Exactly ten years ago, one of the oldest written texts in the world got a subtle but important makeover. The Epic of Gilgamesh is a lengthy narrative poem about the titular king of Uruk in what is now modern Iraq and his failed journey to achieve immortality.
The poem is preserved on small baked clay tablets incised with wedge-shaped writing called cuneiform. Its earliest attestations stretch back to around 1800 BCE. Because of the nature of the medium, coupled with the damages wrought by a few millennia worth of wear and degradation, the poem comes down to us in fragmentary form. Narrative gaps are common.
This is why scholars were rapturous when, in the fall of 2011, Assyriologist Farouk Al-Rawi identified a new fragment of the epic among a slew of other Babylonian antiquities recently retrieved by the Suleimaniyah Museum in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The fragment adds about 20 lines of poetry to Tablet V of the Standard Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh (the full poem is comprised of eleven tablets with around 300 or so lines per tablet).
The fifth tablet follows our heroes Gilgamesh and his companion Enkidu to the famed Cedar Forest, a jungle paradise lorded over by the divinely appointed monster-king Humbaba. Despite Humbaba’s strength and their initial fears, Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill him, mutilate his corpse, and cut down the famous cedars, stripping the mountainous region of the trees “whose tops abutted the heavens.” The original pitted text of Tablet V ends here, with a hint that the heroes know their slaying of Humbaba will anger the gods, especially the storm god Enlil.
But the new fragment, which Al-Rawi and Andrew R. George published in the Journal of Cuneiform Studies in 2014, paints a slightly different picture of these events and their implications. After they level the forest and begin to make the journey back home, Enkidu stops and looks back at the desert he and Gilgamesh have created from what was moments earlier a lush and vibrant jungle.
“My friend, we have reduced the forest to a wasteland, how shall we answer Enlil in Nippur?” says Enkidu. The pair’s acknowledgment that Humbaba’s death would precipitate divine wrath in the fragmentary text is now supplemented, given the new material, by what looks undeniably like environmental consciousness and anxieties spawned by what Al-Rawi and George call “ecological regret.”
There seems to be here an acknowledgment that humans inhabit an environment, that they have the capacity to destroy that environment, and that this is morally wrong and, indeed, punishable by divine interposition.
I’m reminded of this remarkable passage today as the bickering intensifies on Capitol Hill regarding the proposed budget reconciliation omnibus bill, with progressive and moderate Democrats at odds over the $3.5 trillion price tag and the bill’s various provisions. The legislation packs a serious punch (both in scope and, well, girth: it’s 2,465 pages) with most of its goals aimed at vital expansion of the nation’s social safety net (universal pre-K, medicare expansion, paid family and medical leave, child tax credits, etc.).
What gets somewhat lost amidst the almost cacophonous array of provisions contained within the bill is that it also includes the nation’s most ambitious plan ever to combat human caused climate change. The bill would dramatically cut greenhouse gas emissions through — among other things — incentivizing the purchasing of electric vehicles, paying utility companies that switch their electricity sources from coal and gas to wind, solar, nuclear, and hydropower, and also leveling financial penalties on oil and gas companies for oil and methane leaks. This last measure hits home with news of a devastating oil spill up the road in Huntington Beach.
The provisions here are no-brainers. And the need to act now (read: decades ago) feels all the more urgent with each passing day, as climate-change related extreme weather events wreak havoc across the globe. Wildfires in California have frightening parallels in Serbia, Greece, and Algeria; catastrophic floods in Tennessee mirror those in Germany and Belgium. While hurricanes and tropical storms dump unprecedented amounts of rain on the southeastern US, drought has gripped over 95% of the land in nearly a dozen western states like California, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Montana.
Democrats have a unique chance here, via reconciliation, to substantially combat climate change and put us back on track to meet the nation’s obligations to the Paris Climate Agreement. To drop the ball on this would be an astonishing dereliction of duty considering the stakes, and considering Republicans seem poised to retake the House in 2022.
Scholars have long known that the famous Cedar Forest in Gilgamesh represents real-life forests in modern Lebanon, and that the deforestation articulated in the poem reflects and comments upon actual deforestation in the area beginning as far back as 7700 BCE by early Bronze Age peoples in the Levant. By the time Mesopotamian exploitation — and exportation — of the Lebanese cedars began (at least as early as 2350 BCE) for the construction of temples and palaces to the east, many forests had completely disappeared.
Research suggests that the clearing of these forests resulted in major erosion of soil and dramatic climate change. That the epic amplifies these environmental effects, giving voice to the characters’ own retroactive guilt at the violence levelled against the natural world, is not incidental.
Remarkably, after millennia of deforestation, small pockets of old growth cedar still exist in Lebanon (in total about 17 square kilometers). But because of climate change, researchers argue these forests will disappear, for good this time, by 2100 if current global warming trends continue. As Anne Barnard and Josh Haner note in their 2018 New York Times article on the Lebanese cedars: “while climate change did not start the assault on the cedars, it could be their death blow.” In any case, the blame rests with us, in both ancient history and the present.
The first recorded mention of the term “climate change” in English comes from George Perkins Marsh’s 1847 address to the Agricultural Society of Rutland County, Vermont. But as the new Gilgamesh fragment illustrates most strikingly, humans have been concerned about deforestation and our inimical relationship with the environment since the dawn of literary expression.
Read in this light, one of the world’s earliest poems could also double as the world’s first ecocritical text. Gilgamesh and Enkidu discover too late the price paid for environmental destruction. Soon after returning to Uruk, the gods curse both men: Enkidu is struck down with plague, he’s bedridden, and dies in agony over two weeks; Gilgamesh’s cruel fate is to survive his friend and wallow in the misery of his monumental loss.
The ancient poem’s scenes of death and grief feel eerily, cosmically prescient given the horrors of our current protracted global crisis. Some 4000 years later, Congress has a real chance to take action here by passing the reconciliation bill before it’s too late, before we look back at the vast wasteland we’ve left and wonder how we’ll answer for our sins.
Dr. Andrew M. McClellan is a lecturer in classics and humanities at San Diego State University. He has published numerous works on violence and horror in ancient literature and culture, and the reception of ancient literature in modern society. His book Abused Bodies in Roman Epic was published recently by Cambridge University Press.