The Epic of Gilgamesh
English version by N K Sandars
Penguin Classics 1971 (1960)
It’s extraordinary and rather humbling that the core of a story over four thousand years old, large parts of which have miraculously survived in the form of sunbaked tablets, can still be deciphered by scholars and translated into modern language for the edification and enlightenment of all.
The fact that it tells the kind of story we’re familiar with from our own fairytales, novels and film is both surprising and yet reassuring, surprising given its age and reassuring because human frailties and virtues clearly haven’t changed much over three or four millennia.
The narrative features Gilgamesh, a legendary king of Uruk in southern Mesopotamia who is part divine, part human, and it describes his life in a series of key episodes. The opening is not auspicious: we see him exercising his regal droit du Seigneur, leaving a lot of unhappy women and families in his wake. But then he encounters a new best friend called Enkidu, a tamed wild man who is almost his equal in strength and who incidentally puts a stop to the King’s unreasonable behaviour.
Their companionship requires cementing and involves confronting and overcoming the demon Huwawa (or Humbaba) in the distant cedar forest. Unfortunately the goddess Ishtar then takes an obsessive interest in Gilgamesh; when she’s rejected the goddess rouses the gods against the king, the outcome being that Enkidu has to die.
Grieving and railing against the inevitability of death Gilgamesh resolves to search for immortality at the far end of the known world. Along the way he meets Utnapishtim who, after surviving the Flood, has attained long life. Unfortunately Gilgamesh fails crucial tests, including safeguarding the plant that gives eternal life, and as a result returns empty-handed to Uruk — which is where death eventually catches up with him.
However he does achieve an immortality of sorts: his name is engraved on the stones of the walls of the city and his story inscribed on tablets that scholars can now read. The message expressed is the same lust for glory and celebrity as that desired by Achilles or in those lyrics in the song from Fame: “I’m gonna make it to heaven | Light up the sky like a flame | I’m gonna live forever | Baby, remember my name…”
Biblical scholars get very excited with parallels — or rather predecessors — to Old Testament tales, most obviously Noah and the Flood. Gilgamesh and Enkidu foreshadow Jacob and Esau, Shamhat, the temple prostitute who tames Enkidu, is a forerunner of Eve, the snake that eats the flower of immortality and condemns Gilgamesh to banishment from paradise is akin to the serpent in the Garden of Eden. But I’m also impressed by other similarities to exemplars in other cultures. For example, Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s killing of the Bull of Heaven sent by Ishtar reminds me of Mithras’ slaying of the bull, suggesting some survival of a traditional tale in the lands adjoining Mesopotamia. And Urshanabi, who ferries Gilgamesh across the waters of death is of course the equivalent of the ferryman Charon in Greek mythology, while the boat itself is reminiscent of the barge that carries Arthur to Avalon.
This version of the epic was cobbled together by the distinguished archaeologist Nancy Sandars, who lived to the ripe old age of 101, dying as recently as 2015. However, she freely acknowledges she is no expert in cuneiform and the languages they represented, and that she relies on previous scholarship to assemble and collate texts from various sources, themselves stretching over a thousand years.
In 2000 her version was superseded in Penguin Classics by Andrew George’s scholarly translation, but that doesn’t stop her version being not only a readable prose narrative but also revealing the original’s profound psychological insights. She retains some aspects — such as the repetition of phrases and sometimes passages — which distinguish oral traditions in poetry, but otherwise there is little in her prose to suggest the ordering of end-stopped couplets and stanzas of many of the originals.
Her introduction of necessity isn’t entirely compatible with up to date studies but there is still much of value in it. She notes that the knowledge of the story of Gilgamesh wasn’t entirely lost after the libraries of the region were buried under the sands of time — Aelian at the start of the third century of our era mentions a Gilgamos, king of Babylon, for instance — but she has little truck with “will-o’-the-wisps of criticism” comparing the hero with Odysseus (I’m guessing the blinding of the cyclops Polyphemus may equate to the defeat of the demon Humbaba) or with Hercules (the Greek hero slays a lion and wears the pelt, as does Gilgamesh).
I’ve hung on to my copy of this version for nigh on fifty years, but it’s now time to pass it on and pick up Andrew George’s version in verse, or even Stephanie Dalley’s translation in Myths from Mesopotamia (Oxford World’s Classics), to see what a half-century of further work on the epic can reveal. It can only reinforce the impression that Gilgamesh, for all his part divine lineage, is as human as the rest of us, as prone to pride, arrogance, fear, friendship, despair, grief and desire for some sort of immortality as any modern individual.
Incidentally, the clay mask of Huwawa (alternatively Humbaba) pictured above is actually inscribed with the demon’s name, as the British Museum page tells us. To me it not only represents the intestines of a sheep, traditionally used for divination, but also the unicursal labyrinth, perhaps a reference to the confusing paths in Humbaba’s cedar forest where, like the Minotaur in the Cretan maze, he could waylay unwary wanderers among the trees.
In the 2018 Ultimate Reading Challenge this fits the category epic poem; in my local bookshop Book-ish‘s monthly challenge this counts as a book in translation