Gilgamesh: book for our time

The Epic of Gilgamesh is the world’s oldest written tale, going back 4000 years. (See timeline at foot of this article.) It has survived by virtue of being impressed on clay tablets buried in the desert in “cuneiform”, the oldest known form of writing, which dates back 5000 years. Only with the work of generations of archaeologists and scholars could it be pieced together and translated. Following some thought-trail connected with my own reading, I’d already downloaded a scholarly translation of Gilgamesh to my Kindle. It appears to be just a fragment, dwarfed by footnotes and a line-by-line transliteration of the text in the (extinct) Akkadian language. My curiosity flared briefly then subsided, like a match lit to view the scribblings on the wall of a damp old cave.

But the other day I dropped into the Oxfam shop, where I regularly check the Collectibles and Classics shelves, to see what chance has thrown up for my benefit on those abandoned shores. I found an unread copy (its original bookshop receipt still inside) of the new English version by Stephen Mitchell. “Until now there has not been a version that is a literary text in its own right,” says the blurb. I bought it, still dubious, reflecting that if all else failed I was still contributing to charity.

Now I can’t remember being so excited about a book. I’m writing this to try and explain why. The translator’s 66-page introduction is gripping in itself: masterful, poetic, revelatory. I don’t know how much I owe to Stephen Mitchell’s rendering and how much to the ancient texts. I don’t care: singer or song, they merge into one. Gilgamesh is longer than a song, but a lot shorter than “epic” suggests.

“Part of the fascination of Gilgamesh is that like any great work of literature, it has much to tell us about ourselves,” says Mitchell. I would like to concentrate on that: what it does for us, in our time. It’s a tale of friendship, lust, death and grief; masculine and feminine; savagery versus civilization; unnecessary violence and its consequences. It’s surely just one of many story compilations from those days. I reckon it survived the millennia because it’s the most popular.

In what it teaches us, I compare it favourably with the Old Testament. Indeed it has its own tale of the Flood, much better than the one of Noah’s Ark in Genesis. It tells how the gods had decided to destroy the earth. One of them anonymously leaked the plan to the king of Shuruppak, together with the idea of a ship to save the people and the different kinds of creature.

By the end of the fifth day the hull had been built:
the decks were an acre large, the sides
two hundred feet high. I built six decks . . .

Exactly like a cruise liner, then. The flood comes, all land disappears, but the ship runs aground on a mountain-top.

On the seventh day
I brought out a dove and set it free.
The dove flew off , then flew back to the ship,
because there was no place to land.

Word of God? The author of Genesis was an incompetent plagiarist! He botched together an inferior version to demonstrate how darkly hateful the Israelites’ one and only god, Jehovah, could be. Gilgamesh is altogether more gentle in its lessons. Its gods are not half as nasty, and don’t provoke us to terror. For sure, there is some brutal smiting. But—this is the beauty of the tale—we see that the consequences rebound upon the smiters, who live to regret their actions. I find myself marvelling as to what has happened to the art of popular story-telling in the last four thousand years. How come the authors of Gilgamesh create flawed heroes and redeemed villains, when Hollywood has hardly emerged from the stark portrayal of unmitigated evil (deformed and ugly) versus flawless good (with perfect hair and skin)?

Gilgamesh is the big man in the historical realm of Uruk, a real city, huge for those times, in what’s now Iraq. The tale starts

Surpassing all kings, powerful and tall
beyond all others, violent, splendid,
a wild bull of a man, unvanquished leader,
hero in the front lines, beloved by his soldiers …

We know the type.

The city is his possession, he struts
through it, arrogant, his head raised high …

He’s not so beloved by the citizens. No one can stop him when he seizes a maiden to possess her at a wedding, before releasing her to the arms of her new husband. No one can do anything when a young man is liquidated on his orders. The gods hear the people cry out: “Should a shepherd savage his own flock?”—a valid question being repeated in parts of the same region today. Anu, father of the gods, is moved by their pleas and devises a plan. Are the gods to cruise the skies like NATO forces protecting rebels on the ground? No. Anu’s plan is subtle, psychological. He instructs Aruru, the god who created Man, to create a doppelgänger for Gilgamesh.

Create a new hero, let them balance each other
perfectly, so that Uruk has peace.

Gilgamesh is two-thirds god, one-third human. Enkidu his soon-to-be companion is two-thirds animal and one-third human. He drinks from the ponds with the deer, grazes with the sheep. He must be civilised, by means of a pleasant process administered by Shamhat, a temple priestess, one of those who offers her body to visiting pilgrims.

She used her love-arts, she took his breath
with her kisses, held nothing back, and showed him
what a woman is. For seven days
he stayed erect and made love with her …

This is his first education in becoming fully human. Enkidu goes to Uruk, meets Gilgamesh, acts to block him from gatecrashing a wedding and claiming his “rights”. It turns into a big fight, very Hollywood, bumping into doorposts, shaking houses. Gilgamesh wins, Enkidu yields graciously.

They embraced and kissed. They held hands like brothers.
They walked side by side. They became true friends.

Then we see the results of their friendship. Gilgamesh wants to go and slay a monster. The city elders beg him not to. Enkidu begs him not to, tells of bad omens presented to him in dreams. Gilgamesh goes ahead anyway. When the monster begs for mercy and threatens a great curse, Gilgamesh is scared and ready to be merciful. Now Enkidu eggs Gilgamesh on:

Two intimate friends cannot be defeated.
Be courageous. Remember how strong you are.
I will stand by you. Now let us attack.

After the monster has been slain the terrible mistake becomes apparent, for it had been a guardian of natural resources, the sacred Cedar Forest, and only dangerous to those who came to steal timber. Besides which the monster’s curse must now be fulfilled. In Gilgamesh, curses are always fulfilled, the gods always interfere, men with flaws always do regrettable things and bring consequences on their own heads, or on others. But the listener (reader) is never preached at. Right and wrong is never drummed in with a hammer, as in the Old Testament.

You couldn’t use Gilgamesh as a holy book for any fundamentalist ideas. Good! It’s my new favourite book. I would quite like to be living four thousand years ago. Life might have been brutish, insecure and brief. There would have been no washing machines. But I’ve seen in Borneo women washing clothes in the river, hitting them against rocks, washing their own bodies without removal of the sarong. Uruk would have had no dryers. But I’m sure there was no law against hanging them on a line. (See comments on previous post.) They had no science. So there would be no weapons of mass destruction. I could live with that.

They didn’t even know the world is a sphere. They made up their own explanations. There’s an episode near the end where Gilgamesh, whose grief for the loss of his friend has no end, finds it difficult to come to terms with death—especially his own. He consults the only immortal he knows, who tells him how it’s done. You have to chase the sun when it sets, without sleeping, till it comes up on the other side the next morning. If you can conquer sleep, the little death, you can conquer the Big Sleep too. The sun, we learn, goes through a tunnel under the earth. OK, if my entire world was bounded by the Tigris and the Euphrates, I would have no problem with any of that.

I’m a sceptic about the myth of progress.


  • 2600 BC Instructions of Shuruppak (It starts “In those days, in those far remote times, in those nights, in those faraway nights, in those years, in those far remote years …” It’s a book of handy tips from father to son.
  • 2200 BC Epic of Gilgamesh
  • 1400 BC Genesis
  • 800 BC Iliad & Odyssey
  • 450 BC Ramayana
  • 400 BC Mahabharata
  • 900 AD One Thousand and One Nights

50 thoughts on “Gilgamesh: book for our time

  1. I like that immortality advice. It definitely has some clever logic to it. I almost feel like trying it, but I don't know if I'd want to live forever if I couldn't sleep. *yawwwwnnn* I'm getting sleepy just thinking about it.


  2. Now I must have me a copy of this book. I think it is destined to become one of my favorites as well. I had only heard fragments of the story before and often wondered. Thank you for finding this one!


  3. That's just what Gilgamesh did.

    “First pass this test: Just stay awake
    for seven days. Prevail against sleep,
    And perhaps you will prevail against death.”

    So Gilgamesh sat down against a wall
    to begin the test. The moment he sat down,
    sleep swirled over him, like a fog.

    I like the “perhaps”, don't you? So modern. “Read the small print.”


  4. Rev – or shall I call you “Stimpy”? Yes I can read into your inmost soliloquies, like a book. Or perhaps like a blog, bless you for it.

    I had hoped to inspire someone. Then we can start a religion based on the Gilgamesh scripture. It will be a low-key affair. No one will ever talk about it. Our lives will not be changed. But perhaps our story-telling skills will improve. Not yours. I wonder how much of your attitude, not to mention the pepper-spray, is made up. It's too elegant for real life.


  5. I think about living in the past sometimes too, maybe not as far back as Ancient Sumeria, maybe just a hundred years or so, around the turn of the last century. I would travel by train, and work from a manual typewriter. Part of me feels like I would miss the conveniences of modern life, but I know it's silly to think like that. I wouldn't miss those things any more than I “missed” having cell phones and the internet when I was a kid.


  6. i'll be keeping my eyes open for this…. very cool.

    there's a very interesting book 'Alphabet versus the Goddess' that you may have already come across…. about the historical parallel between phonetical written language and the increase in left-brain thinking. (which the author correlates to the onset of wars fought over ideals or concepts, as opposed to those fought over 'turf')


  7. Thanks for your link, gfid. It definitely sounds an interesting theme, but two things dampen my enthusiasm:

    a) the clichés about lateralization of brain function which seem to be the heart of the thesis. I don't believe them. Wikipedia article supports this scepticism. I could accept though that there are different modes of thinking which can be less or more developed. But then

    b) if the author pursues his topic to the extreme of suggesting that literacy (in the form we have adopted it) has fuelled wars & other forms of extreme aggression, I would suspect him of pursuing a best-seller with sensationalism.

    The scope of the book as set out on the author's home page does interest me, however. It reminds me of another book that I read fifty years ago: Love in the Western World by Denis de Rougemont. Have you come across it?

    But I have a niggly feeling that Shlain may have a point, even if his treatment might be too sweeping. Must investigate further. Would be most interested if you were to write more about it.


  8. I often wonder how many times I am going to have to explain some of my remarks. My inner dialogue has a huge cast of characters. I think Gilgamesh would be awesome as a deity. He wouldn't much care for adoration and wouldn't want any preachers getting rich off of him. Like some rogue super hero with an immense ego.


  9. gfid, apologies for my initial scepticism re Leonard Shlain. I'm now trying to get hold of his book Sex, Time, and Power: How Women's Sexuality Shaped Human Evolution!


  10. yes, rev. 'Nuff public praise for the rogue super hero with the immense ego. It's our private secret. No one will know why we are starting to become like him.


  11. There are only a handful of stories in the world, but an infinity of ways of telling them. And of reading them. I must read Gilgamesh again. As it is clearly inspiring everyone else, I hope to be inspired myself.


  12. There´s this wonderful series by PBS called Invitation to World Literature, and their first installment is The Epic of Gilgamesh. They use the illustrations by Ludmila Zeman, who was the first writer/illustrator to make images for the characters and scenes and put them in children´s books. I´ve met her and she gave the books to my kids. They´re great. A great initiation on this wonderful story.
    You can watch the whole series here:


  13. Although I'd heard of the Epic of Gilgamesh I didn't know much about it until now. I have a feeling it would quite easily become my favorite book too but first I'd like to send it to you so you could write the marginalia. You wouldn't mind doing that, would you?

    I was thinking today just how silly is the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence when the only intelligence we can relate to is technological in its ability. I wonder how many races the universe may hold who are happy to communicate with each other and not think of washing machines and clothes dryers at all?


  14. Luciana, thank you so much for the link! I watched the video with great interest. But I fear that you won’t like what I have to say about it. I don’t want to offend, but I felt it best served the cause of general knowledge: not literature.

    As a documentary it is slick, extremely well put together and informative. But television doesn’t serve literature. The medium is the message, said Marshall McLuhan, and the message this conveys is that nobody expects you to just read words on a page – the words are merely a script. You need a treatment – illustrations, plays, films, talking heads telling you how to interpret the thing, weasel-words to make sure that no Christian is upset.

    It tells enough of the story to make an audience not bother to actually read it – except perhaps in comic-book form. Literature is not served by this. Even literacy is not served. The message given out is that written words are not enough. Which is a self-contradicting message. Anyone seeing the documentary knows that words are all we have in this case. They were dug up on clay tablets. There is nothing else. The rest is layers of irrelevancy laid on top: as if the archaeologists’ valiant efforts are being reversed, and the text of the tablets is being buried in the midden of today.

    I don’t doubt that all the contributors to the documentary, including your illustrator friend, have been personally and directly inspired by the words of Gilgamesh, with only the intermediary of scholars and translators. But the message given out is disempowering: “You are just the audience. We don’t expect you to get excited by the mere words, or to discover anything for yourself. We are the feeders. You are the fed. Open your mouths, now.”

    My criticism does not unfortunately end here. The commentators interpreted the story in a way that supports, not subverts, 21st century American attitudes. They say that Gilgamesh started off evil and becomes good, and that this is the meaning of the story. Someone says that the monster Humbaba “is in a sense evil”. I don’t think so! I don’t find anything so crude as “good” and “evil” actually expressed in the entire story. The words are there for us to interpret, not for an expert to interpret them for us.

    Certainly a reader of Gilgamesh can be encouraged by an introduction, whether it be the 66-page one offered by Stephen Mitchell, or the 1500 words of my blog post. But it would be better to discover this tale, and its meanings, oneself. Better to let the words create pictures in the imagination than to have an illustrator interfere with that process.

    These are just my opinions of course. I may sound as if I am defending the text against those who would trample and pollute its purity. I’m trying to resist that urge. Gilgamesh is safe. The world can and will do what it likes.


  15. Susan I'd be so eager to do as you suggest that I'd almost pay you for the privilege – write the marginalia, that is. They would be in four colours of ink, simply because that's what I have in my pens, not for any systematic reason; and would encompass juvenilia, memorabilia and ephemera.


  16. CIngram, I've heard you say this before, that there is only a handful of stories in the world. Publishers won't like you saying it. Readers may find it reductionist. I'd take the opposite view, that there is an infinite number of haikus that remain to be written – and I mean good ones. And they only have a few syllables.

    Are you referring to a limited number of plot types? Could you list these in a supplementary comment?

    Despite your series of posts about literature, I'm not convinced yet that literature revolves around just stories.


  17. You know, I regretted it after I pushed the publish button, but I didn´t delete it because it´s not my style.

    You didn´t like the documentary (because that´s what it is – it doesn´t substitute any reading of the story) and you don´t like American TV. I get that. That´s one thing.

    Another thing is that I admire McLuhan´s work, but he died in 1980 and was not able to experience what´s going on nowadays, as you and I are. The present belongs to the living, and McLuhan is not my shepherd. If you want to read the research about media nowadays, your guy is Henry Jenkins – he´s alive and keeps a blog:

    Whether you and I like it or not, Vincent, there´s a whole new generation who sees the book (written literature) as part of an immense fictional universe. Stories are being told in several media, and yes, one thing can lead to another. A video game can lead you to a printed book, and a book can lead you to a movie, as well as a documentary can lead you to a comic book (which many consider a literary genre )that can lead you to the original story in a traditional book, that can be either paper or in our beloved Kindle. And that happens because young readers have never been so empowered before.

    I apologize for interfering with my superficial take on such a deep discussion. I, mistakenly, thought you were very excited about the story and how present it is in our lives nowadays, but now I see you were excited about having read a book. Which is a translation, by the way, because the original you´ll only get in an ancient language engraved in clay tablets.

    You´re right. Gilgamesh will survive regardless any opinion we might have about media, because it´s a story we bring inside ourselves, as humans. It´s about accepting and making friends with the Enkidu and even the Ishtar we bring inside.


  18. I'm delighted at your steadfast defence of the documentary, Luciana, and the new world of media that it champions.

    Yes, I was excited at having read a book, but to me it represented the dawn of literature, and had a purity of style which has sadly been lost since.

    You don't have anything to apologize for at all. These are not necessarily deep discussions, they are just free speech and fun.

    I don't really care about McLuhan, his famous observation just came in handy to make a point.

    Yes, as I tried to say, the book I liked is a translation and in that sense I felt it was a new cover version of an old song.


  19. Thing is I never know that I'm fighting a crusade until I look round me and see all the bodies. Friendly fire, every time.

    I don't actually fight enemies, just despise them from a distance. Or is it cowardice?


  20. I'm glad I stepped back out of the way when the fur started to fly. I'm often at odds with our world. I have a deep love and respect for actual paper books and good literature and I am having a hard time accepting some of these new fangled electronic gadgets. I do also love comic books and have even enjoyed a few “graphic novels” of old stories presented in new ways. I like seeing how other people interpret the pictures I have in my head. And I just like art when it's done fairly well.


  21. Having fun, guys?(*belligerent tone, sword in hand*)
    Vincent, I´m sorry, but you quote a scholar you later reveal not to care about, and you spend 7 paragraphs telling me what literature and its purposes are, just to tell me afterwards that this is all about “free speech and fun”?
    Ok, it´s your blog anyway. I respect that.


  22. I am very honoured to have been an inspiration. My musings are currently in abeyance but will be resumed as soon as circumstances allow (end of October, if I'm lucky!)

    Gilgamesh is one of those stories I have often read 'about', without ever having encountered the real thing. I shall now have to add it to my wish list. I have bought at least three books under your influence, Vincent, and this will make a fourth!


  23. I am perfectly happy to reveal them, Vincent. They are 'In Love with Everything' by Raymond Sigrist (I like it very much); 'The Book of Disquiet' by Pessoa (just started); 'Loving, Living, Party Going' by Henry Green (in the queue).

    And on 'looking inside' Gilgamesh on Amazon this morning, I was unable to resist, and ordered it.

    Not going to do much reading between now and end of October, but I have such riches to look forward to!


  24. Now that is very interesting, gentleeye because I have never heard of 'Loving, Living, Party Going' by Henry Green. But of course I am now going to pursue it!


  25. Vincent,

    Wow, the number of comments went up to 43! Last time I saw, it was 20.
    I agree with Gina. I enjoyed reading Luciana's and some of yours especially. It's lively as ever.

    I appreciate the link Luciana suggested. She as an educator understands the people like me. Also, a while ago, a friend of mine wrote two blogs on Gilgamesh in Red Room. I'll leave those links in case you and other people are interested.

    About Gilgamesh and other ancient epic, as soon as I hear similar stories or words like floods or “fragrant oil,” I'm just mesmerized thinking something remain the same. I'm also fascinated with the cuneiform on the clay tablets.


  26. I think the end part of Fight Club with the credit card companies exploding was its moralizing bit, warning the young men turned on by the movie that it was depicting an insane fantasy, and not one to be tried at home or anywhere else. I felt it was overdone aesthetically but probably necessary morally.


  27. Thanks for your comments and those links, Keiko. I was particularly interested to see both you and Luciana visiting those reviews of Gilgamesh nearly three years ago. I thought the reviews were OK, too. Reflecting on my reactions to the video in Luciana's link, I realize that I tend to be enraged by the modern documentary style, whether American or English.

    And that I'm not keen on getting involved in lively controversy!


  28. Okay, you manage to take us through the history of a 4,000 year old epic tale, including surviving tablets and Old Testament variants.

    I'm convinced. The Bible was not written by God.

    And you shows us that a story of friendship and loss can be timeless.

    Having said that, how can we get one of the best writers anywhere to write again soon?


  29. Mr Deming (any relation to the late W. Edwards Deming, whom I used to rever for his sterling work in introducing Quality Management to the Japanese, Ford Motor Co, etc?)

    I would have passed on your request to Mr Myste, or one or two others, but Mr Myste received the message. We expect great things from this gentleman.


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