Gilgamesh: A New English Version – Stephen Mitchell, 2004

Another wonderful title we read in Great Books that I’ve procrastinated about writing up and it’s now overdue at the library. I set my timer for 15 minutes. GO! — That was October and now it’s Jan 1 2018… and I’m tackling old draft posts. Note that I am now publishing the post the month I read the book, not when I actually wrote it, for my own purposes when I go back and see what I wrote when, which will make this at least 3 months off even if I finish now!

I’d heard of Gilgamesh but never read it and didn’t know much about it. I had no idea how recently it was re-discovered and translated (19th century), despite how old it is (almost 4000 years). All of us were blown away by how fresh and novel it feels—and Mitchell quotes enough of the literal translation in his notes so you know it’s not him adding that, although his adaptation makes it much easier to read by smoothing out the missing parts. What’s really remarkable to me is the voice of the 1200 BCE poet Sîn-lēqi-unninni, who wrote the prologue that describes Uruk and tells the reader:

Find the cornerstone and under it the copper box
that is marked with his name. Unlock it. Open the lid.
Take out the table of lapis lazuli. Read
how Gilgamesh suffered all and accomplished all.

It’s full of surprises, from the contemporary echoes in Gilgamesh’s desire to kill Humbaba and “drive out evil from the world,” to the low comedy of losing Utnapishtim’s immortality-giving plant by putting it down, to vivid and weird images like the frightened Enkidu: “his face turned pale like a severed head.” “For six days and seven nights I mourned him, until a maggot fell out of his nose.” The dead “squat in the darkness/dirt is their food, their drink is clay, they are dressed in feathered garments like birds,/they never see light, and on door and bolt the dust lies thick.”

Also striking, as well as over-the-top funny, are bravura strings of curses and insults reeled out by Gilgamesh—to Shamhat:

may wild dogs camp in your bedroom, may owls
nest in your attic, may drunkards vomit
all over you…

and to Ishtar:

Why would I want to be the lover
of a broken oven that fails in the cold,
a flimsy door that the wind blows through,
a palace that falls on its staunchest defenders,
a mouse that gnaws through its thin reed shelter,
tar that blackens the workman’s hands,
a waterskin that is full of holes
and leaks all over its bearer, a piece
of limestone that crumbles and undermines
a solid stone wall, a battering ram
that knocks down the rampart of an allied city,
a shoe that mangles its owner’s foot?

Profound too, like this description of how sex with Shamhat lured Enkidu from the animal world into the human:

He knew that his mind had somehow grown larger,
he knew things now that an animal can’t know.

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