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The Folktale
Stith Thompson

Motif K751.1

Capture by hiding in animal carcass. Animal who comes to eat of carcass caught. Babylonian: Spence 297.

Part Two

The Folktale from Ireland to India

IV – The Folktale in Ancient Literature

2. Babylonian and Assyrian

Historic records from the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates do not go back so far as those from the valley of the Nile, but even so they carry us into the past for a good five thousand years. From the ancient period with its interplay of Accadian, Sumerian, Chaldean, Assyrian, and Babylonian there remain an abundance of cuneiform writings, most of them from the latter part of the period. The texts consist largely of legal documents, business accounts, and religious writings.

It is the latter which interests the student of the folktale, for though we may be reasonably sure that the illiterate masses told and enjoyed stories during all these centuries and long before, these oral tales have left not a trace behind. But it may well be that nevertheless some reflection of this old folklore is to be found in the mythological texts which have come down to us. These stories, obviously written by a priesthood and in a style far removed from that of the story-teller of the folk, contain many motifs familiar to all students of the folktale, and they thus bear witness to the early development of many of these narrative themes.

Most interesting of these old stories is the epic of Gilgamesh, [433] dating in its [p. 277] present form from about 650 B.C., but certainly going back to at least 2000 B.C. This epic contains the adventures of a strong hero (F610) and his friend; the death of the friend and the visit of Gilgamesh to the world of the dead (F81; E481.1) to interview the ghost. This world of the dead is found under the sea (F133) and is guarded by monsters (cf. F152.0.1). The reason for the visit to the otherworld is to learn from the dead the solution of certain riddles (cf. H1292). In the garden of the gods (A151.2) which he finds on the way, the trees bear jewels instead of fruit (F811.2.2). He is carried over into the world of the dead by a boatman (A672.1). In the lower world he obtains possession of a life-giving plant (D1346.5), but a serpent steals it back from him (cf. G303.3.3.15), so that never again will man be able to overcome death (cf. A1335).

In a kind of beast fable from the same early period, the tale of Etana, [434] appear several motifs familiar in folklore all over the world, though there is certainly no necessity to suppose direct influence of this old tale on the folklore of modern Europe. The serpent complains to the sun god that the eagle has descended upon its young and has eaten them. On the advice of the god, the serpent hides in the carcass of an ox (K751.1) so that when the eagle flies down to eat of the carcass, the serpent catches him and breaks his wings. Later, however, when the hero Etana finds that his wife is about to die in childbirth, he frees and heals the eagle so that the great bird can carry him to heaven (B552; F62) where he may secure a marvelous healing plant (D1500.1.4). The eagle carries Etana so high that the earth seems no larger than a cake and the sea looks the size of a breadbasket. Before they reach the throne of Ishtar the eagle falls exhausted to the depth below.

Even more famous than the descent of Gilgamesh to the lower world is the myth of the descent of the goddess Ishtar (F85), but it is a question whether this myth is in any wise based upon an older popular tradition. As the goddess goes to the lower world of the dead she must pass a series of watch men, and each of them demands of her a garment until, on her arrival in the otherworld, she is completely unveiled. Eventually, on her return, she receives back her garments one by one.

In addition to these three important myths, the folklorist is interested in a very old flood legend, parallel in many respects to the story of Noah. It seems to have influenced the Biblical tale, if not actually to be its original. [435] Finally, he will discover that the very famous story of wise Achikar (H561.5) [436] goes back to a papyrus text of about 420 B.C. referring to the minister of the Assyrian king Asarhaddon. This is the tale of the wise counselor who when [p. 278] he is condemned to death successfully hides and then, when the land is in peril, appears and saves it.

[433] For a list of Gilgamesh studies, see Bolte-Polívka, IV, 102, n. 1.

[434] See Johnston, "Assyrian and Babylonian Beast Fables," The American Journal of Semitic Languages, XXVIII (1912), 81-100.

[435] See p. 236, above. For a discussion of the mutual relations of these flood legends, see S. H. Langdon, Semitic Mythology (Boston, 1931), pp. 206-233.

[436] See also J151.1. For a bibliography of the Achikar material, see, in addition to these motif numbers, Bolte-Polívka, IV, 104, n. 2.


A151.2, A672.1, A1335, B552, D1346.5, D1500.1.4, E481.1, F62, F81, F85, F133, F152.0.1, F610, F811.2.2, G303.3.3.15, H561.5, H1292, K751.1