Review of The Epic of Gilgamesh (ca. 2100–1100 BCE)


Read in 2018.

I read the standard Babylonian version (“He who saw the Deep”) in Andrew George’s 1999 translation from its Akkadian into English. This translation was based on all fragments known at the time, including Sumerian fragments older than the standard version. The story is about 80% intelligible.

Civilization, nature, and mortality:

Enkidu had defiled his body so pure,

    his legs stood still, though his herd was in motion.

Enkidu was weakened, could not run as before,

    but now he had reason, and wide understanding.

A fictionalized biographical epic. In the words of Assyriologist William L. Moran it’s a “document of ancient humanism”.

In my reading I benefited from Andrew George’s long introduction and notes. I have decided not to review his The Epic of Gilgamesh: A New Translation (1999) as a work separate from the epic, but I read and enjoyed the whole book, including its various fragments of alternative forms and related poems.

According to George, the Sumerian king Bilgames lived around 2800 BCE. Other sources agree that it was no later than 2500 BCE. That was a few generations after writing was invented, but before it could record the truth of his life. Deified in god lists, Bilgames became a subject of oral literature around 2300 BCE. The date 2100 BCE refers to the oldest surviving written Sumerian poem about him. These poems were the basis of the epic, which remains structured like oral literature, heavy with repetition of phrases and whole verses.

One version of the epic in Old Babylonian, starting “Surpassing all other kings”, is dated to about 1700 BCE. Here, Bilgames has his Babylonian name, Gilgamesh. The more elaborate standard Babylonian version I read was compiled much later, ca. 1300 to 1000 BCE. One change to it is a prologue that moves the older beginning, “Surpassing all other kings”, to line 29. Older versions survive only in smaller fragments.

For such an early composition, the narrative is surprisingly rich, even in form. There is a chain of logical cause and effect running throughout, within the polytheistic premisses, with just a bit of meandering. The ending echoes the Babylonian prologue, both pointing to the wall of Uruk as Gilgamesh’s legacy: It lasted longer than the man’s life, but tellingly, it was built on the foundation of an older wall that had been destroyed. The wall that Gilgamesh built is now gone, too. The message holds true: There is no immortality in flesh or stone. However, people still read about Gilgamesh almost 5000 years after the man died. The narrator does not anticipate this, and ironically, the authors who created the Gilgamesh we know are not remembered.

The power fantasy of the demigod king is counterbalanced by his acknowledged incompetence and later (post-epic) fate as the caretaker of a grim underworld. The moral purity of Enkidu is counterbalanced by his crudeness and the hamartia whereby he slays Humbaba: For Enkidu, this act is treason against the natural world that produced him.

The temple prostitute Shamhat (or Shamkatum), the third or fourth most central human character, plays against later stereotype to serve multiple functions: Taming Enkidu and driving his herd from him, knowingly working toward the ultimate goal of educating the king by an elaborate scheme. Later, when Enkidu lay dying, he curses Shamhat, but the (male) god Shamash eloquently defends the prostitute, asserting her human value against the distraught hero’s spite. Ancient humanism indeed.

Masculine virtues and vices dominate the narrative but the boon companionship of Gilgamesh and Enkidu is physically intimate, showing that their masculinity is neither toxic nor hysterical. They seem to huddle together in their night terrors, the original close-knit questing party.

Humbaba is a sacred monster living on Mount Lebanon (“O mountain, bring me a dream, so I see a good sign!”). Though somewhat anthropomorphic, it is a fitting guardian of a forest of cedars, and delightfully weird. Its seven auras move independently and have their own lives. When it’s killed, “rain in plenty fell on the mountain”. It may be a rain of blood, as another version has the ravines running with blood at this point.

Yet another version, “The lord to the Living One’s Mountain”, uses an older name (Huwawa) with an epithet, “the Living One”, showing that Gilgamesh is already motivated by a fear of death. It is suitable that Gilgamesh, the civilized man, tries to gain a new lease on life by conquering nature which is the source of life, and that it does not work. In “The lord to the Living One’s Mountain”, he is attacked after starting to cut down trees, and he captures Humbaba by trickery before Enkidu kills it. Even in the standard Babylonian version of the epic, Humbaba literally offers Gilgamesh wood in exchange for its life. It is not a villain. It does no evil and the killing of it is an unjustified crime, though helpful to the woodworking industry. Humbaba is more nuanced and more interesting than Homer’s or Tolkien’s monsters; its depiction made me think of Benicio del Toro’s fully realized inhuman creatures.

The author’s concern for nature runs deeper than that and the gods are morally grey. Gilgamesh rebukes the goddess Ishtar by bringing up the dark fates of individuals and entire species she has loved and then let fall:

You loved the horse, so famed in battle,

    but you made his destiny whip, spur and lash.

This all reads like evidence of sober critical thinking, concerning both the national culture and civilization itself, which were once the same. That might be wishful thinking on my part; I would not be surprised if future archaeologists recover additional fragments that cement the sexism or the narrowly avoided pathetic fallacy of Gilgamesh’s lament for Enkidu. There are a few just-so stories sprinkling the narrative, and the gods are all too human.

Tablet 12 of the epic, as Andrew George notes, is not properly a part of the narrative. It is an earlier, inferior composition where the profound themes are absent, Enkidu is a servant (not a friend), and the main conflict is that the gods drop Gilgamesh’s toys into the Netherworld because he terrorizes the men of Uruk by riding piggy-back to play a game. It is most interesting for its depiction of the Sumerian afterlife, as witnessed by Enkidu:

“Did you see the man afflicted by pellagra?” “I saw him.” “How does he fare?”

    “He twitches like an ox as the maggots consume him.”

Basically, death is imagined as being the way the living see the dead in nightmares. Evocative stuff. It doesn’t all take place in a lower realm:

“Did you see the shade of him who has no one to make funerary offerings?” “I saw him.” “How does he fare?”

    “He eats scrapings from the pot and crusts of bread thrown away in the street.”

This image suggests that forgotten ghosts find food in refuse, which has to happen among the living unless they’re just the homeless of the dead economy and it’s other dead people who do the cooking. The detail of bread thrown away in the street makes me think instead of what archaeologists call tells, the great hills built from refuse in continuous human habitation, including the most ancient ones in old Sumer itself. Perhaps they knew what they lived on and thought of past generations, literally beneath their feet. Anyway, there’s a twist that breaks the gloom:

“Did you see the little stillborn babies, who knew not names of their own?” “I saw them.” “How do they fare?”

    “They play amid syrup and ghee at tables of silver and gold.”

These are not the unbaptised children of medieval Catholicism, cruelly stuck in Limbo. Unfortunately, and unlike the epic, this narrative is otherwise peppered with didacticism, including an eternal punishment for not obeying your parents.

References here: The Odyssey (ca. 700 BCE), Genesis (ca. 500–400 BCE), Job (ca. 550–200 BCE), Nerd argues about distinction between fantasy and science fiction, Fantasy with and without consistency, True History (ca. 175 CE), The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905), “The Phoenix on the Sword” (1932), King Kong (1933), The Farthest Shore (1972), Armored Trooper Votoms (1983), “Darmok” (1991), Princess Mononoke (1997), “Animation and Animism: Thoughts on the Living ‘Forest’” (1998).

text poetry fiction