Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Gilgamesh: The New Translation by Gerald J. Davis (Book Review #81 of 2015)


Gilgamesh: The New Translation
I followed this book with Irving Finkel's The Ark Before Noah, an account of discovering and translating recently uncovered cuneiform tablets, and the difficulty of translating ancient Sumerian, Akkadian, and Babylonian works. I recommend Finkel's book if you're interested in the history and scholarly debate around the various translations and meanings of the Gilgamesh tale. The original work is belived to originate in 2500-2000 B.C. and the earliest tablet dates to 1700-1800 B.C.

Davis prefaces his translation by noting which accounts were considered to have originated from which time period, some may have been unrelated but written as a sort of parallel. He apparently takes quite a few liberties with the translation to make the narrative flow, but maintains the poetic repetition of verses that are repeated. I suppose it compares roughly with the Iliad or the Odyssey. My main motivation in reading this is because I've recently been studying Genesis more closely and wanted to compare the flood narratives. The flood makes up a relatively minor part of the Gilgamesh tale, and it's fairly evident to even a lay reader like myself that it's an older tradition woven into the "newer" Gilgamesh epic. In listening to Gilgamesh, I was reminded of C.S. Lewis statement about how he came to the Bible in his memoir Surprised by Joy: He'd spent a lifetime familiar with the ancient myths and could clearly recognize that the stories in the Bible were not myths, they're quite different.

The Gilgamesh text is filled with gods of every aspect of nature, they quarrel, scheme, are surprised, and have other human qualities. The text is ultimately about Gilgamesh's quest to become immortal, like the gods. Gilgamesh is an ancient king of Uruk and god-like in his qualities. He was known for his cruelty, having sex with every wife, killing every husband, and being roundly unfair. A goddess makes a man named Enkidu to humble Gilgamesh through battle. Enkidu lives like a wild beast until tamed by intercourse with a temple prostitute who leads him to Uruk to confront Gilgamesh. (Scholars apparently believe that ancient Mesopotamian culture believed a boy became a man in a ritual engagement with a prostitute, a practice that I can note is still alive and well in nearby countries like Azerbaijan.)

Gilgamesh and Enkidu wrestle but eventually become lifelong companions, engaging as warriors together. They unite against Humbaba, defender of the cedars. Gilgamesh constantly prays and offers homage to the sun God Shamash for favor. There are several instances of dreams and interpretation by either Enkidu or Gilgamesh. Together they kill Humbaba and then are challenged by the goddess Ishtar's bringing the bull of heaven to earth after Gilgamesh rejects Ishtar's marriage proposal. The friends slay the bull and offer his heart to Shamash, after which the gods demand retribution.

Enkidu has a foreboding dream immediately followed by an illness in which he dies. Gilgamesh mourns for his comrade until he sees a maggot crawl out of his nose, after which he buries him (this detail is repeated a few times). Gilgamesh is inconsolable and rages against the world, seeking an explanation as to why his friend had to die and why he doesn't die with him. Shamash eventually has pity on Gilgamesh.

Gilgamesh meets Utnapisthim, an immortal who somehow survived the flood and was given the secrets of the gods, which he then tells to Gilgamesh. The flood was intended to quiet the clamor of man which had annoyed the gods. The god Ea told him to build an ark, and he quickly gathered craftsmen and others to build it in 5 days and made sure to take his gold with him (who would need gold after the world was destroyed?). The gods are surprised by the amount and brutality of the flood and seem to argue with each other about the consequences and who is to blame. Afterwards, Enlil grants Utnapishtim and his wife immortality.

Utnapishtim's wife tells Gilgamesh where to find a plant on the bottom of the sea that will keep him eternally young, but a serpent then steals the fruit and Gilgamesh is left weeping for his mortality. Oddly, the story continues with Tablet 12 which seems like a parallel or additional story, in which Gilgamesh loses his ball in the underworld and is again crying for his loss. His friend Enkidu agrees to go and retrieve it for him and later answers questions about the condition of Gilgamesh's family and the various types of people one may find in the underworld.

Gilgamesh is eventually granted a sort of immortality by the gods, being granted lordship of the underworld. I am not sure if this was in the original tale, its various renditions, or if the author just made it up for a different ending.

This is an ancient compilation of even more ancient texts, so my rating goes on the translation-- which I had to read other accounts to find out. 4 stars?  Worth reading and wondering.

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