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Nagbu: totality or abyss in the first verse of Gilgamesh

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 August 2014


In the first hemistich of the Akkadian Gilgamesh epic, ša nagba īmuru, the term nagbu has been interpreted in two different ways: the totality or the abyss. Most of the translators have chosen the first meaning. Stephanie Dalley, for instance, proposes: “[Of him who] found out all things”. Among those who prefer the meaning “abyss” I would mention Leo Oppenheim, who translates: “[Let me make kn]own to the country him who has seen the abyss,” but gives no explanation for his choice. Though Tournay and Shaffer choose the first meaning — “Celui qui a tout vu” — they explain briefly in a note that the term may have been intended to imply a “jeu de mots”, a pun, so that it could also be understood in the sense of “abyss”. Finally, Anne Kilmer has written an article in which she proposes the rendering: “He who saw the depths”. It seems to me worthwhile discussing the problems involved in these two translations.

Let us begin with the nuances of each interpretation. Nagbu in the sense of “totality” (CAD s.v. nagbu B) may be taken in either a concrete or an abstract sense. In a concrete sense this totality can be understood as the whole of the lands and seas, and the narrative would thus portray a hero who says about himself: “I … went through all countries … and crossed to and fro all seas.” If so, the phrase “the one who saw everything” refers to Gilgamesh's wanderings, which led him to the extremities of the world. If we take the term nagbu as conveying instead an abstract concept, then it can be understood as the trials that Gilgamesh suffered, a proposition which gives a psychological edge to his travails.

Research Article
IRAQ , Volume 60 , 1998 , pp. 219 - 221
Copyright © The British Institute for the Study of Iraq 1998

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1 Quotations of the poem in English are taken from Dalley, S., Myths from Mesopotamia (Oxford: OUP, 1989) 50153Google Scholar, unless otherwise attributed.

2 Oppenheim, A. L., “Mesopotamian mythology II”, Or NS 17 (1948) 17, fn. 2Google Scholar.

3 Tournay, R. J. and Shaffer, A., L'épopée de Gilgamesh (LAPO 15; Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1994) 38Google Scholar, note a. Jack Sasson has called my attention to the root nqb, meaning to make a hole, hence a spring.

4 Kilmer, Anne D., “A note on an overlooked word-play in the Akkadian Gilgamesh”, in Driel, G. vanet al. (eds.), Zikir Šumim. Assyriological Studies Presented to F. R. Kraus (Leiden: Brill, 1982) 128–32Google Scholar.

5 Tablet X v 25–7, in the numeration of Bottéro, Jean, L'Épopée de Gilgamesh (Paris: Gallimard, 1992)Google Scholar.

6 Lambert, W. G., BWL, 74: 57Google Scholar.

7 KAR 44, rev. 7; cf. [x]-at nagbi nēmeqi in a prayer to Marduk, Lambert, W. G., AfO 19 (19591960) 62Google Scholar, 35?

8 Emūma eliš VI 166Google Scholar.

9 CAD N/I, 111: nagbu B (e).

10 See CAD A/II, s.v. amāru 1 b.

11 Wiseman, D. J., The Vassal-Treaties of Esarhaddon (Iraq 20/I; London, 1958) 67, 521Google Scholar.

12 CAD A/II, 7b, meaning A 1–3'.

13 Jean Bottéro, for instance, renders Apsû as “le fond de la mer”.

14 KAR 26, 14, cf. Tallqvist, K., StOr 7 (1938) 50Google Scholar.

15 Although the word rāṭu is in fact partially lacking in 1. 271 the restoration is certain in the light of 1. 298, where Gilgamesh is said to have opened a rāṭu.

16 The main purpose of Anne Kilmer's article is to advocate Tablet XII as an integral part of the Akkadian poem and to plead anew for the homosexual character of Gilgamesh's relationship with Enkidu. These topics exceed the scope of the present article.

17 Gilgamesh I 37; Caplice, R., Or NS 40 (1971) 150Google Scholar, 32', dupl. idem, Or NS 42 (1973) 512, a reference which I owe to Miguel Civil.

18 Cf. Jacobsen, T., The Treasures of Darkness (New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1976) 215–19Google Scholar, especially the graphic illustration on p. 216.

19 Castillo, Jorge Silva, Gilgamesh O la angustia por la muerte (3rd edn; México: El Colegio de México, 1996) 43Google Scholar.