Gilgamesh and Buluqiya.

I was reading Marina Warner’s NYRB review (subscriber-only) of Stephen Greenblatt’s The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve when I was startled by an implausible-looking equation. But before I get to that, I’ll quote the amusing opening of the review:

In 1872, when the brilliant young Assyriologist George Smith found a cuneiform tablet in the British Museum inscribed with part of the story of the Flood, he became so excited that he began undressing, though the comparative literature scholar David Damrosch thinks that he might have been merely loosening his collar, Stephen Greenblatt tells us—still sign enough to alarm Smith’s Victorian confreres into fearing that he was overborne with passion.

OK, so later on Warner parenthetically notes that “The Orientalist Stephanie Dalley has argued that the name of the hero Buluqiya in a long quest tale in the Arabian Nights derives from Gilgamesh.” That made me sit up and take notice, since the two names seem very different; fortunately, JSTOR provided me with Dalley’s article “Gilgamesh in the Arabian Nights” (Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Third Series, 1.1 [Apr. 1991]: 1-17), where we find the following explanation:

The two personal names Buluqiya and al-Khidhr can be connected with extreme antiquity. Buluqiya is not an Arabic name, nor is it a name for a king of Israel, even though Tha’labi’s version calls him son of Josiah. The name can be explained as a hypocoristic of Gilgamesh’s name in a pronunciation attested both in Sumerian and in Hurrian: Bilgamesh. In the element bilga the third consonant exhibits a standard change, from voiced G to unvoiced K, the Akkadian hypocoristic ending –ya is added, and the second element mesh is omitted. The name Gilgamesh is presumed to be Sumerian, although it does not conform to any clear type of name in that language. The affix –ya is typical of Akkadian names, and it corresponds very closely to the Sumerian hypocoristic affix –mu. The ending –ya is, however, capable of an alternative interpretation; as a short, theophoric element standing for Yahweh. This analysis would give credence to the secondary use of the name for a supposedly Israelite king, even though no such king is named in the Bible. If this is the correct explanation of the name, it would imply that the pronunciation Bilgamesh continued alongside Gilgamesh during the first millennium B.C. Vowel changes in abbreviated Akkadian names are regularly found, such as Šūzubu from Mušēzib-Marduk. This analysis of Buluqiya as a form of Gilgamesh goes hand in hand with the choice of Mesopotamia’s most famous hero for showing that the coming of Muhammad was pre-ordained. Pseudo-prophecies such as this are always put into the mouths of famous men of old, to give them the stamp of authority. […]

Why has it taken so long to discover Gilgamesh in the Arabian Nights? Since the Epic was first discovered in Akkadian, written on clay tablets found in the ruins of Nineveh, progress in its decipherment and piecing together fragments has been slow. For a start, the name of the hero himself was wrongly read as Izdubar until late in the nineteenth century, when it was first correctly read as Gilgamesh. Not until about 1960 was the Sumerian and Hurrian pronunciation as Bilgamesh appreciated. As for the story itself, three episodes came to light quite early, and were the hallmarks by which the epic was recognised, namely Enkidu’s seduction by the harlot; the main heroic episode of Gilgamesh and Humbaba, and the Flood. None of these episodes is found in any version of the Buluqiya story.

I confess I have no idea how much credence to give to this. I’m automatically suspicious of any argument that depends on general similarity of content and ad hoc explaining-away of phonetic dissimilarity (“the consonants count for very little and the vowels for nothing at all”), but obviously this is a topic that has been much discussed by experts in a field where I am only a distant onlooker, so I turn to the assembled Hattery: does this Gilgamesh/Buluqiya thing seem plausible?

Comments

  1. “Human”? Should be “Hurrian”, yes? Crazy ol’ OCR.

    Fascinating, though.

  2. Woops, fixed, thanks! I thought I’d caught all the OCR errors, but there’s always one hiding in the underbrush.

  3. ə de vivre says:

    The argument has a lot riding of the “Bilgameš” reading (if it ever existed, Assyriologists disagree) surviving long enough to be borrowed into Aramaic (a step Dalley doesn’t mention) and then into Arabic. I’m not sure what she means by the “standard change” from voiced to unvoiced. It’s certainly common in words loaned from Sumerian to Akkadian to end up with only unvoiced stops, but the Akkadian sources are unambiguous about the voiced stops in B/Gilgamesh. I don’t know what the usual deal is with an Aramaic “g” loaned into Arabic, but I note that, originally Akkadian, “targumannu” uses a jim in Arabic (unless it’s a cognate and not an East Semitic loan after all). Also, not promising that Dalley only cites 19th century translations of Arabian Nights, and doesn’t mention any Arabic texts in an article about Arabic folklore (Edward Said spins in his grave).

  4. I was hoping you’d show up, ə! Sounds like my skepticism is (once again) justified.

  5. David Marjanović says:

    Why has it taken so long to discover Gilgamesh in the Arabian Nights?

    What’s incredible is that there were two thousand years of history that were completely forgotten. Completely. An entire civilization that nobody even knew about. No residual folk awareness. No garbled semi-historical legends.”

    does this Gilgamesh/Buluqiya thing seem plausible?

    Possible, sure (q is unaspirated, and has famously become [g] in several Arabics). Plausible, I have no idea.

  6. John Cowan says:

    I note that, originally Akkadian, “targumannu” uses a jim in Arabic (unless it’s a cognate and not an East Semitic loan after all).

    Even assuming it is a loan, it could still have been etymologically nativized. When did Arabic /g/ > /dʒ/ happen, anyhow?

  7. How did Gebal become Byblos in Greek?

    I propose they heard the unattested Hurrian name for the city.

    I also propose that the supposedly equine Indo European terms found in Hurrian contexts have nothing to do with horses but instead are unicorn-related

  8. Stu Clayton says:

    From the “what’s incredible” link:

    # Sure, most of [the two million cuneiform tablets lying around unexamined in museums] are probably tax records, but there’s absolutely no chance there’s not some really important history, poetry, and spicy interdynastic drama in there, as well as probably a dozen or so undiscovered languages #

    No wonder people weren’t interested in a civilization whose predominant legacy was tax records. I expect that American civilization will be forgotten for a simular reason – the sheer bulk of Twitter opinions overlying everything else.

    Apart from that, “really important [stuff] in there” is a stretch too far. The predominance of tax records implies, by cautious conjecture, that there must have been a lot else going on, but it’s unknown and unknowable. You can’t live by recording taxes, and there must be activities and products on which taxes were levied – activities other than tax collecting, and products other than tax records.

    Similarly, from the Twitter remains it will be cautiously conjectured that America was great, but not what for. That’s not clear even now.

  9. ə de vivre says:

    Even assuming it is a loan, it could still have been etymologically nativized. When did Arabic /g/ > /dʒ/ happen, anyhow?
    Not sure. What I was getting at was that it’s an Aramaic /g/ loaned into Arabic as /dʒ/ rather than /q/. As David points out, some dialects of Arabic innovated /q/ into /g/, but, off the top of my head, I don’t know how plausible it is to propose Arabic getting a /q/ from an Aramaic /g/.

    It’s a bit unfair to equate Akkado-Sumerian literate culture with tax records. Akkadian literacy held on for the longest as the religious and legal language of urban elites in the old Mesopotamian cities. If anything it was the language of omen reading (which happened to produce some interesting mathematical and astronomical observations as a happy side-effect). But as those elites lost their importance as the intermediaries between the cities and the empires that ruled them, there stopped being any real motivation to acquire that culture. I think it’s probably true that there was an almost complete loss of Akkadian literate culture (until its 19th century rediscovery), and why its disappearance was so complete is an interesting question. If nothing else, translation is hard, and the places where one literate culture adopts part of another one, there’s usually some good reason someone (or a group of someones) has invested the not-inconsiderable resources needed to translate it.

  10. ə de vivre says:

    Also, if “In the element bilga the third consonant exhibits a standard change, from voiced G to unvoiced K,” then you’d wind up with /bilkameš/, and no reason for Arabic to change a /k/ to a /q/… The proposed Bilgameš to Buluqiya route makes no sense at all!

  11. David Marjanović says:

    Arabic /k/ and /t/ are aspirated. It is not uncommon for loans with unaspirated /k t/ to end up with /q tˤ/. And Sumerian is apparently widely thought to have had an aspiration contrast and no voice contrast, so that b d g were actually voiceless.

    …but that may still leave a gap of a few thousand years.

  12. Bathrobe says:

    What’s incredible …. is just pointing out that we took our version of ancient history from the Greeks. Just as we took our version of the ‘Dark Ages’ from the Renaissance. And perhaps our version of ancient American history from the Spanish… That’s what historical studies are supposed to be about. Uncovering obscured realities from remaining evidence.

    And even as we elucidate past realities, there is always someone coming along to write new distortions…

  13. Stu Clayton says:

    Elucidation and distortion are words used by third parties to characterize the work of historians as worthy of praise or blame. No one is the wiser for this name-calling. In particular it doesn’t increase knowledge of history. Everyone already knows that name-calling is an anthropological constant.

    I strongly warn against the complacency of assuming that the truth will out (there). What’s called truth is a product of delicate and complex discursive tradition and technique. It takes only one Trump, blustering and bludgeoning and contradicting himself daily, to throw everyone off balance

  14. January First-of-May says:

    No residual folk awareness. No garbled semi-historical legends.

    I wouldn’t put it quite so strongly. The identification of Nimrod with Enmerkar has nearly as many problems with it as that of Buluqiya with Gilgamesh, but even if that is unrelated, there’s still Babel, and Erech, and Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar.
    (Babel and Accad should be recognizable; Erech is Uruk, and I don’t recall offhand what’s up with Calneh.)

    On the other hand, it took until the 19th century for people to figure out (again) that Ur of the Chaldees (where Abraham came from) was an actual place and not an allegory.

    And I’m reminded of a similar and even more unexpected gap – in the Shahnameh, the Sassanids are described reasonably correctly, but where the Achaemenids should be is a sequence of entirely mythical rulers (the so-called Kayanid dynasty). It’s almost as if Ferdowsi had never heard of Cyrus or Darius.
    (There is apparently some dispute as to how exactly that particular transmission failure happened; supposedly it might even have been deliberate.)

  15. ə de vivre says:

    And Sumerian is apparently widely thought to have had an aspiration contrast and no voice contrast, so that b d g were actually voiceless.
    It’s true. For example, the Sumerian e₂-gal wound up in Arabic and Hebrew as a ‘heykal,’ via Akkadian ekallu. But we have Akkadian syllabic glosses on the various more-or-less logographic ways of writing the Urukian divine king’s name, and they read it in Akkadian with voiced stops. I wonder if any of the Greek transliterations made by Hellenistic Akkadian learners included Gilgamesh’s name…

    En passant, I’m not sure what Dalley is on about the Sumerian hypocoristic ‘mu.’ I’m guessing she means ‘ŋu’—which was read ‘mu’ at the time the article was written—the first-person singular possessive enclitic, not a hypocoristic. ‘-ya’ is also the first-person singular possessive suffix in Akkadian, which makes me wonder what she means by ‘hypocoristic’ except that both morphemes get used in names sometimes.

  16. SFReader says:

    When did Arabic /g/ > /dʒ/ happen, anyhow

    That’s dialectal thing. Egyptian Arabic uses g instead of dʒ used in other dialects.

  17. Bathrobe says:

    Elucidation and distortion are words used by third parties to characterize the work of historians

    On the distortion side I was thinking as much of governments and movements as the academic establishment. The usual example trotted out is the equation of Germans to Aryans, but you can find plenty of other examples (e.g., Mao’s decision that China had 5,000 years of history where most people previously stopped at around three and a half, or maintaining that conventional history is the work of DWMs). Some of these have merit in attempting to right the record; some are pure distortion based on national agendas. I could go on but I won’t.

  18. John Cowan says:

    That’s dialectal thing. Egyptian Arabic uses g instead of dʒ used in other dialects.

    True, but that’s not what I’m talking about here: I’m talking about the shift from proto-Semitic /g/ to Arabic /dʒ/ in pre-Islamic times. See Lameen’s discussion of the reverse shift. So there are two possible borrowing paths from Akkadia targumannu to Arabic مترجم mutarjim; either it happened before the pre-Islamic shift, or it happened afterwards but the form was adjusted to /dʒ/ by etymological nativization, as I said.

  19. Stu Clayton says:

    still sign enough to alarm Smith’s Victorian confreres into fearing that he was overborne with passion

    That’s an unfamiliar way to use “overborne”. I would have expected “overcome”, or “overwhelmed”. In fact I may not have seen “overborne” used this way, but rather “overbearing”, which is a whole nother thing.

    On reflection, “overborne” seems neutral, or genteely deprecating, as to what the speaker thinks about the (unspecified!) “passion”. “Overcome” seems to me to suggest more emotionality about the “passion” involved and the response to it, I suppose due to fixed expressions such as “overcome with emotion”, “overcome with remorse”.

    There’s also “overwhelmed by the number of shoes”, which apparently many people were when learning the details of Imelda Marcos’ wardrobe, just after she no longer had a leg to stand on.

  20. per incuriam says:

    What’s called truth is a product of delicate and complex discursive tradition and technique. It takes only one Trump, blustering and bludgeoning and contradicting himself daily, to throw everyone off balance

    Very true.

  21. This seems a perfectly standard sense of “overborne” to me, and a particularly apt one. “Overturned by being lifted up”: as by a wave.

  22. A. R. George discusses Dalley’s speculations in his edition of Gilgamesh (vol. 1, p. 65-68), and rejects her thesis:

    “there is no evidence that the old pronunciation Bilgames (as opposed to the spelling dbil.ga.mes) survived into the first millennium. All the evidence from cuneiform and alphabetic sources is that by that time the name was always pronounced with initial /g/. […] As a name, Buluqiya is not a version of GIlgameš.[…] the ‘overall story line’ of Buluqiya is not very similar to the plot of written Epic of GIlgameš. […] the tale of Buluqiya is so far removed from the period of cuneiform writing that speaking of the influence on it of compositions of the cuneiform scribal tradition is so speculative as to almost meaningless. How much else there was that stood in between!

    George notes elsewhere that in those few places where the name of Gilgamesh turns up in Arabic sources (as the name of a malevolent demon) it is spelled jljmyš or jljmwš.

  23. January First-of-May says:

    but even if that is unrelated, there’s still Babel, and Erech, and Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar.

    And of course much later on (Genesis 14) there’s Amraphel, king of Shinar, who might well have been Hammurabi (not necessarily the famous one – there were other rulers with that name in the region).

  24. From the Wikipedia: “Most classical historians agree that the Epic of Gilgamesh exerted substantial influence on both the Iliad and the Odyssey, two epic poems written in ancient Greek during the eighth century BC.” Is this true?

  25. ə de vivre says:

    Probably not. Wikipedia seems especially unreliable and full of wishful speculation when it comes to Assyriological topics. Anatolian peoples, who the Greeks had direct contact with at, were certainly influenced by Akkadian literary culture, but the parallels with Homer don’t seem to extend past a “hero travels, visits the underworld” level of correspondence.

  26. The Gilgamesh story of a descent into the underworld that resembles Greek versions is obvious fan fiction that was tacked onto the end of The One Who Looked Upon the Abyss. A much more natural candidate for a Mesopotamian myth that might have influenced Indo-European underworld descent stories is the Descent of Innana, although that is still highly speculative.

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