Birds evoke a myriad of meanings in the The Epic of Gilgameš. The winged creatures convey abundance and rejoicing, enhance the soundscape of the narrative, and foretell the events of the story. In the article “Soundscapes, Portentous Calls, and Bird Symbolism in the The Epic of Gilgameš» published in the Journal of Near Eastern StudiesAdam E. Miglio uses intertextual analysis to examine the avian literary motif of the epic poem.

Miglio focuses primarily on bird images found in Standard Babylonian The Epic of Gilgameš.

To better understand the symbolism of a variety of birds in the ancient Mesopotamian epic, Miglio consults texts from the first millennium, including lexical lists, bird-call texts, and omen literature. The scholarly texts offer insight into the cultural connotations of a bird’s appearance as well as the sound of its call.

Bird call texts delineate the birds’ relationships with deities and assign a specific sound to each bird. These cuneiform tablets, in fact, reveal that bird calls were often linked to familiar Akkadian phrases.

The article begins with an analysis of Tablet V, detailing the animated sights and sounds of the cedar forest of Ḫumbaba. Capturing distinct bird calls in this sacred space, Miglio emphasizes the importance of the stork (raqraqqu) and the chukar (tarlugallu) calls out, explaining how the two sounds are literary devices that elicit a sense of foreboding. Their calls, in addition to their respective mythological relationships, foreshadow Gilgameš and Enkidu’s transgressions against the gods when they kill Ḫumbaba and cause destruction in the forest.

As the epic progresses, the use of bird imagery carries darker overtones. In both tablets V and VII, a recurring link appears between birds and cases of violence. Drawing on the collection of omens, Miglio cites Enkidu’s invocation of the owl’s call (tukku) as evidence of this relationship. Owls – given their perception of nocturnal loners residing on the outskirts of nature – were seen as harbingers of misfortune. Enkidu uttering the owl cry before entering the forest, Miglio argues, symbolically establishes the couple’s status as intruders. The owl, its cry and the harmful connotations that accompany it reappear in tablet VII. Enkidu refers to an owl in a curse. This deathbed curse, in turn, is interrupted by the cry of an owl, serving as an omen that Enkidu will soon journey to the Underworld. The connection between birds and death persists beyond the mortal realm. In the gloomy underworld, the inhabitants encounter a sinister figure that partly resembles an eagle, and the deceased “are dressed like birds with garments of feathers”.

Referencing George’s earlier work, Miglio also claims that the omen literature and bird-call texts provide insight into the symbolism behind the Ūta-napišti recognition birds during the Flood in Tablet IX. Explorations by three distinct birds, first a dove (summu), then a swallow (sinuntu), and finally a crow (aribu)—represent the stages of the flood and offer explanations of the behavior of each bird.

Considering the similarities in the perceptions of birds across texts and The Epic of GilgamešThrough its many iterations, the analysis invites questions about the relationships between these sources and the extent to which one work may have influenced another. Further investigation, suggests Miglio, could strengthen our conceptualization of the history and intertextuality of these literary works.

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