Updated: Nov 11, 2020

Statue of Gilgamesh at the University of Sydney (based on an ancient bas-relief at the Louvre) and Herbert Mason's Epic of Gilgamesh.

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.

Updated: 11 hours ago

Some of the books I've been moving to and from various end tables, usually not as neat as this.

It has been a week of Norse myth study for me as I try to understand the differences between the 19th Century Swedish writer Victor Rydberg's versions of the stories and most other common versions. I am working on a full-blown article on Rydberg's process from the outside and will at some point get to reading what Rydberg had to say for himself. I'm not doing a full-scale review of the books shown, though I will point out some things I've enjoyed about various takes on Norse myths.

My favorite of the week has to be Kevin Crossley-Holland's text, though I have not read it in its entirety. Crossley-Holland's text opens with a lovely retelling of Snorri Sturluson's 13th Century Gylfaginning from the opening of his Prose Edda. If you know nothing else about the extant sources of Norse mythology, Snorri and Edda are the biggest and oldest names in the business. I don't think I've seen another general Norse myths book (readable by young people, but very enjoyable for all ages) that opens with this specific a nod to the real source material for all Norse myths. It is a very promising sign.

I have been thinking particularly about versions of myth, the canons of myth, if you will. I was lucky enough to read D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths as a kid. I read it cover to cover many times and became very protective over the versions of the stories it contained. I don't think I was willing to accept more facts about the Greek gods until I took a course in undergrad and read Hesiod's Theogony. It made me think about what the "real" Greek myths were and I don't think I really made headway on the general concept of the "real" versions of myths until the last couple of weeks as I've read Rydberg, a thoughtful scholar who nevertheless departs from traditional versions of Norse myths, but does so using textual support from accepted sources. It's a tricky needle he has threaded and I can't really understand what he's done without checking every detail and even then, it's dizzying.

In case you are wondering about the other texts in the picture, I can't say too much about Gaiman because I just haven't had the gumption to read him through because (I feel scandalous admitting this because I think the man is a genius) I'm not impressed. I will have to read him through entirely, but I haven't seen anything in his version that stands out to me as adding anything to the subject. Having only read parts of each book, I have to say that I much prefer Crossley-Holland. Not only does he give the nod to the sources, but his prose is just more colorful.

As much as the D'Aulaires delighted me as a child, it was partly reading their Norse myths that sort of disappointed me about Norse myths, which I hadn't really studied before reading their Norse Mythology. I found it to be lacking when compared to my first love, the myths of the Greeks. I think the D'Aulaires' do a great job with the material and I am in love with their style of illustration, even if it seems to suit the bright world of the Greeks better. I don't really think it is their fault that I liked Greek myths more. I think that my initial disappointment in their Norse myths, rather, is due to the the fact that the Greek myths are just lusher and fuller than the Norse myths. And that is what has driven me to research the matter further and to search for a scholar like Rydberg, who squeezes more juice out of the fragmentary and sometimes confused source materials.

Johan Egerkran's Norse Gods has become one of my favorite bedtime reading books because I love his illustrations and I like the prose, which is peppered with quotations from the Edda. But the illustrations are bold and dark and spooky, which just strikes me as appropriate for the rougher, colder world of the north. It is a lovely clothbound text that I just like to reread when I'm drowsing off to sleep.

I reserve judgement on National Geographic's Treasury of Norse Mythology, because I have read only snippets. I have no complaints about the parts I've read, but I do not like the illustrations, which present bulbous, stylized, and to my eyes, ugly versions of the gods.


My next scheduled post (Thursday, November 12) is on a translation of Gilgamesh I am in love with and hope you will try out. Once I finish reading Rydberg and writing my article about his Norse myths, I will return to Abenaki and Northeast Native people's myths and legends and try to publish something before American Thanksgiving.

I am also working on adapting the Scandinavian Christmas folk song "Haugebonden," which I still hope to be able to record before Christmas. I discovered partial chords to play a version of it this week, but the version differed from the first one I studied and the words to most of my verses no longer scan to the rhythms of the song. I will have to revise the verses I've adapted and finish the rest of them. News

A mixed media three dimensional project: the Catoblepas.

My Catoblepas sculpture is almost ready to paint. Check him out in the Sculpture section of The pictures have gotten a bit hard to scroll through lately given the number, and I hope to be able to be able to curate a bit better as I start the last stages of the sculpture. I am also trying to make headway in completing the other sections of the website, which have remained "under construction" since we launched last summer. I don't have specific news to share, but I have made a list of chores to start working on.

Updated: 11 hours ago

My original article, published in the Eagle Tribune about my search for the historical Dracula, and the author, twenty years ago this month, at Castle Dracula in Romania. (Author's photos.)

“Dracula is out there. I have seen him.”

Thus began a rare personal column I wrote for a local newspaper about a trip I made to Romania twenty years ago. I was proud of those lines and fought with an editor to keep them even though I was a very new reporter and was used to having my leads rewritten. They were a bit symbolic given that I ended up leaving out the anecdote that inspired them because I didn’t know, at the time, how to describe it. I will try to do that here.

I backpacked in Eastern Europe for three months twenty years ago and found myself in Romania in October of that year. My general method of travel was to go where I seemed to be brought, but I had one particular plan to visit the castle of Vlad Ţepeş, the historic Dracula, a medieval ruler of Wallachia (bordering Transylvania) who was perched precariously at the edge of the Ottoman Empire during a period of expansion and war with Holy Roman Empire. Those Eastern lands were then what they would become for the Soviet Union: a protective barrier between competing civilizations. The pressure may have inspired the brutality of the warfare. Ţepeş was not a last name. It was a nickname describing a practice of execution and a way to spread terror. Vlad Ţepeş was Vlad “the impaler.” We get the more popular name from his father’s nickname, Dracul, “the dragon.” Vlad was Dracula, the son of “the dragon.” Bram Stoker used Vlad as a foundation for his undead antagonist, even giving Dracula a speech hearkening to his time battling the dreaded Turk. The rest of the novel is Stoker’s brilliant invention.

Vlad Ţepeş, Dracula

Bust of Vlad Ţepeş, Dracula in his birthplace, Sighişoara, Romania. (Author's photo.)

I picked up an English copy of Dracula in a bookstore in Prague on that trip, and as I headed east, I found myself following the steps of Stoker’s young protagonist, as we both traveled by train to what seemed to both of us like the wilderness at the edge of the world. Jon Harker had paprika chicken, so I had paprika chicken. He tried plum brandy, so I tried plum brandy. And on the train at night I turned pages feverishly in my sleeper and made notes in the back of the book!

When I reached Curtea de Argeş, the closest hub to the castle one can get a train to, I had run out of plans for how to get any further to my destination, but I generally refrained from planning and everything always seemed to work out, so I wasn’t worried. I spent my first day touring the city, which did not disappoint. In a few daylight hours, I saw an open casket funeral parade, an older woman with garlic wreathed around her neck and heard a cell phone ring tone that was the opening notes of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor. I also spied a grossly out-of-scale map painted on a wooden sign at the bus station that showed the road to the castle, which I would try to follow the next day.

When I say Castle Dracula, I should specify that I am referring to Cetetea Poenari -- Poenari Castle, not the picturesque Bran Castle that could stand in as a Disney castle with its turrets topped in terra cotta tile. According to scholars Radu Florescu and Raymond McNally’s In Search of Dracula, Bran can be thought of as Vlad’s summer house, but Poenari was his home. I have read that Stoker had no knowledge of Poenari, but he certainly described it as if he did: “The castle was built on the corner of a great rock, so that on three sides it was quite impregnable." Poenari is indeed perched on a rock overlooking the Argeş Valley. It would have been a terrible position to attack, accessible from only one side at the top of a steep climb.

Regardless, I had no way to this castle. Attempts at communicating with the kiosked clerks had failed and I didn’t know which bus, if any, would get me to the closest stop. I looked at the broadly painted map, clearly meant to give a general sense of where the castle lay, and started walking. It was a day of anecdotes, if not a story of reaching Castle Dracula. I saw a horse-drawn wagon with a long, jointed spine and wooden wheels delivering lumber. I saw a man and woman laughing hysterically as they seemed to throw clods of dirt at a chicken in a field. I bought an apple from a boy at a roadside stand. And I ran into Dracula, my version of Dracula, anyway. I omitted him from my newspaper story because I didn’t think I could properly convey him without sounding crazy. He was a short, broad man, middle-aged, with brown, wild, wiry, curly hair, dressed in work clothes. His mustache and eyebrows were enormous and perhaps reminded me of the bust of Ţepeş that I saw days before in Sighişoara, where he was born. But something of his eyes struck me, for they communicated that trait that would once have been described as animal magnetism, which my editor would have laughed at had I used it. I never summoned the courage to talk to him, let alone ask for a picture and to be honest, I don’t believe a picture would do my memory of him justice. I saw him, his face and eyes, and have never forgotten their impression, even if the specific details are now hazily remembered. And then I moved on as I must! I could not have gotten far that day, as the warm October sun sailed to the west and the shadows began to lengthen. I eventually turned back, regretting failure, but fearing the country roads in the vicinity of Castle Dracula at night.

That night I felt defeated. My feet were swollen as my steel-toed work boots were not meant for long walks. My shoulders and back and legs were sore. I teetered at the precipice of deciding to pack my belongings the next morning and hopping a train to Istanbul. Instead of fretting, I took a hot bath in the claw-footed tub in my room’s bathroom. And as I lay there in the quiet, I heard them howling in the streets: the children of the night. In the novel, Dracula controls wolves, and orders them to tear a woman apart. Outside my hotel were the ubiquitous Romanian street dogs really, not wolves, just as my Dracula was a farmer. But they howled, and they were many. And then a shotgun blast sounded and the howling stopped. I wrote in my journal and read Stoker until sleep took me.

Sleep fortified me and instead of giving up, I took a gamble: I jumped on the first bus I saw and hoped for the best. And I won! The bus headed in the right direction and at my request, stopped at the village of Arefu, near the foot of the hills on which the castle lay. The driver, one of many good-hearted people who felt the need to look after me, called out the window to a local to lead me to the castle. What I saw of Arefu included cottages with thatched roofs and little roadside shrines with Orthodox saints and burning candles. I also saw an old woman cross herself as she got on the bus. And then I met my Renfield. Renfield is Dracula’s mad servant. Mine was part Bela Lugosi, part Count from Sesame Street, which is entirely acceptable in a tour guide in any setting. Renfield was the old man the bus driver asked to help me. He wore a fur cap and spoke no English, but he narrated the whole story anyway. I don’t think I could have stopped him. I didn’t understand any of it, but I was very attentive nevertheless. I did catch one word, which made it all worth it. He would from time to time stop walking, point at me and say the name Dracula punctuate it with a slow, deliberate laugh: ha, ha, ha. This happened repeatedly on the journey to the hill and up the oft-noted 1480 steps.

Cetetea Poenari --Castle Dracula

My view as I ascended the final steps to the Cetetea Poenari, the historical Castle Dracula. (Author's Photo)

Given what I went through to get to the castle, and what would happen when I tried to leave, the actual castle ruins are a vague memory. I don’t know if the images in my memory are only based on the pictures I took. It was largely ruined. Impenetrable by assault, earthquakes finally toppled it. One can make out the shape of the castle and see the outlines of the rooms, but what stands out in my memory is its height above the valley, and the tree-covered hills stretching in all directions.

Argeş Valley, View from Castle Dracula

Photograph taken by author from the top of Castle Dracula, October, 2000.

But it was what happened when I left the castle that impresses most listeners, and for many years I feared that in the telling, people would think I was surely exaggerating and I myself had wondered if the danger I felt at the time was more a figment of my imagination. It was only recently, in hearing a story about Romania’s feral street dogs that I have the courage to share what happened and feel that it was indeed something that could have happened as I wrote it so long ago.

Exhilarated with the success, the proof in my camera, I fairly floated down the hill. I did not think much of the dog that began to follow me at a distance, and perhaps not the second dog. Surely the third or fourth stray dog must have alarmed me. But the fifth, the sixth or the seventh dogs to appear made me wonder exactly how my walk back to Arefu would end. I don’t know how many dogs in all materialized, was it ten? More? I know that I felt balanced in a precarious position. The dogs massed around me in a pack with myself forming the apex. We moved in sync. I felt that continuing to move as one was better than distracting them or trying to scatter them. I had been reading of Count Dracula, remember, who commanded his children of the night to tear a woman to shreds and to threaten with grisly death the character I most associated with, who tried to leave Dracula’s castle before Dracula intended him to. These were ragged street dogs, not wolves, but surely if they turned on me… I didn’t intend to find out. I walked stiffly across the valley towards the village and towards a chain linked fence I had not had the time to notice as I walked to the castle with my guide Renfield. Either by recollection or by research I conducted afterward, it was the property of the Romanian military. And behind that fence: a guard dog. And it barked. And my pack’s heads turned as one and then they bolted. I did not run for fear that the movement might catch their attention. I walked a bit more swiftly and did not sigh with relief before I was out of sight.

I would soon leave Romania and continue my travels east into Turkey, where my sights were trained on the far east of the country, but I have not forgotten the week or so that I followed the Dracula trail. Sometimes during the month of October I recall that night when I heard his children sing mournfully to the moon and recall them by day marching in step at my heels. As long as we feed our imaginations with stories of the fantastic, adventures like this will never end.


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