It is an epic poem that revolves around two near superhero like characters, Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Gilgamesh himself is a demi-god, born two thirds god and one third human. Enkidu is a man raised in the wild, living among and learning from the animals. A trapper and a prostitute lure Enkidu and bring him in to human civilization and he befriends Gilgamesh, for they both possess strength “as mighty [as a rock] from the sky” (tablet I, line 125).
The two friends embark on a journey together. Enkidu acts as a support for Gilgamesh, who is suffering from disturbing dreams of failure. Enkidu translates Gilgamesh’s dreams, and reassures the hero that the dreams represent success in their missions, and success on their paths. Then Enkidu begins to have his own prophetic dreams and realizes he is about to die. He curses the trapper and the harlot for taking him from the wild. He develops an illness lasting for many weeks and passes away. Gilgamesh prepares a funeral for his friend, and begins to fear his own mortality. This sets him out on a second quest to find the secret to immortality.
Gilgamesh travels through mountains and forests, encountering gods, goddesses, and creatures along the way. Each of these encounters unlocks pieces of information to help Gilgamesh in his quest.
To Mashu’s twin mountains he came,
which daily guard the rising [sun,]
whose tops [support] the fabric of heaven,
whose base reaches down to the Netherworld.
There were scorpion-men guarding its gate,
whose terror was dread, whose glance was death,
whose radiance was fearful, overwhelming the mountains-
at sunrise and sunset they guarded the sun. (tablet IX, lines 38-45)
After recounting his previous journeys and sorrows, the twin scorpion-men say to Gilgamesh:
May the mountains of Mashu [allow you pass]
[May] the mountains and hills [watch over your going!]
Let [them help you] in safety [to continue your journey!]
[May] the gate of the mountains [open before you!] (tablet IX, lines 132-135)
tablet V of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Dating to the old Babylonian period, 2003-1595 BCE. From Mesopotamia, Iraq. The Sulaymaniyah Museum, Iraq. Photo by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP
The Epic of Gilgamesh; A New Translation was organized and translated by Andrew George, a professor of archeology and a specialist in Akkadian and Sumerian language. George has used the oldest known tablets as the foundation and majority of the story. However, much is lost, broken, or worn away of these near 3,700 year old texts. Often, George must use ellipses for the parts of a sentence that cannot be recovered.
‘…… which we…
… their …, their names…
…judge of the Anunnaki…’
Gilgamesh heard these words,
he conceived [the idea] of damming the river. (tablet VIII, lines 208-212)
Much interpretation can be done when having to read this way, however the reader most often can imagine what might be going on based on the beginning or remainder of a conversation or description in the text. The poetic style of the epic is reinforcing and repetitive. Many descriptions or conversations in the story are repeated time and time again, perhaps with nothing changing, and sometimes only with day numbers changing. This allows the reader to obtain an understanding of a section, even if a part is worn or broken.
Another brilliant way George has compensated for the lacunas in the tablets is to refer to other known editions of the story. Babylonian tablets being kept in several universities including Pennsylvania and Yale, along with tablets kept in other countries are used to fill huge gaps. In this way, George is able to keep true and give a more complete story, while attempting to be as focused as possible on the oldest known edition.
Gilgamesh statue at University of Sydney, photo by wikimedia user Samantha from Indonesia
Now, unfortunately, there are people who are unfamiliar with this epic. Most people recognize the name, but perhaps that is as far as their knowledge may go. Students in high school and junior high are often required to read many classics including work from Ancient Greece to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. These pieces are extremely important, but why not start out where written literature began? Why not start at the dawn of civilization? Lay the foundation out for these young people to see how early the human mind was forging ideas, and relaying them to one another, and thinking outside the box of mere survival. The ill fated search for immortality, a constant theme in literature and film to this day can be seen in texts nearly 4,000 years old. Why is the lasting youth of Dorian Gray more emphasized than the immortality of Gilgamesh? The preservation of humanity’s oldest known work of literature should be paramount in the education of young people. It embodies aspects of modern literature and employs myths and legends that are told and believed to this day.
Syrian Relief with Two Heroes