Updated: Jan 26

Freya and Svipdag, by the illustrator John Bauer. This is one of several stories I had never read about before reading Viktor Rydberg's Norse mythology.

A thrice-burnt witch; a vengeful smith; an orphan hero seeking out a beautiful goddess held by giants: these are some of the little-known tales woven into the tapestry of Norse mythos by the 19th century Swedish writer Viktor Rydberg! Newcomers to Rydberg’s vision of a consolidated Germanic mythos will find a number of ideas, both fascinating and controversial, and a dizzying constellation of figures, some familiar, others not, who relate to one another in ways that differ from traditional tellings of mythic and legendary history. Rydberg's theories were largely rejected in his lifetime, but despite this, he made often fascinating uses of scraps of details from extant sources that were probably too scant for other anthologists to present as part of the canon of Norse myth stories. Here I share some of the most compelling stories Rydberg included in his Norse mythos that you may not have heard elsewhere. This is meant as the simplest introduction I can provide a newcomer to to the changes and additions Rydberg made and shared in his text, Our Fathers’ Godsaga, translated by William P. Reaves. Some knowledge of Norse mythology will be helpful, but I've tried to explain enough of the common details of the myths to aid the memory of someone who would benefit from a review. I have only begun to follow up my reading of this text with a study of Rydberg's purposes and methodology and expect to follow up with a companion to this piece.

Rydberg was a man of varied literary talents who came to prominence in his native Sweden in the second half of the 19th century. He was a philosophical and political thinker who spent time in the Swedish parliament, but he rose to prominence as a Romantic novelist and also published a highly regarded collection of poems. I recently learned that Rydberg's poem "Tomten" was the inspiration of a series of children's books by Astrid Lindgren. Rydberg was given an honorary doctorate at Uppsala University, was elected to the Swedish Academy and became a professor at the University of Stockholm. Rydberg wrote two volumes devoted to Germanic mythology in the 1880s, in which he tried to unify stories from the Scandinavian tradition with legends and tales from Old German and Old English sources. Rydberg's Our Fathers' Godsaga is the child of his studies.

Viktor Rydberg and Our Fathers' Godsaga, translated by William P. Reaves.

Rydberg's attempt to present a pan-Germanic mythos that consolidated legends from Norse myth, later German romances and tales from Old English poetry was not embraced by the philologists of the time and he is likely not more than a footnote in the study of Norse mythology today. The stories Rydberg draws together are all pulled from known manuscripts and the sources of the commonly known stories of Thor, Loki and Odin, but to these he adds lesser-known Eddaic tales and also tales I only knew from my Old English studies and my reading of the Saga of Dietrich of Bern. Some of Rydberg's consolidations make better sense than others and throughout this piece I will point out unusual interpretations and why I think they work or do not.

A Mill that Turns the Heavens and the Seas

Kepler's illustration to describe the orbit of Mars. I could find no illustrations of the World Mill, but this comes closest to what I see in my mind's eye (it's short seven giant maidens.)

I most enjoyed reading Rydberg’s version of the ordering of the cosmos because it made the history of the world of Norse myths feel richer. In most tellings of Norse myths we hear about the Aesir and Vanir gods trading hostages. Rydberg adds the surviving giants to this list and also the elves (who have always seemed interchangeable with dwarves in Norse myth, apologies to Lord of the Rings.) By this exchange, Loki and the giantess Gullveig come to Asgard. I have seen Gullveig mentioned as a witch, but here she is very much the female version of Loki, and takes over the role of Angrboda in an interesting way I will get to later. Representing the elves are Mimir and Ivaldi, whose families play a significant role in the rise and fall of the age of the Aesir gods. Mimir plays the role of decapitated (but animated) head in the myths you know, but more on that later. At least one of the Aesir (Iduun) is the daughter of one of the elves.

Rydberg’s interest in the creation of the world gives birth to another addition to the myths we know, which is the World Mill. At the foundation of the world are two great mill stones powered by nine giantesses (according to Rydberg, the nine mothers of Heimdall) which churn the oceans and spin the heavens. The World Mill’s job is to grind down the flesh of the primeval giant Ymir and spit out the earth that becomes the world and the salt which fills the sea. There is nothing new about Ymir’s body being used to form the world (his skull serving as our heavens) but the World Mill seems to be unique to Rydberg. I love the idea and I’m interested in knowing what suggested it to him and whether there is a source in existing literature for it. My searches online for the World Mill seem attached to Rydberg and have no obvious avenues for further sources. In extant sources, Heimdall is said to be the son of nine mothers, but to my knowledge the mothers aren’t identified and this statement isn’t explained. Rydberg has Heimdall born from the holy fire generated by the friction of the stones in the world mill, which is, in turn, generated by the nine giantesses. Heimdall, the white and shining, who seems to have had a more important role than he does in extant stories, is a character I am dying to know more about.

This is very good storytelling and as important as it is to me to know how Rydberg derived his new details, I was more or less enthusiastic and suspending that part of me that is a stickler for sources. But then he began to mix mythological characters with characters generally considered to be from later legendary sources. Heimdall comes to earth to help order human society (which is standard Norse mythology) but he comes in the form of Skef/Sceaf, whom you may know from the opening of Beowulf. To use the Old English name, Sceaf arrives in the land of the Danes as a foundling child in a boat, lying on the sheaves of grain that give him his name and surrounded by treasures. In Rydberg, Heimdall does everything he does in standard tellings of the myths disguised as Sceaf: he establishes the three classes of society and is a sort of Promethean figure helping mankind. As Sceaf he also gives birth to the figure known as Scyld in Old English which leads to the great hero-king Halfdane, the father of Hrothgar in Beowulf. To me, the Sceaf genealogy is hard to reconcile with Heimdall because the established story about Heimdall creating the freemen, karls and jarls has Heimdall stay as guest with three couples and the woman of each house later bearing Heimdall’s child. This competes with the notion that as Sceaf he establishes another family line. A tale about the origin of a social order seems to be a typical myth. A tale about a line of kings being founded by a god seems a propaganda tool more serving of that line of kings. Both can be said to be a kind of propaganda, but they seem different to me.

Wayland's Vengeance

The smith Wayland on the Franks Casket, an 8th Century whalebone box roughly the size of a tissue box and one of my favorite artifacts at the British Museum, London.

Many of my concerns and troubles with Rydberg stem from similar mergings of figures. Sometimes it seems reasonable. For instance, Rydberg makes the legendary smith Volund (Wayland in English) the son of the legendary smith Ivaldi. This seems reasonable. For those who do not know Wayland, he is a sort of Daedelus of Northern legend, who is imprisoned by a king, and even constructs a pair of wings to escape. Beowulf has a piece of armor fashioned by Wayland. It was fashionable for heroes to have one. Wayland was vengeful though, and before escaping his imprisonment he kills the king’s two sons and turns their heads into wine goblets. He also rapes the king’s daughter. Rydberg keeps these elements, but makes the king Mimir, who in Rydberg is the patriarch of the rival clan of elvish smiths. The story about the contest over who creates better crafts for the gods becomes part of the downfall of the Aesir gods. Volund nurses his vengeance by sending waves of blizzards to freeze Middle Earth. Rydberg suggests that Volund's magics are the source of the harsh winters that precede Ragnarok. Volund freezes the world while forging a sword of vengeance that will best Thor’s hammer. This seems like a fair myth, but elevating a figure like Volund to such prominence without more stories about him starts to feel thin. Volund’s sword of vengeance eventually falls into the hands of Frey, who gives it up for the love of a woman. Volund's sword falls into the hands of Surtr, the fire giant that attacks Asgard during Ragnarok.

The Burning of Gullveig

The Aesir burn Gullveig in an 1895 illustration by Lorenz Frølich.

Some of Rydberg’s shifts though, make very good narrative sense, regardless of whether he was reconstructing tales as a mythologist or creating them as a storyteller. The elevation of Gullveig is one of them. In the sources I have seen, Gullveig is a witch who is burnt three times and reborn in different guises. Gullveig’s burning is also said to be the cause of the war between the Aesir and Vanir. I don’t know if there is more information about Gullveig in the sources than that, which is a bit tantalizing or frustrating. In Rydberg, each time Gullveig is burnt, her icy heart remains and Loki eats it. Loki later gives birth to one of the monstrous children attributed in other sources to his union with Angrboda. This still isn’t a lot of detail for a tale, but the series of three deaths, three hearts, three monsters, is good mythmaking. The story of Svipdag has a Cinderella flair to it, with a stepmother with questionable motives sending him on a dangerous quest. Svipdag meets his true mother at her grave and she puts charms on him to protect him while he faces challenges by giants who hold Frey and Freya captive. This is an extant story I did not know. Likewise extant are the associations between Svipdag and Freya and I did not know them either.

Much of the end of Our Fathers’ Godsaga impressed me the least, with characters from different story traditions quickly collapsing into each other. A battle between mortals drags the Aesir and Vanir into the conflict. The legends associated with the vengeful Goth king Jormunrek/Ermanrich is played out with Loki posing as Ermanrich's evil counselor Bekki. Hadding becomes Dietrich of Bern. Svipdag the elf-god is also Svipdag the legendary king. The rabbit hole is convoluted and I was already familiar with many of the stories that Rydberg injected into the Norse myths. I found the genealogies difficult to follow, which isn’t necessarily bad. I usually can't follow all of the figures in a complex mythos the first time I read it. But once I recognized the sources and saw the use Rydberg made of them I didn’t feel there was much of a reason to commit to understanding. They just didn't feel consequential to the overarching narrative of the rise and fall of the Aesir, which is the throughline of Norse mythology. Ragnarok felt a bit paler for the Aesir gods to have been benched for so much of the book to make way for Rydberg's larger cast of characters. I also wondered why, among all of the stories he reached for, Rydberg left out the crown jewel of the north, the Volsunga Saga, known to the Germans as the Nibelungenlied, or as Wagner’s Ring Cycle. To me the Volsunga Saga is the closest northern literature got to its own Iliad.

By the end of Our Fathers’ Godsaga, it was hard for me to think that Rydberg was still reconstructing old myths, though I could be wrong. Details I learned that I am grateful for were from the stories of Gullveig and Svipdag. I think that my encounter with Rydberg makes me wonder how many details I've passed over in Voluspa or other texts in the Eddas that I have not held onto because they didn't fit together with the stories I am familiar with, which have been curated by hands other than Rydberg's. Rydberg has made me think about mythological canons and how they came about; who constructed them and with what purpose; and whether we can still search through the records to answer these questions. I feel myself at the beginning of a new search through the Norse texts with an eye of capturing the details that do not seem to fit or make sense. I am also interested in following up with Rydberg to understand his methodology.

But what do you think? Have you hungered for a deeper, lusher Norse mythology as I have? Do you want the legends of the North to get treatments worthy of Homer and the writers of the south? Do you prefer that sense of longing and loss that J.R.R. Tolkien sought to emulate and share? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Germanic Mythology Website

The front page of, which led me to Viktor Rydberg and which I have not begun to plumb the depths of.

Our Fathers’ Godsaga’s translator, William P. Reaves, is an independent scholar who has worked for many years to present Rydberg’s writings and other works related to the Norse myths. I cannot read Swedish, so there is a limit to my ability to comment on Reaves' translation, but I can say that the text is exceptionally clean of typos and other distractions that can make their way into small publications. The print is also very easy to follow, which sounds like a small matter, but again, many small publications like this are printed in fonts too small or hard on the eyes. Reaves maintains the sprawling website, where I first encountered Rydberg through his essay “Brisingamen’s Smiths,” also translated by Reaves.

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  • Ben Hellman

Updated: May 1

The Abenaki's Promethean Gluscabe, outside the Millbrook Heritage Centre in Nova Scotia, Canada, part of the ancient lands stretching as far south as Massachusetts, known as Wabanaki, or the Dawnland.

[Edit, 5/1/21: In recent days I've shared this post with the speakers of the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook-Abenaki People. While all of the stories I share in this piece were told or shared by indigenous people of parts of modern New England and lands stretching into Canada, the tales themselves do not have a clear provenance stretching into the distant past as I have represented in the article. They may be reconstructions made in the 20th Century and may also contain elements of old world folk belief. I will continue to research the matter and write again on the topic when I have a better understanding.]

The native peoples of New England remember a time when monsters and giants roamed the land I was born in. While I lay in bed as a child reading about the man-eating cyclops of the Greek isles and the dragons of Europe, the trolls and ice giants of Scandinavia, the land all around me had stories I knew nothing of, and have only begun to learn. I can report to you already, that these stories are just as thrilling as the ones we have inherited and carried from other lands, but they have the benefit of speaking of the places we live now: A primal creature that created much of the landscape of the northeast and then came to rest in Lake Champlain; an intelligent chimera that haunts Mount Katahdin; creatures scarier than White Walkers; children with magic and animals that speak. These are details from a few of my favorite tales of the people of the Dawnland!

That is what the Abenaki people called New England and a part of Canada stretching to Nova Scotia. The individual tribes, described by Abenaki writer Joseph Bruchac as cousins, include: the Mi'kmaq, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot, but they belonged to a larger group that spoke related languages and lived in the Wabanaki, the Dawnland, a more elegant and beautiful name (and concept) than New England, I think. The people here were in the far east, the place on this continent where the sun rose first, and I’ve been searching out and reading as many of their legends as I could find.

Map of Wabanaki Land

Map of traditional Wabanaki territory, reprinted in Joseph Bruchac's The Faithful Hunter.

Of the three volumes I’ve read, my favorite was Giants of The Dawnland, collected by Alice Mead and Arnold Neptune. Mead has a collection of young adult literature and Neptune was a member of the Penobscot Nation. The stories in the collection are attributed to storytellers who are identified by name, tribal affiliation and (for about half) the date the story was recorded. Some of the stories are dated as far back as 1882, though Mead explains that these stories were passed down orally and may date back many thousands of years.

My favorite story from Mead and Neptune’s collection was “The Chenoo’s Icy Heart,” about a wife and husband who face one of the terrible monsters of the north. A chenoo is a giant, magical being and a cannibal, capable of changing size and killing a man with its scream. “His lips looked like they had been chewed upon in a frenzy of hunger.” Without giving away too much of the story, the wife and husband must use their wits to survive, but the storytellers retain the tension between the dangerous creature and the couple. The chenoo sounds very much like the wendigo, thought to be a symbol of starving in the winter months. The chenoo may have been more human once, an element not lost in the story, which makes the story more interesting.

“The Chenoo’s Icy Heart” and the two other tales I most enjoyed in this collection explored the elements of human relationships: one of a mother and father and the other, about a spurned orphan. “The Magic Giants” reminded me a bit of a Thor story, with a mother and father finding themselves lost in the fog in the ocean and saved by giants who take them in and give them supper but say that the couple must repay the favor. The mother and father had been poor providers, but are given powers by the giants to better support their children. “The Orphan and the Mikumwess” is not the only story to show how sometimes the village is run by mean or unfair people, but it is the only story to examine the relationship between a human and an elf, or “little person.” The orphan has solid Cinderella street cred, but when his guardian Mikumwess endows him with special powers, his outcome is so much more satisfying than Cinderella’s.

I have also read two collections by Abenaki writer Joseph Bruchac, The Faithful Hunter and The Wind Eagle. The three Abenaki collections I've read each had two-page stories that would be great to read to a child: stories about the origins of animals, and animal tricksters like Azam the Racoon and Gluscabe’s uncle, the turtle person. However, my favorites of Bruchac, as with Mead and Neptune, were the longer, more developed tales with danger and interesting mythological creatures and beliefs. “The Deer Wife,” is a sort of selkie or mermaid tale with a twist. The Faithful Hunter’s title comes from an eerie tale about a husband who cannot be stopped from providing for his family. Surviving the northern climate and providing for family were two themes common to most of the Abenaki stories I’ve read. Even animal tales, some of which take on the air of fables by Aesop, are about the sorts of behaviors that make one a valuable member of a community. Laziness is looked on with judgement and those who are simply bad at hunting and providing are pitiable figures with a problem they must solve.

The mythological dimension of the tales includes a creator god, who is not very present in the stories, but a Promethean figure who is. Gluscabe is mercurial, sometimes portrayed heroically, sometimes as a trickster, never all-knowing or powerful, but generally a well-intentioned and helpful figure. It must say something that the Abenaki saw Gluscabe, in such human terms. The story of "The Wind Eagle," portrays him as well-intentioned, but adolescently naive and misguided. His quest is to end the powerful winds that make the Dawnland cold, but in doing so he upsets the balance and must go back to right it. A similar story has Gluscabe facing off against Winter himself, and again, it takes a couple of tries to make the climate of the Dawnland as livable as it is today. Bruchac, Mead and Neptune all stress that the Abenaki settled in New England at the end of the last ice age and these stories, like that of the violent, hungering ice giant, the Chenoo, may represent that.

Gluscabe usually seems to be an agent of positive change, of changing the Dawnland in a way that makes it what it is today, a region friendlier to human settlement. There are a number of stories that also have him making animals smaller, and less menacing than they once were. Defeating selfish characters is a theme, particularly when they hoard things the creator meant all people to have, like water, or in one of my favorite stories, "How Gluscabe Stole Tobacco." In a true hero's journey tale, Gluscabe must seek out knowledge (from his usual mentor, Grandmother Woodchuck) develop his unusual stone canoe and seek out the wizard who has hoarded the tobacco. The wizard figure, like the monster in "Gluscabe and the Water Monster," is a delightful surprise. Some stories say Gluscabe left when the white people came, but “Dusk” from the Mead and Neptune collection, says that Gluscabe left when the people stopped following his teaching. And when Gluscabe paddles away to the east, his magic leaves the Dawnland, confounding the languages of the humans and animals. The world is lesser for his passing.

Rock Dunder, or Odzioso

A few of the local Abenaki landmarks that a New Englander might visit are Rock Dunder in Lake Champlain of Vermont and Mount Katahdin of Maine. Rock Dunder is said to have been the only creature that created itself, named Odziozo, a name that means, "he who created himself." Odioso dragged himself around the northeast, creating the landscape with his movement. He created Tuxis Island in Long Island Sound and came to rest in Lake Champlain, where, satisfied with his work, he settled down and did not move again. Maine’s Mount Katahdin, the easternmost part of North America and first place the rising sun strikes, was sacred and off-limits. It was thought to be home of the winged creature, the Pomola, who is depicted as an eagle-like creature, sometimes with the horns of a stag or moose. According to “The Thunders and the Mosquito Person,” a Mi'kmaq tale, Katahdin was also home of the winged thunders, creatures like humans that could change their size and bear wings to create storms. Pamola seems to be a thunder creature himself in some sources. I hope and expect I will find more local landmarks that bear interesting native stories. One does not have to travel to Iceland to find rocks that were once magical creatures.

Rosy-Sloped Mount Katahdin

Mount Katahdin from Millinocket Camp, by Frederic Edwin Church, 1895.

An element all of the Abenaki folktale collections sought to communicate was the age of the tales. Each of the texts claims that the Abenaki people lived in this area from the time of the last Ice Age, when glaciers and now-extinct megafauna roamed the landscape. Mead and Neptune’s collection says the Abenaki people were here as many as 12,000 years ago. Bruchac makes similar claims. The stories’ fixation with the dangers of winter and ice monsters may reflect the struggle to survive in an age when prehistoric animals, real giants, roamed the landscape.

To a student of folklore, ancient tales, and oral tradition, such claims of longevity of tales, of stories handed down for so long, fascinated me and challenged my credulity, but in my limited research, it seems that they could be possible. According to Patrick D. Nunn, geographer and anthropologist at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia who has studied the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, orally transmitted tales can be passed down for 10,000 years when conditions are right. Those conditions, he says, include having specialized story tellers, and being relatively isolated. By these conditions, the Tjapwurung, a people in current day southern Australia have kept alive stories of hunting a prehistoric and deadly seven-foot tall bird, mihirung paringmal, 5,000-10,000 years ago. The Klamath people of Oregon have likewise retained memory of an ancient event, the collapse of the volcano that formed Crater Lake, some 7,600 years ago.

Such ancient times are apt to dwarf the Western imagination. They certainly do mine! I can think of nothing we have that is that old. The language I am writing in has changed so much in the last thousand years alone, one requires special training to read texts before the year 1000 CE. Two thousand years ago: the Roman Empire. Five thousand years ago on the Russian steppes: the peoples whose language would give birth to ancient versions of Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, the Celtic, Germanic and Slavik languages, people for whom the domestication of horses and the invention of the chariot were game-changing technologies. The great pyramid of Giza (2560 BCE) had not been built. The Bible had not been written.

Accessibility of New England Native Folklore

I decided to research and write this piece after seeing that there was a chatbot that would tell me what native groups once lived in the zip code I live in. I found the chatbot on Columbus Day on social media. It says something already that an educated person with an interest in folklore made it to his forties without knowing the first thing about native American folklore or the peoples who once had the free roam of the lands I was born in and have lived in for most of my life. Upon getting a list of tribes that lived, and in some part still live, where I live, I became curious about what they believed in, cared about, what stories they told. I did not know where to start because there are no go-to names in the native folklore of New England, no Grimms or Andersen, Ferdowsi or Lönnrot, no programs of study that (again) are obvious and easy to find. When I ordered the books I’ve written about here, they were not as easy to get as many of the hundreds of books I’ve purchased online (most of them folklore and mythology-related.) Of the five texts I bought, one (not one I’ve written about here) was out of print and obtainable only as a used copy. Another was not available on the biggest online retailer in the U.S. Another was priced in such a way as to make me think it was published as a very limited run. All of the Abenaki folklore texts I’ve gotten my hands on were published by very small publishers or self-published.

The point I’m trying to make is that we in the U.S. do not place a great value on the cultures of native peoples, and that may be putting it lightly. I probably own ten complete editions of the Brothers Grimm, and I could buy ten more new editions, each by a different publisher, and have them by tomorrow. I can say the same about Greek mythology. It was easier for me to identify and receive important texts about the cherished tales of the people from India. I have always felt that Americans lacked a certain something in the way of folklore. We have an embarrassment of wealth if we count the stories of the cultures of our melting pot, but we are cut off from the stories of the lands around us, perhaps because to us, the history of these lands began in the 1600s. Before that it was another people's history, a people we don't seem to feel particularly comfortable thinking about. I think that it is a shame to be cut off from the stories of the land, particularly when there are such very good stories. It is a shame not to value native folklore as highly as the folklore of places we may never step foot in. I hope in time I will be able to research and review more of this valuable yet underrepresented folklore to perhaps make it easier for others to find and enjoy the oldest stories of the land they were born in.

But what do you think? Are you familiar with the folklore native to your area? Would Americans benefit from a more formal study of the stories and cultures of its original native peoples? Do you have a favorite native tale to share? Do so in the comments.

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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.

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