Gilgamesh Postmortem

The Epic of Gilgamesh

The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the oldest surviving stories in the world. It was written in cuneiform on clay tablets that date back three thousand years, and many elements of the epic can be traced back another thousand years further than that. It makes the Iliad look positively hip and modern by comparison. For that reason alone I wanted to read Gilgamesh. Turns out, it’s a pretty good story, too.

I have to believe the concept of “spoilers” doesn’t really apply to anything with a “B.C.” in its copyright date, so I’ll give you a quick plot rundown.

Gilgamesh, the semi-divine king of Uruk, has a nasty habit of oppressing his subjects, so the gods create Enkidu, a “wild man,” to be his friend and distract him from his oppressin’ ways. After some early scuffles, the two become best friends, and go off to the Cedar Forest together to slay the evil Humbaba (who is apparently some sort of demon-ogre). Things get pretty intense:

At the heels of their feet the earth burst asunder,
they shattered, as they whirled, Mounts Sirion and Lebanon.
Black became the clouds of white,
raining down on them death like a mist.

But the good guys win in the end. After that is a seemingly irrelevant episode where they slay the Bull of Heaven (which I can only assume is the thing on the cover). And then Enkidu falls sick, and dies.

The loss affects Gilgamesh deeply. Not only does he grieve (and wow, is there some world-class grieving in Tablet VIII) but the reality of his own mortality sinks in for the first time.

How can I keep silent? How can I stay quiet?
My friend, whom I loved, has turned to clay,
my friend Enkidu, whom I loved, has turned to clay.
Shall I not be like him and also lie down,
never to rise again, through all eternity?

He goes on a long and dangerous quest to find Uta-Napishti, the only man ever to have gained immortality.

Mr. U-N is basically the Sumerian version of Noah. He recounts for Gilgamesh the story of how the gods unleashed the Deluge, which he survived by building a ship. The story is so similar to the Biblical account of the Flood (right down to some very particular details about releasing birds to search for dry land) that there’s no doubt they are two versions of the same story.

The upshot of all this is that the gods gave U-N immortality as a special deal for surviving the Deluge, but there aren’t going to be any other exceptions, so Gilgamesh can pretty much forget it. He returns to his home city of Uruk and gazes at the mighty walls he’s built around it, with the implication that those walls and that city are the best immortality he can hope for.

As you read Gilgamesh, one of the first things you notice is the repetition. You can see it in the second passage I quoted above. Often whole stanzas and sections are repeated, sometimes word for word, sometimes more than twice. This actually isn’t as annoying as you might think. It often lends the words a sort of dramatic weight that’s hard to describe, but works as you read.

Another obvious thing about the epic is that many fragments of it are missing. The surviving tablets are broken in places, and not all the text survives. These lacunae can be anywhere from a single word to dozens of lines in length. This, too, lends an odd quality to the reading. In a way, the brokenness actually enhanced the experience for me, as if glimpsing something through a veil makes it even more beautiful. I feel the same way sometimes when I hear songs on the radio with bursts of static. Maybe I’m just weird that way.

By modern standards, Gilgamesh is a strange beast, with a somewhat disjointed narrative and an ending that’s odd and a little anticlimactic. But of course the whole point is that modern standards don’t apply. If you read it with an open mind, you’ll find a human story told in bold strokes that aren’t always as simple as they seem. The fundamental themes of friendship and mortality still resonate today, and the book – if you’re so inclined – is definitely worth your time.

(Note: the version I read was translated by Andrew George.)

2 responses to “Gilgamesh Postmortem

  1. The ending is abrupt and ambiguous but I’m not sure that the common interpretation – that building achievements are a kind of inferior form of immortality – is correct. Rather, I feel that Gilgamesh is expressing a new appreciation for Uruk, his responsibilities as king, and his place in the divine order of things. Throughout the epic he has refused advice, rebelled against the gods and oppressed his people in an impulsive, selfish and violent fashion. The specific mention of Ishtar – who he insulted and rejected earlier in the epic (in what many feel is an allusion his regal responsibility to perform a “sacred marriage” ceremony) is suggestive. He also recognizes the ancient and divinely ordained plan of Uruk by attributing its design to the seven sages. Then when we return full circle to the epic’s introduction, we find that his list of achievements contains no mention at all of victories in battle. Rather, it focuses on what he accomplished for his city and people and on a particular ‘secret of the gods’ he discovered on a ‘distant journey’. This secret is encapsulated in a flood story describing how a violent, chief god through an unwise and impulsive decision brought about a horrific genocide, and how his plan was foiled by a wise god whose aim was to preserve life.

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