Most of today I’ve been practically an invalid, and have had to leave off reading Vanity Fair because it’s too heavy to carry in one hand. So, I pulled Gilgamesh off the shelf for a short, lighter read while I laid on the couch with an ice pack on my neck. So, despite probably not being the best day for reading in general, given my condition, this was actually surprisingly easy to read. As Jason said in his review, it’s very short, but I was expecting to struggle through it because it’s epic poetry, or at least “verse narrative.” That’s why I chose this for my out-of-my-comfort-zone selection for the 9 in ’09 Challenge. I’m very happy to say it wasn’t as difficult as I thought.
Gilgamesh is a king, part god and part man. He meets another part-god-part-man, Enkidu, and the two become very good friends. When Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh is nearly destroyed by the loss of his friend, and goes on an epic journey in search of the ability to bring Enkidu back from the dead.
What interested me most about this tale is the story behind it. Archaeologists discovered tablets with part of this story engraved on them in the 19th century, in ancient Nineveh. They were estimated to come from two to three thousand B.C., the oldest written work we know of, according to the notes in the back of my edition. [Note – my edition is from 1972, so something else may have been discovered or the information changed in the last 37 years.] It’s older than the bible, older than any of the old Greek classics, plus they believe this story had been carried on orally for a long time before being recorded on these tablets. More pieces of the story have been found in ruins all around the Middle East. Some have even been found in Palestine, where the translator of this version, Herbert Mason, says it’s possible the writers of the bible were familiar with it. I wonder, now, if more has been discovered since Mason published his translation. It makes me want to look at Barnes & Nobles for the newest version.
The interesting thing is – despite this story being four to five thousand years old, or older, it’s so familiar. It’s not just the translation that makes it feel modern. The stories and emotions in it were just so easy to relate to. Perhaps part of that is because of how biblical some of the stories sounded. For example, one immortal tells Gilgamesh about his time as a mortal, how the gods told him to build a boat and bring aboard seeds of every living thing, and then the rains came down and flooded everything for seven days, which caused everyone and everything except those on the boat to die. Just like Noah, except for a week instead of forty days. There were little stories like this all over the text. In fact, whoever owned this before me wrote in the margins any time they found something they thought was related to the bible, pointing out the Garden of Eden and the ten commandments and such (though I believe most of their notes were pretty far fetched, honestly).
It’s not just the stories, either. Gilgamesh’s tale is just so expressive. Despite several thousand years of time and abundant cultural differences, there are some things that remain constant in human beings: love in friendship, pain in loss, and the inability or unwillingness to accept death. That’s what I took from this.