The Epic of Gilgamesh
© 1997 verse translation by Danny P. Jackson
When I threw in with the Classics Club, I knew the Epic of Gilgamesh had to be on there. The oldest known recorded story? How could it be missed? I’ve had intentions of reading it since encountering an excerpt of its Flood narrative in high school world literature, and have even listened to recitations of the drama. For those who have never encountered it: Gilgamesh is a king whose subjects behold him in fear and trembling. So potent is he that he gets away with nicking people’s wives on their wedding night. It’s good to be the king, no? The people of Uruk plea to the gods for relief from the king, and in response they send him…a bro. A wild man named Enkidu, who alone is Gilgamesh’s match for sheer manliness. He is utterly untamed, in tune with the animals and such, until a priestess seduces him with her feminine wiles (and by this translation, she literally jumps him). Abandoned by his four-legged friends in the forest, Enkidu goes to meet Gilgamesh, whose reputation precedes him. After a good brawl to shake hands with, these two men of power start taking down monsters and cutting down trees. They attract the rage of some of the gods — especially that of Ishtar, who attempts to seduce Gilgamesh but is forcefully refused by him delivering a list of all the men she’s used and destroyed — and Enkidu dies, deflating Gilgamesh’s sails. Having previously been blithe about death, Gilgamesh is now hit with its reality, and goes to seek out the only man who cheated death, Utnapishtim, he who survived the Great Flood. Utnapishtim attempts to dissuade him from the immortality quest, but then clues him in on a secret plant — one which is promptly stolen by a snake. Gilgamesh resigns himself to making the best of life that he can, and that’s’ that. (Unless you count the last chapter, which involves Enkidu and a brief visit to the Netherworld.)
Anyone who has read Genesis will see shared aspects and perhaps dimly remember that Abraham originally hailed from the city of Ur, just down the river from the site of Uruk. Most obvious is the Flood story, of course, but so is the snake costing man the secret of immortal life. I found it interesting when I first heard this story that Enkidu’s knowledge of woman immediately ruptured his ‘one with nature’ status. In Genesis, Adam and Eve aren’t said to ‘know’ each other until they’ve been severed from their own natural paradise and put to work as farmers, but there’s still a tenuous link between sexuality and alienation from the natural world. I faintly remember reading that the agricultural Sumerian religious rites involved sex (see the priestess as a reminder), so perhaps that’s the connection: he who would control nature cannot be at home in it, and Enkidu does start learning about farming from the priestess after they leave. Other, more distant similarities can be found between Gilgamesh and other ancient stories: Gilgamesh’s refusal of a divine seducer, for instance, brings to mind Circe and Odysseus.
Not included in this translation are the 20 new lines discovered a couple of years ago in Iraq, which add a bit to the Enkidu and Gilgamesh adventures. Apparently they meet monkeys in the forest, and the wild beast Humbaba is presented a forest-king who is entertained. That might explain why Humbaba appears like a man in so much Sumerian art, though that could be laziness or something else. I’m glad this is the translation of Gilgamesh my library has: it’s rendered in verse in approachable English, and features 20 illustrations that invoke woodcuts.