Gilgamesh being one of the foundation texts for all literature, if not THE foundation text, I really should have it read earlier. Originating 4000 years ago as five separate poems and revisited in several versions by generations of writers, it is the oldest known narrative. I’d also like to say that I read it in the original. But I can’t read cuneiform, do not know Akkadian or Sumerian, and I do not have space in my house for dozens of clay tablets.
Handily for me, Stephen Mitchell has produced this fantastic modern interpretation of the epic. Mitchell based his poem on pre-existing translations, taking the best from the differing versions, and smoothing over those bits that are missing. I can’t with any authority gauge how close he cleaves to the original, but he states, “My intention throughout has been to recreate the ancient epic, as a contemporary poem, in the parallel universe of the English language.” In the fairly extensive notes, Mitchell prints various translated chunks of the original verse and from these small examples he seems to have done an admirable job.
What is original anyway? There are different versions of the story, embellished at different times by different people, then translated in different ways thousands (thousands!) of years later. The “definitive” version was written by a priest-scholar by the name of Sin-leqi-unninni. he based his – for want of a better word – classic on “The Old Babylonian Version” which drew the five original poems together. But the exact level of his contribution is unknown. It is from translations of this that Mitchell mostly works, creating a beautiful readable poem that is powerful and haunting. It’s a bit odd that he goes through the poem segment by segment before we get to read it. A shorter introduction would be in order, as the poem really does speak for itself. Otherwise, the book’s great. If your understanding of Gilgamesh is either “Who?” or “Wasn’t he a minor 70s Marvel comics character with a cow on his head?” go out and buy this. It’s as accessible as a modern fantasy novel, and better written than most of those. Here endeth the review part, now comes the thinks. If you’ve no stomach for me musing, you can go away now.
There are two lasting impressions this poem made upon me. The first is the sense of time. 4000 years ago the first versions of the poem was written, not long after the actual King Gilgamesh died. The later version dates from 3200 years ago. To put this into perspective, imagine someone writing a novel based on Mallory’s Morte D’Arthur in the year 2300, and then more than three thousand years after that, in 5500 or so, it becoming the key text for future historians understanding our civilisation. The antiquity of the poem almost defies comprehension.
The second impression is that the characters are recognisably human, despite the immense age of the material. Their customs are a bit strange, but well within the ambit of our understanding. And the key concern of the story, a desire for a sort of immortality inspired by the fear of death, is perennially relevant. I’m worrying about it right now, four millennia later.
There is a school of academic thought that imbues our ancestors with a certain po-facedness. The kind that says every carved phallus is a sacred object, or every horse painted upon a cave wall is an attempt to commune with the divine. Why can the former not be a sex toy? Or the latter the result of someone painting a horse because they like horses? The further we go back in history, the more pompous the interpretations become, and the more we underestimate our forebears’ humanity; their ability to love or to laugh or to grieve. One of the most offensive things I ever read, I think, was that people in the past did not love their children as much because so many died. Perhaps there is a grain of truth in that, but no more than a grain. One only has to look at gravestones dating back to Roman times to see how much balderdash makes up the rest. Worryingly, if one takes this argument to its logical conclusion, then also Sub-Saharan Africans don’t care for their kids.
The religious thing is particularly irksome. In the West, having lost our own connection to the numinous, we have this weird need to overstate it when we encounter it elsewhere. It’s an odd, post-Victorian thing, this strange sensitivity to the beliefs of others that is expressed humbly, but which hides a very real sense of cultural superiority. Everything done in the past (and to an extent in the contemporary lands of The Other) must be interpreted through the prism of a religiosity that is at once sacred, profound, and (we secretly hold) contemptible. To our minds, nobody in these places wants to tell a joke, or get drunk, or have a nap, all because they have temples and that. We’re spiritually confounded, and that leads us to some hilarious, patronising, and sometimes disastrous misjudgments.
Gilgamesh rather blows all this away. For a start, Gilgamesh is a bit of a arse. An arrogant king secure in his own might who abuses his power simply because he can, and as powerful men who abuse their power always have done, he does so to get girls. In order to rein in his wife-stealing habits, the gods make a mirror image of him, Enkidu, a wild child-man who becomes his best friend and perhaps lover, but who Gilgamesh then gets killed by performing another arrogant act to prove how awesome he is. Confronted so rudely by death, Gilgamesh attempts to give that a beating too, only to find that he cannot. And thence to wisdom: the realisation he is not the world, but is in the world, and that the world will live on after him no matter how mighty he is. It was always the way, and so it will always be.
I often try to express in my own fiction my belief (and it is a belief, no more concrete in actuality than the opinions of others I cheekily denigrate above) that people fundamentally do not change. The human mind is incredibly plastic, and the diversity of our cultures reflect this. But everything we do takes place upon a continuum that is inherently comprehensible by all humans. Even if that comprehension provokes the diffident post-colonial humbug of above, or the hatred of the modern-day zealots, it is still comprehension (understanding however is another thing, and rather more hard to win). Some of the work being done on the way animals see the world suggests that this continuum extends past the condition of humanity. I look askance at science fiction that suggests, post-singularity, we will become utterly alien, heartless creatures. In this, our interpretation of our descendants has become as serious as our interpretations of our ancestors. They will be in thrall to the god-machine, as those who came before were in thrall to god. We live in a time of change, and bizarrely that makes us believe everything before and after will exist in a state of stasis. A stasis of religion, or of never-changing nature (when nature changes all the time), or if we look to the future, a stasis of perpetual, incomprehensible change.
Perhaps this is the moment when humanity is unseated by post-humanity, but I think we may well become more human, not less.
Gilgamesh is, in its way, a post-singularity tale. A story written not long after the advent of the agricultural “singularity” that enabled the marvellous cities depicted in the poem. This would have been an alien world to the hunter gatherers that came before Gilgamesh, but they would have been able to comprehend it and adapt to it. As I am sure Gilgamesh would be able to comprehend our world, and as we, looking through this poem, can comprehend his. I am very glad I read this. It is a story that reinforces the continuity of the human experience, a continuity of which we all form infinitesimal but essential parts, and that is a comfort in the face of mortality.