24. The Hero of Mythology

Western Asia, 3rd millennium BC
Size: 26.3 cm high, 23.7 cm wide

This is an astounding representation of the mythical ‘Hero’, whose meaning would be even more obscure had it not been for Austen Henry Layard and his assistant Hormuzd Rassam’s recovery of the Old Babylonian tablets bearing the Epic of Gilgamesh, between 1850 and 1853. The deciphering of the cuneiform by the remarkable George Smith at the British Museum is an epic in its own right. Mr. Smith presented his paper on Gilgamesh to the Society of Biblical Archaeology in the presence of the Prime Minister, Mr. Gladstone.

The Epic, as well as this stone, link us to the earliest questioning by human beings, of the purpose of existence, of their obligations and possibilities. While Gilgamesh remains unfamiliar to many people, the myth he represents nevertheless exerts a strong influence on our culture, and on the way we see our lives. You could say that the appeal of Christianity came from the fact that it played successfully to the ingrained pattern of this myth. In other words, what sold Jesus was the idea that he had transcended Death, the final conundrum that Gilgamesh was unable to solve. It would be unwise to suggest that this figure is meant to represent Gilgamesh, but it undoubtedly connects to the myth in which he is the protagonist, and to his heroic struggle against forces that must be overcome to realise the full potential of human nature. ‘He who saw the Deep…’ is the famous opening phrase, describing Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, ‘Surpassing all other kings’. His conclusion, eventually, was that it was impossible to overcome Death and achieve immortality. Only the fame of great deeds can be immortal.

A friend of my parents was the son of an ashik (a story-teller, reciter of epics and songs) in Tiflis. When people gathered in the evenings in his house to hear his father perform, he would sit in a corner or under the table, and listen to the great epics as they unfolded, night after night. One was the Epic of Gilgamesh, which he came to know by heart, so many times did he hear it, and such was its grip on his imagination. Many years later, in Europe, he came across a translation in English, and was astonished to discover that it had been transmitted from generation to generation over 4000 years or more without any significant change.

Private collection, Japan

On loan to the exhibition