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In Iraq, when the dust blows, stopping men and tanks, it brings with it memories of an ancient world, much older than Islam or Christianity. Western civilization originated from that place between the Tigris and the Euphrates, where Hammurabi created his legal code and where Gilgamesh was written - the oldest story in the world, a thousand years older than the Iliad or the Bible. Its hero was a historical king who reigned in the Mesopotamian city of Uruk in about 2750 bce. In the epic, he has an intimate friend, Enkidu, a naked wild man who has been civilized through the erotic arts of a temple priestess. With him Gilgamesh battles monsters, and when Enkidu dies, he is inconsolable. He sets out on a desperate journey to find the one man who can tell him how to escape death.
Part of the fascination of Gilgamesh is that, like any great work of literature, it has much to tell us about ourselves. In giving voice to grief and the fear of death, perhaps more powerfully than any book written after it, in portraying love and vulnerability and the quest for wisdom, it has become a personal testimony for millions of readers in dozens of languages. But it also has a particular relevance in today's world, with its polarized fundamentalisms, each side fervently believing in its own righteousness, each on a crusade, or jihad, against what it perceives as an evil enemy. The hero of this epic is an antihero, a superman (a superpower, one might say) who doesn't know the difference between strength and arrogance. By preemptively attacking a monster, he brings on himself a disaster that can only be overcome by an agonizing journey, a quest that results in wisdom by proving its own futility. The epic has an extraordinarily sophisticated moral intelligence. In its emphasis on balance and in its refusal to side with either hero or monster, it leads us to question our dangerous certainties about good and evil.
I began this version of Gilgamesh because I had never been convinced by the language of any translation of it that I'd read. I wanted to find a genuine voice for the poem: words that were lithe and muscular enough to match the power of the story. If I have succeeded, readers will discover that, rather than standing before an antiquity in a glass case, they have entered a literary masterpiece that is as startlingly alive today as it was three and a half millennia ago.
Gilgamesh is a work that in the intensity of its imagination stands beside the great stories of Homer and the Bible. Yet for two thousand years, all traces of it were lost. The baked clay tablets on which it was inscribed in cuneiform characters lay buried in the rubble of cities across the ancient Near East, waiting for people from another world to read them. It wasn't until 1853 that the first fragments were discovered among the ruins of Nineveh, and the text wasn't deciphered and translated for several decades afterward. The great poet Rainer Maria Rilke may have been the first reader discerning enough to recognize its true literary stature. "Gilgamesh is stupendous!" he wrote at the end of 1916. "I... consider it to be among the greatest things that can happen to a person." "I have immersed myself in [it], and in these truly gigantic fragments I have experienced measures and forms that belong with the supreme works that the conjuring Word has ever produced." In Rilke's consciousness, Gilgamesh, like a magnificent Aladdin's palace that has instantly materialized out of nowhere, makes its first appearance as a masterpiece of world literature.
The story of its discovery and decipherment is itself as fabulous as a tale from The Thousand and One Nights. A young English traveler named Austen Henry Layard, who was passing through the Middle East on his way to Ceylon, heard that there were antiquities buried in the mounds of what is now the city of Mosul, halted his journey, and began excavations in 1844. These mounds turned out to contain the ruined palaces of Nineveh, the ancient capital of Assyria, including what was left of the library of the last great Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal (668-627 B.C.E.). "In amazement" Layard and his assistant Hormuzd Rassam "found room after room lined with carved stone bas-reliefs of demons and deities, scenes of battle, royal hunts and ceremonies; doorways flanked by enormous winged bulls and lions; and, inside some of the chambers, tens of thousands of clay tablets inscribed with the curious, and then undeciphered, cuneiform ('wedge-shaped') script." Over twenty-five thousand of these tablets were shipped back to the British Museum.
When cuneiform was officially deciphered in 1857, scholars discovered that the tablets were written in Akkadian, an ancient Semitic language cognate with Hebrew and Arabic. Fifteen years went by before anyone noticed the tablets on which Gilgamesh was inscribed. Then, in 1872, a young British Museum curator named George Smith realized that one of the fragments told the story of a Babylonian Noah, who survived a great flood sent by the gods. "On looking down the third column," Smith wrote, "my eye caught the statement that the ship rested on the mountains of Nizir, followed by the account of the sending forth of the dove, and its finding no resting-place and returning. I saw at once that I had here discovered a portion at least of the Chaldean account of the Deluge." To a Victorian this was a spectacular discovery, because it seemed to be independent corroboration of the historicity of the biblical Flood (Victorians believed that the Genesis story was much older than it is). When Smith saw these lines, according to a later account, he said, " 'I am the first man to read that after more than two thousand years of oblivion!' Setting the tablet on the table," the account continues, "he jumped up and rushed about the room in a great state of excitement, and, to the astonishment of those present, began to undress himself." We aren't told if he took off just his coat or if he continued to strip down further. I like to imagine him in his euphoria going all the way and running stark naked, like Enkidu, among the astonished black-clad Victorian scholars.
Smith's announcement, made on December 3, 1872 to the newly formed Society of Biblical Archaeology, that he had discovered an account of the Flood on one of the Assyrian tablets caused a major stir, and soon more fragments of Gilgamesh were unearthed at Nineveh and in the ruins of other ancient cities. His translation of the fragments that had been discovered up to then was published in 1876. Though to a modern reader it seems quaint and almost surrealistic in its many mistaken guesses, and is often fragmentary to the point of incoherence, it was an important pioneering effort.
Today, more than a century and a quarter later, many more fragments have surfaced, the language is much better understood, and scholars can trace the history of the text with some degree of confidence. Briefly, here is the consensus.
Legends about Gilgamesh probably began to arise shortly after the death of the historical king. The earliest texts that have survived, which date from about 2100 BCE, are five separate and independent poems in Sumerian, entitled "Gilgamesh and Aga," "Gilgamesh and Huwawa," "Gilgamesh and the Bull of Heaven," "Gilgamesh and the Underworld," and "The Death of Gilgamesh." (Sumerian is a non-Semitic language unrelated to any other that we know, and is as distant from Akkadian as Chinese is from English. It became the learned language of ancient Mesopotamia and was part of the scribal curriculum.) These five poems - written in a leisurely, repetitive, hieratic style, much less condensed and vivid than the Akkadian epic - would have been familiar to later poets and editors.
The direct ancestor of the eleven clay tablets dug up at Nineveh is called the Old Babylonian version. It was written in Akkadian (of which Babylonian is a dialect) and dates from about 1700 B.C.E.; eleven fragments have survived, including three tablets that are almost complete. This version, though it paraphrases a few episodes in the Sumerian Gilgamesh texts, is an original poem, the first Epic of Gilgamesh. In its themes and its form, it is essentially the same poem as its Ninevite descendent: a story about friendship, the death of the beloved, and the quest for immortality.
Some five hundred years after the Old Babylonian version was written, a scholar-priest named Sîn-léqi-unninni revised and elaborated on it. His epic, which scholars call the Standard Version, is the basis for all modern translations. As of now, with seventy-three fragments discovered, slightly fewer than two thousand of the three thousand lines of the original text exist in readable, continuous form; the rest is damaged or missing, and there are many gaps in the sections that have survived.
We don't know exactly what Sîn-léqi-unninni's contribution to the Standard Version was, since so few fragments of the Old Babylonian version have survived for comparison. From what we can see, he is often a conservative editor, following the older version line for line, with few if any changes in vocabulary and word order. Sometimes, though, he expands or contracts, drops passages or adds them, and functions not as an editor but as an original poet. The two major passages that we know he added, the Prologue and the priestess Shamhat's speech inviting Enkidu to Uruk, have the vividness and density of great art.
The Gilgamesh that you are about to read is a sometimes free, sometimes close adaptation into English verse of Sîn-léqi-unninni's Standard Version. Even scholars making literal translations don't simply translate the Standard Version; they fill in some of the textual gaps with passages from other versions, the Old Babylonian being the most important. I have taken this practice further: occasionally, when the Standard Version is particularly fragmentary, I have supplemented it with passages from the Sumerian Gilgamesh poems. I have also added lines or short passages to bridge the gaps or to clarify the story. My intention throughout has been to re-create the ancient epic, as a contemporary poem, in the parallel universe of the English language.
Civilizing the Wild Man
Gilgamesh is the story of a hero's journey; one might say that it is the mother of all heroes' journeys, with its huge uninhibited mythic presences moving through a landscape of dream. It is also the story of how a man becomes civilized, how he learns to rule himself and therefore his people, and to act with temperance, wisdom, and piety. The poem begins with the city and ends with it.
In the first lines of his Prologue, Sîn-léqi-unninni states the breadth and depth of what his hero had endured: "He had seen everything, had experienced all emotions." The next seven lines tell us the essential details, not even bothering to mention the hero's name. Gilgamesh had traveled to the edge of the world and been granted knowledge of the primeval days of humanity; he had survived the journey and returned to restore the great temple of Ishtar and Uruk's then famous six-mile-long wall.
And now, after this summary, something fascinating happens. Sîn-léqi-unninni turns to his readers and invites them to survey the great city for themselves:
See how its ramparts gleam like copper in the sun. Climb the stone staircase, more ancient than the mind can imagine, approach the Eanna Temple, sacred to Ishtar, a temple that no king has equaled in size or beauty, walk on the wall of Uruk, follow its course around the city, inspect its mighty foundations, examine its brickwork, how masterfully it is built, observe the land it encloses: the palm trees, the gardens, the orchards, the glorious palaces and temples, the shops and marketplaces, the houses, the public squares.
It is a very strange and touching moment. The poet is ostensibly addressing an audience of ancient Babylonians in 1200 B.C.E., directing them to admire a city that was built in time immemorial. But the readers, as it turns out, are you and I. We are the ones who are being invited, more than three thousand years later, to walk on the wall of Uruk and observe the splendor and bustling life of the great city. The invitation is touching not because the city is in ruins and the civilization has been destroyed - this is not an ironic "Ozymandias" moment - but because in our imagination we can climb the ancient stone staircase and observe the lush gardens and orchards, the palaces and temples, the shops and marketplaces, the houses, the public squares, and share the poet's amazement and pride in his city.
Then Sîn-léqi-unninni's invitation becomes more intimate. "Find the cornerstone," he tells us, and under it the copper box that is marked with his name. Unlock it. Open the lid. Take out the tablet of lapis lazuli. Read how Gilgamesh suffered all and accomplished all.
I doubt whether even in 1200 B.C.E. this was meant to be taken literally. Even to an ancient Babylonian reader, the lines would have been vivid enough to make the physical act unnecessary. As we read the instructions, we can see ourselves finding the cornerstone, taking out the copper box, unlocking it, opening its lid, and taking out the priceless tablet of lapis lazuli, which turns out, in the end, to be the very poem we are about to read. We are looking beneath the surface of things, into the hidden places, the locked repositories of human experience. The trials that Gilgamesh himself is supposed to have written down long ago are now being revealed to us in words that, whether "carved on stone tablets" or printed on paper, create their own sense of authenticity. They issue directly from the source: if not from the historical Gilgamesh, then from a poet who has imagined that hero's experience intensely enough for it to be true.
The Old Babylonian poem that Sîn-léqi-unninni inherited begins with the phrase "Surpassing all kings." It describes Gilgamesh as a gigantic and manic young man (his name may mean "The Old Man is a Young Man"), a warrior, and, after his return, as a good king and benefactor to his people: a combination of Goliath and David. But to begin with he is a tyrant. When we first enter the poem, there is an essential imbalance in the city; something has gone drastically wrong. The man of unsurpassable courage and inexhaustible energy has become a monster of selfishness; the shepherd has become a wolf. He oppresses the young men, perhaps with forced labor, and oppresses the young women, perhaps with his ravenous sexual appetite. Because he is an absolute monarch (and two-thirds divine into the bargain), no one dares to criticize him. The people call out to heaven, like the Israelite slaves in Exodus, and their cry is heard.
Excerpted from Gilgamesh by Stephen Mitchell Copyright © 2004 by Stephen Mitchell. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Questions and Topics for Discussion
The narrator of the epic introduces Gilgamesh in a unique way; he doesn't mention his name until the last line of the prologue.
1) What effect does the narrator create as he introduces the hero?
2) What kind of "portrait" does the narrator give of Gilgamesh?
3) Many of the sentences in the Prologue are imperative. Why does the narrator command the reader to do this and that?
1) This book opens with a positive description of Gilgamesh ending with the word "perfect." Then, in the next paragraph the description changes, and the word "arrogant" is used. What is the "true" picture of Gilgamesh?
2) When the goddess Aruru forms the savage man, Enkidu, another problem is presented. He is a wild man roaming the forest with the animals, and the trapper cannot make a living since the fearsome Enkidu is tearing out his traps and freeing the animals. Why do you think the Gilgamesh author made this "double for Gilgamesh, his second self" so different from the city-dwelling Gilgamesh?
3) The goddess's solution to the trapper's problem is to introduce the wild man to sex with the woman Shamhat. A priestess of the goddess of love, who has dedicated herself to being a servant of the goddess, Shamhat might be called a "sacred prostitute," but she is not out for personal gain. Her union with Enkidu changes him in many ways. What are they?
4) Book I foreshadows the friendship theme for both Gilgamesh and Enkidu. What in the text supports this?
1) Now that Enkidu has gained some self-awareness, Shamhat continues to teach Enkidu. What lessons does he learn from her in this book?
2) The book begins with a violent fight but ends in the beginnings of friendship. What is your theory about why this happens? Is there any information in the text to support you?
1) Much of this book is a debate between the two friends. The argument is over whether the two should journey to the Cedar Forest and kill the monster Humbaba. What is Enkidu's objection to the adventure?
2) What is Gilgamesh's reason for insisting on the adventure?
3) What is the elders' objection to the adventure? What is his mother Ninsun's attitude?
1) This book is notable for its repetitive descriptions and the interpretation of dreams as in other epics like Beowulf and those by Homer. Each day the two men travel exactly the same amount of miles, set up camp the same way, and each night Gilgamesh has an ominous dream that Enkidu interprets as favorable. Repetition, interpretation of dreams — what do you see as the importance of this book to the narrative?
2) The monster Humbaba is portrayed as pathetic, comic, and scary — yet we, as readers, sympathize with him. Why? What support do you find in the text for this sympathy?
1) The two friends exhibit real fear in this book. In this way, they are unlike other heroes in later epics — Beowulf and Odysseus, for example. For Gilgamesh and Enkidu, fear is not a shameful trait. In fact, it works well in this book. Why? What does sharing their fear accomplish?
2) With the help of the god Shamash, the two defeat the monster in an epic battle. When Humbaba begs for his life, why does Enkidu persuade Gilgamesh to refuse?
3) Interpret, if you can, the repetitive lines that come right after the terrible mutilation of Humbaba:
"A gentle rain fell onto the mountains.
A gentle rain fell onto the mountains."
1) After Gilgamesh's victory over the monster, the goddess Ishtar propositions him. Why does Gilgamesh refuse the goddess?
2) Of the six insulting examples Gilgamesh throws at Ishtar, which one is most convincing to you? Why?
3) Deeply insulted, Ishtar prevails on her father, the sky-god, to let her have the Bull of Heaven to wreak vengeance on Gilgamesh and his city. The images of the gigantic bull are fierce, but again, the two friends work together to kill the monster. What does Enkidu do at the finish of the battle, and what does that tell us about him?
1) At the end of Book VI, Enkidu has a frightening dream, and in Book VII he recalls it for Gilgamesh along with another bad dream. Gilgamesh tries to interpret the dreams as favorable, but Enkidu realizes that his fate has been sealed. How has Enkidu angered the gods?
2) When Enkidu realizes his fate, he curses both the trapper and Shamhat, who brought him to the city of Uruk, but Shamash offers a more balanced view. What is his view, and how does Enkidu react to it?
1) The loss of Enkidu is devastating to Gilgamesh. How does he express his grief?
2) How does Gilgamesh describe his friendship with Enkidu? How does he honor his friend's memory? What would he do today?
1) Gilgamesh now realizes that he, too, will die. He allows his life to fall apart; he does not bathe, shave, or take care of himself (somewhat reminiscent of the original Enkidu). This is not so much out of grief for Enkidu, but because he is terrified about death. He decides to find the one man onto whom the gods granted immortality, Utnapishtim. The first stage of his journey — the trip through the tunnel — is successful. What are the dangers in this first part of the quest?
1) The tavern keeper, Shiduri, seems to offer Gilgamesh good advice for living after Enkidu's death. Why doesn't Gilgamesh pay attention?
2) Gilgamesh goes through more stages along the way to the immortal man, Utnapishtim, and when Gilgamesh finally reaches him, he receives more advice — this time about death — which he also rejects. Is the advice good in your opinion? Why?
3) Gilgamesh is offered two chances: one, immortality; two, a return to his youth. What does he have to do, and how does he handle these choices?
1) When Gilgamesh asks Utnapishtim to reveal the reason the gods made him immortal, the man recounts the ancient story of the Flood. This is the "vision" of the "primeval days before the Flood" promised in the Prologue. But this vision doesn't seem to help Gilgamesh find the answer to his question, "Must I die, too?" Scholars differ on the reasons for including this account of the Flood; why do you think the narrator included it?
2) In the Prologue, the unknown narrator takes the reader proudly through the city of Uruk. These same lines are spoken by Gilgamesh at the end of the tale. What is significance of this? What has Gilgamesh learned by the end of his epic journey?
BEFORE READING THE EPIC:
1) Cuneiform writing is picture writing invented by Sumerians who wrote with long reeds on clay tablets while the clay was wet. (Latin: "cuneus" = wedge, "forma"= shape) Writing allowed these ancient people to write laws and to incorporate more of local cultures and their history. Students can "write" cuneiform by using a piece of clay and logging on to www.upenn.edu/museum. The title of the Web site section is "How to Write Like a Babylonian." Browsers can see their monograms in cuneiform, and there is further information on the writing form.
2) Students can research the gods, goddesses, mortals, and locations in the epic. Make clear that any research furthers their understanding of the epic.
3) In this epic, many symbols and motifs appear whose meanings are not always the same as contemporary meanings. Some of these symbols and motifs include: the interpretation of dreams, the role of a priestess of Ishtar as opposed to a prostitute, the sympathy we have for monsters, the significance of bathing or not bathing, the similarities between Gilgamesh and Enkidu, and the many journeys that Gilgamesh makes — each physical journey mirrors his emotional quest. Compare and contrast two of the above with examples from the text and what their modern meaning would be.