Translated by: Andrew George
I was so curious to read the infamous Epic of Gilgamesh.
I mean, come on. This poem was written down something like 6000 years ago. Yeah. 6000.
That concept alone is enough to fascinate me. I was curious what the ancient tale was going to hold. Would we even be able to recognize it as a human story?
The short answer?
Turns out we haven’t changed too much in 6000 years!
Despite having heard the name Gilgamesh espoused proudly by peers too big for their britches for my entire education, I had absolutely zero idea what the story was going to be about. I was picturing a Persian Beowulf, and I wasn’t honestly too far off.
If you don’t know, Gilgamesh is likely a real person, a king who lived ~2500 BC. And this tale is essentially all about his quest for immortality. Ahh, humans. The fear of dying has always been a primary motivator. But what makes this one interesting to me is that in the end, the head god of sorts tells Gilgamesh that he “made your destiny a destiny of kingship, but I did not make it a destiny of eternal life.”
THAT’S RIGHT. After the whole dang epic, Gilgamesh has to face facts: He is just like the rest of us, and sorry bout it.
On to the question of “Can we relate?” I mean, sure, it’s ancient Mesopotamian religion and gods and civilization, but I think most of you will find the story of a lone human surviving a great flood quite familiar, eh? Not to mention the wild depictions of the underworld, where the sonless suffer for eternity (can you scream patriarchy?). And before the NFL there were the ball and mallet. When the widows complain and take his toys away, “racked with sobs Bilgames began to weep”. He pitches a straight hissy fit! Boys and their toys.
If you’ve ever read Beowulf or Sir Gawain or the Odyssey or any oral epic, then you know what you’re getting in to. There is a loooooot of repetition, a lot of epithets, and a lot of dream sequences.
But be aware: the Epic of Gilgamesh is not complete. Not even close. You’ll get a story, don’t worry, but you won’t get the whole story. And that can be really disappointing at times. I can only imagine how the Gilgamesh scholars feel.
On that note, Andrew George must be a very smart man. This translation is dumb enough that the layman (ahem, me) can read it with, as aforementioned, zero knowledge about this topic. But I also think this book would become vastly more entertaining in a classroom. I needed someone to walk me through it, to explain the Sumerian culture and the Akkadian relevance.
But boy am I glad to cross this one off my list.
Oldest work of literature ever recorded?
If you’re a Gilgamesh fangirl, here are some other options:
(for more epic poetry)
The Odyssey by Homer
Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
The Matarese Circle by Robert Ludlum
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Rose Harbor in Bloom by Debbie Macomber
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien