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The Epic of Gilgamesh

The Epic of Gilgamesh - Anonymous, Maureen Kovacs The Epic of Gilgamesh is a brief, albeit quite profound work of literature. In the interest of reading a translation as close to the original text as possible, I selected an edition translated by Maureen Gallery Kovacs, published by Stanford University Press in 1989. I'm aware of other translations available on the market, some more 'readable' than others, nevertheless, some of them were altered significantly to either sound more poetic or to fill in the lines missing from the original text.

That being said...

On the surface, The Epic of Gilgamesh is a praise for Gilgamesh, a mighty king of the city of Uruk. It recounts several adventures Gilgamesh undertook with his friend, Enkidu, and it follows Gilgamesh after Enkidu lost his life.

Deeper within, however, the epic deals with multiple issues we can all relate to: Solitude, grief, desire, pain, fear of the unknown, and most importantly the fear of death.

Gilgamesh is a super-human, well 2/3 god and 1/3 human (this could be because his father, Lugalbanda was later divinized) who is like no one around him. He is strong, he is handsome, he has no rival. This, of course, is an issue itself. So, to stop his 'abuse' of his subjects, the gods create a counterpart for him, the mighty Enkidu. Enkidu lives a wild life with the animals until a trapper encounters him at the watering hole. Later, after being seduced by a harlot, the animals abandoned Enkidu and he arrives at Uruk, the center of civilization. What is interesting about this particular tablet is the opposing nature of the two men, Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Gilgamesh represents civilization, all that is glorified and magnificent (yet causes troubles), whereas Enkidu represents the wild, untamed power (yet is peaceful, in harmony with nature).

After Enkidu learns the 'civilized' ways, he enters the city of Uruk and, seeing that Gilgamesh is about to copulate with the harlot who seduced him at the watering hole, challenges Gilgamesh. The two fight, Gilgamesh prevails, and they become best of friends. Gilgamesh finally has a friend almost equal to him in strength and beauty, and the two of them leave the subjects alone and seek adventure to please the gods (some of them, anyway).

But all good things come to an end, and so does the friendship of Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Two of their joint deeds are not well received by the gods, and the gods decide one of them must die. Enkidu gets the short end of the bargain. This is where the epic takes on a more profound tone. Seeing his friend die, Gilgamesh begins to realize that he is mortal, and that his end would be no different than Enkidu's. The fear of death changes him, changes his ways. Gilgamesh abandons the city, abandons the fine things, lets go of his appearance and becomes almost wild himself; all in search of immortality. He finds immortality, but he is not granted it. He is offered rejuvenation, but it is not to be his. Old and worn, he returns to Uruk.

The last two tablets, Tablet X and XI were my favorite by far. (this translation did not cover tablet XII because, the translator claims, tablet XII was added later and does not continue the Epic)
Gilgamesh's conversation with Utanapishtin (the only man to survive the Flood) provides an interesting insight into Gilgamesh's character. It is also an end to a journey, an end to a quest. Gilgamesh will not be granted immortality. (albeit he made himself immortal later by burying a tablet with a portion of the Epic in Uruk, which we are reading now, 4700 years later) The backstory to the Flood was an interesting take on an event described in many religious texts the world over.

Overall, this was an interesting read (which I would not have discovered without GoodReads), that presented me with many subjects to reflect upon. It also marks a new period in my reading - I will now seek more ancient literature, starting with Erica Reiner's "Your Thwarts in Pieces, Your Mooring Rope Cut. Poetry from Babylonia and Assyria".