Updated: Nov 11, 2020
If you are like me, you’ve wanted to read the Epic of Gilgamesh. Maybe you own a copy that you’ve picked up over the years, but struggled to really get into it. I bought my first Gilgamesh in 1998 and it languished on bedside tables and bookshelves, perhaps to be picked back up when I moved apartments and thought I should give it another try. This would go on for about twenty years until I picked up Herbert Mason’s verse translation, published in 1971. My argument here isn’t that you should read Mason’s translation because everyone should really know Gilgamesh. You should read Mason’s translation because it will strike you to the core, make you weep, and remind you of what it is to be human in a way that perhaps you’ve never seen articulated as clearly. You will be grateful you read it. I certainly was.
I first heard about Gilgamesh from an episode of Star Trek, The Next Generation that aired in 1991, and then learned a little about it and marveled that no one taught it to me in school (and no one ever would!) The Mesopotamian epic is perhaps the oldest human story to have survived and be passed down, considerably older than books of the Bible or the Homeric epics (all of which show evidence of influence from elements of Gilgamesh.) How could anyone think themselves educated without knowing it? But, again, these points aren’t part of my argument for why to read it.
Don't make them wait till their 40s. You can start your kids on Gilgamesh early with Ludmila Zeman's lushly illustrated Gilgamesh Trilogy. Gilgamesh (right) embraces his friend Enkidu.
And quiet suddenly fell on them
When Gilgamesh stood still
Exhausted. He turned to Enkidu who leaned
Against his shoulder and looked into his eyes
And saw himself in the other, just as Enkidu saw
Himself in Gilgamesh.
This passage occurs after Gilgamesh and Enkidu fight “like wolves,” “like bulls bellowing,” like “horses gasping for breath.” Gilgamesh is a story about your first friendship. Think all the way back to the first one. You didn’t know what a friend was yet or how valuable that friend would become. Friendship is not a category when we are that young. Friendship is that friend. And everything that friendship brings is wrapped up in that friend. To lose them unexpectedly for a summer’s day, even for the morning when you didn’t know they were going to the dentist was apt to bring misery. To discover their family was going on vacation for a week was heartbreak, the darkening of the whole world. You have to think all the way back for this to ring true. This is what Gilgamesh is really about, and why it is so rewarding.
Gilgamesh mourns Enkidu, Ludmilla Zeman.
Gilgamesh wept bitterly for his friend.
He felt himself now singled out for loss
Apart from everyone else. The word Enkidu
Roamed through every thought
Like a hungry animal through empty lairs
In search of food. The only nourishment
he knew was grief, endless in its hidden source
Yet never ending hunger.
Reading Gilgamesh’s anguished state reminds me of foolish letters I wrote to lost lovers trying just to survive the next hour; phone messages I should have regretted right away, but didn’t. It is a loss you will feel because Mason's verses are that good, and because this epic is more about discovering oneself to be human than it is about fighting monsters and taking a good hero’s journey to the underworld (although both of those things happen as well.) Gilgamesh doesn’t care about the typical things heroes care about on their quests (honor, glory) because his heart is broken and nothing can put it back together. Gilgamesh’s only recourse is to bring Enkidu back, but it is a doomed quest, and we are all the better for living it with him.
If it can be arranged for you, who are,
So blind with love of self and with rage,
To reach the other side,
It will be through his help, his alone.
Thus speaks Siduri, the barmaid at the edge of the world, in frustration at Gilgamesh’s monomania about his loss, trying to help him reach Utnapishtim, who becomes Gilgamesh’s Wizard of Oz. It is worth saying that Gilgamesh begins his story a king and a demigod who knows no equal and has no empathy for his human subjects, for anyone. And without being as literal as Mary Shelley, Gilgamesh is a being in the body of an adult superman, who only begins to experience life as we know it with the meeting of Enkidu. Like Shelley’s creature, Gilgamesh responds to pain the way a child does, and that is perhaps what makes his loss so universal. I am fortunate in not having suffered the death of someone I was very close to, but Gilgamesh’s pain speaks directly to my experience of the sense of loss and panic every child feels when they imagine that they have lost a parent, when that parent has only locked the bathroom door to take a shower. For that reason, the character Gilgamesh, to me, reads psychologically like the protagonist of a story for very young children. I’m thinking of Jon Klassen’s “I Want My Hat Back,” about a bear who asks everyone he sees about his missing hat. A missing hat, like a missing wubby, is no joke to a child, and for that reason, I believe this story of a loss and the adventure to overcome it will affect us all.
I can’t tell you much more without feeling I have spoiled the ending for you, which is definitely worth the time. Mason’s Epic of Gilgamesh is just short of a hundred pages and can be read in a single cathartic afternoon or over a couple of nights. My knowledge of the original text is still scant. I think I should actually say texts, as translations of Gilgamesh seem to be cobbled together from various cuneiform tablets first discovered in the 1850s, which have been added to seemingly ever since. For the person looking for the absolutely literal word-perfect translation, I cannot help you determine how much poetic license Mason takes. I suspect there is some license at least, but I made little progress reading the other Gilgameshes because they are very literal and fragmentary; generally speaking: …..very…..translation….hard yet to………[read?] Mason writes in an afterword that experts in the text will complain of his depiction of Utnapishtim (the Mesopotamian Noah) as being written as a monotheist. I have read complaints that his text reads a bit too Christian in tone, but it certainly has all the references to the gods and Gilgamesh is part god, and I think this is all probably small beer to the beginner. If you never read another Gilgamesh, you will benefit from this one, not as a dry, academic exercise, but as one who has endeavored to eat the fattest orange: with the juice dripping from your chin.
On a personal note, Mason’s Gilgamesh was a shibboleth on my dating profile. My wife (before she was my wife) read it in the library where she worked after our first date. She wrote me an instant message to tell me she was crying in the stacks. She recommended it to her boss, who said “Gilgamesh? Really?” I don’t know if her boss read it, but I married Rachel the next year. So, no pressure, but this book could change your life.
What do you think? What have you heard about Gilgamesh? Have you succeeded where I failed in reading one of the fragmentary editions? Should I give another translation a try? If so, which one? You can let me know in the comments below. And if you pick up Mason’s Epic of Gilgamesh particularly, definitely let me know if you think I got it right.