When the ancient Royal Library of Ashurbanipal was discovered in 1849, thousands of clay tablets and fragments were unveiled. Among its holdings was a work that today is known as The Epic of Gilgamesh (or just Gilgamesh), the oldest epic known to mankind, written perhaps 1,500 years before The Iliad.
Due to sometimes careless handling much of the library is irreparably jumbled, and despite new findings there is no complete version of the story. Despite this, it is a tale that continues to engage readers as many of the themes and events of the story surpass the era which gave birth to them – it is, in many ways, a timeless tale.
Gilgamesh is a king, a giant with superpowers, and an oppressor of his people in Uruk (present day Iraq). The citizens plead for help and the gods create Enkidu, his double, a second self. Learning of this wild man, a beast, really, who runs with the animals, Gilgamesh dispatches a priestess to find him and tame him by seducing him, and making love with the priestess awakens Enkidu’s consciousness of his true identity as a human being. When Enkidu hears of the king’s behavior he decides to confront the ruler, and the two battle each other. Gilgamesh defeats Enkidu and the two realize that they are meant to be the best of friends. Together they undertake dangerous tasks that incur the displeasure of the gods. Initially, they defeat Humbaba, the monstrous guardian of the cedar forests. Later they kill the Bull of Heaven that the goddess Ishtar has sent to punish Gilgamesh as he has turned her down and also abused her verbally. And then, disease descends upon Enkidu who dies and leaves Gilgamesh in tears.
The latter part of the epic focuses on Gilgamesh’s distraught reaction to Enkidu’s death, which takes the form of a quest for immortality. Gilgamesh attempts to learn the secret of eternal life by undertaking a perilous journey to meet the immortal flood hero, Utnapishtim. It is a hero’s quest, but (as it turns out) a queer one.
So the plot is cool, but what makes the story deeply engaging is the blend of myths, legends, and everyday observations. And the eye for the details of daily life is sharp, the imagery is powerful –the city streets are described as vividly as the supernatural powers of the heavens – and the interaction between humans is vibrant thanks to all the contradictions in behavior that these relationships give rise to.
Stephen Mitchell’s freewheeling version (based on a number of translations) is a good place to start, although his introduction could be sold at the Alkmaar cheese market in the Netherlands. Readers who would like to dig deeper can check out Andrew George’s translation, published by Penguin Classics. It is, as can be expected, serious and solid.