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Gilgamesh and the Hulupp-Tree (2000 BC)


The first literary reference to Lilith can be found in the Epic of Gilgamesh. This work is actually an epic poem covering twelve tablets in its latest version. The poem, whose written stages span a period of at least 1,500 years, has been dated at 2400 BCE, placing it in the Third Early Dynastic period of Mesopotamian chronology (Tigay 2). Furthermore, the Sumerian King List identifies Gilgamesh as the fifth king of the first dynasty of Uruk, which historians have placed in the Second Early Dynastic period (ca 2700-2500) (Tigay 13). His reign lasted one hundred and twenty-six years. It has been surmised, therefore, that the myths and legends surrounding Gilgamesh were kept alive through oral tradition until 2400 BCE when they were transcribed into this epic poem.

The poem itself revolves around the hero Gilgamesh and paints his adventures in "legendary and mythological colors," for he is said to have been two-thirds divine and merely one-third mortal (Tigay 4). The epic is mostly studied, however, because it contains "the best preserved and most extensive Babylonian account of the deluge" (Heidel 1). The reference to Lilith contained in the Epic of Gilgamesh is actually not contained in the epic itself at all. Rather, the reference to Lilith appears in a Sumerian tale entitled "Gilgamesh and the Huluppu Tree," which contains the key to understanding the twelfth tablet of the Gilgamesh epic, the first twelve lines of which are almost completely broken away. Without the explanation offered by the "Huluppu Tree" tale, the story contained in the twelfth tablet does not make sense, and so many scholars have chosen to include the "Huluppu Tree" tale in the epic, footnoting to indicate its unique origin.

This text, dating approximately 2000 BCE begins with the words "once upon a time," revealing both the oral tradition associated with the tale and the basis for the modern assumption that the tale was "undoubtedly a copy of much earlier material" (Kramer 1944, 33, Pereira 20). The tale itself, as told by Samuel Noah Kramer in Sumerian Mythology, reads:

Once upon a time there was a huluppu-tree, perhaps a willow; it was planted on the banks of the Euphrates; it was nurtured by the waters of the Euphrates. But the South Wind tore at it, root and crown, while the Euphrates flooded it with its waters. Inanna, queen of heaven, walking by, took the tree in her hand and brought it to Erech, the seat of her main sanctuary, and planted it in her holy garden. There she tended it most carefully. For when the tree grew big, she planned to make of its wood a chair for herself and a couch.

Years passed, the tree matured and grew big. But Inanna found herself unable to cut down the tree. For at its base the snake 'who knows no charm' had built its nest. In its crown, the Zu-bird -- a mythological creature which at times wrought mischief -- had placed its young. In the middle Lilith, the maid of desolation, had built her house. And so poor Inanna, the light-hearted and ever-joyful maid, shed bitter tears. And as the dawn broke and her brother, the sun-god Utu, arose from his sleeping chamber, she repeated to him tearfully all that had befallen her huluppu-tree.

Now Gilgamesh, the great Sumerian hero, the forerunner of the Greek Heracles, who lived in Erech, overheard Inanna's weeping complaint and chivalrously came to her rescue. He donned his armor weighing fifty minas -- about fifty pounds -- and with his 'ax of the road,' seven talents and seven minas in weight -- over four hundred pounds -- he slew the snake 'who knows no charm' at the base of the tree. Seeing which, the Zu-Bird fled with his young to the mountain, and Lilith tore down her house and fled to the desolate places which she was accustomed to haunt. The man of Erech who had accompanied Gilgamesh now cut down the tree and presented it to Inanna for her chair and couch. (33,34)

The tale goes on to explain how Inanna rewarded Gilgamesh and how he then lost his rewards into the netherworld, only for Enkidu -- companion of Gilgamesh -- to attempt to rescue them, becoming seized there and unable to ever return to the earth. This portion of the tale, as explained earlier, makes little sense without the Sumerian legend to explain why Inanna bestowed the presents upon Gilgamesh, what they were (which is still not completely clear), and why Inanna had the tree in the first place.

What is interesting about the tale is the very incidental reference to Lilith. Her image is invoked along with the serpent and the bird, both of which (as will be shown) are associated with her in later representations. Similarly, since this tale incorporates aspects of Lilith which are elaborated on in later texts, it serves as documented evidence that these aspects were present in the cultural imagination far before their written arrival. If her story had been written here in full, one could surmise that this was indeed the beginning of the legend. However, the incidental nature of the mention itself seems to rely heavily on the reader having a previous knowledge of Lilith: knowing who she is, what her associations are, and being able to recall other images associated with her. Likewise, the "once upon a time" beginning inks this story to a larger cultural history which was, it seems, up to this point only oral in nature.

It would be beneficial to now acquaint oneself with some of the aspects of this text which will appear again in these "founding" literatures. First, there is the association of Lilith with the snake, usually equated with evil. Second, there is the bird who flees, presumably through flight, something which Lilith will later do also. Third, the tree invokes an image of the Tree of Knowledge, in which Lilith is said to dwell in some later myths. Similarly, this tree is located in Inanna's "holy garden," again harking back to the image of the Garden of Eden. Finally, it is noteworthy that while Lilith and her bestial companions inspire fear in Inanna, they do not have any fear of her. It is Gilgamesh, the great male Sumerian hero, who kills the snake and frightens the other creatures out of the tree and garden.

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