Review: Gilgamesh

Posted: October 14, 2014 in Random wifflings

Gilgamesh
Gilgamesh by Anonymous
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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.

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Comments
  1. Matt Keefe says:

    “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.”

    There is a recently collected version of all the fragments, featuring transliterated Akkadian, so you wouldn’t need to read cuneiform (probably fewer than 1,000 people in the whole world can competently), and Akkadian is more accessible than you might think. Thorpey bought me Teach Yourself Babylonian for my 30th, so if you really, really wanted to…

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Babylonian-Gilgamesh-Epic-Introduction/dp/0198149220/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1413290783&sr=8-2&keywords=gilgamesh+babylonian+text

    If I had the money, I would.

    “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.”

    This is an excellent point. What struck me was the realisation that the poem’s existence – and, in fact, that of much of the civilisations that gave birth to it – was completely unknown throughout the majority of that time. A poem that might once have been sufficiently widely recounted to have influenced the Iliad had apparently been forgotten completely; it’s remarkable. (Relatedly, around the same time as I first read Gilgamesh – not this version; it wasn’t out then – I read a very good book about the decipherment of cuneiform, Empires of the Plain, by Lesley Adkins, which conjures a very similar sense of the vast expanse of time that these things survived undiscovered over.)

    “There is a school of academic thought that imbues our ancestors with a certain po-facedness.”

    This strikes me as a bit of a straw man. I think there might be a certain kind of popular perception that does this; not sure it’s been common to academic thought for a very long time indeed.

    “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.”

    Again, I don’t think you have to look very far to find out this isn’t the case – for example, Strepsiades in Aristophanes’s Clouds referring to politicians as ‘the wide-arsed’ (it can be translated in a good deal more vulgar fashion than that, too). When vast caches of previously unknown manuscripts were uncovered along the Silk Road at the start of the 20th century – a huge discovery, bringing with it, amongst other things, the first evidence of Tokharian, an Indo-European language once spoken on the borders of modern-day China – they included notes written to friends, apologising for the drunken behaviour of the night before. I think students and scholars of most any branch of the humanities would be familiar with such examples nowadays, and view them in just that way; certainly, I do, and was able to summon these just off the top of my head, if that proves anything (I’m just a nobhead who has the internet, same as anyone else). I’m not sure if such an old-fashioned, po-facted interpretation really still exists, and if it does where or why, but there’s certainly plenty to counter it. Most interpretations of the cultures of the past are deeply humanistic nowadays. Maybe something to think about here is where you got that impression from, what informed it, and why and how that might be so out of kilter with what you discovered in Gilgamesh, which I’d say is much, much more representative of almost all the informed writing on the past from the last 20 or 30 years at least. I think you do hint at a notable observation here, in that it probably was the discovery precisely of things like the Gilgamesh epic that set people on the path to exploring universalities more than perceived exoticness, but I have to contest the notion that leading thought – or even general consensus – still somehow clings to the old misconceptions.

    “Even if that comprehension provokes the diffident post-colonial humbug of above…”

    Which one is this? That’s not a sarky question; are you referring to the stuff about po-facedness? I can recommend some brilliant post-colonial literature that should correct that perception if so. Post-colonial studies is one of, if not the, most humanistic disciplines there is in the humanities, and the very acceptance of the term ‘post-colonial’, in any sense and in pretty much any realm, tends to indicate individuals open to a more human treatment of their subject than what you appear to be suggesting.

    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.

    Yes, exactly, and I’d just summarise my above points by saying that you might enjoy looking for some of the other excellent writing by people, especially in academia, who have long been making precisely this point. I’m not sure the realisation is nearly so lost as you think.

    Great post. I look forward to more of these.

    Matt

    • guyhaley says:

      I’m aware of some of these examples, and certain others also – like the really rather petty curses inscribed on lead found in the Roman baths at Bath, or the childrens’ tombstones I mentioned. And I’m also aware that social historians especially comment on this sort of thing and have commented on it for a long time.

      I’ll tell you what it is though, it’s the way this information is presented. It is always remarked upon as if it is a surprise. The phrase “sacred object” is still never very far away from someone’s lips every time someone digs up an ivory willy.

      However, this might just be because the majority of new information I have experienced since leaving university has been via mainstream news outlets, rather than from primary sources or direct from the modern academic interpretations of them.

      Although it probably is old-fashioned, and although it probably isn’t prevalent in actual academia, that impression still persists at third- or fourth-hand delivery. Which is what I get these days.

      You are then correct. It is an impression, rather than an actuality. I would say I’m sure some people still think like this, and that there is a bit of a residual bias to it, but that would again merely be a somewhat unfounded assertion.

      However, if you look at a certain strand of singularity SF, you really do see a similar sense of “sacred being” imputed to the future. In that flawed humanity, with its beer and farting and lusts and mistakes, will inevitably be replaced by humourless superminds who know so much more than we do. This goes back to my point of Westerners romanticise spirituality because we have largely lost it from day to day life. Both views of past and future posit some sort of higher state of being, both equally supernatural in their own way, that we have forsaken/ yet to attain. Maybe I am forcing the issue to enable my comparison.

      As for post-colonial humbug, I’m talking about documentaries where white people reverently whisper while some foreigners perform a ritual that the white person obviously believes is absolute nonsense because gods don’t exist etc, yet he nods and smiles patronisingly as if brushing upon enlightenment. You know the kind of thing.

      Anyway, the bottom line is that I was very glad Gilgamesh was a bit of a cock.

  2. Matt Keefe says:

    “I’ll tell you what it is though, it’s the way this information is presented. It is always remarked upon as if it is a surprise.”

    Is it? Is it really? Can you provide any examples? ‘always’ is a big claim. I think if this is the case, you finger the culprits in your next paragraph: journalist. I really don’t run into this kind of thing very often, and that includes from the masses of perfectly accessible books on the shelves of the average bookshop aimed at a general audience. My reason for pointing this out is that while I’m generally sympathetic to the idea that greatly improved ideas in all sorts of fields often take a long way to filter through to the popular imagination, but I’m just not sure that’s overly the case here. I’ll see if I can find some current examples, either way.

    As for SF, yeah, that’s probably true. That might be an area where people have taken a while to cotton on, ironically. Saying that, attempts at ‘humanising’ future folk and aliens are often vomit-worthy in themselves, so I’m not sure where I prefer authors to pitch their interpretations.

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