The Epic of Gilgamesh (Ed. N. K. Sandars)

Posted: August 28, 2017 in fiction
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I’m always a bit curious as to why Penguin feels the need to demand sixty-page introductions of the editors in its Classics series. Generally I skip over them, and I think this is a good practice if you haven’t read the book before. In this case, though, the introduction is longer than the text itself, so I gave it a go. While not as interesting as the Ding an sich, it serves its purpose, explaining where the text comes from and some of the larger decisions the editor made.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is really really old, so it exists in a very fragmented state, and there are several retellings, so the work of the editor is rather significant, as it is in Hamlet or the Dead Sea scrolls. She has chosen a prose translation, or rather compilation, as she admits that the source material is in a few different ancient languages that had already been lost by the time Homer was singing of Odysseus. There are a few different meticulous translations already published that give all possible variants of meaning for each word, but they are prohibitively dense for the casual reader, and this is her intended audience: those of us with enough education to understand references to the Odyssey and the Aeneid, but who are not interested in getting a doctorate in ancient Middle Eastern dialects. There is a little repetition where the stories don’t align exactly, but I think Sandars has done a great job of giving us an approachable text that will satisfy the merely curious and serve as a gateway to the truly passionate.

As with Fenimore Cooper, Gilgamesh’s story is of two journeys: one to the Country of the Living, and one to the Garden of the Gods.

Journey number one. Once upon a time there was a king, two-thirds god and only one part man, and he was wise and beautiful. This part of the book tends to go on about how perfect his body is, which makes me curious about the Sumerian idea of the perfect body. I have to question his wisdom here, though, because as king, the gods gave him the right to have sex with any woman he wants, virgin whore other man’s wife whatever, so of course he exercises that right. The people get sick of him fucking every woman in town – and not just the husbands and fathers, the women themselves are sick of not having the right to refuse – so they pray to the gods to fix this problem. The gods decide to send him an equal, someone whose love will give him focus. He has a few dreams about this man whom he will love as a woman, and that phrase is repeated several times, so I’m guessing there was something sexual here.

Enkidu is a wild man living in the forest, messing up all the traps and setting the prey animals free. The trapper asks Gilgamesh for advice, and he sends a prostitute out to seduce Enkidu. It works, and she spends a week fucking him into civilization. Here we see the Middle Eastern prudery about sex – after ‘polluting’ himself with a woman, Enkidu can’t return to the forest because the animals no longer recognize him as one of them. He’s lost his innocence, and with it the wisdom of the wilderness. Now he has to go live among people. He hears the stories of Gilgamesh and decides to go stop him from having all this indiscriminate casual sex:

In Uruk the bridal bed was made, fit for the goddess of love. The bride waited for the bridegroom, but in the night Gilgamesh got up and came to the house. Then Enkidu stepped out, he stood in the street and blocked the way. Mighty Gilgamesh came on and Enkidu met him at the gate. He put out his foot and prevented Gilgamesh from entering the house, so they grappled, holding each other like bulls. They broke the doorposts and the walls shook, they snorted like bulls locked together. They shattered the doorposts and the walls shook. Gilgamesh bent his knee with his foot planted on the ground and with a turn Enkidu was thrown. Then immediately his fury died. When Enkidu was thrown he said to Gilgamesh, ‘There is not another like you in the world. Ninsun, who is as strong as a wild ox in the byre, she was the mother who bore you, and now you are raised above all men, and Enlil has given you the kingship, for your strength surpasses the strength of men.’ So Enkidu and Gilgamesh embraced and their friendship was sealed.

Yes, you are sensing the flavor of ancient homoeroticism. Some stories play up the master-servant relationship between them, but Sandars tells the story as if they were equals, brothers or lovers. So Gilgamesh is settling down sexually, but he still needs some kind of conquest or adventure. They set out to destroy a great evil in the Country of the Living, apparently so called because it is directly over where the Anunnaki judge the souls of the dead. It’s a place of abundant forests, compatible with the biblical description of Lebanon (cedars). It’s not clear of what the evil consists, but the forest guardian’s name is semantically linked with the word for Evil, so he must be killed. After some psychological struggles upon entering the forest, Gilgamesh cuts down the sacred trees that give Humbaba/Huwawa his power, and the evil giant begs for mercy. Gilgamesh and Enkidu have none, and behead him for the good of the world. How this is good for the world is again unclear, except maybe he wasn’t letting people cut down the trees to build houses with. They had been doing just fine with bricks, so again, I don’t get the reasoning, but it’s not my culture.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu return victorious with the rare commodity wood, and people are really happy, except for the god of the wind and earth Enlil, who was on the giant’s side. Then Ishtar, the goddess of love and war, tries to marry Gilgamesh, but he points out her commitment issues and tendency to transform her lovers into animals and refuses her. She takes her rage to the gods, and it is decreed that Enkidu must die. There’s a lot of suffering in this part, especially for Gilgamesh, who has to watch his friend/brother/lover die slowly from an illness with poorly described symptoms. Gilgamesh is compared more directly to a woman here, in his weeping. Like Macduff, he has to express his man-sized grief before doing something about it.

Journey number two. Gilgamesh is now deathly afraid of dying. In our culture, people see death as a reunion with the beloved departed, but not in Sumerian. Gilgamesh doesn’t have any hope of seeing Enkidu again. But there are stories of a man who lives forever, the one who survived the Great Flood – Utnapishtim, not Noah. Gilgamesh defeats a bunch of lions and tunnels under a mountain for twelve days to reach the Garden of the Gods, where he sweet-talks the goddess of wine and wisdom into telling him how to reach Utnapishtim. She directs him to the ferryman Urshanabi, who becomes his new sidekick (definitely not an equal like Enkidu was, but it’s nice to have a companion anyway). Urshanabi takes him to Utnapishtim, and they learn the story of the flood. It’s pretty standard flood-narrative stuff, people were too evil so the gods decided to destroy them all, but Ea liked Utnapishtim and told him to build a boat big enough to hold the seeds of all life. Utnapishtim and his family and friends ride out the storm and rebuild the world after the water recedes. Enlil is pissed off about this, but the other gods actually like people and won’t let him kill the survivors. Instead, Enlil ‘blesses’ Utnapishtim with eternal life and makes him live way out at the edge of the world, where the Ocean drops into nothing. Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh to stop hunting for immortality, because it’s both impossible and unpleasant. Instead, he directs Gilgamesh to an undersea flower that restores youth, but on the way home a snake eats the flower and that’s why snakes shed their skins. And why people don’t have a magic flower to make them young again.

After the second journey, there’s nothing left to tell. Gilgamesh rules wisely for the rest of his days, and he dies surrounded by his wife, son, and concubine, to the great lamenting of all. They do the sacrifices to the gods and everything else people did for dead kings back then.

In terms of theme, I’m always alert to gender roles and sexual fluidity, so that relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu is really interesting to me. They have romantic feelings for each other, and they seem inseparable even in private time, but it doesn’t diminish the virility of either. I’ve had people tell me that in homosexual relationships, ‘They can always tell which one is the man and which one is the woman,’ which I find terribly offensive, but I don’t think that’s always the case. I’ve seen gay couples where one is obviously more effeminate, but frankly, that’s sort of rare for me. We become like the people we spend time with, so when I meet gay couples who have been together for a long time, they seem equally masculine or equally feminine, and frankly it is none of my business which one is the top and which one is the bottom, or whether they like to trade off, so I don’t ask. I think the need to assign homosexuals to heterosexual roles indicates a deeper discomfort with homosexuality; it’s like these people’s brains are somehow completely different from mine, as if for them gender binaries are more important than love or compatibility of spirit.

The theme of divine retribution is important, as well as divine favor. Shamash the sun-god helps Gilgamesh all the time, but the hero is always getting Enlil upset with him. Gilgamesh’s problem is that he doesn’t have all the facts about who or what is important to Enlil, so he frequently blunders into offending the god. That may not say much for his supposed wisdom, but he’s only (one-third) human. This seems to be the Sumerian idea of life on earth: we blunder around accidentally offending gods who take their revenge on us. It’s not a simple case of karma because we can’t know what will offend the gods and what won’t. There’s a fatalistic sense that the gods are to be placated (with or without hope) rather than loved. This idea makes sense to me, because I agree that the universe is a chaotic place where good and bad things happen to everyone regardless of whether I think their actions are good or bad.

This is a good little edition, as I said, great for intelligent people who aren’t scholars in ancient Middle Eastern studies. There are others with the more advanced scholarship, but if you don’t need all that, stick with this one. And it’s a good story, but sad. Fortunately, it’s also too short for me to be so involved with the characters that I get upset – it’s not like The Last Chronicle of Barset, which left me weeping as if I had just seen someone in my own family die. Epic heroes die, it’s what they do, like Beowulf, so it wasn’t traumatic. It’s how this sort of story works. You could see the tragedy as excessive, but these people lived five or six thousand years ago. The story has to end.

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