Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Reading List: "Gilgamesh"

Gilgamesh, an epic recovered from a zillion fragments found in sites through Mesopotamia, is often billed as the world’s oldest extant story. This is seriously ancient stuff, a good millennia older than the Hebrew Bible, and as you might expect there are plenty of gaps where the clay tablets in question are cracked, damaged, or just plain missing. The sections that remain often contain divergent versions from different regions or time periods, and to cap it all off the whole thing is written in ancient languages that don’t exactly come with, for instance, a complete Akkadian-English English-Akkadian dictionary. Translating all this into a coherent story necessarily involves a ton of guesswork.

Note on the Translation

Having said this, the Stephen Mitchell edition of Gilgamesh, definitely the hot ticket Gilgamesh of the moment, is less an actual translation than a creative collage of other peoples’ translations. Mitchell (whose oeuvre includes such ghostwritten classics as Loving What Is: Four Questions that Can Change Your Life and Real Power: Business Lessons from the Tao Te Ching) admits right up front that he doesn’t know a lick of Akkadian, but has rather compiled what he sees as an artistic retelling of the epic from among all the existing English translations. He is “particularly indebted” to a translation by A.R. George, which he says “far excels all previous scholarship,” though how he could possibly be in a position to evaluate this is not spelled out. He streamlines the story to make it, he hopes, accessible to modern readers, shaving off the repetition, number games, and other idiosyncrasies that apparently sounded really cool to Mesopotamians but would drive us bonkers today.

Mitchell’s Gilgamesh, then, is an especially high-profile example of a man walking into a room with {x} books and leaving it with {x+1}. Moreover, since he has edited and selected from the texts in order to please the modern English speaker’s ear, he has necessarily edited and selected out much of what made the story distinctively Mesopotamian, or whatever, which seems to me to defeat the whole purpose of reading something ancient. The upside, happily, is that this Gilgamesh is indeed a palatable, even an easy, read. And that’s good, of course.

My confidence that Mitchell had managed to convey the essence of the original, however, was not helped by a prelude asserting that his version of Gilgamesh is, like the text he works from, a piece of original art. It’s not that I have a problem with the idea that Mitchell’s work is an original piece of artistry, but the idea that the ancient Gilgamesh was conceived in a spirit anything like that of “artistic creation” -- a culturally embedded concept if ever there was one -- seems awfully naïve. There’s no way we’ll ever understand what Gilgamesh really meant as a narrative to its original writers, performers, and participants, but we can at least safely assume that it did not occupy the cultural position of 21st Century art poetry.

Then, there is a very long essay about how relevant Gilgamesh is to various current events and concerns, in which Mitchell says things like “one can’t help hearing this statement of an ancient Mesopotamian king in eerie counterpoint to the recent American invasion of Iraq.” This is such a dumb way to talk about ancient literature that it was frankly kind of embarrassing just to skim through. Bottom line: despite pages of excited blurbs from high-profile publications, I am left with serious doubts that Stephen Mitchell is the right guy to be leading our tour of Gilgamesh.

Those Nutty Mesopotamians!

Even through this especially distorted cultural lens, however, you still get a vertiginous sense of vast cultural difference between the people who wrote Gilgamesh and the people you see on the bus on your way to work. Their beliefs and cosmology are radically different, of course, the Mesopotamians living in a world of merry polytheism in which gods are plentiful and prone to involvement in human affairs. Their deities conduct the kinds of turbulent interpersonal – interdeital? -- relationships that you would expect from a Mexican soap opera. For men to, as part of their religious practice, have sex with women employed by the temple for just this purpose, seems to have been a commonplace part of everyday life. Uruk, a city of leisure time where “every day is a holiday” and people have time to make music and sing, is clearly thought of as a pretty amazing place. Its massive, well-built walls are dwelt on with great pride, and seem to represent the proud high-tech achievement of the day.

As in another ancient text that I am wrestling with, the Bible, the logic of people’s decisions is not always easy to parse. King Gilgamesh begins by fearing Enkidu, the second character of the book, and attacks him on sight; when he is unable to kill the newcomer, however, the two immediately and for no particular reason become the closest of friends. A while later, Gilgamesh announces that he is going to attack a great monster that the gods have placed as guardian of a forest. Why? No reason, or more likely the reasoning was so obvious or so irrelevant to the original audience that it didn’t bear going into.

Gilgamesh also has some resonances with another old story I read for the Reading List project last summer, Beowulf. Both feature a regional leader of exceptional size and strength who goes out in the world more or less randomly to beat up on grotesque monsters. One gets the impression, too, that there are many other similar stories out there as well in the literature of many peoples. Pre-modern humans were perhaps more fixated than ourselves about the ever present dangers posed by the wilderness lurking always just outside the town walls, as if – and this may well be true, I suppose – they all had cousins who were devoured by wolves when they were kids and they never really got over it. It’s understandable, really.


King Gilgamesh, who is strangely enough one-third god and two-thirds mortal, is seen by his people as overbearing and arrogant, and accordingly the gods create Enkidu, someone just as big and powerful as he is. Enkidu grows up wild in the woods, but when he comes to the attention of the city-dwellers they send out the very best temple prostitute to lure him to civilization with the charms of awesome sex. This works, and after he and King Gilgamesh fight to a stalemate, they become good friends. Like, suspiciously good friends. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I’m just saying.

After a while, Gilgamesh suddenly decides that they need to kill the monster, which they argue about, but Gilgamesh prevails and they take off on a road trip. They eventually kill the monster, but this pisses off a faction of the gods and they kill Enkidu with a lingering disease. Gilgamesh is absolutely devastated by this. After much wailing and mourning, he sets off on a journey into a sort of underworld to find the only man who ever overcame death, hoping to get some tips.

After various episodes of daring-do and surreal conversations with underworld types, he finds the guy, who tells him an interesting story. It goes like this: the gods decided to destroy the world through a massive flood, but one of them tipped him off and had him build a huge ark and stock it with two of each kind of animal. After a week of flood, the ark went ashore and he started sending out birds until one day the bird didn’t come back, and that way they knew the floodwaters were receding, and they could come out of the ark and live happily ever after. And this is, you have to think, a very interesting story to find in a text that predates the Hebrew Bible by hundreds of years, no?

Anyway, Gilgamesh gets told that if he can stay awake for a full week, he’ll be allowed to defy death. He falls asleep immediately. As a sort of consolation prize, he’s told how to dig up a plant that grants eternal youth. But, a snake nicks it from him on the way home. He arrives back at Uruk, sadder but wiser, and the tale abruptly ends.


Aviatrix said...

If Stephen Mitchell's version is anything like yours, it's a very readable story indeed.

I understand it's also available in Klingon.

Rebel said...

OMG - as soon as I saw that picture - before I even read the title I knew exactly what it was. I don't know much about this particular translation but I hope it's better than the one in college. The overarching theme of the translation I read was "portions of this text are missing." You'd be reading along then what might have been a word, or a paragraph or a page is omited and replaced with that phrase. Over and over and over and over. Gah!!!

Chance said...

Kudos to you for giving this one a try. I'm a fan of the Homeric epics and Beowulf and old French ballads, but even I found Gilgamesh just too.. foreign. I think you're totally on target questioning Mitchell's creds.

mrs.5000 said...

I think Nora Gilgamesh Shamar Chuckdaddy Boone has a nice ring to it.

Michael5000 said...

@Reb: I can imagine that's pretty frustrating. It's possible I'd be less hard on Mitchell's artificially complete version if I'd had to struggle through the fragmented real deal.

Jenners said...

For a second when I saw the photo, I thought you were reading a book published on rocks.

Michael5000 said...

@Jenners: Well, I was!

Elaine said...

My experience was like Rebel's! The World Lit tome-- on thin, closely-printed paper-- was hell to read even without all of the parenthetical [missing material]... a Gilga-mess. However, I found "Gargantua and Pantagruel" even worse... It may have been a million-dollar education, but that book stuffed it down your throat nickel by nickel...

My question is: Why is M5000 doing this to himself???

Anonymous said...

Possibly the only extant depiction of Gilgamesh....