In October 2004 the poet and translator Stephen Mitchell published a new version of the epic of Gilgamesh. Probably best known for his translations of Rilke, Mitchell is the first writer to publish a version with the current war in Iraq continuing, a fact which he mentions in his introduction. Like most versions, including the 1984 translation by John Gardener and John Maier, Mitchell’s was based on the Akkadian “standardâ€ version written by a priest named Sin-leqi-unnini, who combined elements of the story that were over a thousand years old into a single coherent work. The elements, as well as the name Gilgamesh (or Bilgames) originated in the earlier Sumerian culture. After the Assyrian Empire finally fell the epic was lost for more than two-thousand years. When European archaeologists in the late Nineteenth Century started digging in the desert of Mesopotamia (now Iraq) Gilgamesh was rediscovered. It’s been popular ever since. (At the end of this essay is a partial list of translations and versions of Gilgamesh published just since 1984).
What makes this story of a king in an alien culture so fascinating? Maybe it’s because, while the The cultures of Sumer and Akkad aren’t nearly as familiar as Rome or Greece, which gave us The Odyssey, The Iliad, and The Aeneid, or even that Discovery Channel staple, Egypt, Gilgamesh is recognizable. Unlike Beowulf, who comes from an equally alien yet temporally closer culture, and who is like a modern super-hero—solitary, noble, and virtuous—Gilgamesh is post-modern. He’s deeply flawed, and terribly human. For Nineteenth Century scholars the Epic was fascinating because it included an alternate version of the Flood Myth from Genesis, but for all readers the scope of the story’s themes is its main attraction. Gilgamesh touches on leadership, responsibility, mortality, civilization, wildness, loss, and, most significantly, friendship. Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu complete each other even from the beginning, when Gilgamesh, the brutal tyrant, is little more than an animal, while Enkidu, the wild man, is civilized even when he lives on the fringe of civilization. Gilgamesh and Enkidu form a bond of friendship that’s stronger than any other in literature. They support, comfort, and complete each other. When Enkidu dies Gilgamesh tries to put his grief into words, and delivers an eloquent elegy, but his actions say more than his words. With Enkidu he could face demons and the wrath of the gods, but confronted for the first time with death, Gilgamesh withdraws from the society he helped build. He goes through the classic stages of grief: anger, denial, then, as he passes off the world’s map, he enters a powerful metaphor for depression:
When he had gone one double-hour,
thick is the darkness, there is no light;
he can see neither behind him nor ahead of him.
This is repeated with very little variation until
At the nearing of eleven double-hours, light breaks out.
At the nearing of twelve double-hours, the light is steady.
(quoted from Gilgamesh, translated by John Gardner and John Maier, with the assistance of Richard A. Henshaw.)
Next come bargaining, as he tries, and fails, to achieve immortality. Finally, with his return home, he looks up at the walls of his city and finds acceptance.
I’ve read numerous versions of The Epic of Gilgamesh in English, and yet it’s impossible for me to say any one is better than the others. Gardner and Maier, whose version introduced me to the epic, produced a scholarly work complete with extensive notes and appendices, using Hittite and Sumerian texts to fill gaps in the Akkadian. Versions by Maureen Kovacs and Andrew George have fewer notes, but readers interested in just the story might be inclined to go with the more poetic versions like those by David Ferry or Stephen Mitchell. As poets and translators of poetry, their versions read like great poetry. A version by English poet Derrek Hines spices up the epic with slang and anachronistic references to X-rays, cigarettes, flashbulbs, and football. Hines also tacks on a new ending: the peaceful death of Gilgamesh, which is unrelated either to the Akkadian story or a Sumerian poem about the death of Gilgamesh.
What makes the story powerful is, of course, that Gilgamesh’s experiences of friendship, loss, and grief, are shared by all of us. That we will all have and lose friends, that we must confront and come to terms with the mortality of those we love as well as our own, is what keeps Gilgamesh coming back, and it’s why we keep going back to Gilgamesh.
Publications since 1984 when a translation done by John Maier and the late John Gardner was first published include:
The Epic of Gilgamesh by Maureen Kovacs (1989),
The Epic of Gilgamesh by Summaya Damaluji and Lamià¡ Al-Gelani (published in Baghdad in 1989),
Gilgamesh : a new rendering in English verse by David Ferry (1992),
He who saw everything: a verse translation of the epic of Gilgamesh by Robert Temple (1992),
The epic of Gilgamesh by Sumaya Shabandar (1994)
Gilgamesh! : reannotated revision of “I Gilgamesh,” the synthesismyth by G.T. Byron (1995)
The Epic of Gilgamesh by Danny P. Jackson (1997),
The epic of Gilgamesh: the Babylonian epic poem and other texts in Akkadian and Sumerian by Andrew George (1999),
Gilgamesh, a retelling by Stephan Grundy (2000),
A Norton Critical Edition of The Epic of Gilgamesh translated and edited by Benjamin R. Foster with contributions by Douglas Frayne and Gary Beckman (2001)
Gilgamesh by Derrek Hines (2002)
Gilgamesh: A New English Version, by Stephen Mitchell (2004)
The Play of Gilgamesh by Edwin Morgan (2005)
Gilgamesh: A Verse Play by poet Yusef Komunyakka (2006),
A novel of the story, simply titled Gilgamesh The King was written by science fiction writer Robert Silverberg (1985)
There are also at least three children’s versions:
Gilgamesh the King by Ludmila Zeman (1992)
The Hero King Gilgamesh by Irving L. Finkel (1998)
Gilgamesh The Hero by Geraldine McCaughrean and David Parkins (2003).
A version of the epic is also included in Myths from Mesopotamia by Stephanie Dalley (1989)
Gilgamesh II , a graphic novel in four volumes by Jim Starlin and Steve Oliff (1989), published by DC Comics and “recommended for mature readersâ€
And if that weren’t enough Gilgamesh appears, or is referred to, frequently in popular culture, including the novel Gilgamesh by Joan London (2001), about an Australian woman who falls in love with an Armenian man, and a mystery novel titled Gilgamesh by Jo Bannister (1989). In an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation Captain Picard tells an abbreviated version of the story to a captain from an alien culture.