Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Gilgamesh: A New English Version by Stephen Mitchell

I grew up with a set of Greek and Roman mythological compilations and I love them to this day; I have occasionally tried to branch out into other myths and legends throughout the world and I’m at least passing familiar with most mythological traditions.  I’ve never really liked Sumerian myths that much, though.  They’re pretty weird.  Neal Stephenson once described them as the writings of a febrile toddler, and even from an era where gods weren't necessarily expected to have superior moral standing to humans the Sumerian pantheon is a pretty psychotic bunch, especially Inanna, goddess of screwing and ultra-violence.

I think a lot of this has to do with the passage of time between then and now.  The Greek mythological heroes are not “heroic” in the modern sense of that word; they aren’t do-gooders so much as they are strong and/or cunning enough to take what they want and tough enough that they can prevent other people from stopping them from doing it, and of course Sumeria is far more removed from us even than that.  I think the lack of material also hurts.  The mythological canon from Greece is one thing, but we also have a bunch of contemporary stuff by playwrights like Euripides that shows that even the ancient Greeks thought the gods and heroes were a bunch of huge jerks.  If we had a huge bunch of surviving work from ancient Sumeria we’d probably find that the average person on the street wasn’t really all that much different than us.  However, we don’t.

Anyway, Gilgamesh.  Oldest known story in the world, drawn from a couple of clay tablets dug up in the middle of nowhere, so it’s a little fragmentary and contradictory; probably it was a popular tale which came in different versions and variations.  It’s also pretty dry and a literal translation (which I’ve read in the past) contains a bunch of those repetitions and redundancies that would allow some poet to keep his place or recover from forgetting his place like you’d see in other oral works of antiquity.  They’re actually pretty tough going and I don’t think I’d ever managed to read one through before.  For these reasons I really admire Mitchell’s “version” (as opposed to “translation”) in which he cheerfully admits that he can’t read the work in the original language; he simply takes other translations, cleans up all the repetitions, and tries to set the whole thing in some sort of readable modern English prose.  It’s still kind of an odd story, but I found myself pretty into it this time.

This version is split up into 11 chapters or “books”, which doesn’t really correspond to the original story but narratively works pretty well.  In the beginning we’re introduced to Gilgamesh himself, the king of Uruk, being one-third human and two-thirds divine (however that’s supposed to work).  At the moment he’s oppressing his subjects, forcing all the young women to sleep with him and working all the young men to exhaustion somehow (possibly with military training, possibly with building defensive walls around Uruk).  He’s definitely a huge jerk but at the same time it’s also a case of him just being too awesome for his own good; his divine nature means he doesn’t ever sleep, so it’s not just a question of him simply terrorizing everybody, they can’t keep up with him.  Nonetheless the people of Uruk petition the gods to give Gilgamesh something better to do – this being an ancient historical epic written by noblemen who hadn’t considered the notion of maybe just not having a jerkass king.  Nonetheless.

The gods decide to create a friend for Gilgamesh and make the wild man Enkidu, who scares the trappers and peasants out in the boondocks of the kingdom until those people petition Gilgamesh to take care of this problem for them.  You might think that he’d raise an army and go out there, but instead he sends one of the sacred prostitutes from the temple of Ishtar, Shamhat, to sort things out and then promptly forgets about the whole thing.  Gilgamesh figures that this will tame the wild man, and after seven days of consecutive lovemaking he is proven correct.  What he doesn’t figure is that Enkidu will subsequently hear about how awesome Gilgamesh is, come to Uruk to challenge him, followed by a knock-down brawl in the street that results in them becoming friends.

I guess Gilgamesh was used to subjects and hadn’t ever really had a friend before.  At that point he decides that what they need is an adventure, so they decide to go kill the monster Humbaba, which is guarding a cedar forest at the behest of the gods.  Humbaba is terrifying, I guess, but his job description is to stay in the forest and he doesn’t come out and harass the countryside or anything.  Enkidu doesn’t really want to do this since he saw Humbaba once and thinks he’s not to be trifled with, but Gilgamesh is the king and so they do it anyway.  Calling this a fight would be highly misleading, since basically once they get there Gilgamesh wants to give up, but then the gods magically grant them victory and Humbaba surrenders.  Enkidu says they should kill him anyway and eventually persuades Gilgamesh to do it, although at this point Humbaba is no longer a threat to them and curses them with his dying breath.  Then the impish duo manage to piss off the goddess Inanna by killing another supernatural monster, so the gods decree that Enkidu must die.  Which he does.

At this point it’s worth pointing out that Sumerian mythology was sort of a bummer about the afterlife.  Everyone went down to the underworld, ruled over by Erishkigal, and had to wear a suit of feathers and eat dust for eternity.  I’ve also seen references that they weren’t able to talk.  This was similar to the initial Greco/Roman conception of Hades, although by late antiquity they’d come up with the notion that especially good souls got rewards and especially bad ones got torments, but for a long time the afterlife was a very dreary and one-size-fits-all conception.  Having been busy enjoying life, Gilgamesh hadn’t really given too much thought to this before, but losing his friend drives him sort of over the bend and he decides to seek the secret of eternal life.  After a long series of quests which take up the actual majority of the saga, he fails.  Nonetheless, the quests have taught him that he should just keep enjoying his life as long as he has it, and he then personally narrates the end of the tale, telling everyone how awesome Uruk is.

So, like I said, oldest story in the world.  I can’t say that it’s enthralling exactly, but it’s a unique experience to know that anything contained in this story is almost as old as human civilization.  Also interesting is the progression of the good life throughout mythology and how much it revolved around regular mealtimes.  Forget money and possessions – they were doing all right with sufficient bread and beer, and regular visits to cult prostitutes of course.  And although a lot of the motivations are sort of impenetrable to the modern reader, there are still some pretty funny scenes to be found here, particularly those involving the immortal Utnapishtim.  He’s pretty cranky for an immortal guy and he thinks that Gilgamesh is full of crap for not wanting to die.  In one sense he’s right, this is a stupid quest, but on the other hand it’s pretty easy for him to say that seeing as how the gods have exempted him from having to.

Having finished this I’m pretty much done with my desire to explore the Epic of Gilgamesh any further, so curiosity satisfied.  Something a little more contemporary next time, I think.

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