Ellan Read

sometimes witty book reviews

The Epic of Gilgamesh

First published: This translation published 1977
Found: In the cancellation bin of my college library
Pages/read time: 304, two days


The Epic of Giglamesh is a Mesopotamian epic poem which, in the grand scheme of all things literature, is the grand-daddy of epics. We’re talking, like, waaaay older than Beowulf and waaaaaaaaaay more violent and morally questionable than any Greek long-windedness.The earliest sources of The Epic of Gilgamesh can be traced back to almost 2100 BCE though the first complete version was discovered by Hormuzd Rassam in 1853. This accessible 1977 translation, though not as accurate perhaps as Andrew George’s 2003 Oxford University Press edition, is cheap and fairly well prose-d. To the uninitiated in Mesopotamian literature (like me) it’s a bit of a shock. Why a shock? Well, it’s just so, not the bible. Why did I think it would be as dry as the Pharaoh’s drought? Um, I honestly have no idea why I was so ignorant of this text.

Gilgamesh is king of Uruk. Nobody in Uruk likes him. Even the gods think he’s so annoying that it’s worth not liking him. So the gods create Enkidu to stop Gilgamesh oppressing the people and the general mood of Uruk. Except, Enkidu is a wild man who needs some taming first. He lives in the wilderness and doesn’t know too much about anything human-y, so the gods need to train him up a bit before he can defeat Gilgamesh. How best to tame a wild man? Make a sex worker sleep with him. Totally not what you were expecting as the way to salvation, am-I-right? (Hint: Stop thinking that biblical ways are the oldest ways.)

So Enkidu, civilized by the gods and having spent night with a sex-pert, heads straight on over to Gilgamesh to fight and defeat him. But he loses. But it’s ok because they become besties and do what all besties in literature do. They…go…on a, roadtrip? Yep. A roadtrip to the Ceder Forest to kill the terrifyingly named Humbaba (such an excellent name). They defeat him and Gilgamesh catches the eye of the goddess Ishtar. So charmed is she that she ‘make advances’ and Gilgamesh, well, Gilgamesh ‘makes retreats’. Spurned by this mortal’s rejection, Ishtar sends a heavenly bull to kill him. Instead Gilgamesh kills it. In revenge the gods sentence to death – wait for it – Enkidu. Poor Enky.

At least the pace is much more bearable than The Iliad.

Basically the entire second half of the epic is Gilgamesh missing his mate Enkidu and going on long adventures to prove his devotion to the bromance (*cough* romance *cough*). So to prove his eternal love to Enky he goes looking for the secret to eternal life. No, that’s not a cliche. Because this epic literally did it first. Actually, ol’ Gil does find a way of kind-of cheating death.

How can I keep silent? How can I stay quiet?
My friend, whom I loved, has turned to clay.
Shall I not be like him, and also lie down,
never to rise again, through all eternity?*

It’s confusing, male-centric and illogical – but then, aren’t most ancient epics like that? You’ll enjoy a skim and get exceptional bragging points for making it through.

Reading suggestion: Skip the lengthy bro-mance outpourings. Repetitive. So repetitive. They just repeat and repeat and repeat …

*Is that not TOTALLY a Romeo and Juliet moment? I am not wrong.

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This entry was posted on September 21, 2017 by in bragging points, Classics, Fiction, Poetry and tagged , , , , , , .

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