If you’re into old stories, you can’t get much older than The Epic of Gilgamesh. It was written almost 1,000 years before The Bible, and is preserved on and translated from a series of 11 clay tablets.
Although called an “epic,” its original writers had no word corresponding to “epic” or “myth,” so it was simply called the “Gilgamesh series.” It tells the tale of Gilgamesh, a king of ancient Mesopotamia, who is a cruel ruler. The people cry out to their gods for justice, and the immortal beings create Enkidu, a “wild man” who will be Gilgamesh’s rival. The two become friends however, and embark on many adventures together. It is after the death of Enkidu that Gilgamesh becomes obsessed with finding a way to escape his own death, and goes on further journeys in his quest for immortality.
The problem of Gilgamesh
The story’s age has caused problems in determining its origin, and even its contents. The surviving stories of Gilgamesh himself come from all over (Mesopotamia, Syria, the Levant, and Anatolia), and there are numerous versions of The Epic of Gilgamesh (the oldest dated around 1700 BC, the newest from after the seventh century BC). The story was distributed widely, and translated into different languages — one of which is so fragmented that scholars can’t actually translate it.
If you pick up a copy of this tale, you’ll actually be reading a mix-and-match of different tablets and plot points from different eras in time; there are still some pieces we know are missing, as well as some places where scholars are in dispute over the translation.
Despite these issues, as well as its age, The Epic of Gilgamesh is a fairly cohesive story with surprisingly modern (and one still-controversial) themes:
- Sexuality as the line between childhood and adulthood
- The inevitability of death for mortals
- Despite death, what you do lives on
Not to say that these themes are easily teased from the text — there’s so much that gets lost over time and in translation. Fortunately most editions come with some essays and explanations of themes, and I found those helpful.
It was these themes, and the explanations of them, that really made this story good. Gilgamesh begins the story as a selfish jerk, and is kind of unlikeable throughout; Enkidu seems like one of those characters that is introduced with the purpose of making the main character see “the error of their ways,” and isn’t really that developed.
But of course my critique is coming from a person who lives in this time period, and who is used to stories being written a certain way — perhaps the characters themselves are just the vehicle for the themes.
The certainty of death, our inability to avoid it, and our not understanding the purpose of life are things with which humans have been struggling since the dawn of time. The Epic of Gilgamesh is one portrayal of how an ancient people decided to look at life, death, and life beyond death.
“Gilgamesh, wherefore do you wander?
The eternal life you are seeking you shall not find.
When the gods created mankind,
They established death for mankind,
And withheld eternal life for themselves.
And as for you, Gilgamesh, let your stomach be full,
Always be happy, night and day.
Make every day a delight,
Night and day play and dance,
Your clothes should be clean,
Your head should be washed,
You should bathe in water,
Look proudly on the little one holding your hand,
Let your mate be always blissful in your loins,
This, then, is the work of mankind.” (p. 75)
Have you read this story? What did you think of it?
*Just a quick note that I am out of town from 8/14 – 8/20. Posts should be going up automatically, but I’ll be really slow on responding to comments until I get back. Thanks for your patience, and have a great week!*