Sumerian / Assyrian traditional
standard Akkadian version attributed to Sin-leqe-unnini, probably ~1200 BC.
Myths From Mesopotamia, edited and translated with an Introduction and Notes by Stephanie Dalley, revised edition (Oxford, 2000)
Gilgamesh: A New Rendering in English Verse, by David Ferry (FSG, 1992)
The Epic of Gilgamesh, an English version with an introduction by N.K. Sandars (Penguin, 1964 ed.)
Bohuslav Martinů: Gilgames [The Epic of Gilgamesh] (1954-5) (as recorded by the BBC Symphony Orchestra & Chorus under Jirí Belohlávek, 1995. BBC Music vol. IV no. 11, 1996)
So the first thing I did upon solidifying this plan – the inspiration happened in August but I didn’t really move on it until September – was go to Foyle’s, one of the biggest bookstores in London, which happened to be just a few blocks from where I was working at the time, and look for a copy of Gilgamesh. At the time I didn’t yet know that Harold Bloom’s list had more info on it than what can be seen here, so I figured the choice of translation was up to me. There were heaps of Oxford paperbacks on the front tables at Foyle’s – 3 for 2, as you can see above – and right there was “Myths From Mesopotamia,” featuring the Epic of Gilgamesh. I flipped through and the treatment seemed scholarly but unobtrusive. On the back it said “Revised Edition” and also “So much has been discovered in recent years both by way of new tablets and points of grammar and lexicography that these translations by Stephanie Dalley supersede all previous versions.” This edition first published in 2000. Okay, so I bought it.
The images above, by the way, link to full-size scans of the copies I read. PRETTY AWESOME.
Beth and I read Gilgamesh aloud over a couple weeks. The work in its most complete form was written on twelve tablets, and those divisions are maintained in most versions. We did a tablet at a time. Many of them feel like meaningful chapter divisions; a few don’t.
Gilgamesh – or The Epic of Gilgamesh (it’s certainly episodic but it’s not nearly as long or involved as “epic” usually implies) – or, as the ancient librarians called it, “Of him who found out all things,” which is the first line – gets press as “the oldest literary text” and then dated to “almost 5000 years ago,” which is misleading. Gilgamesh may have been a real historical figure – he’s recorded as such, anyway, elsewhere – and whoever he was, he may have lived around 2800 BC. So that’s almost 5000 years ago. But the not-very-historical-King-Arthur-ish stories about him that constitute The Epic of Gilgamesh first appear in writing around 2100 BC. That is, many centuries later. And those are just disconnected stories in Sumerian – earlier versions of a few of the episodes in the epic. Then a few hundred years later, after political shifting, they appear in a somewhat unified form as the “Old Babylonian” version of the epic, now in Akkadian. But the long version, with significant additional material, in particular the Noah’s ark story for which the rest of the epic becomes a frame, comes to us from yet a thousand years later. A thousand! It was collected and archived by one of the very last kings of Assyria, who had an antiquarian bent and was trying to do honor to the ancient culture of his country. This version, the longest, most unified, most “literary” version, is attributed to a named author: Sin-leqe-unnini – someone who had probably lived 600 years earlier. Sort of a Homer to this Odyssey. But my point is, this story and its “author” were as remote as Homer seems now, to the Assyrians who wrote it down for us. And the age of Gilgamesh himself was unimaginably primitive to the people for whom this tale was a classic.
This is to say that there is an important cultural distinction to be made between the context of The Once and Future King (1958) and of the hypothetical historical King Arthur himself (~500 AD). Except for Gilgamesh it’s on an even grander scale.
I tried to keep all that in mind as we read. It seemed relevant for the same reason that it seems relevant to understanding the movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) that the society that made it and enjoyed it was not actually living in castles and thatched roof cottages. The reason is the same: this isn’t one of those situations where we need to try to see past the period-ness of the text. Ancient and mysterious is part of the point. Moreso here than with the bible, even, I think, because so far as I know there were no ritual or religious reasons for this story to be kept around. It seems to have been deemed important mainly because it was good. It notably does not include any “begats” – no genealogies or elaborate invocations or anything else that purports to be important in a way that transcends the story itself. It is appealingly earthy and unpretentious.
Gilgamesh is a young hotshot king of Uruk. He’s two-thirds god, one-third man, which is an interesting breakdown. He’s a little larger than life and he lives life a little too large for the people of Uruk, sleeping with every bride and overworking the military men. The people pray that a proper match for his energies come and carry off some of the burden of dealing with this guy, so the gods create Enkidu, his perfect companion, who enters the world in a state of complete nature, hairy, naked, living like a gazelle in the wild. A plot is hatched to civilize the wild man by sending out one of the temple prostitutes (temples were different back then) into the wild to tempt him. He lies with her, as they say, for a long time, and when he gets up the gazelles flee from him – he’s gained the knowledge of the civilized world. He learns how to drink from a glass and things like that and then goes to the city to confront Gilgamesh. They have a big superhero fight and become best friends.
That’s the first section of the story, at least the way it breaks down in my head, and maybe my favorite part. There’s something very touching to me about Enkidu’s state of innocence being as a gazelle, and that he is civilized by sex with a woman from the city who has come to teach him, and then his friends the gazelles run away, and then he has to learn to deal with a knife and fork – this is much more resonant and interesting, not to mention warm, than the comparatively frowny, nervous story about the snake and the apple, which covers the same mythic territory and for all we know may be obliquely descended from this story. There’s also something sweet about the idea that Gilgamesh is only a tyrant because he has not been properly matched with companions and goals big enough for him; that the people cry out to the gods not to kill their terrible king but to make a best friend for him.
I tried for a while to think of what contemporary story is like Gilgamesh but nothing quite fits the bill. The idea that ran through my head while I was reading it, though, is that the oldest story in literature is sort of a buddy movie. But it gets more complicated than that.
Gilgamesh then announces his desire to achieve fame by taking on great tasks, and sets out with Enkidu to the great cedar forest that is guarded by the terrible monster Humbaba. They eventually succeed at bringing down Humbaba, who begs for mercy in the end. Enkidu warns Gilgamesh not to fall for it and they kill him. They chop down a bunch of cedars and use them to build a gate for Uruk. When they return to Uruk, the goddess Ishtar notices how hot and famous Gilgamesh is and invites him to be her lover, but he says no, that she’s spiteful and selfish. This angers her so much that she releases the Bull of Heaven, which storms around Uruk until Gilgamesh and Enkidu bring it down, thus achieving more fame.
The last section is the most important and gives the story its literary weight. One day Enkidu has a dream that the gods have decided the two need to be punished for their overreaching and have decided Enkidu must die. Gilgamesh tries to comfort him by doing honor to him and reassuring him about his achievements, but Enkidu is more than a little bitter – death is unfair. Then he dies. Gilgamesh is shaken and goes out wandering the countryside in grief, obsessed by the idea that he too is going to die some day. There is one ancient wise man who was granted eternal life by the gods – Gilgamesh goes on a long, increasingly mystical journey to the end of the world, where the wise man lives, to find out what he knows. When he finally gets there, there is a series of “punchlines,” each of which has a shaggy-dog quality. First off, the wise man tells him that there’s no way to live forever, and that he should just be happy that he’s lucky enough to be Gilgamesh. Then he tells Gilgamesh that he himself is only immortal because… and then he tells the story of Noah’s ark, from the point of view of Noah. At the end the gods make him immortal. Then he tells Gilgamesh that if he really wants to be immortal, he first has to stay awake for six days, at which Gilgamesh prompty falls asleep for six days. Then, as Gilgamesh is leaving, the wise man says, okay, I’ll let you in on a secret: there’s a plant at the bottom of the river that will keep you young forever. Gilgamesh swims down, pulls it up, and sets out for home, but at the first rest stop, a snake swims up and steals the plant from him while he’s bathing. This turns out to be why snakes can shed their skins. Gilgamesh returns home empty-handed and the story ends as it began, with some words in praise of how well-built and impressive Uruk is.
So, ultimately, this is a story about confronting the fear, and the inevitability, of death. The more you think about it, the more it seems appropriate that this is our oldest story. In fact, I was struck by how rare it is to come across a treatment of death that seems so accessible and real, in literature. Somewhere in European history, the idea of death got caught up with all sorts of other ideals, and now, in most fiction, death carries some romantic baggage that has nothing to do with the way I fear my own death in real life, or the deaths of people I am close to. On the cover of the New York Times Book Review a few weeks ago, in the review of Cormac McCarthy’s unbearably grim-sounding new book, the reviewer says that McCarthy, quote, “has said that death is the major issue in the world and that writers who don’t address it are not serious.” I thought of Gilgamesh. Death in Gilgamesh is something recognizable. Gilgamesh goes on a quest to save himself from it that has a big shrug at the end of it. I recognize that from black humor, but this isn’t humor and it also isn’t black. The deadpan ending, extolling the high-quality bricks of Uruk, is not a slap in the face. It’s just not reassurance either; or, rather, it’s reassurance in terms of everything we can be reassured about, which is life, not death.
Gilgamesh’s grief for Enkidu is simple and believable. It’s very affecting that the fairy-tale constructions (everyone tends to say things three or more times) are here put in the service of a basic emotion that for whatever reason isn’t a big one in the European tradition – fear of death. Gilgamesh says that he saw a worm fall from the dead Enkidu’s nose, and, more or less, that it really freaked him out. He tells this to everyone he meets.
The more I write it here, the more it’s starting to bother me. Why has fear of death been so marginalized and degraded? Talk of “cowardice” and “immortal souls” and whatnot have usurped our commiserating about something that is the thing for humans to commiserate over. Gilgamesh offers that and it offers it in a very unassuming, accessible way.
In general, this was an interesting read because it offered access to the mindset of an alternate, to-me-unknown culture, the attitudes of which seemed to me immediately interesting and applicable, in the way that some people are innately drawn to “Eastern thought” or whatever. This Sumerian worldview – though, let me be clear, intensely foreign and peculiar – made more immediate human sense to me than the ancient Chinese worldview or the ancient Egyptian worldview, etc. Insofar as I’ve been exposed to those.
Another interesting thing about reading something this old and this foreign is that the degrading effect of all that time is unavoidably relevant to the task: it’s full of holes and question marks. “Gap of about 40 lines” is an extremely mysterious and evocative thing to encounter in a story you’re reading. You get good at guessing what goes in the gaps that only affect half of a line, and then you start to know what’s going on even when several sentences are missing. And then you get to one of the really big gaps and you have to concede defeat to the chipping of clay over thousands of years, which is bigger than any of us. A bit like death.
So. We finished that and returned to the US, and then I found out that Harold Bloom actually specifies that he recommends the version of Gilgamesh translated by David Ferry. So I went to the New York Public Library and got out a copy of it. Second image in there. This I read over a weekend trip to the Jersey shore. I don’t recommend it. To me it’s a case against Harold Bloom, in fact. David Ferry’s version is not a translation of the Akkadian – he doesn’t read Akkadian. He made a version based on prior word-for-word translations, with heavy poetic license. In heroic couplets. Why, you might ask, is it in heroic couplets? Because for some people, iambic pentameter is a necessary adjunct to seriousness. Why such people would want to read anything from ancient Sumer is not clear to me. The philosophy behind turning Gilgamesh into something that feels European and familiar goes entirely against the grain of everything I enjoyed in reading the story in the first place. Whatever survives of its peculiar attitude and peculiar origins have been transmogrified, here, into some kind of intentional (and thus condescending) primitivism. Furthermore, I just don’t feel like Ferry got it. There’s a big chunk of stone on the cover (condescending primitivism?) but on every level the actual text has been made more elaborate, more involved. 50% of the content has been put in the work’s mouth, as it were, by someone who thinks he’s walking in step with it but is actually riding in his own anachronistic horse and buggy. Surely Harold Bloom wanted us to read Gilgamesh and not the minor contemporary poet David Ferry. I don’t think he knew what he was talking about. Maybe he had political reasons for putting Ferry’s name in there. Or, more likely and more dismaying, maybe he’s one of these people who gets a kick out of iambic pentameter no matter what the occasion because it reminds him of Great Things like Shakespeare, with all the curlicues that that entails.
It may be worth noting that the Stephen Mitchell Gilgamesh, published in 2004 (Bloom’s Canon is from 1994) has praise from Bloom on the back cover calling it “certainly the best that I have seen in English.” So perhaps we can take that to be a revised recommendation. I haven’t read the Mitchell version but it looks fairly tasteful.
Then I was walking near a flea market here in Brooklyn and on the first table I passed there was a copy of the old Penguin edition of Gilgamesh as rendered in prose by N.K. Sandars. Third image there. I think I got it for $2. This one is still in print, with a slightly different cover and several further stages of revision, but I got a 1964 copy. I can endorse it as having a very good (and very long) introduction, offering a lot of context, and having been done intelligently. As The Times Literary Supplement is quoted on the back cover: “The work of synthesis has been accomplished, and with a remarkable degree of tact and imagination.” Exactly. This version fills gaps and makes guesses, but they’re smart guesses. We can tell that Sandars gets the big picture, so we’re willing to trust her choices. But I wouldn’t recommend this as a first read. Knowing where the gaps are and that they exist is part of what makes it acceptable to read the version where they’ve been spackled up.
Honestly, if I had to recommend a version, I’d recommend the other Penguin edition, translated by Andrew George. This one’s the most widespread these days anyway. I haven’t read it all the way through, but I’ve spent some time with it, and George’s notes are the most helpful of any of the versions I’ve found, his presentation the most inviting, and most importantly, his translation the clearest of the “faithful” translations. He also includes all the major alternate/earlier versions of the stories. Dalley’s version is actually very similar in approach and has the benefit of including several other interesting Myths from Mesopotamia, but phrase for phrase, George’s reads just a tad smoother.
This whole issue of how to deal with such an alien, broken-up text started to interest me in itself, so I’ve been collecting the same excerpt from all the versions I could find. The next post will be all of those in a row. I think it makes clear why the Ferry version is not the one to read. Let me know if you’ve got a version I should add. That post will also include links to online versions of Gilgamesh if anyone’s read this far and maintained enough interest to want to read it.
Finally, when I was at the Brooklyn Library getting out the next book in this project (10 billion points if anyone guesses it correctly! 10 billion) I saw that they had a recording of Bohuslav Martinů’s 1955 oratorio of Gilgamesh, so I got that out too. The last image up there. It’s terrific! Really. I only knew Martinů’s můsic from one quirky piano work – which I always really liked – and Gilgamesh shows a much broader expressive range. Composers responding to literary works tend to exaggerate and simplify, but I found this extremely sensitive and intelligent, retaining both the humanity and the strangeness of the text. It also is interesting in that it uses a lot of tropes from movie music in a much more engaging, satisfying way. Martinů eliminates much of the story (no quest for fame) and replaces the wise man with an invented segue to the story of the 12th tablet, which all the translators point at as a distinct and unrelated addition to the main text, wherein Enkidu dies differently and then is made to rise from the dead so that he can report eerily on what things are like in the underworld. Martinů makes it work, but again, probably not the best place to start with this story.
Word on the internet is that this isn’t the best of the three or four recordings available. Oh well. Here’s a quick sound sample for you.