The Classics Reclamation Project is my personal challenge to read and enjoy the classics. Each Wednesday, I post about the classic I’m reading at the moment.

The Classics Reclamation Project

Gilgamesh is one of the world’s oldest narrative texts. How old? Like, over three thousand years old. Older than The Bible, The Iliad, and Beowulf. Written in cuneiform on tablets, this epic tells the story of Gilgamesh, king of the city of Uruk, in what is now Iraq.

I chose Gilgamesh for my next classic so that my listening to and LifetimeReader’s reading it would correspond. I’ve found I really enjoy reading books with other people, even outside of formal readalongs, and Gilgamesh has been no exception. For several very interesting posts on Gilgamesh and its history, as well as another reader’s take on the epic, check out Lifetime Reading Plan.

I chose to read Stephen Mitchell’s translation of Gilgamesh for two reasons. First, I’d heard the language in his version was more modern and accessible than other translations. Second, the introduction Mitchell provided was said to be comprehensive and extremely informative. With both points, I must agree. Mitchell’s translation did not feel archaic in the least, and his introduction–which, in my audio version, came after the epic as an essay–was fascinating, covering each section of the epic thoroughly.

At the beginning of this most ancient of stories, Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, is a tyrant. He imposes his will harshly and universally in myriad ways, much to the frustration of his people. In response to the people’s prayers, the gods create Enkidu, a true friend for Gilgamesh, and the king’s double. Gilgamesh is the tale of these two young heroes.

Instead of providing a summary of the story (which I very much enjoyed), I’ll talk about a few things that struck me. First was the use of repetition. I talked about the repetition of a line or two here and there in The Odyssey when I listened to it a few months ago, but in Gilgamesh, whole swaths of text are repeated. In many places, the repeated section shows the passage of time or the performance of a ritual. For example, as Gilgamesh and Enkidu undertake a journey:

“At four hundred miles they stopped to eat,
at a thousand miles they pitched their camp.
They had traveled for just three days and nights,
a six weeks’ journey for ordinary men.
When the sun was setting, they dug a well,
they filled their waterskins with fresh water,
Gilgamesh climbed to the mountaintop,
he poured out flour as an offering and said,
“Mountain, bring me a favorable dream.”
Enkidu did the ritual for dreams,
praying for a sign. A gust of wind
passed. He built a shelter for the night,
placed Gilgamesh on the floor and spread
a magic circle of flour around him,
then sprawled like a net across the doorway.
Gilgamesh sat there, with his chin on his knees,
and sleep overcame him, as it does all men.” (p. 105-106)

This sequence occurs multiple times as the two friends make their journey. After each repetition, Gilgamesh awakes (more repetition) with a dream for Enkidu to interpret. In fact, these cycles are basically the only account of their journey that is given.

At other times, characters repeat snippets of dialogue or narration, either to relay news or to remind one another of something. For instance, these words are spoken first by Gilgamesh to encourage Enkidu; then, a few pages later, Enkidu speaks them back to Gilgamesh when the king’s courage begins to falter:

“‘Two boats lashed together will never sink.
A three-ply rope is not easily broken.’
If we help each other and fight side by side,
what harm can come to us? Let us go on…” (p. 119, 122)

I welcomed this repetition. It lent a poetic rhythm to the text wherever it occurred. I found it a clever way to show the passage of time, and I looked forward to hearing bits repeated by other characters, enjoyed seeing how they used other characters’ words to fit their own situations.

Gilgamesh translated by Stephen Mitchell (cover)There were also story elements I found fascinating. For instance, Gilgamesh contains a version of the Noah story from The Bible. A character in Gilgamesh relates his own story: an overheard warning of a great flood, the building of a ship, the flood itself, even the sending out of birds to discover the reemergence of land. I was struck by how closely the stories aligned.

Then there was the process of civilization. When Enkidu is first created, he is a wild man, living with the animals. One day a trapper discovers Enkidu. The trapper travels to Uruk to seek Gilgamesh’s council regarding how to deal with the wild man. The king tells the trapper to take Shamhat, one of the goddess Ishtar’s priestesses “who give their bodies / to any man, in honor of the goddess” (p. 77), to the place where he saw the wild man and let her practice her art. Shamhat lures Enkidu away from the animals and makes love to him for seven days. This interaction is enough for the wild animals to flee from Enkidu, and after that, he goes with Shamhat to the huts of some shepherds. He is given bread and beer, and he gorges himself. Then he’s given a haircut, a bath, and some oil for his skin, and finally the narrator declares him “fully human” (p. 86). I found this to be an interesting progression from wild man to civilized: sex, then food and drink, and finally cleanliness.

I also found it interesting that there was no truly evil force in Gilgamesh. There is Humbaba, a monster who guards the Cedar Forest, which men are forbidden to enter. Gilgamesh decides Humbaba must be slain, and he sets off with Enkidu to accomplish the task. But Humbaba is only doing his job, despite his ferocity and hideous appearance. The consequences of slaying him eventually catch up with the two heroes. There is the mischief of the gods, but they are only responding to what Gilgamesh and Enkidu have done to Humbaba. Really, Gilgamesh causes his own problems, with his pride, his anger, his desire to make a lasting name for himself. Quite different from the ancient Greek epics, where mortals are the mere playthings of the gods’ every whim.

I haven’t even scratched the surface of this epic here; there is so much more to talk about, so many other interesting elements to highlight. I can see why Mitchell’s essay is nearly as long as the text itself, at least on audio, where epic and essay each took up two CDs.

I chose to listen to Gilgamesh, just like I listened to The Odyssey and will listen to Beowulf, among others, because to me the ancient epics work best when told as stories. The experience of listening to these great tales the way their original audiences did appeals to me greatly, and I do think I enjoy the stories more and get more out of them when I listen instead of reading. George Guidall read the version I chose, and he did so very well.

On the jacket flap of the Mitchell translation is a quote from Ranier Maria Rilke which reads, “Gilgamesh is stupendous…I consider it to be among the greatest things that can happen to a person.” While I’m not sure I’d go that far, I do think it’s an important and fascinating piece of history and literature and a good story, too. It’s definitely a valuable addition to my classics project.

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  1. You both are so much more in depth on this book than I was! I read it, thought it was mildly interesting, wrote about the flood, and then forgot all about the rest…I don’t even remember this book now! :/ I wonder if my translation was just that forgettable.

    1. I think Mitchell’s translation made a huge difference, but I also think that listening to it helped me a great deal. I was not expecting to be particularly impressed by this one and was very pleasantly surprised.

  2. It’s many years since I read this and I ought to find time to return to this obviously newer translation than the one I know. On a far less elevated plane, do you know that one of the best ever episodes of Star Trek Next Generation was based on Gilgamesh and the importance of sharing story with other cultures as a way of reaching understanding?

    1. I had no idea there was an episode of Star Trek Next Generation based on Gilgamesh! I love how references to books, especially classics, an pop up all over the place if you just know how to recognize them. How cool…thanks for sharing that!

  3. This is probably my favourite Really Old Classic. I love the story itself, and I love how there’s so much about it that’s universally and timelessly human.

    1. That’s very true — I think Gilgamesh is certainly more universally applicable than something like the Odyssey. Of course, both have their value, but I’d say Gilgamesh is easier to connect with. I like the term Really Old Classic…it shortens to ROC! (As in, solid as a πŸ™‚ )

  4. What a wonderful post, Erin. Making a point to listen to ancient epics aloud makes so much sense. I’m especially intrigued by your insight into the different portrayals of gods in early epics.

    1. Thank you! Hearing the old epics aloud brings them to life for me in a way that reading them on paper doesn’t. I’m really curious to take a look at Beowulf now and see if/how the gods turn up there. I read it in high school, but I remember next to nothing. I’m guessing you’ll be taking that one on soon?

    1. I can see why it would be a favorite! It’s short, but really interesting. I never had feelings of slogging through, which I’ve definitely experienced with some of the lengthier epics.

  5. seriously, i give you props for slogging through this one. i haven’t dared to venture near it since college! i do beowulf and chaucer in my 12th grade english and that is torture enough for me. πŸ™‚ i’m partial to renaissance, victorian, and modern novels.

    1. It didn’t feel like slogging at all! I was totally surprised. The audio is only 2 hours long, if you don’t listen to Mitchell’s extensive essay. I’m planning to do Beowulf at some point. Chaucer scares me…not sure I’ll take him on any time soon! I tend to be partial to Victorian novels or later, which is partly why I’m forcing myself to stretch a bit. It hasn’t all been bad πŸ™‚

  6. I’m so glad you’re doing this Classics Project, as now I’m being reminded of all the books I really want to read! I have this in an anthology, so I really should read it. It’s not the Mitchell translation, but then, we take what we have….

    1. I’m glad, too! And I’m glad to be reminding you of books you’ve wanted to read. I hope you like Gilgamesh — I enjoyed it much more than I’d expected.

  7. Ohh: I’m so excited to learn there’s an audio version of this translation. I read it in print and adored it; now I know what I’ll be doing for my reread! πŸ™‚

    1. Oh yes, a really really good audio version! Including Mitchell’s essay, which is quite interesting. Definitely look it up πŸ™‚

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