The True Epic Vision: Gilgamesh: A New English Version

Jasper Griffin – The New York Review of Books

Volume 53, Number 4 ∑ March 9, 2006
‘The True Epic Vision’
By Jasper Griffin
Gilgamesh: A New English Version
by Stephen Mitchell
Free Press, 290 pp., $24.00
There were two ancient languages and literatures: Greek and Hebrew. One of them, probably Hebrew, was the original language, from which (after the Fall) all the others arose as degenerate and distorted descendants. That was, roughly, how things looked to educated Westerners until, in the early nineteenth century, there began a great age of discoveries and decipherments. European conquests and Western inquisitiveness combined to unearth, and gradually to make intelligible, a huge variety of ancient scripts and forgotten languages: Egyptian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Hittite, Phoenician, and more. The history of mankind became suddenly much longer and more complex. At the same time, the sciences of geology and archaeology were busy extending the age of the world and the evolution of species, the human race itselfóvery controversiallyónot excluded.
The decipherment of those scripts and those languages is one of the truly great stories of human intellectual history. An extraordinary series of achievements, it has changed our image of the world and of our place in it at least as much, perhaps, as the invention of nuclear fission or the possibility of space travel.
The world, it turned out, was enormously older, and history enormously more complex, than anyone had suspected. What of civilization? What of culture, the arts, literature, religion? Passions ran high over the theory of evolution and its impact on literalist belief in the Book of Genesis. The unquestioned ascendancy, in education and history, of the classical world of Greece and Rome, their status as the fountainhead of culture, seemed no less threatened than that of the Bible in matters of faith. What to do, in fact, with all this new material: How to fit it into a coherent and intelligible history?
As some of the dust began, slowly, to settle, the shaken disciplines of theology and classical studies began to mark out fields which they could claim as especially their own. Assyrian histories of conquest, Egyptian creation myths, Canaanite legends: none of them, really, could claim the unique truth of the Bible, or the aesthetic beauty or deep human significance of the masterpieces of classical litera-tureóof the serene yet terrible poetry of Homer, or the penetrating and skeptical history of Thucydides, or the universal genius of Plato or Aristotle.
That was, perhaps, not wholly unconnected with the fact that in those days many educated people had learned some Greek and Latin, could read some of those literatures, felt at home with their forms and their content; while the new discoveries, which were never going to make it onto school syllabuses, have remained exotic, unfamiliar, and rather remote.
How good, in fact, was any of this literature? Did it really stand comparison with the glory that was Greece, or even with the grandeur that was Rome? One of the strongest cases, it emerged, could be made for an extraordinary epic poem, turning up and gradually becoming known in several recensions, of quite widely separated dates and in various languages, on the mythical career of the great Meso-potamian hero Gilgamesh. The name was not a familiar one. Diligent search of the Greek sources found it occurring once, as an exotic item in a magical spell. To all practical purposes, Gilgamesh had been lost to memory.
Who was he? He was king of Uruk, or Erech, a city of Mesopotamia, in what is now Iraq. He was more than merely human, in fact he was, like Homer’s Achilles, the son of a goddess; and (more quaintly) he was two-thirds divine. Not surprisingly, perhaps, he was of superhuman stature and strength. Our earliest texts about him date from about 2100 BCE, and various poems on his exploits and fate have come to light, in the Sumerian, Akkadian, and Old Babylonian languages, all of the Semitic family, which were recorded on baked clay tablets, most of them nowadays reposing in the British Museum in London. The longest, most coherent, and most readable version is in Old Babylonian, composed, it seems, about 1200 BCE, by a scholar-priest named SÓn-lØeqi-unninni.
That is essentially the version which underlies the new translation, ingenious and very readable, by Stephen Mitchell, who has published versions of such other classics as the Tao Te Ching, the Bhagavad Gita, and selected poems of Rilke. He makes no claim to be a scholar of those widely different literatures, and he relies for his text on the work of professionals. He has produced a satisfying result. It is cast in the form of lines with four rhythmic stresses, unrhyming, in a diction raised a little in tone, but not unrecognizably far, from that of speech.
Gilgamesh appears at first as a tyrant and oppressor:
The people suffer
from his tyranny, the people cry out
that he takes the son from his father and crushes him,
takes the girl from her mother and uses her,
the warrior’s daughter, the young man’s bride,
he uses her, no one dares to oppose him.
The people cry to the gods, who raise up an opponent for him: a wild man, Enkidu. At first he runs with the animals and does not eat human food; a woman has to be sent out to meet him in the wilderness, a sacred prostitute and priestess of the goddess Ishtar. Her name is Shamhat. She introduces him to sex and to human cuisine. After that, the animals shun him: he must become a man. He challenges Gilgamesh, wrestles with him in a mighty duel, and is defeated. Gilgamesh and Enkidu make friends:
They embraced and kissed. They held hands like brothers.
They walked side by side. They became true friends.
Parallels come to mind: David and Jonathan; Achilles and Patroclus.
Such a pair of young heroes must feel the need of heroic exploits. Off they go together to the Cedar Forest, to fight the monster Humbaba, a fearsome giant with fiery breath, whose “jaws are death.” Killing him, we read, will drive from the world “the evil the gods hate.” That evil is never specified or described: it is not really what interests the poet. And the story has an unexpected complexity. Humbaba, it turns out, has been put there by the great god Enlil himself, and for a purpose. Defeated and threatened with death, he pleads for his life:
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.”
A modern sensibility is disconcerted: this monster has an unexpectedly Green and eco-friendly side. But the two heroes kill him. Enkidu encourages his friend:
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….
Establish your fame, so that forever
men will speak of brave Gilgamesh,
who killed Humbaba in the Cedar Forest.”
Heroism prevails over ecological scruplesóas usual. The monster dies, but not before cursing them both. Next the goddess Ishtar, queen of sexual delight, becomes enamored of Gilgamesh; he rejects her rather direct advances with words of insult. In revenge, the furious goddess gets her father to send the Bull of Heaven to ravage the country; Gilgamesh kills it, and flings its thigh (possibly a euphemism, though Mitchell does not say so) in Ishtar’s face.
So far, so good! But gods, even disagreeable ones, cannot be defied with impunity. For killing Humbaba and the Bull, either Gilgamesh or Enkidu must die. A dream revealsóthe epic is studded with prophetic dreamsóthat it is Enkidu. He falls ill and is marked for death. In despair he curses Shamhat, the woman who made him human:
Never may you have a home and family,
never caress a child of your own,
may your man prefer younger, prettier girls,
may he beat you as a housewife beats a rug…
may wild dogs camp in your bedroom, may owls
nest in your attic, may drunkards vomit
all over you, may a tavern wall
be your place of business….
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