Gilgamesh (A New English Version by Stephen Mitchell)

Gilgamesh (A New English Version by Stephen Mitchell)

by Stephen Mitchell

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780743261692
Publisher: Atria Books
Publication date: 01/24/2006
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 43,505
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Stephen Mitchell is widely known for his ability to make old classics thrillingly new. His many books include the bestselling Tao Te Ching, the Iliad, Gilgamesh, The Gospel According to Jesus, The Book of Job, Bhagavad Gita, and The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. His website is StephenMitchellBooks.com.

Read an Excerpt

INTRODUCTION

THE OLDEST STORY

IN THE WORLD

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.

ORIGINS

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 1850 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 BCE). "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 BCE; 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-leýqi-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-leýqi-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-leýqi-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-leýqi-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-leýqi-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 BCE, 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-leýqi-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 BCE 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-leýqi-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. But Anu, father of the gods, doesn't intervene directly. He sends help in a deliciously roundabout way. He asks the great mother goddess, Aruru, to reenact her first creation of human beings:

"Now go and create

a double for Gilgamesh, his second self,

a man who equals his strength and courage,

a man who equals his stormy heart.

Create a new hero, let them balance each other

perfectly, so that Uruk has peace."

Like the Lord God in Genesis, Aruru forms a man from the dust of the ground, and he becomes a living being, the original man himself: natural, innocent, solitary. This second Adam will find "a help meet for him" not in a woman but in the man for whose sake he was created. Thus begins — a thousand years before Achilles and Patroclus, or David and Jonathan — the first great friendship in literature.

Enkidu is indeed Gilgamesh's double, so huge and powerful that when people see him they are struck with awe. But he is also Gilgamesh's opposite and mirror image: two-thirds animal to Gilgamesh's two-thirds divine. These animal qualities are actually much more attractive than the divine ones. Where Gilgamesh is arrogant, Enkidu is childlike; where Gilgamesh is violent, Enkidu is peaceful, a naked herbivore among the herds. He lives and wanders with them from pasture to pasture, and (as we learn later in the poem) he drives away marauding predators, thus acting as both sheep and shepherd. With his natural altruism, he is also the original animal activist, setting his friends free from human pits and traps.

When the trapper discovers Enkidu drinking with the animals at a waterhole, he is filled with dread, as if he has seen a bigfoot or abominable snowman. What makes his face go white and his legs shake is not the fear of being harmed by a powerful savage (after all, he doesn't have to get any closer): it is the fear of being face to face with primordial humanity, the thing itself. He goes to his father for advice, and the father sends him on to Gilgamesh, who "will know what to do."

Gilgamesh may be a tyrant, but he is an insightful one. He does know what to do about the wild man, and he tells it to the trapper without a moment's hesitation. "Go to the temple of Ishtar," he says,

"ask them there for a woman named Shamhat,

one of the priestesses who give their bodies

to any man, in honor of the goddess.

Take her into the wilderness.

When the animals are drinking at the waterhole,

tell her to strip off her robe and lie there

naked, ready, with her legs apart.

The wild man will approach. Let her use her love-arts.

Nature will take its course, and then

the animals who knew him in the wilderness

will be bewildered, and will leave him forever."

It is a startling recommendation, especially coming from a man whose modus operandi is force. We might have expected him to send out a battalion to hunt down and capture Enkidu. Instead, he commissions a single woman. Somehow he knows that Enkidu needs to be tamed rather than captured, and that the only way to civilize him is through the power of eros. He doesn't seem to suspect, however, that the wild man has been sent by the gods to civilize him.

And that is how the poem ends: where it began. Its form is not circular, like Finnegans Wake, but spiral, since it begins again at another level, with Gilgamesh narrating. His transformation has taken place offstage, outside the frame of the poem, at the last possible moment. When we return to the beginning, where Gilgamesh's echoing lines point us, it is clear that he has completed the final stage of the archetypal hero's journey, in which the hero gives new life to his community, returning to them with the gifts he has discovered on his adventure.

He brought back the ancient, forgotten rites,

restoring the temples that the Flood had destroyed,

renewing the statutes and sacraments

for the welfare of the people and the sacred land.

We are not told how he learned "the ancient, forgotten rites" from Utnapishtim. But we know that for the first time he is acting as a responsible, compassionate king, a benefactor to his people and their descendents. Out of the depths, somehow, Gilgamesh has managed to "close the gate of sorrow"; he has learned how to rule himself and his city without violence, selfishness, or the compulsions of a restless heart.

Gilgamesh's quest is not an allegory. It is too subtle and rich in minute particulars to fit any abstract scheme. But issuing as it does from a deep level of human experience, it has a certain allegorical resonance. We don't need to be aware of this resonance in order to enjoy the story. Yet it is there.

When Gilgamesh leaves his city and goes into uncharted territory in search of a way beyond death, he is looking for something that is impossible to find. His quest is like the mind's search for control, order, and meaning in a world where everything is constantly disintegrating. The quest proves the futility of the quest. There is no way to overcome death; there is no way to control reality. "When I argue with reality, I lose," Byron Katie writes, " — but only 100 percent of the time."

Not until Gilgamesh gives up on transcendence can he realize how beautiful his city is; only then, freed from his restless heart, can he fully return to the place he started out from. Suppose that the city is this moment: things as they are, without any meaning added. When the mind gives up on its quest for control, order, and meaning, it finds that it has come home, to reality, where it has always been. What it has — what it is — in this very moment is everything it ever wanted.

Somehow, in the interval between story and return, Gilgamesh has become wise. He has absorbed not the conventional wisdom of a Shiduri or an Utnapishtim, but the deeper wisdom of the poem's narrative voice, a wisdom that is impartial, humorous, civilized, sexual, irreverent, skeptical of moral absolutes, delighted with the things of this world, and supremely confident in the power of its own language.

Copyright © 2004 by Stephen Mitchell

BOOK V

They stood at the edge of the Cedar Forest,

marveling at the great height of the trees.

They could see, before them, a well-marked trail

beaten by Humbaba as he came and went.

From far off they saw the Cedar Mountain,

sacred to Ishtar, where the gods dwell,

the slopes of it steep, and rich in cedars

with their sharp fragrance and pleasant shade.

Gripping their axes, their knives unsheathed,

they entered the Forest and made their way through

the tangle of thorn bushes underfoot.

Suddenly Enkidu was seized by terror,

his face turned pale like a severed head.

He said to Gilgamesh, "Dear friend, I cannot

continue, I am frightened, I cannot go on.

You go into the dreadful forest,

you kill Humbaba and win the fame.

I will return now to great-walled Uruk,

and all men will know what a coward I have been."

Gilgamesh answered, "Dear friend, dear brother,

I cannot kill Humbaba alone.

Please stay here with me. Stand at my side.

'Two boats lashed together will never sink.

A three-ply rope is not easily broken.'

If we help each other and fight side by side,

what harm can come to us? Let us go on

and attack the monster. We have come so far.

Whatever you are feeling, let us go on."

Enkidu said, "You have never met him,

so you don't know the horror that lurks ahead.

But when I saw him, my blood ran cold.

His teeth are knife-sharp, they stick out like tusks,

his face, blood-smeared, is a lion's face,

he charges ahead like a raging torrent,

his forehead ablaze. Who can withstand him?

I am terrified. I cannot go on."

Gilgamesh said, "Courage, dear brother,

this is no time to give in to fear.

We have come so far, across so many mountains,

and our journey is about to reach its goal.

You were raised in the wild, with your own hands

you have killed marauding lions and wolves,

you are brave, your heart has been tested in combat.

Though your arms feel weak now and your legs tremble,

you are a warrior, you know what to do.

Shout out your battle-cry, let your voice pound

like a kettle drum. Let your heart inspire you

to be joyous in battle, to forget about death.

If we help each other and fight side by side,

we will make a lasting name for ourselves,

we will stamp our fame on men's minds forever."

They walked deep into the Cedar Forest,

gripping their axes, their knives unsheathed,

following the trail that Humbaba had made.

They came within sight of the monster's den.

He was waiting inside it. Their blood ran cold.

He saw the two friends, he grimaced, he bared

his teeth, he let out a deafening roar.

He glared at Gilgamesh. "Young man," he said,

"you will never go home. Prepare to die."

Dread surged through Gilgamesh, terror flooded

his muscles, his heart froze, his mouth went dry,

his legs shook, his feet were rooted to the ground.

Enkidu saw his dismay and said,

"Dear friend, great warrior, noble hero,

don't lose courage, remember this:

'Two boats lashed together will never sink.

A three-ply rope is not easily broken.'

If we help each other and fight side by side,

what harm can come to us? Let us go on."

They advanced to the monster's den. Humbaba

charged out roaring at them and said,

"I know you, Gilgamesh. Don't be a fool.

Go away. Leave the Cedar Forest.

Have madmen told you to confront me here?

I will tear you limb from limb, I will crush you

and leave you bloody and mangled on the ground.

And you, Enkidu, you son of a fish

or a turtle, you gutless, fatherless spawn

who never suckled on mother's milk,

I saw you in the pastures when you were young,

I saw you graze with the wandering herds

but I didn't kill you, you were too scrawny,

you wouldn't have made a decent meal.

And now you dare to lead Gilgamesh here,

you both stand before me looking like a pair

of frightened girls. I will slit your throats,

I will cut off your heads, I will feed your stinking

guts to the shrieking vultures and crows."

Gilgamesh backed away. He said,

"How dreadful Humbaba's face has become!

It is changing into a thousand nightmare

faces, more horrible than I can bear.

I feel haunted. I am too afraid to go on."

Enkidu answered, "Why, dear friend,

do you speak like a coward? What you just said

is unworthy of you. It grieves my heart.

We must not hesitate or retreat.

Two intimate friends cannot be defeated.

Be courageous. Remember how strong you are.

I will stand by you. Now let us attack."

Gilgamesh felt his courage return.

They charged at Humbaba like two wild bulls.

The monster let out a deafening cry,

his roar boomed forth like a blast of thunder,

he stamped and the ground burst open, his steps

split the mountains of Lebanon,

the clouds turned black, a sulfurous fog

descended on them and made their eyes ache.

Then Shamash threw strong winds at Humbaba,

the south wind, the north wind, the east and the west,

storm wind, gale wind, hurricane, tornado,

to pin him down and paralyze his steps.

He could not move forward, could not retreat.

Gilgamesh saw it, he leaped upon him,

he held a knife to Humbaba's throat.

Humbaba said, "Gilgamesh, have mercy.

Let me live here in the Cedar Forest.

If you spare my life, I will be your slave,

I will give you as many cedars as you wish.

You are king of Uruk by the grace of Shamash,

honor him with a cedar temple

and a glorious cedar palace for yourself.

All this is yours, if only you spare me."

Enkidu said, "Dear friend, don't listen

to anything that the monster says.

Kill him before you become confused."

Humbaba said, "If any mortal,

Enkidu, knows the rules of my forest,

it is you. You know that this is my place

and that I am the forest's guardian. Enlil

put me here to terrify men,

and I guard the forest as Enlil ordains.

If you kill me, you will call down the gods'

wrath, and their judgment will be severe.

I could have killed you at the forest's edge,

I could have hung you from a cedar and fed

your guts to the shrieking vultures and crows.

Now it is your turn to show me mercy.

Speak to him, beg him to spare my life."

Enkidu said, "Dear friend, quickly,

before another moment goes by,

kill Humbaba, don't listen to his words,

don't hesitate, slaughter him, slit his throat,

before the great god Enlil can stop us,

before the great gods can get enraged,

Enlil in Nippur, Shamash in Larsa.

Establish your fame, so that forever

men will speak of brave Gilgamesh,

who killed Humbaba in the Cedar Forest."

Knowing he was doomed, Humbaba cried out,

"I curse you both. Because you have done this,

may Enkidu die, may he die in great pain,

may Gilgamesh be inconsolable,

may his merciless heart be crushed with grief."

Gilgamesh dropped his axe, appalled.

Enkidu said, "Courage, dear friend.

Close your ears to Humbaba's curses.

Don't listen to a word. Slaughter him! Now!"

Gilgamesh, hearing his beloved friend,

came to himself. He yelled, he lifted

his massive axe, he swung it, it tore

into Humbaba's neck, the blood

shot out, again the axe bit flesh

and bone, the monster staggered, his eyes

rolled, and at the axe's third stroke

he toppled like a cedar and crashed to the ground.

At his death-roar the mountains of Lebanon shook,

the valleys ran with his blood, for ten miles

the forest resounded. Then the two friends

sliced him open, pulled out his intestines,

cut off his head with its knife-sharp teeth

and horrible bloodshot staring eyes.

A gentle rain fell onto the mountains.

A gentle rain fell onto the mountains.

They took their axes and penetrated

deeper into the forest, they went

chopping down cedars, the woods chips flew,

Gilgamesh chopped down the mighty trees,

Enkidu hewed the trunks into timbers.

Enkidu said, "By your great strength

you have killed Humbaba, the forest's watchman.

What could bring you dishonor now?

We have chopped down the trees of the Cedar Forest,

we have brought to earth the highest of the trees,

the cedar whose top once pierced the sky.

We will make it into a gigantic door,

a hundred feet high and thirty feet wide,

we will float it down the Euphrates to Enlil's

temple in Nippur. No men shall go through it,

but only the gods. May Enlil delight in it,

may it be a joy to the people of Nippur."

They bound logs together and built a raft.

Enkidu steered it down the great river.

Gilgamesh carried Humbaba's head.

Copyright © 2004 by Stephen Mitchell

From the Introduction: The Oldest Story in the World

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.

Origins

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. But Anu, father of the gods, doesn't intervene directly. He sends help in a deliciously roundabout way. He asks the great mother goddess, Aruru, to reenact her first creation of human beings:

"Now go and create

a double for Gilgamesh, his second self,

a man who equals his strength and courage,

a man who equals his stormy heart.

Create a new hero, let them balance each other

perfectly, so that Uruk has peace."

Like the Lord God in Genesis, Aruru forms a man from the dust of the ground, and he becomes a living being, the original man himself: natural, innocent, solitary. This second Adam will find "a help meet for him" not in a woman but in the man for whose sake he was created. Thus begins — a thousand years before Achilles and Patroclus, or David and Jonathan — the first great friendship in literature.

Enkidu is indeed Gilgamesh's double, so huge and powerful that when people see him they are struck with awe. But he is also Gilgamesh's opposite and mirror image: two-thirds animal to Gilgamesh's two-thirds divine. These animal qualities are actually much more attractive than the divine ones. Where Gilgamesh is arrogant, Enkidu is childlike; where Gilgamesh is violent, Enkidu is peaceful, a naked herbivore among the herds. He lives and wanders with them from pasture to pasture, and (as we learn later in the poem) he drives away marauding predators, thus acting as both sheep and shepherd. With his natural altruism, he is also the original animal activist, setting his friends free from human pits and traps.

When the trapper discovers Enkidu drinking with the animals at a waterhole, he is filled with dread, as if he has seen a bigfoot or abominable snowman. What makes his face go white and his legs shake is not the fear of being harmed by a powerful savage (after all, he doesn't have to get any closer): it is the fear of being face to face with primordial humanity, the thing itself. He goes to his father for advice, and the father sends him on to Gilgamesh, who "will know what to do."

Gilgamesh may be a tyrant, but he is an insightful one. He does know what to do about the wild man, and he tells it to the trapper without a moment's hesitation. "Go to the temple of Ishtar," he says,

"ask them there for a woman named Shamhat,

one of the priestesses who give their bodies

to any man, in honor of the goddess.

Take her into the wilderness.

When the animals are drinking at the waterhole,

tell her to strip off her robe and lie there

naked, ready, with her legs apart.

The wild man will approach. Let her use her love-arts.

Nature will take its course, and then

the animals who knew him in the wilderness

will be bewildered, and will leave him forever."

It is a startling recommendation, especially coming from a man whose modus operandi is force. We might have expected him to send out a battalion to hunt down and capture Enkidu. Instead, he commissions a single woman. Somehow he knows that Enkidu needs to be tamed rather than captured, and that the only way to civilize him is through the power of eros. He doesn't seem to suspect, however, that the wild man has been sent by the gods to civilize him.

§

And that is how the poem ends: where it began. Its form is not circular, like Finnegans Wake, but spiral, since it begins again at another level, with Gilgamesh narrating. His transformation has taken place offstage, outside the frame of the poem, at the last possible moment. When we return to the beginning, where Gilgamesh's echoing lines point us, it is clear that he has completed the final stage of the archetypal hero's journey, in which the hero gives new life to his community, returning to them with the gifts he has discovered on his adventure.

He brought back the ancient, forgotten rites,

restoring the temples that the Flood had destroyed,

renewing the statutes and sacraments

for the welfare of the people and the sacred land.

We are not told how he learned "the ancient, forgotten rites" from Utnapishtim. But we know that for the first time he is acting as a responsible, compassionate king, a benefactor to his people and their descendents. Out of the depths, somehow, Gilgamesh has managed to "close the gate of sorrow"; he has learned how to rule himself and his city without violence, selfishness, or the compulsions of a restless heart.

Gilgamesh's quest is not an allegory. It is too subtle and rich in minute particulars to fit any abstract scheme. But issuing as it does from a deep level of human experience, it has a certain allegorical resonance. We don't need to be aware of this resonance in order to enjoy the story. Yet it is there.

When Gilgamesh leaves his city and goes into uncharted territory in search of a way beyond death, he is looking for something that is impossible to find. His quest is like the mind's search for control, order, and meaning in a world where everything is constantly disintegrating. The quest proves the futility of the quest. There is no way to overcome death; there is no way to control reality. "When I argue with reality, I lose," Byron Katie writes, " — but only 100 percent of the time."

Not until Gilgamesh gives up on transcendence can he realize how beautiful his city is; only then, freed from his restless heart, can he fully return to the place he started out from. Suppose that the city is this moment: things as they are, without any meaning added. When the mind gives up on its quest for control, order, and meaning, it finds that it has come home, to reality, where it has always been. What it has — what it is — in this very moment is everything it ever wanted.

Somehow, in the interval between story and return, Gilgamesh has become wise. He has absorbed not the conventional wisdom of a Shiduri or an Utnapishtim, but the deeper wisdom of the poem's narrative voice, a wisdom that is impartial, humorous, civilized, sexual, irreverent, skeptical of moral absolutes, delighted with the things of this world, and supremely confident in the power of its own language.

Copyright © 2004 by Stephen Mitchell

Book V

They stood at the edge of the Cedar Forest,

marveling at the great height of the trees.

They could see, before them, a well-marked trail

beaten by Humbaba as he came and went.

From far off they saw the Cedar Mountain,

sacred to Ishtar, where the gods dwell,

the slopes of it steep, and rich in cedars

with their sharp fragrance and pleasant shade.

Gripping their axes, their knives unsheathed,

they entered the Forest and made their way through

the tangle of thorn bushes underfoot.

Suddenly Enkidu was seized by terror,

his face turned pale like a severed head.

He said to Gilgamesh, "Dear friend, I cannot

continue, I am frightened, I cannot go on.

You go into the dreadful forest,

you kill Humbaba and win the fame.

I will return now to great-walled Uruk,

and all men will know what a coward I have been."

Gilgamesh answered, "Dear friend, dear brother,

I cannot kill Humbaba alone.

Please stay here with me. Stand at my side.

'Two boats lashed together will never sink.

A three-ply rope is not easily broken.'

If we help each other and fight side by side,

what harm can come to us? Let us go on

and attack the monster. We have come so far.

Whatever you are feeling, let us go on."

Enkidu said, "You have never met him,

so you don't know the horror that lurks ahead.

But when I saw him, my blood ran cold.

His teeth are knife-sharp, they stick out like tusks,

his face, blood-smeared, is a lion's face,

he charges ahead like a raging torrent,

his forehead ablaze. Who can withstand him?

I am terrified. I cannot go on."

Gilgamesh said, "Courage, dear brother,

this is no time to give in to fear.

We have come so far, across so many mountains,

and our journey is about to reach its goal.

You were raised in the wild, with your own hands

you have killed marauding lions and wolves,

you are brave, your heart has been tested in combat.

Though your arms feel weak now and your legs tremble,

you are a warrior, you know what to do.

Shout out your battle-cry, let your voice pound

like a kettle drum. Let your heart inspire you

to be joyous in battle, to forget about death.

If we help each other and fight side by side,

we will make a lasting name for ourselves,

we will stamp our fame on men's minds forever."

They walked deep into the Cedar Forest,

gripping their axes, their knives unsheathed,

following the trail that Humbaba had made.

They came within sight of the monster's den.

He was waiting inside it. Their blood ran cold.

He saw the two friends, he grimaced, he bared

his teeth, he let out a deafening roar.

He glared at Gilgamesh. "Young man," he said,

"you will never go home. Prepare to die."

Dread surged through Gilgamesh, terror flooded

his muscles, his heart froze, his mouth went dry,

his legs shook, his feet were rooted to the ground.

Enkidu saw his dismay and said,

"Dear friend, great warrior, noble hero,

don't lose courage, remember this:

'Two boats lashed together will never sink.

A three-ply rope is not easily broken.'

If we help each other and fight side by side,

what harm can come to us? Let us go on."

They advanced to the monster's den. Humbaba

charged out roaring at them and said,

"I know you, Gilgamesh. Don't be a fool.

Go away. Leave the Cedar Forest.

Have madmen told you to confront me here?

I will tear you limb from limb, I will crush you

and leave you bloody and mangled on the ground.

And you, Enkidu, you son of a fish

or a turtle, you gutless, fatherless spawn

who never suckled on mother's milk,

I saw you in the pastures when you were young,

I saw you graze with the wandering herds

but I didn't kill you, you were too scrawny,

you wouldn't have made a decent meal.

And now you dare to lead Gilgamesh here,

you both stand before me looking like a pair

of frightened girls. I will slit your throats,

I will cut off your heads, I will feed your stinking

guts to the shrieking vultures and crows."

Gilgamesh backed away. He said,

"How dreadful Humbaba's face has become!

It is changing into a thousand nightmare

faces, more horrible than I can bear.

I feel haunted. I am too afraid to go on."

Enkidu answered, "Why, dear friend,

do you speak like a coward? What you just said

is unworthy of you. It grieves my heart.

We must not hesitate or retreat.

Two intimate friends cannot be defeated.

Be courageous. Remember how strong you are.

I will stand by you. Now let us attack."

Gilgamesh felt his courage return.

They charged at Humbaba like two wild bulls.

The monster let out a deafening cry,

his roar boomed forth like a blast of thunder,

he stamped and the ground burst open, his steps

split the mountains of Lebanon,

the clouds turned black, a sulfurous fog

descended on them and made their eyes ache.

Then Shamash threw strong winds at Humbaba,

the south wind, the north wind, the east and the west,

storm wind, gale wind, hurricane, tornado,

to pin him down and paralyze his steps.

He could not move forward, could not retreat.

Gilgamesh saw it, he leaped upon him,

he held a knife to Humbaba's throat.

Humbaba said, "Gilgamesh, have mercy.

Let me live here in the Cedar Forest.

If you spare my life, I will be your slave,

I will give you as many cedars as you wish.

You are king of Uruk by the grace of Shamash,

honor him with a cedar temple

and a glorious cedar palace for yourself.

All this is yours, if only you spare me."

Enkidu said, "Dear friend, don't listen

to anything that the monster says.

Kill him before you become confused."

Humbaba said, "If any mortal,

Enkidu, knows the rules of my forest,

it is you. You know that this is my place

and that I am the forest's guardian. Enlil

put me here to terrify men,

and I guard the forest as Enlil ordains.

If you kill me, you will call down the gods'

wrath, and their judgment will be severe.

I could have killed you at the forest's edge,

I could have hung you from a cedar and fed

your guts to the shrieking vultures and crows.

Now it is your turn to show me mercy.

Speak to him, beg him to spare my life."

Enkidu said, "Dear friend, quickly,

before another moment goes by,

kill Humbaba, don't listen to his words,

don't hesitate, slaughter him, slit his throat,

before the great god Enlil can stop us,

before the great gods can get enraged,

Enlil in Nippur, Shamash in Larsa.

Establish your fame, so that forever

men will speak of brave Gilgamesh,

who killed Humbaba in the Cedar Forest."

Knowing he was doomed, Humbaba cried out,

"I curse you both. Because you have done this,

may Enkidu die, may he die in great pain,

may Gilgamesh be inconsolable,

may his merciless heart be crushed with grief."

Gilgamesh dropped his axe, appalled.

Enkidu said, "Courage, dear friend.

Close your ears to Humbaba's curses.

Don't listen to a word. Slaughter him! Now!"

Gilgamesh, hearing his beloved friend,

came to himself. He yelled, he lifted

his massive axe, he swung it, it tore

into Humbaba's neck, the blood

shot out, again the axe bit flesh

and bone, the monster staggered, his eyes

rolled, and at the axe's third stroke

he toppled like a cedar and crashed to the ground.

At his death-roar the mountains of Lebanon shook,

the valleys ran with his blood, for ten miles

the forest resounded. Then the two friends

sliced him open, pulled out his intestines,

cut off his head with its knife-sharp teeth

and horrible bloodshot staring eyes.

A gentle rain fell onto the mountains.

A gentle rain fell onto the mountains.

They took their axes and penetrated

deeper into the forest, they went

chopping down cedars, the woods chips flew,

Gilgamesh chopped down the mighty trees,

Enkidu hewed the trunks into timbers.

Enkidu said, "By your great strength

you have killed Humbaba, the forest's watchman.

What could bring you dishonor now?

We have chopped down the trees of the Cedar Forest,

we have brought to earth the highest of the trees,

the cedar whose top once pierced the sky.

We will make it into a gigantic door,

a hundred feet high and thirty feet wide,

we will float it down the Euphrates to Enlil's

temple in Nippur. No men shall go through it,

but only the gods. May Enlil delight in it,

may it be a joy to the people of Nippur."

They bound logs together and built a raft.

Enkidu steered it down the great river.

Gilgamesh carried Humbaba's head.

Copyright © 2004 by Stephen Mitchell

Table of Contents

Introduction1
About This Version65
Gilgamesh67
Notes201
Bibliography284
Glossary286
Acknowledgments291

What People are Saying About This

Harold Bloom

Stephen Mitchell's Gilgamesh is a wonderful version. It is as eloquent and nuanced as his translations of Rilke. This is certainly the best that I have seen in English.
author of The Western Canon and The Book of J

Elaine Pagels

Reading Stephen Mitchell's marvelously clear and vivid rendering makes me feel that I am encountering Gilgamesh for the first time.
Harrington Professor of Religion, Princeton University

Robert Coles

Here is the wisdom and lyrical beauty of yore rendered, offered us anew, by a distinguished, ever-so-knowing translator and poet who has given so many of us a wondrous education these past years. Mitchell connects us to treasures of the past brought alive by his broad and deep sensibility.
author of Lives of Moral Leadership, The Call of Service, and The Spiritual Life of Children and James Agee Professor of Social Ethics, Harvard University

Peter Matthiessen

Stephen Mitchell's fresh new rendition of mankind's oldest recorded myth is quite wonderful in its limpidity and the immediacy of its live emotions.
author of The Snow Leopard and At Play in the Fields of the Lord

Reading Group Guide

Gilgamesh: A New English Version
Stephen Mitchell

Questions and Topics for Discussion


PROLOGUE:

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?

BOOK I:

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?

BOOK II:

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?

BOOK III:

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?

BOOK IV:

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?

BOOK V:

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.”

BOOK VI:

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?

BOOK VII:

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?

BOOK VIII:

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?

BOOK IX:

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?


BOOK X:

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?

BOOK XI:

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.

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Gilgamesh 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 34 reviews.
Dave63 More than 1 year ago
This version of Gilgamesh is wonderful. The author starts with a lengthy introduction to the poem. What follows is the text and then extensive footnotes. The problem is that the ebook edition is just awful. The line breaks of the poem have been removed so it displays as prose paragraphs instead of lines of verse, thus destroying much of the author's hard work. He says in the introduction "once my prose version was completed, I began the real work, of raising the language to the level of English verse." So much for all that hard work :(. The other problem is the footnotes. Although there are 58 pages of footnotes in the book, there are no footnote marks in the text itself, so you don't realize there's a footnote about the text as you're reading it. The footnotes refer to the applicable page, so the only way to connect the note to the text is to read the entire page and try to figure out which passage applies. Skip the eBook edition and get the paper one.
AdamZ1 More than 1 year ago
It's astonish to read this book and then read the Old Testament and see how much the Bible stole from it. Stephen Mitchell's version is probably the best, though I would also suggest Herbert Mason's much shorter version.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the oldest pieces of literature on Earth along with the Upanishads, and various Chinese and Egyptian stories. This version of the epic is clear and rings to the unexperienced reader. This is one of the greatest feats of writing.
revslick on LibraryThing 24 days ago
It has been a few generations since I've read Gilgamesh and only remember it being an odd hero journey where the hero encounters some interesting female characters. Stephen has compiled a literary adaptation of Gilgamesh so inviting you can swim in it. The deep end has been filled with a psychological walkthrough of the mythical hero's journey. For me, it is a powerful, living example for male spirituality from the encounter with the wild man to the chasing off death to the final surrender where the story is suddenly retold anew.
CBJames on LibraryThing 24 days ago
The Epic of Gilgamesh is arguably the oldest story in the world, a thousand years older than the Iliad and the Bible. Dating back to 26th century B.C.E., The Epic of Gilgamesh is probably based on a Sumerian king who ruled the city of Uruk around 2750 B.C.E. The ruins of Uruk were only recently discovered, and the story of Gilgamesh itself was lost to time until a 1872 when a scholar noticed that a set of undeciphered tablets, sitting the the British Museum for decades, contained the story of a Babylonian Noah. He deciphered them all, giving the world its first near complete translation of the Epic of Gilgamesh.The Epic of Gilgamesh tells the story of a great king, a god-king, who, through friendship, became a human being. As it opens, Gilgamesh is building the city of Uruk, constructing the greatest walled city ever seen. He has no regard for the people whose lives are consumed by his desire nor for the gods who fear it. Enkidu, a wild man capable of defeating Gilgamesh, is sent by the gods to the forests near Uruk. Enkidu lives at peace with nature, a friend to all animals until a beautiful young priestess, Shamhut, arrives. When he falls in love with her, she cuts his hair, cleans him up, civilizes him and brings him back to Uruk where he does battle with Gilgamesh.The battle is a fierce one, but it eventually becomes apparent that the two great men are equally matched. Gilgmaseh, who has never had an equal before, befriends Enkidu and the two then have a series of adventures. Typically, Gilgamesh suggests the adventure and Enkidu tries to talk him out of it before giving in and going along. Gilgmamesh suggests they defeat the monster Humbaba and cut down the forest he lives in, but Enkidu resists arguing that this will anger the goddess Ishtar to whom the forest belongs. They defeat Humbaba, cut down the forest, and disgrace Ishtar. The gods then send down the Bull of Heaven which Gilgamesh and Enkidu also kill. But during the battle, Enkidu is mortally wounded and dies soon after. Gilgamesh is heartbroken, so he sets off to defeat death itself. It is during this final journey that he meets the man who survived the great flood which destroyed all the world. Gilgamesh is a compelling story, full of adventure, romance, sex and violence and it does have a few things to say to a modern audience. Who hasn't suffered the loss of a loved one or wanted to defeat death? Mr. Mitchell's translation is both poetic and highly readable; the story can be read in one or two evenings. But if you're looking for something as wonderful as Seamus Heaney's recent translation of Beowulf, you won't find it in Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh feels like a very primitive story, like a rough draft for the epics that will follow it. It lacks the poetry of Homer's Iliad or Virgil's Aeneid, along with the depth of character and narrative complexity of later epics. But it is the first one, and there is something to be said for that. I believe that one of the most important lessons we can learn from history is that it can all vanish. The historical king, Gilgamesh, built a great city, Uruk, which is now a ruin, one that would be unknown but for the expert eye of archaeologists. The names of its kings are recorded as are many of their deeds, but the only one anybody is still talking about, outside of very refined academic circles, is the fictional one featured in the Epic of Gilgamesh. What survives the passage of time is art.
391 on LibraryThing 24 days ago
I liked Stephen Mitchell's translation quite a lot. His scholarly notes at the beginning were really useful, and the verse itself was engaging and understandable. Five stars for him.
Mromano on LibraryThing 24 days ago
Best version of the Gilgamesh epic that I have read. Very accessible and enjoyable. The work itself is a must read primarily because as the single oldest mythic work it creates a blue print upon which all subsequent heroes (Greek, Roman, Christian, etc) are fashioned. Inside its pages are the original versian of Adam, the Flood, the motif of the male friendship bond, the quest for immortality, the identification of the serpent as the robber of human immortality, among many others. The work also includes what is probably the single greatest curse in literature.
touchthesky on LibraryThing 24 days ago
Honestly, I did NOT think I was going to like Gilgamesh. I had read it for my college literature class.. and.. actually, I really loved it! I think most of my classmates were surprised that they liked it as well. The story was so interesting and well told. I felt like there was a lot of life lessons that were taught. I think it's a timeless story. I highly recommend, Gilgamesh!
EliseP on LibraryThing 24 days ago
This is enjoyable if you like mythology and poetry. I actually listened to the audio version, performed by British theater actor George Guidall. It has a rhythm that you may not catch in the reading. I was especially struck by the flood story that so closely parallels that of the Biblical flood. I wonder what fundamentalist Christian-ists would think of a story like this, written a thousand years before Genesis. Though I don't see a fundamentalist Christian-ist finding any interest in mythology.
Anubhav Tewari 6 months ago
What a waste of 13$. Bought the ebook and now not even able to load and open the freaking book. Just a bunch of scoundrels these people at barnes and noble are. Pathetic service
Rambo1 More than 1 year ago
This is an actual good read, but the author give away the story in the introduction. Regardless, Gilgamesh is a life lesson, that any one can learn from.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I wish my high school had assigned this one instead of the Mason version. I like this one a lot more
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Bookworm1279 More than 1 year ago
Gilgamesh by Stephen Mitchell A great read, one that I had to read for class, But will say that I enjoyed reading the epic classic of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, reading about their friendship, about them being brothers. Enkidu was went to to bring down Gilgamesh because he was getting out of hand with the town folks. The villagers wanted Gilgamesh to stop, stop taking what is not his, so they sent Enkidu who is his equal and will become his friend his best friend and become his brother. When they come together they are one they balance each other out, they are their for one another, help each other out. Together they take down someone but at a cost, they upset the GODS who in return take something very dear away. This leaves a void for Gilgamesh, he is lost without his friend, he can't deal with the loss and wants to know how to overcome, how to deal with DEATH.
AlWheels More than 1 year ago
Excellently well written, only reference to the flood outside of the Bible, found in Chapter 11. Defines date of the flood to be somewhere before 2700 BCE.
tbryan19 More than 1 year ago
Awesome,granddaddy of all self discovery tales,Gilgamesh the man who plunged the the deep for lifes deeper meaning!!!!!
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The_Beastlord_Slavedragon More than 1 year ago
Ishtar is the goddess of carnal knowledge. She educates and annoints Endik in the ways of civilization. After having been enligtened and civilized he begins to have nightmares on the subject of death. No one is ever so fearful of death as is Endik after having been so enlightened. He has horrid nightmares of the souls rotting in Hell and he considers that he must indeed have actually gone there. Subsequent to his awakening to these new concepts of both fear and duplicity he dies. It is as if the knowledge such things in and of themselves alone actually killed him. The passage of the tale that became the most memorable follows as: "I descended in to Helll. The place was littered with crowns. I saw the crowns of great kings and wise men and priests's robes." As a reader I found it rather refreshingly chilling that the riches of the high and lofty and the self righteous high acheivers occupied the heat and the long sufferings and the thirsts and hungers having to do with such a souless place of doom. It kept me awake thinking. These are concepts that had been considered by whomever compiled this folk tale from Lebannon nearly four thousand years ago and long before Genesis was ever written. We are not so slick as we think. Antiquity always has me checking my post modernity with the knowing of a grandparent catching his grandchildren playing doctor. Unmoved and without nubile juvenality is the way this story is set. Lately I have grown so very tired of post modernist juvenalities and sophmoric viewpoints passing themselves of as mature and considerate philosphoical development. It's a great read. In my tale called 'Tournament', which many lover's of chain mail and others at CENTCOM cyber-command and military espionage have spied upon, in addition to the legitimately and correctly addressed fans and supportive readers of mine, I was able to derive the character Fangon the Pius. It was those who Endik met during his descent into Hell, in the tale of Gilgamesh from this passage, to whom I was referring from Gilgamesh. "Fangon the Pius was a despicable little shell of an excuse for a human being......" I am am so glad he and his ilk descended into hell. Moreover I take delight in being comforted that the most vile apportments in Hell are have special reservations for such haughty and self-appointed weaklings aspiring to public notoriety as he. The Beastlord Slavedragon
Anonymous More than 1 year ago