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The Epic of Gilgamesh [Paperback]

Maureen Kovacs
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Aug. 1 1989
Since the discovery over one hundred years ago of a body of Mesopotamian poetry preserved on clay tablets, what has come to be known as the Epic of Gilgamesh has been considered a masterpiece of ancient literature. It recounts the deeds of a hero-king of ancient Mesopotamia, following him through adventures and encounters with men and gods alike. Yet the central concerns of the Epic lie deeper than the lively and exotic story line: they revolve around a man’s eternal struggle with the limitations of human nature, and encompass the basic human feelings of lonliness, friendship, love, loss, revenge, and the fear of oblivion of death. These themes are developed in a distinctly Mesopotamian idiom, to be sure, but with a sensitivity and intensity that touch the modern reader across the chasm of three thousand years. This translation presents the Epic to the general reader in a clear narrative.


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This translation is a verse rendering of The Epic of Gilgamesh, the cycle of Babylonian poems preserved on clay tablets surviving from ancient Mesopotamia of the third millennium B.C. One of the best and most important piece of epic poetry from human history, predating even Homer's Iliad by roughly 1,500 years, the Gilgamesh epic tells of the various adventures of that hero-king, including his quest for immortality and an account of a great flood similar in many details to the Old Testament's story of Noah. Kovacs's edition is satisfying both for its engaging verse translation of the poem itself, as well as for the introduction and appendix that provide historical context, and not least for photographs of Mesopotamian art and of one the actual clay tablets. The tablet was broken into several pieces and incompletely reconstructed, demonstrating the difficulty of the translator's task.

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Since the discovery over one hundred years ago of a body of Mesopotamian poetry preserved on clay tablets, what has come to be known as the Epic of Gilgamesh has been considered a masterpiece of ancient literature. It recounts the deeds of a hero-king of ancient Mesopotamia, following him through adventures and encounters with men and gods alike. Yet the central concerns of the Epic lie deeper than the lively and exotic story line: they revolve around a man’s eternal struggle with the limitations of human nature, and encompass the basic human feelings of lonliness, friendship, love, loss, revenge, and the fear of oblivion of death. These themes are developed in a distinctly Mesopotamian idiom, to be sure, but with a sensitivity and intensity that touch the modern reader across the chasm of three thousand years. This translation presents the Epic to the general reader in a clear narrative.


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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Universal Tale Worth the Investment March 4 2004
Format:Paperback
The EPIC of GILGAMESH
Translation by Maureen Gallery Kovacs
I first learned about The Epic of Gilgamesh in my 9th Grade Ancient History class. At the time, I was intrigued by the reported similarities between Utanapishtim and Noah. I finally decided to give it a read. On the surface, The Epic of Gilgamesh is a simple myth which exhibits similarities to other classic myths and stories. However, despite the many missing lines and lost passages, the story retains a power and universiality which speaks to us even today.
Gilgamesh is a god-like king, but he oppresses his people. To bring him into line, a rival is created in the woods -- a natural man named Enkidu whose path takes him to the city of Uruk to confront the tyrant. Instead of conflict, a friendship blooms between the two men. They adventure together, but anger the gods, who take their revenge on Enkidu. Gilgamesh is left alive and alone to face his own mortality. His fear and grief lead him across the world to seek the only man who has ever been granted immortality, Utanapishtim, survivor of the Great Flood.
Kovacs has done a good job with her translation, which is accessable even though it is fragmentary. One has to be prepared to work with this poem, because so much has been lost since it was written down in 800 BC. But if you are willing to put some effort into reading the (or one of the) oldest surviving work(s) of literature, it is well worth your time.
I recommend this work.
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4.0 out of 5 stars A riviting tale about bravery honor and adventure Feb. 21 2004
Format:Paperback
Gilgamesh is a Babylonian king, two-thirds god and one-third man. He is tyrannical and conceited. Enkidu is a hairy creature, half man and half animal, who lives in the steppe. Enkidu opens a trap set by a hunter, who reports this illicit activity to Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh sends a prostitute to put Enkidu to shame in front of the animals. The prostitute brings Enkidu to the city and "humanizes" him. Enkidu and Gilgamesh meet, fight, stalemate, and then befriend each other, "seeing each other in their eyes". Gilgamesh persuades Enkidu to travel with him and fight to the evil monster Humbaba in the tall cedar forest. They go, and Gilgamesh kills Humbaba, but Enkidu is wounded. A maddened goddess Ishtar sends a bull to kill Gilgamesh because he refused her proposal, and Enkidu saves Gilgamesh from the animal.
Enkidu's condition worsens. He prophesies that Gilgamesh's life and world is changed forever, and dies. Gilgamesh mourns and travels to seek Utnapishtim, the survivor of the universal flood, in the hopes that he will be able to bring Enkidu back to life. Gilgamesh is able to get past the Scorpion people at the gate of Mashu, he treads the dark Road of the Sun, and enters a valley. He lives for a while with a barmaid named Siduri on the coast, and she tries to persuade him to stay. He leaves her, however, and in a rage destroys the stone images that might have led him across the sea to Utnapishtim. Ultimately Urshanabi the boatman permits him to cross. Gilgamesh finds Utnapishtim and they become friends. Utnapishtim does not like immortality, and tells Gilgamesh about the flood. He later becomes annoyed at Gilgamesh's insistence on finding immortality for Enkidu, and sends him back without his friend.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Importance of epic heroism Oct. 13 2003
Format:Paperback
There are many characteristics that define epic heroes. They are portrayed as larger than life characters who undergo many perils and temptations. The hero many have godlike features, however, he may also suffer a deep wound. Although epic stories are now very old, and their heroes gone, the virtuous attitudes of the hero teach us very important virtues in life.
One important moral value that one learns from this epic is the impact of suffering a deep lost. Gilgamesh suffered from the terrible death of his best friend Enkidu. After killing the bull of heaven, sent down by the goddess of love, Ishtar, the gods decided that Enkidu should be chosen to die because he wasn't two-third god and one third man like Gilgamesh. In the aftermath of Enkidu's death, Gilgamesh deeply suffered from his lack of presence. It has occured to many of us to lose a very special and dear person to us. To endure life without the presence of that special person is hard, sometime almost impossible to bare. Thus, Gilgamesh who refused to live this sadness undertakes a long journey, commonly referred to as a quest, in search of eternal life in order to revive his greatest pal. Unfortunately, he fails his quest. Conclusively, we learn from this part that it is very tough to lose a person who means so much to us. Especially when we know that we will never see them again.
The search for eternal life teaches a very meaningful message. In order to revive his dead friend, Gilgamesh was strongly determined to face the dangers and perils on his journey in order to find the source of eternal life. Despite his strenght of mind, Gilgamesh fails his search. By this failure, we come to know that eternal life is out of man's reach as long as he lives on earth.
One learns multiple lessons from the story of The Gilgamesh.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A few comments Nov. 2 2002
Format:Paperback
I previously wrote a more extensive review of the Andrew George edition of the Epic of Gilgamesh, but I was looking at this version, and there was one thing I liked that Kovacs did, so I thought I would mention it.
In the introduction, on page xxxiv or xxiv, if I recall, Kovacs has a very nice chart showing the chronological history of all the versions we know of for this epic, which is a couple of dozen, ranging from the first known versions around 2700 BC in Uruk down to the Syriac versions more than two millenia later. Although he discusses the various versions in his book in his introduction, George doesn't include this nice timeline and chronology.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is notable for the fact that it's considered the oldest text understandable by a modern reader without special knowledge, and it's also the most ancient text for which we have an author attribution. Around 1200-1300 BC, a Mesopotamian by the name of Sun-Liq-Unnini compiled the well-known "Standard Version" of the epic. He wasn't actually the "author" of the text, but it seems likely he was steeped in the historical tradition and the different versions of the text which had come down over the years in both the Sumerian and Akkadian traditions, and he seems to have gone to some trouble to gather and compile the best versions of the various stories and legends about Gilgamesh in his "edition," which became the most widespread and popular version.
We also know that he was employed as an exorcist, an important job in Mesopotamian society, since they were called on for everything from driving out evil spirits in the ill and sick, to making sure dwellings and new buildings were free of evil spirits, to blessing farmland that was about to be planted for the new season.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Translation
Whatever else this may be it is not boring. Unfortunately, there are holes in the text that one could throw a truck through. Read more
Published on Aug. 29 2003 by James H. McDuffie
3.0 out of 5 stars i expected more
i don't know...i met a friend once who lectured me for about an hour on gilgamesh...i went straight to my computer and bought the damned book.
could not finish it... Read more
Published on Dec 30 2001 by "jojojo@netvision.net.il"
4.0 out of 5 stars Well presented for even the casual reader
I read this with almost no familiarization with things Mesopotamian. The story itself is cryptic and many parts are still missing, but Kovacs organized the book so that there is a... Read more
Published on Oct. 30 2000 by Robert Anderson
4.0 out of 5 stars One of the best translations yet
I have read the Gilgamesh Epic in several literary books and none of them come close to the way that this book translates the story. Read more
Published on Aug. 2 2000 by Roy L. Daman
5.0 out of 5 stars Great version of the Epic
What's great about this translation is its lack of pretentiousness. It's not bogged down by trying to be overly poetic, or cheapened by trying to be to modern. Read more
Published on March 22 2000
5.0 out of 5 stars Head and shoulders above any other Gilgamesh!
I think it's safe to say that I've read them all, or at least, all versions of the Epic of Gilgamesh available in English. This is the best. Read more
Published on March 6 2000 by David Elliott
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic book!
Just discovered Gilgamesh and it blew my mind. I've been reading every book I am able to get on this subject. Read more
Published on Jan. 2 2000
2.0 out of 5 stars Very dry, no description
The book did not seem to catch my interest. words and phrases kept being repeated which started to get anoying at times. Read more
Published on Oct. 17 1999
2.0 out of 5 stars Leaves much to be desired.
The story of Gilgamesh would not be an epic if it hadn't represented the human ideals of dedication and wisdom. Read more
Published on Oct. 9 1998
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