[written June 2013]
Fashioned from Sumerian tales of Bilgames, the standard Akkadian text of Gilgamesh serves as one of the earliest surviving works of literature, and a popular first record of bromance too. It’s so much more than that, though. There are plenty of works I’ve read that I can respect for having a seminal place in the history of literature, etc., but it doesn’t mean I like them all that much. The Epic of Gilgamesh doesn’t fall into that category as seen by the rating given.
It’s one hell of a tale, really. Part of it can be read as Rilke saw it: a tale of the fear of death. However, what really intrigues me about Gilgamesh is the question of civilisation that is also prevalent within the text. You have Enkidu, a wild man, essentially Rousseau’s noble savage that is brought down from the woods and civilized. Later on when he’s close to death he disparages ever being brought to the city and curses both hunter and harlot who separated him from the wild animals. Even then, around 1300-1000 BC when the standard text appeared, in one of the first cities built and lived in, there existed enough nostalgia for man innocent from society to be written down. That’s beautiful. That’s just as tear-worthy as the bromance in here.
Obviously Enkidu is told off for thinking such transgressive thoughts: Uruk, city of Inanna (later Ishtar/Astarte, etc) was the crowning glory Mesopotamian culture. There are tablets which tell of Inanna’s theft of the foundations of civilisation (kept by the god Enlil) which she takes to Uruk, thus bestowing these wisdoms on to the people there (wisdoms ranging from law to fellatio). So the city state is revered and held in high esteem and must be kept so if that is what binds the society – well, in my reading of it anyway.
What else interests me about this tale is the role of women in it. You have the Babylonian goddess Ishtar (evolved from Sumerian Inanna who is totally badass by the way, but that’s another review to write) and it can be perceived her earlier important role in culture is diminished somewhat: she certainly doesn’t come off as a woman who hokk’ni panki’d her father out of the slabs of civilisation, but there’s still the essence of her capricious nature in there when she threatens to bring up the dead if she’s not allowed to set a Bull of Heaven on the two heroes. There is also Shamhat ‘the harlot’ who sleeps with Enkidu to separate him from the animals and bring him back to civilisation. She gets a lot of shit from Enkidu as mentioned, but also from Andrew George who constantly refers to her as ‘the harlot’ in tablet summaries which though technically correct was pretty annoying. Then there’s Siduri the ale-wife and Utnapishtim’s wife. So there’s a whole range of different women encountered here which I liked, and honestly wasn’t expecting. I thought it’d be a total cock-fest.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is primarily a text regarding the fear of death, but as seen above there is so many other ways this work can be read (as any other piece of literature, I know, I know). It’s accessible too; try reading it out aloud… In a Patrick Stewart voice if you can (here’s a starting point: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QoM_k…), it has good rhythm when you get going. The translation provided here is maybe even a little better than the one included in the OUP edition of Mesopotamian myths. Andrew George provides an engaging introduction and summaries of each tablet, with the odd illustration here and there which added to this particular edition. A number of different tablets are also included as their own section, but also to bulk up the missing parts of the standard version of the Epic of Gilgamesh.
One thing Andrew George writes in the introduction should always be in the back of your mind as you read this. This was an evolving tale, transcribed, adlibbed in places when set in stone again by students. It’s also unfinished in what we have of it so far. There are missing bits of tablets yet, tablets that are currently being translated now that may change the story of Gilgamesh for readers in however many years’ time. The future is unwritten Joe Strummer style, and in an odd endearing way, it’s how Gilgamesh succeeds in escaping death.