on August 1, 2015
Finished the #penguin #classics edition of the #epic #Gilgamesh. Perhaps one the oldest stories ever told, certainly one of the oldest extant in writing, the epic of Gilgamesh became one of the central myths of the Mesopotamian region for almost two millennia. Working from texts ranging from as early as 2100 bc, with the standard corpus being formalized between 1000-700 bc, Andrew George provides a translation of the standard text (known as “He who saw the deep”) as well as additional surviving variants and earlier Sumerian poems where the hero is referred his earlier name #bilgames. This book is much more of an academic or historiographical work, however, with George providing chapters on linguistic analysis, history, translation of texts, cuneiform, archeology and even the history of the field of Assyriology. While reading this work, I found it very interesting that I have a tendency to look at increasingly ancient periods in larger intervals than modern times. By this I mean that I view the difference between say 1950-2015 AD and 3000-300 BC as being similar in a temporal sense due to my cognitive bias based on how I view cultural progress post-industrial revolution. It was important for me , therefore, to retain the understanding of this story as less of a single corpus and more of a living, malleable and culturally dependent myth that represents the people writing it down as much as the tradition. This leads me to one of the main reasons I chose to read such an academic version of the text, the preservation of one of the earliest forms of the pan-Babylonian #floodmyth. The myth of Gilgamesh has been seen in some circles as the basis of the #genesis #flood account, representing a Mesopotamian flood narrative that stretches back to oral traditions surrounding fears and memories of disastrous flooding in emerging agrarian societies in the Fertile Crescent. If George’s translation is accurate I think it would be pretty hard to make cogent case against this argument and in fact the only arguments I have seen rely heavily on special pleading, earlier mistranslations and textual misrepresentations. All in all this book is a compelling academic work.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is a fascinating tale of great historical importance. Composed 1500 years before Homer's epics, the story is one that modern man can readily understand and appreciate. Gilgamesh was the more than capable ruler of the ancient town of Uruk; his strength and physical beauty were unmatched by any in the land, and his subjects adored him. Although he possessed so much, Gilgamesh wanted desperately to live forever like a god. He was two-thirds god and one-third human, but he refused to accept his destiny to die. If it were his lot to die, he wanted to perform great deeds so that his name would never be forgotten.
The story opens with the story of Enkidu, a wild man of nature who was to become Gilgamesh's best friend and accompany him on his dangerous journeys. The first trip takes them to the Land of the Cedars where Gilgamesh sets out to kill Humbaba, the guardian of the forest. When he later slays the Bull of Heaven, the anger of the gods is turned upon him and Enkidu, leading to new suffering by Gilgamesh. In desperation, he seeks Utnapishtim in the land of the gods; Utnapishtim was granted eternal life after preserving mankind in the wake of a great flood. Gilgamesh again finds only heartache for his troubles. Returning to Uruk, he preserves the story of his journeys and deeds in writing, and it is, perhaps ironically, in this written record that Gilgamesh is recognized today for the great man he was.
One learns much about the ancient gods in this tale, and the story of the great goddess Ishtar's role in the related events is pretty amazing. When Ishtar invited Gilgamesh to be her husband, he issued forth a litany of former lovers whom Ishtar had turned out and cursed, boldly rebuffing Ishtar's advances. It is this brave act that led to most of Gilgamesh's later troubles. Even Enkidu, whose reported bravery is belied by his reluctance to aid his noble friend in several situations, is rather astonishingly disrespectful to the goddess.
N. K. Sandars does a remarkable job of putting the epic in its proper historical and literary perspective. A glossary of relevant gods and characters is particularly helpful. Along with providing a short history of the man, the gods, and the epic itself, she goes to great lengths to explain her method of producing this modern translation. There is no one extant copy of the Epic of Gilgamesh; a number of tablets, in varying degrees of condition and legibility and differing somewhat in the details of the story, have been compared and contrasted in order to produce the story as she presents it. Perhaps the most useful part of the introduction is an explanation of the form and style of the text. The text was originally told in verse, and Sandars explains that she chose to produce the text in narrative form in the interest of readability. As the order of events is not universally agreed upon, she explains why she chose the order she did for events. One annoying feature of the text, at least to the modern reader, is the constant word for word repetition of speeches between characters, and Sandars does the reader a great service by alerting him/her to this and explaining the rationale behind its use by the ancient writers.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the oldest written texts in history, yet its theme is timeless, its characters all too human, and its appeal universal. Sandars' modern, narrative translation transforms the historically important epic into an eminently readable, quite enjoyable story. The tale of a great flood in this incredibly ancient tale has raised eyebrows ever since the text was discovered. The parallels to the Biblical tale of Noah are obvious, adding great strength to the argument that the legend or memory of a cataclysmic flood was common to diverse cultures in the ancient Near East. Those familiar with the ideas of Zechariah Sitchin will find this story especially fascinating and illuminating.
The Epic of Gilgamesh dates from the third millennium B.C., making it the oldest epic poem in world literature. It is a relatively short work, which explains why over half of this little volume introduces the ancient text of the first ancient hero. The fullest extant text of the Gilgamesh was found in the Akkadian-language on 12 incomplete clay tablets found at Nineveh in the library of the Assyrian King Ashurbanipal. The narrative gaps have been filled in, somewhat, by fragments found elsewhere. Historians think that Gilgamesh might have been a ruler in southern Mesopotamia, although there is no historical evidence for any of the exploits covered in this narrative or the five poems written about the hero. Cultural anthropologists believe that Gilgamesh was a great king whose name became associated with pretty much every major legend or mythical tale in that culture.
Unlike some translations that go tablet by tablet, this translation by N. K. Sandars breaks the epic down into six main narratives. The two most famous of these would be "The Story of the Flood," with its obvious parallels to the stories of a great flood in the Bible and Ovid's "Metamorphoses," and "The Coming of Enkidu"/"Ishtar and Gilgamesh, and the Death of Enkidu," which Captain Jean-Luc Picard narrates in the Star Trek: Next Generation episode "Darmok." Both of these are relevant points because in working from the known to the unknown they are both avenues of introducing Gilgamesh to which students will readily await. The Epic of Gilgamesh is the fundamental mythic tale in Western Civilization, but tends to be relegated to the shelf in most classes unless in happens to be included in an anthology. His quests for the Spring of Youth and immortality have been echoed in so many other tales. I have always thought that Gilgamesh is a more important figure than Beowulf, but that would be a decidedly minority opinion. I just wish this little volume was not so expensive because I think that hurts its utility in classes dealing with mythology, legend and/or folklore.
on June 12, 2001
Dating from the third millennium B.C., "The Epic of Gilgamesh" is one of the earliest surviving epic poems in world literature, and like some of its obvious counterparts, to wit, Homer's "Iliad" and "Odyssey," Virgil's "Aeneid," and "Beowulf," still has the power to attract and fascinate readers even at the dawn of the 21st century. Like "Beowulf," Gilgamesh is a king whose initial goal is to establish his own eternal fame.
Gilgamesh, the child of a goddess and a priest, is, at the start of the epic, driving the people of Uruk crazy with his boundless energy and restless enthusiasm. The people beseech the gods to send a companion for their king. This companion comes in the form of Enkidu, a wild man who communes with beasts in the forest. Gradually, Gilgamesh and Enkidu become the closest of friends. While the search for fame and glory continues, it becomes only too clear that the focal point of the epic is the relationship between the king and the wild man. Without peers or equals, the two live almost exclusively for each other and through each other. Other ancient epics, of course, feature complicated relationships, but "Gilgamesh" is rare in the sheer intensity of the homosocial bond.
The wanderings and quests of Gilgamesh and Enkidu find their highest purpose in the pursuit of eternal life, which, again, surfaces because of Gilgamesh's relationship with Enkidu. Mortality becomes the overarching theme of the epic. A theme which we continue to deal with, the epic intersects the drive of science, pseudoscience, and magic throughout human history.
Stylistically, the most notable feature of "Gilgamesh" is repetition of phrases. Even in conversation, one sees the same sentence, sometimes modified, come from two or more characters, even at relatively great distance from each other in the actual text. This demonstrates very powerfully the oral origins of the epic. Repetition, which could become tiresome, draws us further into the story, as it forces us to pay closer attention to the significance of what is being said, as well as important numbers (7 and 12 appear most frequently), and images.
The adventures of Gilgamesh and Enkidu amongst gods, beasts, and natural forces, are compelling, interesting reading. Certain parallels between the ancient Mesopotamian epic and the Judeo-Christian biblical narratives that post-date it, have been well-documented. N.K. Sandars' introduction is extremely detailed, giving the history of the region surrounding Uruk, the history of the text itself and how it has been read, compiled, and studied since the 19th century, provides excellent background on the complicated mythology of the ancient Mesopotamians. A solid read altogether.
on December 1, 2000
Not only one of the best pieces of literature of our time, but a timeless treasure, surviving through the ages. The epic of Gilgamesh, is one of the oldest known scriptures ever written by the human hand. Yet still the epic captivates audiences and the reader while still delivering a powerful and meaningful message about our humanity. The epic itself is one of the most interesting accounts of a Sumerian hero. However the language of the unknown author has the capacity to move, and to entice. The novel continually involves the reader, even from the beginning, with a question. It asks the reader to identify with the characters as if they were the characters and to still remember the ultimate lesson of life, to enjoy. Not only addressing the elements to keep a reader's attention, but revealing powerful and important aspects of being human. Among these is to understand ones place, and to realize that life is only what we make it, and how we live it. The Epic of Gilgamesh remains to be one of the most captivating and enlightening poems that still even today depicts plot, action, and insight.
on March 31, 2001
Although not an original translation, this redaction by N.K. Sanders combines versions Sumerian, Akkadian and Hittite texts. The prose flows very well (almost like the King James Bible). The introductory history and map provide helpful background information.
Its amazing though over 4,000 years old, that there are very modern elements. Here man first begins to define a "self". There is dream interpretation that historically is continued with Joseph in the Bible and still alive with Carl Jung. Some symbols, such as the slaying of the Lion are ancient and almost universal. The Flood story shows up here, and perhaps latter repeated (or in a new form) in the Bible and Noah, with new meaning. What's fun about these myths is that they are compact and open to interpretation. For example, I perhaps see the defeat of Humbaba (the guardian of the Cedar Forest), as the start of our environmental crisis.
on March 15, 2000
Rather than simply relying on the version of the Epic which survived in Assurbanipal's palace in Nineveh, the author picks and chooses her sources, relying usually on the Ninevite Recension but sometimes on other extant Gilgamesh texts such as the Sumerian poems which were a source for the Assyrians.
A disappointing aspect is that the author has not translated the work herself but rather collated and rewritten existing translation. She is quite upfront about it, and views her contribution as having created a very readable version of Gilgamesh to supplement the academic translations available. And that she has.