Gilgamesh (part 1)

For this review, I’m pulling a diminished Wuthering Expectations and splitting my thoughts into two parts. (Diminished because, unlike Amateur Reader, I won’t be spending the entire week on Gilgamesh, as deserving as it is of such treatment, and also because I know Amateur Reader, and Senator, I’m no Amateur Reader.) As I was writing, I realized that if I put all my thoughts on this work into one entry, it would be far too long — which might surprise you, but not nearly as much as Gilgamesh surprised me.

Gilgamesh opens with the people of Uruk complaining against their king, Gilgamesh. His power and rampant sexuality mean that he is no longer the protector and shepherd of his people. They beg for aid, and the gods listen, but Gilgamesh is two-thirds god and one-third man: only another man like him could possibly contend with him and hope to win. So the gods create Enkidu, a wild man who loves the animals and the wilderness. The people bring him to the city by the expedient of using a prostitute to ensnare him: once he’s lost his sexual innocence, the animals won’t come to feed from his hand any longer, and the prostitute is able to bring him where she wants him to go.

Once Enkidu meets Gilgamesh, the two men almost instantly recognize each other as brothers. It is clear that they are, in fact, two sides of the same coin: both are strong and tall, but one is wild, the other civilized; one is a natural shepherd and protector, the other must be mastered in order to be any good to his people. I was expecting something more Gnostic, the way we see it repeated in so many novels today: one brother good, the other bad; one brother strong, the other weak. Instead, it was a far deeper psychological insight. We all have different sides to our personality, sides that must be snared or encouraged or reined in or even created — yet these are brothers of the same mother. They are not essentially different.

It seems obvious that the next thing these brothers must do is to turn their combined power to doing good. Gilgamesh and Enkidu go off to fight the evil demon Huwawa, and because of their different talents working together, they prevail: Gilgamesh has dreams that Enkidu can interpret; Gilgamesh can create weapons, but Enkidu knows where to find water in the forest. They win because of wildness and intuition, and also because of knowledge, connection, and created things, the two sides of the coin. When these two things are joined, nothing can stop them, not even the supernatural.

When the two men return, however, the tragedy begins. Gilgamesh refuses the advances of the goddess Ishtar (the goddess of love, the same as Astarte and Aphrodite.) He knows what kind of trouble he’d be in if he accepted her as a lover — the same trouble other men had been in before him.

I have nothing to give to her who lacks nothing at all.

You are the door through which the cold gets in.

You are the fire that goes out. You are the pitch

that sticks to the hands of the one who carries the bucket.

You are the house that falls down. You are the shoe

that pinches the foot of the wearer. The ill-made wall

that buckles when time has gone by. The leaky

waterskin soaking the waterskin carrier.

Ishtar is furious, and sends the Bull of Heaven to punish Gilgamesh, but the two men together are too strong for it: they sacrifice it and eat the remainder. And this warns the gods that they have trouble on their hands. Gilgamesh and Enkidu pose a serious problem together, one that they might not have posed apart. So they decree that Enkidu, the wild man, must die, but that Gilgamesh, “the gifted,” must not die.

And again, I was blown away by the piercing insight: our bodies, our wildness, are mortal. To look at an even bigger picture, within a society, the wildness passes away as time goes on. What remains, what lives on, are our gifts and our created things: cities, monuments, roads, music, art, and (witness Gilgamesh itself) literature. These are two-thirds god, one-third man. But this work tells us that this progress is not all triumph. The death of Enkidu is still a death. And it’s that death, and the attendant grief, that I’ll talk about in the second part of my thoughts on Gilgamesh.

Note: I’m using a modern translation, or perhaps “rendering” would be a better word, in English verse, by David Ferry. It’s not a scholarly version or a transliteration. The poetry of it is incredibly striking, but he plays fast and loose with some of the more literal stuff. This doesn’t bother me because I am not a scholar of ancient Sumerian texts, but if it would bother you, there are a lot of versions out there.

Also, I didn’t do this on purpose, but I’m delighted to be posting this at roughly the same time as Lifetime Reader posts her thoughts on Gilgamesh. All Gilgamesh, all the time! That’s what I say.

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20 Responses to Gilgamesh (part 1)

  1. Iris says:

    I have been meaning to read Gilgamesh ever since I had a class that compared the Old Testament to other stories of that time and area, including the Gigamesh epos. Very glad to hear you enjoyed it so much.

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, the flood story is so similar to the one in the Bible (though with some crucial differences) that they obviously come from the same place, whatever that is. Not my area of expertise, I’m afraid. But I did love Gilgamesh.

  2. Teresa says:

    Do you remember that Star Trek: TNG episode where Picard tells the story of Gilgamesh? That episode amounts to the sum total of my knowledge of Gilgamesh, but what an episode it is!

    Anyway, I’m glad you enjoyed it. It’s been on my list for quite a while.

    • Jenny says:

      Of course I remember it! The power of storytelling and metaphor, is what that is. And I read Gilgamesh because Dave kept going on and on about it, and even went back and re-read it. I’m really glad I did.

  3. christina says:

    Classics this early (old?) intimidate me. There. I said it. I’m running for the hills….

    • Jenny says:

      I understand what you mean, but Gilgamesh is totally unintimidating. It’s a very straightforward story, and it’s only about 90 pages long. You don’t have to know anything about Sumerian culture to get it (I don’t, for one.) I would really urge you to step out of your comfort zone for this one.

  4. I lvoe the David Ferry translation, and have read it several times. It really opened Gilgamesh up for me. I would not want a translation that was too literal.

    Everyone knows how short Gilgamesh is, right? It’s an easy one to check off your list. And it has this amazing quality, which Jenny gets just right – the book is four thousand years old, yet still about people, about us. Weird and alien in places; not at all in others.

    • Jenny says:

      Opened up, that’s the word. I found the phrases strikingly beautiful, and so easy to engage with.

      I think what really got me was the understanding that other people have had strong, valid answers to the same questions we’re still asking. But more tomorrow!

  5. Emily says:

    I look forward to your second post, as this is one that intrigues me but which I’ve never actually read. Also very glad for the recommendation from both you & AR on the Ferry translation – the reaction you both describe is similar to my feelings on Anne Carson’s translations, which I absolutely ADORE, so I think the poetic, modern, perhaps less literal/scholarly approach is one with which I do well.

    • Jenny says:

      I’m glad you mentioned the Carson translations. I’m about to read the Oresteia, and I think I have the Fagles translation, but I will seek out Carson on your recommendation. Worth the trouble if it’s really good!

      • Be warned that the Carson Oresteia is not The Oresteia, but rather An Oresteia, an ingenious hybrid of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Emily has a recent post explaining all of this.

        Fagles is darn good, too.

        Would you believe I’m planning to write about exactly this subject tomorrow?

      • Jenny says:

        Well, I may as well read both the Fagles and the Carson, then. And yes, if I’m reading Greek tragedies, I think I have to believe in Fate, so I definitely believe you’re writing about this tomorrow. It’s Destiny, and you can’t escape it.

  6. razorface says:

    It’s not entirely clear from the text that Gilgamesh and Enkidu set out to “do good” as you put it. The main motivation for Gilgamesh in the first part of the epic is to make a name for himself. Certainly Humbaba is fearsome but he is not an “evil demon” – if fact he is the divinely appointed guardian of the cedar forrest. Similarly, it is understandable that Gilgamesh and Enkidu should attempt to defend Uruk against the Bull of Heaven but both also go out of their way to insult the goddess Ishtar – Uruk’s patron deity. Consequently, when Gilgamesh is praised for his great deeds and accomplishments in the introduction to the epic neither battle is mentioned.

    Another very minor criticism – Enkidu and Gilgamesh do not share the same mother.

    • Jenny says:

      Thanks for this. I think the motivations must be mixed: from my text (which, as I say, isn’t scholarly or literal) the demon *is* evil (his breath is death, etc.) even if divine — there is nothing to stop him being both. I would certainly say that the two men are trying to establish a reputation as well, though.

      I said that Enkidu and Gilgamesh shared the same mother because Gilgamesh’s mother “adopts” Enkidu just before the two men go off to fight Huwawa. She wants Enkidu to protect Gilgamesh like a brother, so she makes him one.

      I appreciate your comments very much and look forward to what you have to say on my second post!

  7. I’m thrilled we’re reading this at the same time! What a wonderful post, Jenny. Like you, I was frankly shocked at how straightforward, how beautiful, and how modern Gilgamesh is.

    I’ll be starting my posts tomorrow talking a bit about different translations–then on to history of the text and themes a little later.

    • Jenny says:

      I’m not sure it’s modern — I think we moderns might just be older than we think we are! I look forward very much to your posts, on Gilgamesh and beyond.

  8. razorface says:

    Perhaps part of the problem here is Ferry’s accessible but also fairly interpretative rendition of the epic. My comments are based on Andrew George’s work – generally acknowledged as the best scholarly translation but fairly literal and perhaps a little wooden at times. My problem with freer paraphrases or translations is that the way they fill in the gaps often has no basis in the original text. I guess that’s fine so long as the reader is aware of the approach, but if we want to get closer to the original intent of the epic then it causes problems.

    I believe the issue of motivation is clarified if we step back to look at the literary development of the gilgamesh tradition and at the book as a whole. The early Sumerian Gilgamesh poems generally praise the mighty deeds of the hero in a relatively uncritical way. By the time we reach the standard version of the full epic, however, Gilgamesh is a very flawed hero who probably only attains a degree of wisdom at the very end of the story. The titles of the stories are indicative here: we go from “Ho Hurrah” (the sumerian poem about the killing of Humbaba) to “Surpassing all other kings” (the old Babylonian title) to “He who saw the deep” – the latter title emphasising the wisdom that Gilgamesh obtained only after traversing the subterranean Apsu on his way to meet Utnapishtim.

    In the final and fuller version of the epic Gilgamesh is a tyrant to the people of Uruk. Going against the counsel of the city elders and the better instincts of his mother, he recklessly seeks out and kills the forest guardian appointed by Enlil, even though he realises that this will anger the Gods. The only reason for doing so provided in the text is to make an “eternal name” for himself. This point is underlined at least five times in the lead up to Humbaba’s slaying (possibly more due to gaps in the text). The heroes know that killing Humbaba will displease Enlil so Enkidu urges Gilgamesh to perform the deed quickly – before the Gods realise what has happened. Admittedly, they have the support of Shamash in their enterprise but ultimately their actions result in the untimely death of Enkidu, a punishment decreed by the divine council. It is consequently very difficult to describe this hurried, hubristically motivated execution as a “good deed”.

    On checking I discovered that you are quite right, Humbaba is specifically described as “evil” by the goddess Ninsun. However, the context is the invocation of Shamash’s assistance and protection for the heroes on their journey. I get the feeling that Ninsun is going out of her way to justify a quest which even she feels is unwise, as we discover in preceding verses. In the same context she anticipates the final divinization of her son in a way that seems similarly unrealistic (sharing the heavens with Shamash and Sin). The more consistent representation of Humbaba is as a fearsome ogre who serves that gods by protecting the sacred forest. He is certainly terrifying but his function is divinely authorised. When captured he pleads for his life in very human fashion and in the end it is not his breath but the sword of Gilgamesh that does the killing.

    The reckless killing of humbaba is consistent with the way the actions of Gilgamesh are depicted in the rest of the epic. Gilgamesh again oversteps the mark when he not only rejects Ishtar’s offer of matrimony (quite possibly an allusion to his kingly responsibility as a participant in the sacred marriage ceremony), but goes out of his way to insult and humiliate her. In like fashion, Enkidu, not satisfied with slaying the bull of heaven, throws a hind leg at the goddess, threatening to kill her and drape her in the beast’s entrails. This sort of disrespect for the gods leads directly to the death decree of the next tablet. Later in the epic, Gilgamesh foolishly kills the crew of the boat that will take him to Utnapishtim and even admits to the flood hero that his first impulse was to attack him. The consistent portrayal of Gilgamesh as violent and impulsive undermines the suggestion that he suddenly becomes wise, responsible, and committed to good deeds due to the influence of Enkidu. Perhaps the provision of cedar for the buildings of Uruk might be construed as a benefit to the city but this is not highlighted in the text. Likewise, Humbaba does not pose any immediate threat to the citizens of Uruk so the killing cannot be justified on these grounds. Ultimately, the plot would make little sense if Gilgamesh and Enkidu were punished for their philanthropy.

    Despite the above, there is still an strong element of admiration for the exploits of the pair. This mixed, more sophisticated depiction of the ancient sumerian hero in the final babylonian epic gives the story much of its power. The tale is surprisingly humanistic. Neither Enkidu nor Gilgamesh are either totally admirable or totally evil. The description of the hero as part god, part human could even be a subtle metaphor for the human condition. The irony of this description, however, is that the base human element is revealed precisely in the king’s heroic but violent deeds and lust for immortality. The god-like element only comes to the fore when Gilgamesh realises that his misguided search for immortality and fame is futile, and he discovers wisdom at the feet of one who preserved life rather than destroying it.

    Incidentally, I take your point about Ninsun. She is not Enkidu’s natural mother – so Gilgamesh and Enkidu are not similar becuase of parentage – but she does adopt him before the pair undertake their quest. Your underlying point is quite valid, of course. They are alike in many ways and their skills and attidudes are helpfully complementary.

    • Jenny says:

      Thank you so much for this thorough analysis — obviously far more scholarly than my own. My only addition would be the irony in the fact that it’s only when Gilgamesh realizes that immortality and fame are futile that he achieves those very things, in the tale we are reading. Because if he had continued his reckless and violent ways, would the story have been interesting enough to survive?

      I’m so glad you came by to explain more carefully. I very much appreciate having this more sophisticated understanding of the text.

  9. razorface says:

    I don’t think that my analysis is necessarily more scholarly, but it is informed by a detailed reading of a more literal translation. Also, my key observation about the way Gilgamesh is presented as a very flawed hero is made much more elegantly in the introduction to George’s penguin classic edition of the epic. The only other translation I have read is by Stephanie Dalley in Myths from Mesopotamia. I can also recommend this as a good combination of readability and scholarly expertise.

  10. Carin S. says:

    Giglamesh was one of my favorite books I read in college! I was shocked to read another version of the flood story, and it also was reminiscent in parts (to me at least) of Beowulf. Such a cool book!

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