Monday, October 4, 2010

Babylonian Poetry, Anyone?

This is fairly geeky, I admit. But I find these recitations of ancient Babylonian poetry fascinating, and especially the passages from the Epic of Gilgamesh, which I read in high school and which I encouraged my middle daughter to read for extra credit last year when she was studying ancient history. (Have I mentioned that we're home schoolers? Is there any need to now?)

By far the most fascinating character in Gilgamesh is the hero's friend Enkidu, a kind of Rousseauian noble savage whose gradual introduction to civilization--partly at the hands of a prostitute--makes up the poem's most dramatic and compelling plot element. I've never been entirely sure how to pronounce his name, although I've always suspected that the pronunciation I learned in high school--something like "Inky-Doo"--was neither linguistically accurate nor dignified-sounding enough for so admirable a character.

Turns out, based on these recitations, that the correct pronunciation may be en-KEE-doo, which sounds much better to me; and that the title character's name, which I always pronounced with an accent on the first syllable, is actually gil-GAH-mesh.

Live and learn.


  1. This is completely fascinating, but I must take issue with your version of the pronunciation of both Gilgamesh and Enkidu. In the four versions I listened to, the accents, though not strong, are clearly on the last syllable. The syllables have almost equal weight but not quite, so I question both your en-KEE-doo and gil-GAH-mesh. It sounds to me more like en-kee-DOO and gil-gah-MESH. In both cases, in all four readings I tried, the first two syllables have exactly the same stress and only the last one is slightly accented. In any event, thanks for this truly absorbing post.

  2. Hurowitz and Hecker say "gil-GAH-mesh"; Dalley and Wasserman do not, but rather use something more or less like the pronunciation I learned in school(and which is supported by Webster's Ninth New Collegiate).

    West and Streck say "en-KEE-do"; Wasserman and Klein do not.

    I bet any one of these scholars would be more than happy to talk for hours, explaining why his pronunciation is correct. It's not surprising that so much variation would exist here. There are still disputed points even about the correct pronunciation of classical Latin, a language for which there is a lot more external evidence to guide us than there would be (I think) for the pronunciation of Babylonian.

    One thing demonstrated by ALL of these recitations, though, is that it was a beautiful language, well suited to poetic expression and (naturally) to public performance.

  3. I was particularly struck by astounding frequency of the "sh" sound, which gives the language its soft, melodic contours. I agree, a beautiful language.