Monday, May 26, 2008

Read Gilgamesh

I finished reading Herbert Mason's 1972 version of Gilgamesh and thought it not just the very best epic poem I've ever read but one of the best pieces of literature I've read in a long long time--and the poem is 6000 years old from Iraq and is the origins of world literature! It is about great friendship of the tyrant Gilgamesh and Enkidu, the death of the best friend Enkidu, Gilgamesh's search for immortality, and the taming of the tyrant Gilgamesh.

Mason's version was about 77 pp all in modern English--no archaic language at all. Then I got fascinated by Gilgamesh to get Stephen Mitchell's new version also in modern English published in 2004--Mitchell's version is a little longer, with material that wasn't in Mason--137 pp. Mitchell's long introduction is fine. I would recommend both versions, and both are in the Los Angeles Public Library. Oh, the earliest Gilgamesh texts are found on clay tables from 2100 bce, but around 1200 a poet-scholar priest named Sin-leqi-unninni in Babylon revised the old stories into what's is now called the Standard Version, and scholars use this version for their translations.

So why is Gilgamesh wonderful? The poem is the beginning of both Arabic and Western literature. The poet pulls us back into an ancient world where the Gilgamesh poet deals with totally modern topics: how to how to be civilized, how to live in cities, how not to be a tyrant ruler. The poem gives us a startling view into ancient Iraq which knew all about tyrants ruling the city as Gilgamesh in the poem's beginning is a tyrant:

The city is his possession, he struts
through it, arrogant, his head raised high,
trampling its citizens like a wild bull.

The epic is non-macho and non-Puritanical with great erotic poetry. Since the people of Uruk are suffering under Gilgamesh's tyranny, they pray to the Gods who fashion a second hero Enkidu to balance Gilgamesh and to give the city peace, so this poem is about taming the tyrant. In the beginning Enkidu is the wild man of the forest living with his animal friends the gazelle, antelope and deer. He's naked with hair covering his body. He's a Mesopotamian eco-warrior, freeing his animal friends from the human hunter's traps, but he's causing the hunter ruin--this poem is on the side of humans, on the side of the city. The hunter goes to Uruk, asks Gilgamesh for help, who tells him to go to the Temple of Ishtar, the love goddess (like Venus), and ask for help of the priestess Shamhat. He does so.

Shamhat in her way is the heroine. She lies naked near Eniku, using her love arts in great erotic poetry to seduce him and teach him about love and women. She teaches him human language, cuts his hair, gives him human clothing, leads him to a shepherd's hut where he eats human food for the first time, eating bread and drinking beer. There she cuts his hair and when "he rubbed/sweet oil into his skin, and became/fully human." the part-animal Enkidu becomes fully human. For the Gilgamesh poet, eroticism is part of being human.

In other epics the hero goes off to battle dragons or conquer cities; yes, Gilgamesh and his best friend Enkidu do have great adventures where they vanquish Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven--the adventures passages are gripping, taking us into mysterious worlds. But this is not just a terrific adventure story because Gilgamesh is a tyrant forcing the adventure for the wrong reasons--because he wants to gain fame and because he thinks the young men of his city are Uruk are too soft. Gilgamesh manipulates the elders of Uruk into agreeing with the will--his actions calling up memories of all tyrants leading their cities into adventures and wars that end in ruin.

For the heroes winning battles only brings disaster. When Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill the Humbaba who is the guardian spirit of the Cedar Forest, they do wrong because they kill the spirit appointed by the Gods to guard the Cedar Forest. Humbaba did not harm them but they invaded his territory. Like good imperialists everywhere, the two chopped down the huge trees of the Cedar Forest to bring home the cedar trees as booty. Back in Uruk the goddess Ishtar falls in love of Gilgamesh. She tries to seduce him with promises of all the blessings she will bring him, but now Gilgamesh is so arrogant he rejects, scorns and insults Ishtar, listing how she injured all her other lovers.

Ishtar goes screaming to her father God Anu, gets him to put the Bull of Heaven on earth in punishment for Gilgamesh.Two hundred warriors die fighting the Bull until Enkidu kills it. As punishment the Gods have Enkidu die from illness, leaving Gilgamesh heartbroken. He tears out his hair, destroying his royal robes, going from the city "into the wilderness/with matted hair, in lion skin." Gilgamesh's adventures have left him lost alone with the most terrible loss. Now that Iraq war has gone on for five years losses are mounting, and this poem is about losing one's closest friend--Gilgamesh's laments after loss of his best friend are of stunning beauty. Gilgamesh gets not fame not glory from his adventures but utmost ruin for him.

Gilgamesh's loss of Enkidu is just the beginning of his learning how not to be arrogant but to be human. He roams the wilderness looking for Utnapishtim, who survived the flood and is immortal so he can bring Enkidu back from the dead. In his travels he meets the woman tavern keeper Shiduri who tells him he will never find eternal life: "Humans are born, they live, then they die; that is the word that the gods have decreed." Gilgamesh can't hear her. He rejects her good advice to enjoy such human pleasures as savoring food, having music and dance fill his house, loving his child and his wife--"that is the best way for a man to live." The women in these poems always give good advice about being human.

Gilgamesh does make it across the Waters of Death to met Utnapishtim, who tells him how the Gods enabled him to survive the flood. Gilgamesh never learns any secret of eternal life, returning empty handed to Uruk. But as he looked at Uruk, he no longer mourns his lost friend, but stands in awe of the great city and in awe of the great works human hands have done. He walks on the great walls of Uruk:

observed the land it enclosed: the palm trees, the gardens,
the orchards, the glorious palaces and temples, the shops
and marketplaces, the houses, the public squares.

Gilgamesh is now content with his great city, accepting his human lot to be a responsible ruler there, and now fully human. The poem introduces us to the arts of civilization in ancient Sumer which was the world's first civilization. The poem shows how macho men are humanized, a concept that is totally relevant today. We still need to go to Gilgamesh, to ancient Sumer, to learn the arts of civilization.


Lyle Daggett said...

Hi, Julia --
Enjoyed your post here about Gilgamesh.

Not sure how far you want to keep following this, but wanted to pass along that the translation I've liked best is by Stephanie Dalley, included in her book Myths from Mesopotamia published in 1998 by Oxford University Press. The book is still listed available in the UOP website (at the link above).

What I like about Dalley's translation is that it evokes the cadence and power of the English of many of the "prophetic" books of the Old Testament. In her translation the epic feels, to my ear, ancient and alive.

The above book also includes Dalley's translations of several other ancient narrative poems from the Mesopotamia region.

Thanks for posting this.

G. M. Palmer said...


Nice to see you over at Strong Verse. I love Gilgamesh. Back when I was teaching, I used to tell the story to my students. Everything about it is gripping and wonderful.

Are your four books available? Who were they published through?

Nice to emeet you,

California Writer said...

G. M. Palmer,

Good to see you on California Writer. My first, third, and fourth books were published by West End Press while book #2, Desert Soldiers, was published by California Classics. All four books are available on Also, University of New Mexico Press distributes West End Press, so books #3 Shulamith and #4 Walker Woman are also available from University of New Mexico.

Actually, I like Gilgamesh better than Beowulf or the Iliad. keep up the good work supporting narrative verse