The Epic of Gilgamesh

A five thousand year old story rediscovered on cuneiform tablets in the ruins of Nineveh in what is now Iraq back in the nineteenth century, this epic series of poems is probably the oldest piece of literature we have available to us today. This Penguin Classics edition is described as an English version rather than a translation because N.K. (Nancy Katharine) Sanders didn’t go back to the original cuniform or even later Assyrian texts but rather compiled the story from existing translations to provide a ‘readable’ rather than scholarly interpretation. The original tablets are damaged with a lot of them broken in bits with parts in different museums around the world and several sections are missing altogether, which makes the task of translating even more difficult that it should be. What Sanders has achieved is a knitting together of the various existing versions, which by definition also have large gaps or variant approximations as to what could have been the meaning of damaged sections. She also wrote an excellent introduction which is roughly as long as the surviving parts of the epic itself and which is highly necessary if the reader is to understand anything of the background to a story from 3000 BCE. This book is an original piece of work for Penguin Classics and my first edition is from 1960 and is a prose version of the original epic poem.

This version of the Epic of Gilgamesh is in seven parts and whilst they are mainly linked it cannot be called a continuous narrative, there may well be other sections still to be discovered even now on the tens of thousands cuneiform tablets or fragments thereof spread around the world in various museums, quite a few of which have yet to be translated, but let’s take the sections we have one by one.

The Coming of Enkidu

At the start of the tale Gilgamesh is the all powerful ruler of the city of Uruk (now Warka in Iraq) situated on the Euphrates river and his people were frightened of him because he had nobody to challenge him so he took everything and everyone he wanted.

But the men of Uruk muttered in their houses, ‘Gilgamesh sounds the tocsin for his amusement, his arrogance has no bounds by day or night. No son is left with his father, for Gilgamesh takes them all, even the children; yet the king should be a shepherd to his people. His lust leaves no virgin to her lover, neither the warrior's daughter nor the wife of the noble; yet this is the shepherd of the city, wise, comely, and resolute.' 

A tocsin is an alarm bell and should only be used in emergencies to rouse the defences of the city, but clearly Gilgamesh found it amusing to just raise panic amongst his population. To counteract him the gods decided to create an equally powerful being, Enkidu, who would provide sufficient distraction for Gilgamesh so that his people were safer from his excessive desires. This they duly did and almost at first sight Gilgamesh and Enkidu became firm friends and the plan by the gods worked as they spent a lot of time together mainly outside of the city so peace largely reined in Uruk.

The Forest Journey

This is a tale of Gilgamesh and Enkidu heading off to a mighty forest in search of huge cedar trees for building materials in Uruk. The forest is guarded by the giant Humbaba and he several times intervenes to try to stop them cutting down the trees but without success. Eventually seeing that he cannot prevent the felling of the cedars he offers himself as the servant to Gilgamesh and will cut down the trees for him. Gilgamesh is all for this proposal but Enkidu insists that Gilgamesh should kill Humbaba instead and this he duly does before sailing away back down the Euphrates with his cargo of sweet smelling wood.

Ishtar and Gilgamesh, and the Death of Enkidu

Ishtar is the goddess of love, but also the goddess of war in the Sumerian mythology, an interesting combination and also why Gilgamesh is not particularly enamoured by her approach to him at the very start of this section

Gilgamesh Washed out his long locks and cleaned his weapons; he flung back his hair from his shoulders; he threw off his stained clothes and changed them for new. He put on his royal robes and made them fast. When Gilgamesh had put on the crown, glorious Ishtar lifted her eyes, seeing the beauty of Gilgamesh. She said, ‘Come to me Gilgamesh, and be my bridegroom; grant me seed of your body, let me be your bride and you shall be my husband.

Whilst it is clearly an honour for a man to be approached by a goddess in this way Gilgamesh is all too aware of the fates of previous mortals who had dallied with Ishtar which were not good and he doesn’t want to end up as a bird with a broken wing or transformed into a mole to give just two examples. In her rage at rejection Ishtar sends a mighty Bull of the Heavens to destroy Gilgamesh and his city but Gilgamesh kills it and in petulance she then persuades other gods to kill Enkidu and so deprive Gilgamesh of his companion.

The Search for Everlasting Life

In his despair at the death of his friend Gilgamesh takes to the wilderness, living off what he can hunt and wearing animal skins whilst determining to seek for the secret of eternal life. He has many adventures but is generally shunned due to his unkempt appearance until he finds a way to get to a man who already has to power to live forever. This section is somewhat confused either because sections of the story are missing or there is another story, which would have been well known five thousand years ago when this tale was first transcribed, which fills in gaps in the narrative and explains important details.

The Story of the Flood

We suddenly get a lurch away from the stories of Gilgamesh and deal instead with an ancient story of inundation at the instigation of the gods who are annoyed with the noise made by the humans on Earth. This section was the most fascinating to me as it is clearly the basis for the tale of Noah in the Bible only in this version the boat builder was Utnapishtim, a man of Shurrupak, son of Ubara-Tutu and it was the wrath of gods rather than god that caused the floods to exterminate the human race. There is also a proper crew rather than Noah and his family on their own looking after all the animals on board

Then was the launching full of difficulty; there was shifting of ballast above and below till two thirds was  submerged. I loaded into her all that 1 had of gold and of living things, my family, my kin, the beast of the field both wild and tame, and all the craftsmen. I sent them on board, for the time that Shamash had ordained was already fulfilled when he said, "in the evening, when the rider of the storm sends down the destroying rain, enter the boat and batten her down." The time was fulfilled, the evening came, the rider of the storm sent down the rain. I looked out at the weather and it was terrible, so I too boarded the boat and battened her down. All was now complete, the battening and the caulking; so I handed the tiller to Puzur-Amurri the steersman, with the navigation and the care of the whole boat. 

They sailed for many days and to determine if the flood waters were subsided set free birds to see if they returned, just as Noah does in the biblical version. In all the two stories align extremely well so Noah is clearly a rewriting of this more ancient tale which was itself lifted from a still more ancient Babylonian story.

The Return

Having found Utnapishtim, Gilgamesh is finally told that the reason he has eternal life is that he saved mankind and all the animals in his boat and was so rewarded by the gods who had regretted sending the floods when they saw the devastation. This means that he cannot tell Gilgamesh how to live forever because it was a gift of the gods not some potion or magic. Disappointed Gilgamesh decides to return to Uruk which he does without incident in a matter of two or three paragraphs.

The Death of Gilgamesh

This is by far the shortest section, and far from a heroes death in battle which you may have expected from the epic so far Gilgamesh appears to simply die of old age worn out by his travels.

Nancy Sanders was primarily an archaeologist and was involved in digs across Europe and the Middle East. She was born in 1914 and died, aged 101 in 2015, still living in the house she was born in. There is an interesting web site dedicated to her, which can be found here.