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