150 Years of Gilgamesh

The year 2022 marks the 150th anniversary of the rediscovery of the Babylonian epic Gilgamesh. The epic had been forgotten for around two thousand years when in 1872 an Assyriologist named George Smith deciphered a set of clay tablets that had recently been excavated at Nineveh, in northern Iraq. The ancient poem was thus brought to new life, and over the past century and a half, Gilgamesh has achieved a fame unparalleled by any other work of ancient Near Eastern literature. It has been translated into two dozen languages, including Klingon, and retold in a wealth of different media, from pop ballads to avant-garde art.

If more proof of the epic’s ability to transcend time were needed, in 2021 Gilgamesh made his latest appearance in the Marvel film Eternals, as one of the eponymous heroes sent to defend, and eventually destroy, humanity. Brilliantly portrayed by Don Lee, the comic book character was originally named ‘The Forgotten One’, in an ironic demonstration of Gilgamesh’s knack for being remembered anew across centuries and continents.

Don Lee plays the character of Gilgamesh in ‘Eternals’. “Don Lee” by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Perhaps it is precisely because the epic was forgotten for so long that it now feels so fresh. Unlike classical works such as Homer’s epics, which have been read continuously since they were first composed in the 8th century BCE, Gilgamesh comes unburdened by reception: 150 years is paltry by comparison. When reading the Odyssey, one must mentally contend with countless artists and writers who have engaged with the poem, leaving little room for new readers to discover the story for themselves. But Gilgamesh still feels like unexplored territory; it opens itself up to new readers with the force of a revelation.

I like to think of Gilgamesh as a ‘found foundation’. It is a foundation in the sense that it is an ancient classic, drawn from the bottom-most layers of history and frequently — if incorrectly — described as the world’s oldest poem. And it is found in the sense that it was rediscovered relatively recently, meaning that it is still possible to read it as if for the first time, to make up one’s own mind about it.

For me, the most striking aspect of Gilgamesh’s modern history is how strongly and how variedly its readers have identified with the text and its hero. Some read the epic as a tale of loss and grief, seeing their own pain reflected in Gilgamesh’s mourning for his friend Enkidu. Others respond instead to its depiction of love between men, the fear of death, the devastation of nature, climate catastrophe, or the importance of telling one’s own story, and so on. Every reader seems to find in the epic a new aspect to which they can personally connect.

I myself relate most strongly to the epic’s depiction of a young man driven by a disquiet within him that he cannot explain. The gods say about Gilgamesh that there is ‘a storm in his heart’, and indeed the hero seems unable to stay still. He flings himself with unbridled glee into each new quest, often with disastrous results. When Gilgamesh launches an ill-advised mission to kill the monster Humbaba, his mother, the divine Ninsun, prays with clear frustration to the Sun God Shamash: ‘Why, Shamash, did you burden my son with so restless a heart?’

Predictably, the quest ends poorly, as Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill Humbaba, murder his sons, and destroy his forest, only then pausing to reflect on the consequences of their actions. Enkidu imagines himself being interrogated by the gods, who ask him: ‘What wrath sent you trampling through the forest?’ But he cannot answer, for he is propelled by an inner passion that remains obscure to him. Today, as we watch the grim spectacle of deforestation unfold, we would do well to ask ourselves the same question.

By contrast to this heroic energy, the tone of the epic as a whole is much more melancholic. Gilgamesh is eventually worn down by his grief, exhausted by his travels, and mentally shattered. He is then treated by the immortal sage Uta-napishti to sober meditations on the necessity of death, humanity’s place in the world, and the fathomless depths of the past. Uta-napishti delivers a monologue on death that includes the stunning lines: ‘No one sees the face of death, no one hears the voice of death. But it is savage death that snaps mankind.’ So much for youthful enthusiasm.

In short, there is a clear contrast between Gilgamesh the epic and Gilgamesh the character, between the reflective poem and its restless hero. This contrast is a crucial part of the epic’s appeal. It draws the reader in with wild adventures and exuberant energy, but then leads us to sobering meditations on death, morality, history. It is a work of passionate philosophy, in turns asking what it means to be human and thrusting the story onward with endless vigour.

My new book on Gilgamesh, out now with Yale University Press, seeks to do justice to the complex meaning of this ancient masterpiece. It offers a detailed introduction to the epic, guiding first-time readers through the ancient world from which it sprang. The five essays of the epic delve into the epic’s long history, its literary structure, its emotional force, its reflections on history and death, and the social world in which it is set, including its depiction of women and the natural world.

The book also includes a new translation of Gilgamesh from the original Akkadian. In my translation, I wanted to bring out an aspect of the text that has often gone unappreciated: its many alliterations and delightful verbal games. The play of consonants is everywhere in Gilgamesh, but that would not be apparent from a strictly literal translation, so I set out to recreate the enchanting echoes, cadence, and poetic parallels that make the original such a pleasure to read.

One of my favourite lines comes when Gilgamesh is told how to retrieve an underwater plant that might grant him new youth: ‘If your hand can reach that plant . . .’ This phrase might look dull in English, but in Akkadian, it comes close to a tongue-twister: shumma shamma shashu ‘ ikasshada qataka. Note the heavy repetition of sh and a, note the interweaving of k and q, d and t. I couldn’t quite match the magic of the original in English, but I could at least let Gilgamesh’s hand not reach but ‘pluck the plant’.

This is but one small example of the literary gems that lie scattered through the text, which I have done my best to convey in the translation and to unpack in the essays. As Gilgamesh enters the 150th year of its modern life — no longer forgotten but Marvel-lous as ever — I am excited to find out how its new readers will relate to it and what reflections it will provoke.

About the Book

Gilgamesh: A New Translation of the Ancient Epic
Sophus Helle

“Sophus Helle’s new translation . . . [is] a thrilling, enchanting, desperate thing to read.”

Nina MacLaughlin, Boston Globe

A poem for the ages, freshly and accessibly translated by an international rising star, bringing together scholarly precision and poetic grace

Gilgamesh is a Babylonian epic from three thousand years ago, which tells of King Gilgamesh’s deep love for the wild man Enkidu and his pursuit of immortality when Enkidu dies. It is a story about love between men, loss and grief, the confrontation with death, the destruction of nature, insomnia and restlessness, finding peace in one’s community, the voice of women, the folly of gods, heroes, and monsters—and more. Millennia after its composition, Gilgamesh continues to speak to us in myriad ways.

Find out more about the book here

Featured image by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg)

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