An Audio-Book Review: Wanna Hear a Really Old Story?


 

Gilgamesh:
A New English Version (unabridged)

By Stephen Mitchell

Published  by Recorded Books

Read by George Guidall

Also Gilgamesh:
A New Rendering in English Verse

By David Ferry

The Story

 

Perhaps because my academic degrees are in Anthropology/Archaeology, I find I am always eager to read or listen to a new rendition of the Gilgamesh epic. Gilgamesh is the oldest recorded story on Earth and yet in so many ways it sets the standards for story telling in the modern world even though it had been forgotten for about three millennia until cuneiform tablets were found in Mesopotamia. The story then waited still longer while scholars learned to read cuneiform and then translated the tablets found in Nineveh from the original Akkadian.

Gilgamesh is the story of an ancient king of the City of Uruk. His name appears on the Sumerian King List during the First Dynasty of Uruk. Does that make him an historical person? Maybe, although the list claims he reigned one hundred and twenty-six years. My guess is that there was a king named Gilgamesh (or, if scholarly pronunciation is all wrong then he had a name that we have since transliterated as Gilgamesh).

It is possible he was a remarkable king in his day, a powerful and eventually wise man and one who accomplish much of note during his reign. The stories, however, must have grown with the telling, since in the epic Gilgamesh is built on heroic proportions even Hollywood would  probably quail at depicting (although I must say we could use a good Gilgamesh movie). At the start of the story, King Gilgamesh is apparently a tyrant. He is called the “Wild Ox” no man can resist him nor is any woman safe from him. In deed he enjoys his droit du seigneur with every bride in the city and apparently while this is sort of expected, he must go too far as the people of Uruk cry out to the gods for aid.

In response, the Mother Goddess, Aruru (aka Ninmah, Ninhursag, and many more names) is ordered to create a double of Gilgamesh, a mirror image, and she brings Enkidu, the wild man, to life. Enkidu is truly a wild man, living among animals as one of them until a priestess of Ishtar’s temple is brought to him. The priestess (incorrectly called a temple prostitute in more puritanical times – in reality it was her religious duty to have sex with any man in Ishtar’s honor. If that sounds odd and alien, keep in mind that this was a different culture with different notions as to what sin was. The priestess was as holy in her own cultural milieu as Vestal Virgin or a nun might be, strange as that sounds to our modern ears) civilized Enkidu by having sex with him for a solid week. The possible jokes here are far too easy  and truly not appropriate to the epic, but if you happen to be giggling at them anyway… heck… enjoy!

Enkidu is Gilgamesh’s match in all ways and in what was the first instance of an archetypical comic book story, the two men meet, fight and soon become inseparable friends. They then commence to go on amazingly long journeys, battle monsters and dis the goddess Ishtar. That last, one might say is a mistake but as Gilgamesh points out in the text, it is a lose-lose proposition. Ishtar doesn’t just love ‘em and leave ‘em, she leaves a blood trail in her wake, at least according to Gilgamesh. In fairness to Ishtar herself, it should be noted that in at least one myth she killed her former husband, Tammuz, because he had been having a grand old party during Ishtar’s descent to the Netherworld, from which he apparently did not expect her to return.  It is, perhaps understandable that she might have been hurt by the fact that her beloved was celebrating her death. In other versions, Tammuz (or Dumuzi) died first and Ishtar (or Inanna) actually went to the netherworld to rescue him. Apparently Gilgamesh heard the first version of the story.

In any case Gilgamesh might have been more polite about turning down an advance by the goddess of love and war, but by parading out all her indiscretions and casting them in a most unfavorable light he was not making any friends in divine places. Ishtar goes off to Anu, and after some wrangling gets him to send the Bull of Heaven off to kill Gilgamesh for her.

Next thing you know Gil and his Bro are enjoying heavenly steaks… oh okay, they kill the bull and Gilgamesh throws one of its haunches at Ishtar in disdain and also threatens to cover her with the bull’s entrails. I like my way better. In any case, not only Ishtar is angry at them, but Anu wants revenge for the bull and, in a council of the gods, King Enlil decrees that Enkidu must die, but that Gilgamesh must not. A modern person might ask, why kill the sidekick when it was the hero who made all the trouble, but while Enkidu’s death is protracted, painful and somewhat voodoo-like in that it seems he dies as much from fear as any direct cause, it if Gilgamesh who ultimately suffers the most.

Gilgamesh goes into mourning and takes to going about unwashed, wearing nothing but the skin of a lion. If I read this correctly he was still wearing more than Enkidu was when he first met the priestess, but perhaps this was a way of emulating his lost brother-in-arms.  In time he realizes that what he fears most is death and on hearing of Utnapishtim, a Babylonian version of Noah, who after the flood was made a god and given immortality, Gilgamesh decides to travel to meet him and thereby learn the secret of immortality.

It’s a long journey and it seems that Gilgamesh cannot do anything in a straight forward manner, but he eventually finds Utnapishtim who tells his tale of the Flood. The Flood story has several remarkable points in common with the Biblical story and when this section was first translated scholars thought it might be proof of the historicity of Noah’s Flood. Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh  when he might find the plant that give eternal life and so Gilgamesh ties stone weights to his feet and sink to the bottom of the sea to retrieve some.

Overjoyed with his acquisition, but perhaps  cautious, Gilgamesh decides to go back to Uruk and feed some of the plant to  the elders of the city. Then if it works, he plans to eat some himself.

That might have been a happy ending, but  no, On the way back to Uruk, a serpent finds the plant while Gilgamesh is bathing and the serpent takes the plant off and out of sight, leaving only a shed skin behind. Gilgamesh finally realizes that he is not going to live forever and if we can believe the prologue of the story, returns to Uruk sadder but hopefully wiser.

I first became acquainted with Gilgamesh when I had to read the excerpts from it in James B. Pritchard’s The Ancient Near East: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures. (Volume I, but my copy is so old it predates Volume II) Which, in turn, is extracted from Pritchard’s much larger books The Ancient Near East in Texts and The Ancient Near East in Pictures. The former is an ideal edition for a classroom text, the latter are definitely something a serious scholar wants in his or her university library, but the smaller edition is something I’ve always thought of as all the highlights of ancient literature you are likely to remember. In any case that’s where my first copy of the Gilgamesh epic can be found. I’m not sure if it is appropriate but the great epic is immediately followed by an Incantation against Toothache which is both academically instructive and very funny.

In any case, when I found Mister Mitchell’s work in an audio edition I at first confused it with David Ferry’s Gilgamesh: A New Rendering in English Verse. I very much enjoyed the way Mister Ferry put the tale together and though tit good enough that I had trouble believing someone might feel the need to do so all over again a mere twelve years later.  However, Mister Mitchell, in an acclaimed translator of ancient texts into modern English and after tackling The Iliad, the Bhagavad Gita and other such texts he desired to  put his hand to the Gilgamesh Epic.

Well, no two Gilgamesh epics are exactly alike, nor can they be. There are several ancient versions of the story, but none of them are complete. The author who desires to write a complete Gilgamesh epic must, by necessity, fill in the gaps.  To do so, it is necessary to look at all the versions for bits and pieces that will fit into missing lines and, failing that, to make up stuff that fits. The choices a writer makes determines the eventual outcome of the product. As I write this I cannot help but compare Mitchell’s Gilgamesh with Ferry’s.

Actually they are very similar, save that I found Ferry’s adaptation to be more poetic. Both are good adaptation, but went out on a limb a bit to fill in the gaps in the epic as it stands in the various versions on clay tablets. Both are fairly moving. Ferry’s includes the Twelfth Tablet of the epic also known of Gilgamesh, Enkidu and the Nether World, where Mitchell’s does not. However Tablet Twelve is, in Pritchard’s words, “an inorganic appendage to the epic,” so he can be forgiven for the choice to leave it off. Purists may complain, but you cannot please everyone.

I do have to wonder if it counts as being an author to essentially edit several versions of an ancient story and only fill in a few gaps. Well, maybe it does in this case. Man, I’ve got to write my own version of Gilgamesh as a modern-style fantasy set in the ancient world… oh wait, Robert Silverberg already did that. Well, I’ll think about it, meanwhile…

Stephen Mitchell also includes a long essay with his rendition of the epic. In it he goes almost line-by-line in his discussion and the essay is maybe twice the length of the actual story.  Sadly it is also less than half as interesting and he seems to want to spend an inordinate amount of time hammering at the obvious. He has gone to pains to make the story as clear as the original text allows and I felt my intelligence being insulted when he seems to feel it was necessary to explain lines that to me were self-explanatory. To be fair he does explain some stuff some modern readers may not know about the context of the story, but I note most of my professors would not have agreed with several of his analyses. I’m sorry to say it, but the essay comes off less as interestingly informative as it does pompous, stuffy, and far too over-thought out. While there are aspects of this story that give us insights into the live and religions of various cultures in Mesopotamia, the essay spends far too much time picking at every word for some deep hidden meaning. The ancient scribes had a lot of fun with word play, but sometimes a story is just a story.

He also seems to go on about some of the homo-erotic hints and themes in Gilgamesh. I have yet to figure out why some scholars are so hung up on that. Quite a few non-Judeo-Christian cultures in the ancient Near East and Mediterranean regions took homosexuality as a matter of course. I would not try to guess what the average Babylonian on the street might have thought about same-sex relationships, but it happens frequently enough in the literature that it really should not be made any more of than the writers of such stories did. Yes, there are indications that Gilgamesh and Enkidu loved each other in all ways, but the authors of the original text spent far more time with the sex that went on between Enkidu and the priestess of Ishtar. To me the indication is that a reader or listener would not find the relationship between Enkidu and Gilgamesh unusual. My point? This was a different culture and they did not think like we do. But if they did not think the details were important to the story, why dwell on it?

The Mesopotamian scribes were hung-up on (or perhaps the phrase I want is “delighted by”) sex, however, and had many euphemism for it and the sexual organs. Mitchell does not mention this, but one of my professors explained, while we were studying Mesopotamian texts, that the word “Knee” was frequently used in place of what I suppose the polite description is the “male member.” Or used in a description of action that involves sex. So if you read some of the original translations, just keep in mind that a knee is not necessarily a joint on one’s leg.

I recommend both versions even if I was less than thrilled by Mister Mitchell’s essay. The two versions are fun to look at side by side for the comparative omissions and additions. I also recommend reading some of the original translations as well along with scholarly commentary to get a real understanding of the world in which Gilgamesh takes place. Gilgamesh stands today, even in its incomplete state as one of the greatest pieces of literature ever composed by Man and both Ferry and Mitchell have delivered lively and accessible renditions of the story you can appreciate even now, thousands of years after it was written.

The Audio Book

 

George Guidall reads Mitchell’s version of Gilgamesh, with intense emotion, giving true feeling to the epic poem. This strength, however, is also a weakness in that he never stops pouring out emotion from the start to the finish. Admittedly, there is a lot of wailing and tooth gnashing going on and both Gilgamesh and Enkidu are men of great emotions, but the listener needs a break from time to time. Not everything that happens is a great tragedy (although there is a lot of that going on too) and just as there is pacing in the telling of the story, the reader needs to pace the flow of emotion as well.

Mister Guidall’s reading at one point had me imagining Gilgamesh and Enkidu doing fairly mundane things, but with the same mega-emotion.

“Enkidu, my dear brother,” Gilgamesh said, tears dripping down his cheeks.
“I dreamed that I had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. What should I do?”

“The Dream is a good omen,” Enkidu replied earnestly. “It means Shamash smiles down on us.
In His honor, we shall each sacrifice half of this bag of peanuts and similarly half this pot of jelly.

“We shall grind the peanuts down between two rocks as though they were grain,
All the while, praying for the benediction of Shamash.

“We shall then spread the jelly and the mash of peanuts on the bread of the city,” Enkidu continued,
“And we shall enjoy lunch.”

Well, okay, I’m being a bit silly, but only about the PB&J. Mister Guidall’s reading was beautifully done for the most part, but as I said, after a while I did need a break. Also lightening up the mood, perhaps during the interlude with Ishtar would have made what followed have all the more impact.

In all, I recommend reading any version of Gilgamesh you can come across. Read as many different ones as you can. Just as it varied over time and across cultures in the ancient world, our modern writers have inserted differences as well. There is no one set Gilgamesh epic but a set of related stories. And, on acquiring some acquaintance with the story, listen to Guidall’s reading of Mitchell’s rendition.

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