The Epic of Gilgamesh

EpicOfGilgamesh-covGilgamesh, King of Uruk, and his companion Enkidu are the only heroes to have survived from the ancient literature of Babylon, immortalized in this epic poem that dates back to the third millennium BC. Together they journey to the Spring of Youth, defeat the Bull of Heaven and slay the monster Humbaba. When Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh’s grief and fear of death are such that they lead him to undertake a quest for eternal life. A timeless tale of morality, tragedy and pure adventure, The Epic of Gilgamesh is a landmark literary exploration of man’s search for immortality.

N. K. Sandars’s lucid, accessible translation is prefaced by a detailed introduction that examines the narrative and historical context of the work. In addition, there is a glossary of names and a map of the Ancient Orient.

[Text from the publisher’s website; see also the back cover]

I first read this book in 1985 (after purchasing it during a research trip to Boston for my master degree). I read it again recently after reading a comic adaptation by Jens Harder as I wanted to compare the two versions.

The Epic itself is very short (fifty-nine pages) but the text is preceded by a sizeable introduction by Nancy K. Sandars, the translator. Beside discussing the various versions of the text and her choices for the translation, she puts the work in perspective by talking about the discovery of the tablets, their historical and literary backgrounds as well as the significance of the story. It is very interesting. 

The Epic of Gilgamesh is a tragic tale of adventure and morality. It is the oldest epic poem to have survived so we could read it four millennia later. It started around 2100 BCE as independent Sumerian poems that were compiled into an epic, in the Akkadian language, in the 18th century BCE under the title Shūtur eli sharrī (“Surpassing All Other Kings”) —but only a few fragments remain of that version. The definitive and more complete version of the Epic, titled Sha naqba īmuru (“He who Saw the Abyss”), was compiled around the 13th to the 10th century BCE by a scribe named Sîn-lēqi-unninni. The best preserved version was found on twelve clay tablets written in cuneiform and comes from the ruins of Ashurbanipal’s library in 7th-century Nineveh. The Epic is a “poem in twelve songs (…) of about three hundred lines each (…) written in loose rhythmic verse with four beats to a line”.

To make the text more intelligible, Nancy K. Sandars chose not to present it in verse and not divide it into tablets. She compiled the story from all sources: the old Sumerian, the Akkadian (from the Assyrian tablets of Nineveh) as well as the Hittite (from Boghazköy).

The story begins with a prologue that introduces Gilgamesh (“I will proclaim to the world the deeds of Gilgamesh”). He was created by the gods with a “perfect body” that is two-third god and one-third man. He is praised for having built the walls of Uruk and a temple for Anu and Ishtar.

Chapter 1: The coming of Enkidu. Gilgamesh is an arrogant despot who oppresses his people to such an extent that the gods decide to create a rival for him, Enkidu, the wild man. Gilgamesh sends him a courtesan to civilize him (as wisdom weakened him). Their duel ended in mutual respect and it’s the beginning of a long “bromance” (male bonding). [tablets I-II]


Tablet V

Chapter 2: The Forest Journey. Gilgamesh decides that he will go to the Cedar Forest to cut down trees and make a name for himself by destroying the evil. Together, Gilgamesh and Enkidu, defeat and kill the giant Humbaba. [tablets III-V] The forest (which is either located in the east in Elam or in the west in Amanus, north Syria, or Lebanon) represents real historical timber expeditions needed to bring raw materials to the cities. The forest is also full of “enchantments” that could represent the dangers of the mountains (earthquake, volcano, etc.).

Chapter 3: Ishtar and Gilgamesh, and the death of Enkidu. The goddess Ishtar (Inanna) tries to seduce Gilgamesh but he refuses her. She complains to her father, Anu, who sends the Bull of Heaven to devastate Uruk, but Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill him, redoubling the affront. To avenge themselves, the gods cause Enkidu to die of sickness. [tablets VII-VIII]

Chapter 4: The Search for Everlasting Life. Inconsolable, Gilgamesh wandered in the wilderness in search of ancestral wisdom, to question Utnapishtim about the meaning of death and life. Losing his companion made him terrified of death and he is wondering if there is a remedy. After meeting the scorpion-men, Siduri the wine-maker in the Garden of the gods, and finally the ferryman Ur-Shanabi, who carries him beyond the waters of death, he arrives at the end of the world to meet Utnapishtim. Like Siduri, who told Gilgamesh that he would never find immortality because death is the destiny that the gods allotted to all men—masters and servants, Utnapishtim tells him that there is no permanence in the world, and accordingly men should not expect to live forever. However, Gilgamesh asks him, “how was it that you came to enter the company of the gods and to possess everlasting life?”. Utnapishtim agrees to tell him a secret of the gods. [tablets IX-XI] Sandars notes many similarities with the homeric epics, which might have been inspired by the Epic of Gilgamesh — one of them is that Circe bears some likeness with Siduri.


Tablet XI

Chapter 5: The Story of the Flood. As a lesson to Gilgamesh, Utnapishtim tells him how he survived the flood and became immortal. People having multiplied so much that they had become too noisy (“The uproar of mankind is intolerable and sleep is no longer possible by reason of the babel”), Enlil decided to exterminate mankind. However, Ea warns Utnapishtim in his dream and tells him to build an ark. He loads it with all his gold “and living things, my family, my kin, the beast of the field both wild and tame, and all the craftsmen.” The story is quite similar to the Great Flood as told in the Bible, save that it lasted only seven days. The gods are angry at Enlil for having acted alone and they reward Utnapishtim and his wife with everlasting life and make them “live in the distance at the mouth of the rivers” (a way of saying “sorry for the trouble” while making sure he would not tell this secret to anyone!). [tablet XI cont.]

Chapter 6: The Return. Utnapishtim nevertheless tells Gilgamesh how to get a plant that “restores his lost youth to a man (…) [and] all his former strength” — however, as Gilgamesh bathes, a serpent snatched it away. He returns to Uruk, the strong-walled city, empty-handed but wiser. “Gilgamesh, the king who knew the countries of the world (…) was wise, he saw mysteries and knew secret things, he brought us the tale of the days before the flood. He went a long journey, was weary, worn out with labour, and returning engraved on a stone the whole story”. [tablet XI cont.] Another possible influence on the Bible is the story where Gilgamesh, after arriving to the Garden of the gods, some sort of paradise, and finding the flower of youth, is sent back by Utnapishtim only to have his prize stolen by a serpent — which is somewhat reminiscent of the fall of man.

Chapter 7: The Death of Gilgamesh. “Gilgamesh, the son of Ninsun, lies in the tomb.” His destiny was fulfilled: it was not to have everlasting life, but his fate was to die. “None will leave a monument for generation to come to compare with his.” However heroes have both bright and dark sides. He was “given the kingship, (…) power to bind and to loose, to be the darkness and the light of mankind. He was given unexampled supremacy over the people (…) but do not abuse this power, deal justly with your servants in the palace, deal justly before the face of the Sun.” The people of the city chant, they lift up the lament, they weighed out their offerings. “O Gilgamesh, lord of Kullab, great is thy praise.”

Here Sandars chose not to include the text of tablet XII, “Enkidu and the Netherworld”, where Enkidu (despite having previously died on tablet VII) “goes down alive into the Underworld in order to bring back (…) [the] drum and drumstick that Gilgamesh has let fall into it”. Having broken the rules, Enkidu must remain in the Underworld but is allowed to briefly come back and tell Gilgamesh all about it. As it feels incompatible with the rest of the story, Sandars includes instead the “death of Gilgamesh”, which only appears in the Sumerian version, because “it makes a more satisfactory end”.

The Epic of Gilgamesh offers a simple text, easy to read and there’s no need to be an assyriologist to understand and enjoy it. It offers a glimpse into a very ancient and fascinating time of our civilisation about which we still have so much to learn. It is a shame that, in the last twenty years, instead of uncovering new information, we have been destroying those buried secrets because of the upheaval caused by the Irak war, the Syrian civil war and the madness of Daesh (ISIS).

Reading very old classics like The Epic of Gilgamesh or the Homeric epics (the Iliad and the Odyssey) remind us of how little the human mind has changed over the millennia (at least since the agricultural revolution during the Neolithic, 12,000 years ago). It is an interesting story that everyone should read at least once (or twice) in their life. Have you?

The Epic of Gilgamesh (by Anonymous, translated by Nancy K. Sandars). Harmondsworth: Penguin Books (Penguin Classics), 1972. 128 pages, $US 2.50 / $C 2.95, ISBN 014044100X. stars-3-0

The translated version by N.K. Sandars seems to be more difficult to find lately, and the new translation by Andrew Georges (2003) seems more easily available.

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© N.K. Sandars, 1960, 1964, 1972. All rights reserved.

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