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Recently read: The Epic of Gilgamesh

[Originally published at the now defunct group blog explananda.com]

Posted on April 18, 2009
Tags: book_reviews

Andrew George (translator and editor). The Epic of Gilgamesh: A New Translation

About 2800 B.C., long before Moses led the Israelites from Egypt, long before the walls of Homer’s Troy went up*, there lived a man named Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk, a Sumerian city in the South of what is now Iraq. After Gilgamesh died he slipped into legend. A tradition of oral poetry grew up around his life, and then a body of written poetry in both Sumerian and Akkadian. Around 1100 B.C., this tradition of written and oral poetry was brought together into a version of Gilgamesh’s life that is now referred to as the “standard version.”

The standard version of the Gilgamesh epic opens to reveal a restless, unrestrained young Gilgamesh. He is a tyrannical ruler, relishing his seigneurial rights, forcing the young men of Uruk into ceaseless contests for his amusement. What Gilgamesh lacks is a companion, an equal who can advise him and moderate his conduct. Accordingly, the goddess Aruru fashions a man out of clay and sets him down in the wild. The man is Enkidu, and he will be Gilgamesh’s companion, but not until he is tamed and brought in from the wild. This happens after Enkidu is spotted by a hunter, who reports the sighting to Gilgamesh, who has dreamed of Enkidu already. Gilgamesh dispatches a harlot, Shamhat, to civilize Enkidu. She tracks Enkidu down, and:
For six days and seven nights Enkidu was erect, as he coupled with Shamhat


She also removes his hair and teaches him to eat and drink in the human way. The animals who had been his companions now flee at his sight. Enkidu also seems to have acquired a human sense of justice at some point. Although they are destined to become friends, Enkidu first comes to Uruk in anger, when he learns about Gilgamesh’s practice of sleeping with the women of Uruk before their husbands. He challenges Gilgamesh, blocking his path, and the two wrestle. The fight breaks off with Enkidu’s acknowledgement of Gilgamesh’s supremacy, but Gilgamesh emerges from the challenge with deep respect for Enkidu. They become inseparable, just as the Gods planned.

Gilgamesh now has a friend to counsel him, but that doesn’t incline him to take all the advice he’s offered. He wants to take cedars from the forests of Lebanon, which are guarded by the fearsome Humbaba. Enkidu urges him not to do this, then accompanies him anyway when it becomes clear that Gilgamesh cannot be dissuaded. Together the two succeed in slaying Humbaba and removing the cedars. Together they also slay the Bull of Heaven, sent by an angry goddess Ishtar, whom Gilgamesh has scorned.**

These two outrages—the theft of the cedars of Lebanon and the defeat of the Bull of Heaven—provoke the Gods, who decide that one of the two friends must now die. They choose Enkidu, who sickens and then dies.

For six days and seven nights, Gilgamesh refuses to surrender Enkidu’s body for burial, only giving it up when it begins to decompose. His grief propels him from society, and he abandons his responsibilities as a King, wandering in the wild wearing the skins of animals. He is mourning his friend, but he is also frankly and unambiguously disturbed at least as much by the revelation, prompted by Enkidu’s death, of his own mortality:
For his friend Enkidu Gilgamesh did bitterly weep as he wandered the wild: ‘I shall die, and shall I not be as Enkidu? Sorrow has entered my heart.’
Gilgamesh’s lament alternates between these two sources of grief:
How can I keep silent? How can I stay quiet? My friend, whom I loved, has turned to clay, My friend Enkidu, whom I loved, has turned to clay. Shall I not be like him, and also lie down, never to rise again, through all eternity?

Gilgamesh sets out to find Uta-napishti, who has received the gift of immortality by the Gods. After much trouble, he succeeds in finding Uta-napishti, who tells him that death is inescapable. Uta-napishti relates the story of how he survived a deluge sent by the Gods, using an ark which he loaded with animals. (This part of the story has many parallels with the story of Noah and his ark, and is clearly a precursor to it.) Uta-napishti challenges Gilgamesh to go without sleep for six days and seven nights. When Gilgamesh fails at this, he sees that death will be impossible for him to conquer if he is even unable to go without sleep.

Uta-napishti’s parting gift to Gilgamesh is to tell him about a sea plant that will restore him to youth. Although Gilgamesh succeeds in harvesting some of this plant, he leaves it on the side of a lake on his way home, where it is discovered and devoured by a snake. It is lost forever. He returns home, and in spite of his failure, exults in the grandeur of his city’s wall.

There are many translations of the Epic of Gilgamesh. This is partly because such a monumental text in the Western canon is bound to draw scholars wanting to take a crack at it. But it’s also because we’re constantly finding new pieces of the text, and so updating our understanding of it. New discoveries aside, there is also simply the fact that the scholarly issues involved in the reconstruction and translation of the texts are tricky enough to leave room for a wide variety of approaches.

There’s no easy answer regarding how to present such a text to a popular audience. I first encountered the epic when I was about 16 in a different translation (I think it may have been David Ferry’s version, but I don’t have it handy to confirm this), and was surprised later to learn just how much the translator had smoothed over. The text of Gilgamesh, unfortunately, is fragmentary and broken in many places. Even well-preserved tablets have rough patches where words need to be conjectured or filled in using the many clues left by the text’s frequent repetition of clusters of lines. Behind the standard edition too, as I mentioned above, stands a long, equally fragmentary textual tradition in several languages that, however imperfect, allows us to supplement the gaps in the standard edition.

Andrew George’s edition of the epic strikes a very nice balance between giving the non-specialist an accessible and readable story and allowing her to appreciate the actual scholarly foundation on which the translation rests. This is accomplished in a variety of ways: Gaps in the standard version are filled in using supplementary evidence so that the reader can follow as smooth a narrative as possible, but the supplements are also clearly marked so that the reader isn’t misled about the nature of the evidence. Conjectures and reconstructions are also clearly but unobtrusively marked (as they are not in the quotations above), with the difference between firm and uncertain conjectures also indicated. A helpful appendix, “From Tablet to Translation,” aims to give the reader a sense of the various challenges involved in putting together the edition. And finally, the edition includes a number of other fragments (not nearly as gripping as the standard edition, but interesting nonetheless) about Gilgamesh, including much older Sumerian and Babylonian texts, to round out the evidence. Although I’m obviously not in a position to say anything about the quality of the scholarship, I can say that George’s presentation of the epic appeals to my own taste much more than a version that conceals too many difficulties from the reader in an attempt to be accessible.

Even if the actual story of Gilgamesh were boring, it would be an object of real interest simply on account of its great antiquity. But, as it happens, it isn’t boring at all. The outline I’ve given above is only a lean summary of the 100 pages it takes to set out the standard version in my edition of the text, and so omits many of the twists and turns in the tale, as well as most of its rough poetry. For all the talk of Gods and monsters, at its core the story is about a man who loses a friend and, for a time, simply can’t deal—either with the original loss, or with its implications for himself—and who then, after a long struggle, learns to accept, and to take pleasure in this world again. It may be among the oldest stories, but in this respect it could have happened yesterday.

** Gilgamesh points out that Ishtar’s previous lovers have not ended up having a good time. Unfortunately, refusing Ishtar’s advances hardly improved your chances of survival either. After Ishtar approached one Ishallanu with what I assume is a standard pickup line for a Goddess—“let us taste your vigour: Put out your ‘hand’ and stroke my quim***!“—and he turned her down, she turned him into a dwarf.

*** Such are the perils of a British translator.


Author: upyernoz
Date: 2009-04-19

i like the footnote on the footnote.

Author: Anne
Date: 2009-04-21

This is a great review, thank you. I want to read it now.