From the Wikipedia article about the Epic of Gilgamesh:

From the diverse sources found, two main versions of the epic have been partially reconstructed: the standard Akkadian version, or He who saw the deep, and the Old Babylonian version, or Surpassing all other kings. Five earlier Sumerian poems about Gilgamesh have been partially recovered, some with primitive versions of specific episodes in the Akkadian version, others with unrelated stories.

It seems that the standard Akkadian version was discovered all in one place, at the ancient Library of Ashurbanipal, and it was clear that all of these tablets were part of a single unified story. About the Old Babylonian version, by contrast, Wikipedia says:

This version of the epic, called in some fragments Surpassing all other kings, is composed of tablets and fragments from diverse origins and states of conservation. It remains incomplete in its majority, with several tablets missing and big lacunae in those found. They are named after their current location or the place where they were found.

... and then goes on to list various tablets found in ones and twos at diverse locations (the Pennsylvania tablet, the Nippur school tablet, the Tell Harmal tablets, the Ishchali tablet, the Sippar tablet, etc.), many of which roughly overlap with parts of the story told in the standard Akkadian version.

What is the evidence that all of these scattered tablets are parts of a unified whole? In other words, why do they talk about an "Old Babylonian version" rather than fragments of what might be various different versions in contrast with the single long Akkadian version?

2 Answers 2


In 1977, Jeffrey H. Tigay published the article Was There an Integrated Gilgamesh Epic in the Old Babylonian Period? (Ancient Near Eastern Studies in Memory of Jacob Joel Finkelstein, Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, Memoir 19 (1977): 215-18). Tigay noted that the assumption that the “canonical” version of the Gilgamesh Epic was based on an Old Babylonian version had never been substantiated. The Old Babylonian Gilgamesh texts might have been independent, disconnected stories, just like the older Sumerian Gilgamesh stories. Tigay tries to put forward evidence that the Old Babylonian version existed as an integrated epic.

The Pennsylvania and Yale tablets (Gilg P and Gilg Y, respectively) appear to come from the same edition, which contained at least four tablets: the first tablet has not survived, the second deals with the advent of Enkidu, and the third with the preparations for the journey to the Cedar Mountain. This series implies that there was a fourth tablet describing the journey itself. None of the other Old Babylonian clay tablets belong to the same edition. However, they contain episodes that can be found in the “canonical” version and not in the Old Babylonian one. The Akkadian fragment unearthed in Boghozköi (Anatolia), which dates to the 14th-13th century covers part of the journey to the Cedar Forest and the episode of the Bull of Heaven. The Hittite retelling of the epic (fragmentary and in prose), which was also found in Boghozköi, covers events found in tablets I-V and tablets VII-X of the canonical version and presupposes events from tablet VI. The tablets clearly suggest the existence of an integrated epic in the Hittite empire but do not prove the existence of an integrated Old Babylonian version.

However, there are a number of features in the canonical version that can also be found in the Old Babylonian texts but not the in the Sumerian ones. The theme that unifies the epic is "Gilgamesh's quest to overcome death in some fashion". A turning point in Gilgamesh's quest is the death of Enkidu, which has this effect on Gilgamesh because Enkidu is not his servant, as in the Sumerian texts, but his friend. The integrating features related to Enkidu's status and the effect of his death on Gilgamesh were already present in the Old Babylonian fragments. Gilgamesh's tyranny of Uruk, which motivated the gods to create Enkidu, is also mentioned in the Pennsylvania tablet. These and several other features are missing in the Sumerian Gilgamesh texts, and they only make sense in the context of an integrated epic. For Tigay, this confirms the existence of an integrated Old Babylonian Gilgamesh epic.

Walther Sallaberger's book Das Gilgamesch-Epos. Mythos, Werk und Tradition (C. H. Beck, 2008) discusses the Old Babylonian version on pages 69-72. Sallaberger describes the themes and features that distinguish the Old Babylonian version from the Sumerian Gilgamesh texts and which can also be found in the Standard Babylonian version. The German Assyriologist does not question the existence of an integrated Old Babylonian Gilgamesh epic.

The paper by Andrew R. George cited by b a (“Shattered tablets and tangled threads: Editing Gilgamesh, then and now”) points out that

[The twelve extant Old Babylonian tablets and fragments] demonstrate that already in the eighteenth century the Babylonian written epic was quite different from the Sumerian poems, that it was from the start a long poetic narrative bound together by common themes and exhibiting a unified plot.

However, there are differences in wording that suggest that the epic's origin “surely lay in narrative poetry transmitted orally”. The epic only became more “standardised” in its Standard Babylonian version; this text remained remarkably stable until the last extant manuscript of the epic, which dates from around 130 BC.

What George describes on pages 8-10 of his article is not a comparison of four “versions” of the Standard Babylonian epic, as b a assumes, but the reconstruction of several lines based on three manuscripts, each of which only provides incomplete lines of the passage in question. On pages 13-15 he shows how a specific passage evolved over time, and on pages 15-17 he discusses “recensions”, i.e. variations between different manuscripts of the Standard Babylonian epic.

b a's answers seems to interpret George's paper as evidence that there was not even a single Standard Babylonian version, thereby assuming a concept of sameness of texts that is reasonable for printed text (think Gutenberg, 15th century AD) but which seems anachronistic for literary texts that were copied by hand over the course of many centuries, and in the case of Gilgamesh, often by apprentice scribes. (In fact, even early printed texts exhibited variation, even within the same print run of, for example, Shakespeare's First Folio.)

Note: b a's answer appears to misinterpret the phrase "Standard Babylonian version" as "standard version". However, "Standard" is capitalised because it refers to Babylonian (as in "Standard Chinese") and not to "version". Standard Babylonian refers to a specific literary style used during the Mature and Late periods of Akkadian literature. This style can be distinguished from the older Hymnic-Epic style. (See Benjamin R. Foster: Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature, CDL Press, 2005, pages 3-4.) The Standard Babylonian version may be called the “standard version” because that is the version that remained (relatively) stable until the last extant manuscript of the epic.


There isn't any single Old Babylonian version. The same is true even of the different witnesses to the so-called standard version, but to a lesser extent, hence "standard" – the Old Babylonian versions being non-standard in that they differed from each other and from the later recensions more than did the later recensions from each other.

What unites them is that they have some things in common opposed to the late standard version, being from the same time period and sharing the same language. (I am not a Babylonian scholar, but I can give one example: The Old Babylonian texts spell Gilgamesh Gish, whereas the standard texts spell his name GISH-gim-mash.)

This article by A. R. George (pp. 12-15) compares a short parallel passage between four Babylonian versions (including the standard version). The two tablets share some of the same text, but in a different order. It's impossible to guess what other tablets might have had unless more ever become uncovered, but to put it as broadly as possible, we would probably find, as in this case, some parallels and some totally different texts.

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