The Epic of Gilgamesh

Last summer, I decided to brush up my knowledge of Classical literature by reading a few Greek authors. Last week I decided to read The Epic of Gilgamesh, which is older by around a millenium, because I always like to go one step beyond.

I read Maureen Gallery Kovacs’s translation, and she provides a lot of supplementary material, including an introduction to the composition and history of the text, a glossary of proper names, many footnotes, and summaries of each “tablet.” The annotations and summaries come in handy, because as the introduction explains, much of the Epic is lost. In fact, Kovacs uses a few different versions of the Epic to fill in gaps in the “Standard Version.” Now, Kovacs’s translation was published in 1989, so perhaps newer editions have more of the work restored. Either way, though, these gaps generally do not create a serious obstacle to understanding. Kovacs is able to provide a probable description of what happens in the lacunae. More often they’re simply nuisances. For example, when Gilgamesh confronts the demon Humbaba, we get the initial threats, dialogue, and some of the action, but then suddenly Gilgamesh has captured Humbaba. How did he accomplish this, exactly? There’s no way to know.

Starting the text of the story itself, I also had some concern about how coherent the plot would be, because apparently much of the Standard Version is compiled from several not necessarily related sources, which apparently was a common method of storytelling at the time. However, I may not have even noticed this if Kovacs hadn’t pointed it out, because every episode contributes to a single, coherent narrative.

At the beginning, the narrator praises Gilgamesh’s accomplishments, but says that he oppressed his people. The god of Uruk, the city Gilgamesh rules, orders the creation of a rival to Gilgamesh, a man named Enkidu who lives in the wilderness. Shortly after entering the city as a civilised man, Enkidu is outraged by Gilgamesh’s behaviour and confronts him. They fight, and though Gilgamesh wins after a long struggle, he recognises Enkidu’s strength as a match for his own, and accepts him as a friend.

At Enkidu’s suggestion, the two later challenge Humbaba, who guards the sacred Cedar Forest at the god Enlil’s command. They kill him, and Enkidu cuts down the tallest cedar in the forest. As punishment, the gods ordain Enkidu’s death. Though initially distraught, he eventually accepts his death gracefully. Gilgamesh, however, despairs over the loss of his friend and the realisation that he, like Enkidu, is mortal and will someday die. So, he journeys to find Utanapishtim, a man who had been granted immortality. He tells Gilgamesh how to find a plant that would restore his youth; Gilgamesh finds the plant but soon loses it. However, learning from Utanapishtim’s words, Gilgamesh accepts his fate as a mortal man, and returns to Uruk.

It’s a classic tale of hubris, as Gilgamesh goes from pride in his strength, is humbled by finding an equal, then terrified at the punishment of Enkidu’s offense (also related to hubris), and finally accepts his true position in the word as a mortal man “doomed to die.” Though it’s among the oldest written literature we have, Gilgamesh certainly shows some sophistication in its themes and construction. Like Homer, among the oldest Western writers whose works are still extant, one can tell it comes from a well-established, presumably mostly oral, literary tradition.

Kovacs does a fine job in the translation. She renders the text in English as more-or-less blank verse, insofar as the frequent lacunae allow. The descriptive language really stands out as the book’s highlight, with lots of vivid, concrete imagery. In the struggle with Humbaba, for example, the narrator says, “The ground split open with the heels of their feet, / as they whirled around in circles Mt. Hermon and Lebanon split. / The white clouds darkened, death rained down on them like fog.”

I especially like the initial description of Gilgamesh and his accomplishments:

Supreme over other kings, lordly in appearance, he is the hero, born of Uruk, the goring wild bull[…] Mighty net, protector of his people, raging flood-wave who destroys even walls of stone! […] Who can compare with him in kingliness? Who can say like Gilgamesh: “I am King!”

Nobody, that’s who. Though not as essential as Homer or Virgil, if you enjoy epic literature, definitely give this a read.