Adapted by Stephen Mitchell
[Challenge # 11: A book written before 1700]
Gilgamesh is one of the oldest pieces of fiction in human history. I chose it to read for the “Ye Olde Book Shoppe” — a book written before 1700, which Gilgamesh certainly qualifies for — segment of my reading challenge. I’d never read it before, or didn’t even know much about it, save it took place in ancient Mesopotamia and was about a demigod with a hairy friend called Enkidu.
The first thing I found out was that there are multiple interpretations by various translators of the text, as well as multiple versions on clay tablets which have been unearthed. All were written in cuneiform, each version missing different parts, so they are most often combined together. This version was called an adaptation rather than straight translation by the author, the story put together in a poetry form called noniambic, nonalliterative tetrameter. The author kept the language and metaphors simple, befitting the time in which they were written. The poem, like a lot of ancient literature, relies on repetition and pacing of that repetition to get its points across; it wasn’t Shakespeare. The written form, I thought, may actually have been a sort of Cliffs Notes for storytellers to embellish on, or singers and musicians, as music and rhythm were often used in storytelling, the repetitions serving as a chorus.
Anyway, to get to the story, Gilgamesh is the brash but arrogant king of Uruk who is beginning to annoy the gods, so they create a companion for him called Enkidu who they hope will temper his excesses. Enkidu lives like a beast at first, drinking from the waterhole with the other animals. In this version he is described as having long hair, but I know that in other translations, he’s described as having a pelt, like a Mesopotamian Sasquatch. He becomes human when he has sex with a priestess of Ishtar and comes to Uruk to seek out Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh is churlish at first, sensing a rival in him, but after a tussle, he befriends Enkidu, beginning a deep attachment that for me was the most intriguing part of the book. The two are described in the poem as being on very close, intimate terms, like that of husband and wife, and they even hold hands. But it isn’t sexual, it is more of a soul bonding that acknowledges physical affection. (Remember that what 21st century Western society thinks of as the norm for two male friends was not always so. Indeed, the very notion of heterosexuality at all is a recent construct, springing up in part from the Victorian age and Sigmund Freud, who contributed to it by treating anything not heterosexual as an aberration. What is the baseline now is only the conjunctive opinion of a very small slice of time and place and certainly not the norm for most of human existence.) When Enkidu later dies, Gilgamesh is broken up as only a grieving spouse could be.
Gilgamesh’s grief is a setback for him, after the triumphs of the adventures the two have had (killing Humbaba the monster and the Bull of Heaven). He sets out on a third adventure to find Utnapishtim, the man who survived the flood and now holds the key of eternal life, his fear of death driving him forward. But things don’t go as he planned, and he returns to his city resigned to a mortality.
The story is a not a complicated one, but like many myths, there is truth behind it. I definitely saw the parallels between it and today’s superhero yarns — like the current Wolverine du jour epic Logan — where the protagonists, in spite of their powers, experience angst both personal and existential. Gilgamesh could be called the first superhero, even.
There have also been graphic novel adaptations of Gilgamesh.
This one, looking like an R. Crumb parody, is from
“The Graphic Canon, Vol 1: From the Epic of Gilgamesh
to Shakespeare to Dangerous Liaisons.”