Gilgamesh is considered one of the masterpieces of world literature, and although previously there have been competent scholarly translations of it, until now there has not been a version that is a superlative literary text in its own right. Acclaimed translator Stephen Mitchell's lithe, muscular rendering allows us to enter an ancient masterpiece as if for the first time, to see how startlingly beautiful, intelligent, and alive it is. His insightful introduction provides a historical, spiritual, and cultural context for this ancient epic, showing that Gilgamesh is more potent and fascinating than ever.
Gilgamesh dates from as early as 1700 BCE -- a thousand years before the Iliad. Lost for almost two millennia, the eleven clay tablets on which the epic was inscribed were discovered in 1853 in the ruins of Nineveh, and the text was not deciphered and fully translated until the end of the century. When the great poet Rainer Maria Rilke first read Gilgamesh in 1916, he was awestruck. "Gilgamesh is stupendous," he wrote. "I consider it to be among the greatest things that can happen to a person."
The epic is the story of literature's first hero -- the king of Uruk in what is present-day Iraq -- and his journey of self-discovery. Along the way, Gilgamesh discovers that friendship can bring peace to a whole city, that a preemptive attack on a monster can have dire consequences, and that wisdom can be found only when the quest for it is abandoned. 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 ego's hopeless striving for immortality, the epic has become a personal testimony for millions of readers in dozens of languages.
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January 01, 2006
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Excerpt from Gilgamesh by Stephen Mitchell
Text Excerpt 1
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.
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 S�n-l�qi-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 S�n-l�qi-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 S�n-l�qi-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, S�n-l�qi-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. S�n-l�qi-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 S�n-l�qi-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 S�n-l�qi-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.