.

    “What are Baby­lon­ian and Assyr­i­an?”; “Giv­en they are dead, how can one tell how Baby­lon­ian and Assyr­i­an were pro­nounced?”; “Did Baby­lon­ian and Assyr­i­an poet­ry have rhyme and metre, like Eng­lish poet­ry?”

    Assyr­i­ans are not dead. We may not have a coun­try and we may be endan­gered, but we are not extinct and our lan­guage is not extinct. Yes, we have still kept our lan­guage despite the fact that we have not had a coun­try in thou­sands of years. I am 100% Assyr­i­an, born in north­ern Iraq and I speak, read, and write Assyrian/Aramaic/Syriac.

    To answer one of those ques­tions, yes our poems and sto­ries sound poet­ic; they sound absolute­ly noth­ing like how they are pro­nounced when I hear them on pod­casts or read­ings and are probounced noth­ing like the way they are spelled/written in Eng­lish. Assyr­i­an names and words are not pho­net­i­cal­ly spelled the way they are writ­ten in Eng­lish, since Assyr­i­an is a Semit­ic lan­guage, there are let­ters and sounds that exist that do not exist in Eng­lish.


  • Louis F Hansell says:

    Regard­ing Akka­di­an, Assyr­i­an and, in gen­er­al, lan­guage his­to­ry, you might want to read “Empires of the Word: A Lan­guage His­to­ry of the World“M by Nicholas Ostler. You can get it now on Ama­zon Kin­dle, it is a bar­gain.
    The author details the devel­op­ment and evo­lu­tion of lan­guage, and involves mil­i­tary, cul­tur­al and reli­gious forces in the dynam­ics of lan­guage change.

  • SPENCER says:

    I’m Iraqi, in our local lan­guage, which some sort of ara­bic, how­ev­er all oth­er Arab coun­tries can­not speak it while we can under­stand what they say, we know the dif­fer­ence between words we have in iraq mis­tak­en­ly called ara­bic and the same word in ara­bic which we also use , lis­ten­ing to this sound clip there were 10% I could rec­og­nize, so if it help try to get some mid aged Iraqi to help you in trans­la­tion. I remem­ber back in school, our teach when pissed off at some­one , he yell in assyr­i­an and we laugh, many words sur­vived all this time and still part of Iraqi dai­ly dia­logue.

  • Dennis Braveheart says:

    I hear all kinds of dif­fer­ent words from dif­fer­ent lan­guages. Ara­bic, Hebrew, Chippe­wa and Lako­ta . # Mitakuye Oyasin Wopi­la Tan­ka Tunkashila Ina Unci Maka Paha Sapa 3x3

    Can­t’e Tin­za

  • Hardy says:

    In the para­graph in ital­ic start­ing with

    “Cuneiform is not a lan­guage, but an alpha­bet.”

    It is not accu­rate to say that “there aren’t any vow­els”. This is the case for Ugarit­ic, say, but in Akka­di­an, each phono­log­i­cal sign is a syl­la­ble with vow­el (or half of a syl­la­ble).

  • mtyles lalley says:

    What a great read.

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