Since the discovery over one hundred years ago of a body of Mesopotamian poetry preserved on clay tablets, what has come to be known as the Epic of Gilgamesh has been considered a masterpiece of ancient literature. It recounts the deeds of a hero-king of ancient Mesopotamia, following him through adventures and encounters with men and gods alike. Yet the central concerns of the Epic lie deeper than the lively and exotic storyline: they revolve around a man's eternal struggle with the limitations of human nature, and encompass the basic human feelings of loneliness, friendship, love, loss, revenge, and the fear of the oblivion of death. These themes are developed in a distinctly Mesopotamian idiom, to be sure, but with a sensitivity and intensity that touch the modern reader across the chasm of three thousand years. This translation presents the Epic to the general reader in a clear narrative.
But what really impressed me about him was that even though he was the biggest, baddest mo-fo on the planet, that didn't preclude him from realizing, “hey, I'm not going to be here forever. One of these days, I'm gonna die. That scares me.” That brought him down to earth, and made him someone I could relate to. And for me, that's what really made it epic.
As an example, the following line appears in the Sumerian poem “The Death of Gilgamesh” (The god Enlil is answering Gilgamesh’s request for eternal life):
“The bane of mankind is thus come, I have told you,
What was fixed when your navel-cord was cut, I have told you.”
A poetic translation might be “You fate was determined when you were born”, but the more literal translation raises a whole bunch of questions: Did the Sumerians attach a special significance to cutting the umbilical cord? Were you perhaps not considered “born” until the cord was cut? Was there a certain fashion or time to cut the cord that could alter Fate? Or is it just what it appears to be – a poetic way of saying “When you were born”?
The supplemental material is very beneficial; for example, for all these years I’ve been pronouncing Gilgamesh and Enkidu wrong (GILgahmesh, ENkeydew), but it turns out the accent is on the second syllable and internal syllables have long vowels (gilGAYmesh, enKIdew).
However, there are a few things I’m a little curious about. For example, most other authors say the temple courtesan that seduces Enkidu is never named; “Shamat” is a title; Here “Shamat” is her name (which turns out to mean “well-endowed”). Also, this work doesn’t bother to explain exactly what Shamat was, simply referring to her as a “prostitute”, while her actual status is a priestess of Ishtar who has sex as one of her religious duties. In the Sumerian poem, titled In those days but usually referred to as “Gilgamesh and the Netherworld”, Andrew George describes the objects that have fallen into the Netherworld as a “ball and mallet” while other authors call them a “drum and drumstick” or simply admit they have no clue what they are and refer to them by the original Sumerian names. (“Ball and mallet” is based on other evidence that Gilgamesh enjoyed a Sumerian game which seems to have been a sort of full-body-contact croquet. In fact, some authors have suggested that the start of the epic, where the young men and women of Uruk complain to the gods that Gilgamesh is wearing them out with sexual demands, actually refers (at least as far as the young men are concerned) to Gilgamesh forcing them to play Sumerian croquet until they drop from exhaustion).
A plus is an appendix with a description of what’s involved in translation. In the original Akkadian:
in-di it-ta-di a-na ti-ik-ki den-ki-dù
NIN.DINGIR.RAmeš il-qa-a li-qu-tu
ù DUMU.MUNUS.DINGIRmeš ú-rab-ba-a tar-bu-ta
a-na-ku den-ki-dù a-na ah-hu-ti dgiš-gím-maš li-dam-me-eq-šu
The way this works is the stuff in capitals is Sumerian ideograms; something like modern Japanese occasionally uses Chinese characters, Akkadian uses Sumerian for some words. The superscripts (don’t know if this UBB code works here) are determinatives that are not actually pronounced.
What’s done next is the Sumerian is translated into Akkadian and Akkadian syllables are combined into words:
Indī ittadi ana tikki Enkīdu
ugbakkāti ilqâ liqûtu
u mārāt-ilī urabbâ tarbûta
anāku Enkīdu sha arammu elqâ ana mārutū
Enkīdu ana ahhūti Gilgāmesh lidammeqshu
(You know, reading that sounds a little like the Black Speech of Mordor.)
And finally Akkadian to English:
She placed the symbols on Enkidu’s neck.
The priestesses took in the foundling,
And the Divine Daughters brought up the foster-child
Enkidu, whom I love, I take for my son,
Enkidu in brotherhood, Gilgamesh shall favor him!
Fortunately, we don’t get the entire text this way.
Recommended for anyone interested; I would certainly read another, more “poetic” version if possible but if you can only read one this is the choice.
Gilgamesh is a king of Uruk (historically, fifth in line after the Great Flood, which the poem mentions). He lives a self-absorbed life, driving his people harshly or neglecting them, using the women, building the walls, but mostly just being idle. He awakens from this life when he meets Enkidu, a man from the wild who has been tamed by a prostitute. Enkidu and Gilgamesh become friends in the most inseparable sense, equals in all.
When Gilgamash is possessed by a desire to destroy the brutish god Humbaba, Enkidu is seized with fear. He knows from his time in the forest of Humbaba's dark power, and pleads with his friend not to go. But Gilgamesh is resolved, and Enkidu accompanies him. Enkidu is killed, and Gilgamesh finally discovers what human sorrow is. Spent with grief, he embarks on a winding quest to bring his friend back to life. What will be the end?
I love the prayer of Ninsun, Gilgamesh's mother who was a minor goddess. She says to the god Shamash,
...Why did you give my son
A restless heart, and now you touch him
With this passion to destroy Humbaba,
And you send him on a journey to a battle
He may never understand, to a door
He cannot open. You inspire him to end
The evil of the world which you abhor
And yet he is a man for all his power
And cannot do your work. You must protect
My son from danger. (33)
It captures the futility of humanity in our quest for transcendence, our spiritual discontent which we cannot remedy. All our good deeds come to nothing, and the last appeal is always to the deity. Striking also to me was the monotheism of Utnapishtim, the wise man Gilgamesh seeks out to save his friend. Mason hints in the afterword that this expression of monotheism may cause some controversy among scholars... interesting.
Casual readers like me always wonder, when we pick up a work like this of which there are so many versions and translations, if we have chosen The Right One. If we have maximized our reading experience, if we have latched on to something of which those who know would approve. I have to let worries like this go and simply enjoy the book, whichever version it is, that has fallen to me. I don't know what other translations are like, but I found this one intensely human and accessible.
Strangely powerful, from across thousands of years Gilgamesh draws us into its story and remains with us. It is, of course, the universality of loss, the desperation of sorrow, and the long road home of acceptance that make Gilgamesh's journey ours. Recommended.
I read this work immediately following The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh, by David Damrosch, which not only narrates the discovery and first efforts at translation of this epic poem of ancient Mesopotamia but sets a historical context for the story itself. The background reading enlarged and enriched my appreciation of the epic, as well as being an absorbing history in its own right.
The verse occupies only about one-third of the pages of this book. The rest consists of detailed scholarly explication and notes on the translation, including extensive reference to other sources and painstaking elaboration on the language and the process of decoding the cuneiform script. If I were not so fascinated by language as both an art and a medium, I might have found many parts of this book borderline unreadable, but as it was they held my attention fast.
The story itself concerns the adventures of King Gilgamesh of Uruk (in what is now Iraq), who sets out first to make a name for himself as a hero and then to learn the secret of immortality. The gods have fashioned as his counterpart a primal man called Enkidu. While Gilgamesh has enjoyed--and at times abused--all the power and privileges of the ruler of a great city, Enkidu has grown up in the wilderness among the animals and never known civilization or the touch of a woman. Enkidu is a kind of Doppelgänger who comes to be the bosom companion of Gilgamesh. Together they take on the conquering of a monster named Humbaba and then slay a divinely created beast called the Bull of Heaven.
The death of Enkidu causes Gilgamesh great mourning and also dread of his own future death. He goes in search of Utnapishtim, the only man to survive the Great Flood, to learn how he too can defeat mortality. From this Noah-figure, he learns secrets, but not the one he wants to hear.
The themes pertaining to the interactions of gods and humans and the motifs related to love, heroism, loss, submission to the gods and defiance of them, life, death, and much more recall similar strains in the Homeric tales and the Hebrew Bible. I read portions of Genesis alongside the Flood story in Gilgamesh just for the sake of comparison. An interesting note is that the Flood of Gilgamesh's story is not conceived as punishment for anything but is simply the will of a god who acts without consulting his fellow members of the pantheon; they later reprimand him for his misuse of power.
To me a great part of the wonder of it is how the words of a poet of some three or four thousand years ago, retelling legends that were already ancient in his own time, still have the power to hold, to move, and to enlighten the reader of today. It's hard to think of history of any kind--the history of so-called fact or the history of myth and lore--in the same way after dwelling for a time within the edifice of its own words.
Gilgamesh himself is a great king who is so powerful he can test the gods. Gilgamesh dominates his society to such an extent that he claims first right to every new bride in his city. Partly as punishment, the gods create a rival from the wilds to challenge him. The rival, Enkidu, is designed to be as strong as Gilgamesh but Gilgamesh defeats him.
Reading the tale as it unfolds with a modern eye would identify two main themes - the intense bond between two powerful men and the futility of the eternal search to conquery mortality. The former of these two themes may or may not have been intended by the original crafters of the legend but there is no doubt that Gilgamesh's love for Enkidu is a powerful motivation for his later actions. Gilgamesh is not a round or deep character and he displays few graduations of action but his love for Enkidu and his own fear of death are his most notable features.
As with many ancient epics, it is between the lines where most fascination lies. The allusions to events and legends that stretch back thousands of years is what excites about the Epic of Gilgamesh. The references to older narratives that would have been familiar to listeners at the time but now are harder to understand are tantalising glimpses into a world order long gone. The tale of the flood which is an historical event that also features in the Old Testament is a powerful reminder that these stories are rarely just the imaginings of talented bards but are often the closest to a record of the times they and their predecessors knew.
However, it must be said that the Epic of Gilgamesh is not much of a story. Apparently the versions with greater depth of explanation of character and place as side notes by modern authors are more interesting but the core narrative as described in the Penguin Epics version is not particularly interesting. Gilgamesh engages in a couple of adventures, mostly with his sidekick Enkidu, and defeats legendary opponents mostly through sheer strength. The role of women in Sumerian society is fascinating, the insight into what comprised a hero in those times, and the tales that are alluded to are nice snippets of history but the Epic of Gilgamesh should not be mistaken for a magnificent tale.
I found it amazingly readable, for a 4,000 year old item. The first portion, with it's fun and hi-jinks, slaying of the ogre Humbaba and all that, had me giggling merrily away in Starbucks. Then something terrible happened, but by then I was invested. Funfact not included in this book: According to my mythological dictionary, Humbaba had a beard made of entrails.
The epic itself was a cycle of tales told about a semi-legendary king of Uruk, in the south of ancient Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), who possibly lived in the third milenium BC. They were originally composed in the ancient Sumerian language, and were most famously compiled in the library of the Assyrian kings, which burned to the ground in 612 BC. They have survived because they were not written on paper, but on clay tablets. There they remained until the mid-nineteenth century, when they were first excavated and deciphered. Gilgamesh first gained fame because his story contained an account of a great flood which has parallels with the one in Genesis.
The previous reviewer has expressed some confusion about the latest edition of Gilgamesh, published in 1999 in the Penguin Classics series. This edition attempts to be a scholarly edition of all the extant texts by a Gilgamesh scholar (Prof. Andrew George of the University of London), while also aiming for a general readership. It seems a little unreasonable to persist to the end of this edition and then complain about the incompleteness of it all, as it should be clear from the Contents page what is going on.
On the other hand it is certainly not an edition I would recommend to a novice. Far more serviceable as a readable edition is the previous Penguin Classics edition by N.K. Sandars, first published in 1960. That has a very long introduction, followed by a prose synthesis of the epic as it then stood (new tablets come to light all the time). It has none of the textual apparatus of George’s 1999 edition. While enthusiasts will want the latest Penguin edition, other may want to pursue a second hand copy of Sandars.
What novelist John Gardner and archaeologist John Maier have done instead is take a single version (albeit the most complete one) and translated it as a single text, without reference to other versions (except in footnotes). This is the Sîn-leqi-unninnĩ version, after the Assyrian priest who transcribed it for the library of Asshurbanipal. The main value here is you can see exactly how much is interpolated in other translations; of secondary interest is Gardner’s literary interpretation. Other translations bowdlerize the encounters between Enkidu and the temple courtesan and between Gilgamesh, Enkidu, Ishtar and the Bull of Heaven; Gardner and Maier go for an “Akkadian You Never Learned in School” tactic and are rather more graphic. Since I don’t know a word of Akkadian (well, not quite – “gypsum” is Akkadian) I have no idea whether the text actually justifies this, but I assume Maier wouldn’t allow Gardner to get too fanciful. There’s a long appendix which details translation problems and the approach the authors used.
I wouldn’t get this for your first version of Gilgamesh because the gaps in the text diminish readability but it’s definitely valuable if you’ve already read a more traditional version.
The Epic of Gilgamesh presents one of the earliest recorded tales. It includes the first known example of a written creation story, a flood story, and even a version of the temptation of man by woman and a betrayal by a serpent. The Biblical parallels are so many that it can't be mere coincidence, especially when you learn that the early Semites (who would become the Jewish people) were at one time indoctrinated by Babylonian religion, which copied many of their stories from the Sumerian, including Gilgamesh, already an historical figure turned mythic hero by the time Babylon became a power.
To me though, the most important element of the Gilgamesh epic, is that it's not only the first "on the road" story, but also the first buddy story. Gilgamesh literally has a best friend made for him by the gods, and the two go on amazing adventures together. As a fan of the road movie and the buddy picture, this is something that always stayed with me about Gilgamesh and Enkidu. This brand of buddy adventure has always been around and has always been popular, since the literal beginnings of civilization.
I've read an adaptation of Gilgamesh before but never a scholarly translation that was directly translated from the cuneiform tablets. Andrew George's translation is considered one of the standards and I found it very readable even though there are gaps here and there to represent where the tablets are broken. In a sense, this made the work of translation more apparent and interesting. In fact, there is a whole system in place that emphasizes when and where certainty and speculation are used in the story. Italics and brackets are all over the place, but once you figure out the code, it adds a lot to the reading experience.
In addition to the standard Gilgamesh tablets, there are older Sumerian tablets that are translated and included in this Penguin edition. The Sumerian tablets are older but translated from Sumerian and not Akkadian. They tend to be less standardized, with characters switching names or roles here and there. The notes help sort all this out. The introduction is also very interesting and helps lay some crucial groundwork for placing this story in context to the history of the Babylonian Empire.
If you are like me and love Homer and all the other early epics you will want to familiarize yourself with this most excellent story. Just as interesting is the story of its discovery. Check out The Buried Book by David Damrosch to learn more about that. If you want to learn more about the ancient history of the area in audio format, check out Dan Carlin's podcast "Hardcore History -King of Kings" series.
However, I am not sure about this translation. Since I have not read The Epic of Gilgamesh before I have no idea if this is how the translations are often done but I found the fact that the volume contained the translations of several tablets annoying. I just wanted to read the story. I didn’t really care to compare the Yale tablet with the Pennsylvania tablet. I did appreciate that in the first part they told you when they, due to missing parts switched tablets but I didn’t really need the tablet translations again in the following parts.
What I also didn’t like was the fact that at the start of each tablet they told you what happened. The language in the translations was so accessible that I had no problems following it. I didn’t need the short synopsis at the start of each tablet. It really just ruined the story for me. I feel that this edition is paradoxically an edition for high school students to lazy to read the whole thing and an edition for the scholar who wants an introduction to the different tablets. Personally, as someone who just wanted to read the story, I was not well served by this edition.
So in conclusion: good story, bad book.
It's mostly about men, of course.
Cos we women basically ran about and tempted men to ruin them. Poor Enkidu, once mighty until he slept with a woman.
Regular theme, methinks.
However, it's the first story in the Western tradition, and worth exploring as a view of the world in which we once lived.
I urge you to read the story before the introduction - I didn't and nearly gave up on the book before I got to the actual story. This would have been a mistake. It was worth the reading.
I can't help but think of Tom Harpur's The Pagan Christ when I read it. There are such similarities in creation stories that sometimes I wonder if our brains have a specific synapse devoted to them.
This is one of those books that shows how little humans have changed since we began to record our stories. And it shows bisexuality as an aspect of a heroic life. An amazing book to have on the shelf, and one to return to.
It is a lively story that the 'poet' tells, and the legend of the Flood which is included in it made me think about how the Old Testament has been interpreted by various religions. Even now, more than five thousand years after this was written, man is still seeking immortality just as Gilgamesh did.
Henshaw and Meier had worked on the project for 10 years, lifting the story from the Akkadian cuneiform and comparing other translations of the fragmented Ashurbanipal Library materials.
Gilgamesh is a man searching for meaning, against constant remonstrations that the search is futile. After losing his close friend, Enkidu, to an arbitrary death, he compares and interviews men with alternative possibilities -- a Heraklion "heroic" figure, a Noah-like flood-spared "pious" figure, and an Odesseian "cunning" character. By the end of the quest, Gilgamesh is confronted by the fact that Enkidu will not return, and death cannot be escaped. Even though mankind is saved from extermination in the Flood, he must live in a hostile place-- facing immediate threat from wolf and lion, famine, and plague. Gilgamesh, does, however, cast off his primitive skins and returns to civilization to don the raimants of King. He gives obeisance to his goddess Ishtar.
The Gilgamesh Epic dates back to 2600 B.C. Writing had not developed until 3000 B.C. This is the rich poetry of the first Epic, with subtleties, lullabies, riddles, and a strong story. The religion is dominated by the Queen of Heaven, a consort of Yahweh [23; compare Jeremiah 44:16-19, Revelation 17:3-6]. Gilgamesh is The One Who Saw the Abyss.
The New Lifetime Reading Plan: Number 1
Mesopotamian mythological version of the biblical account the Noah's flood.