The Epic of Gilgamesh translated by Stephen Mitchell

He had seen everything, had experienced all emotions,
from exaltation to despair, had been granted a vision
into the great mystery, the secret places,
the primeval days before the Flood. He had journeyed
to the edge of the world and made his way back, exhausted
but whole. He had carved his trials on stone tablets…
…Find the cornerstone and under it the copper box
that is marked with his name. Unlock it. Open the lid.
Take out the tablet of lapis lazuli. Read
how Gilgamesh suffered all and accomplished all.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is arguably the oldest story in the world, a thousand years older than the Iliad and the Bible. Dating back to 26th century B.C.E., The Epic of Gilgamesh is probably based on a Sumerian king who ruled the city of Uruk around 2750 B.C.E. The ruins of Uruk were only recently discovered, and the story of Gilgamesh itself was lost to time until a 1872 when a scholar noticed that a set of undeciphered tablets, that had been sitting the the British Museum for decades, contained the story of a Babylonian Noah. He deciphered them all, giving the world its first near complete translation of the Epic of Gilgamesh.

The Epic of Gilgamesh tells the story of a great king, a god-king, who, through friendship, became a human being. As it opens, Gilgamesh is building the city of Uruk, constructing the greatest walled city ever seen. He has no regard for the people whose lives are consumed by his desire nor for the gods who fear it. Enkidu, a wild man capable of defeating Gilgamesh, is sent by the gods to the forests near Uruk. Enkidu lives at peace with nature, a friend to all animals until a beautiful young priestess, Shamhut, arrives. When he falls in love with her, she cuts his hair, cleans him up, civilizes him and brings him back to Uruk where he does battle with Gilgamesh.

The battle is a fierce one, but it eventually becomes apparent that the two great men are equally matched. Gilgmaseh, who has never had an equal before, befriends Enkidu and the two then have a series of adventures. Typically, Gilgamesh suggests the adventure and Enkidu tries to talk him out of it before giving in and going along. Gilgmamesh suggests they defeat the monster Humbaba and cut down the forest he lives in, but Enkidu resists arguing that this will anger the goddess Ishtar to whom the forest belongs. They defeat Humbaba, cut down the forest, and disgrace Ishtar. The gods then send down the Bull of Heaven which Gilgamesh and Enkidu also kill. But during the battle, Enkidu is mortally wounded and dies soon after. Gilgamesh is heartbroken, so he sets off to defeat death itself. It is during this final journey that he meets the man who survived the great flood which destroyed all the world.

Gilgamesh is a compelling story, full of adventure, romance, sex and violence and it does have a few things to say to a modern audience. Who hasn’t suffered the loss of a loved one or wanted to defeat death? Mr. Mitchell’s translation is both poetic and highly readable; the story can be read in one or two evenings. But if you’re looking for something as wonderful as Seamus Heaney’s recent translation of Beowulf, you won’t find it in Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh feels like a very primitive story, like a rough draft for the epics that will follow it. It lacks the poetry of Homer’s Iliad or Virgil’s Aeneid, along with the depth of character and narrative complexity of later epics. But it is the first one, and there is something to be said for that.

I believe that one of the most important lessons we can learn from history is that it can all vanish. The historical king, Gilgamesh, built a great city, Uruk, which is now a ruin, one that would be unknown but for the expert eye of archaeologists. The names of its kings are recorded as are many of their deeds, but the only one anybody is still talking about, outside of very refined academic circles, is the fictional one featured in the Epic of Gilgamesh. What survives the passage of time is art.

While I offer more praise for other stories in this review from my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., to be honest, this one is the one I remember more and the one that spoke to me most.  Beowulf, the Aneid, the Odyssey, are all much better pieces of literature. But to be honest, I find Gilgamesh speaks to me on a much more personal level.  Should I end up rereading any of them in my old age, I think this is the one I’ll choose first.

3 thoughts on “The Epic of Gilgamesh translated by Stephen Mitchell

  1. Not as well written, but stood out more for you personally? Interesting. We had to read this in the first or second semester of uni, a course about narrative or something like that. It did get the ball rolling, didn’t it?

  2. I think I found it much easier to identify with Gilgamesh than the other characters in the really old classics. His loneliness, his lack of any human connection coupled with the desire for a more human connection. And then the way that connection brings about his downfall and causes him to question everything he’s understood about the world up to that point. That’s always struck a cord with me.

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