25 Women to Read Before You Die

Special Offers see all

Enter to WIN a $100 Credit

Subscribe to PowellsBooks.news
for a chance to win.
Privacy Policy

Visit our stores

Original Essays

Discovering Gilgamesh

by Stephen Mitchell
  1. Gilgamesh: A New English Version
    $12.50 Used Hardcover add to wishlist

  2. The Book of Job
    $3.50 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist

    The Book of Job

    Stephen Mitchell

  3. Tao Te Ching: A New English Version, with Forword and Notes (Perennial Classics)
    $6.95 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist

  4. Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation
    $7.98 Sale Trade Paper add to wishlist

Though I'd loved Gilgamesh for twenty years or so, my experience of reading it in English had always been disappointing. The story itself was thrilling, with its huge uninhibited mythic presences moving through a landscape of dream: the tyrannical giant Gilgamesh; his double, the naked wild man Enkidu, created specifically to balance the hero's manic energies; Shamhat, the priestess of Ishtar, whose mission is to civilize Enkidu between her thighs; and the rest. Yet the language of the four or five translations I owned didn't begin to match the power of the story. In fact, they seemed dull to me — so dull that I often gave up halfway through the epic. I kept hoping for a version to appear that was an exciting poem in English. But it never did.

Then, one afternoon in March, 2003, during a nine-day visit to the Joshua Tree desert in southern California, after picking up yet another scholarly edition, I had an odd experience. Ten lines into the translation, I felt I was hearing through what I was reading; in a kind of stereophonic intuition, while hearing the literal translation in one ear1, in the other ear I heard a line that gave me goosebumps: Climb the stone staircase, more ancient than the mind can imagine. At that moment, I knew two things: that I could translate Gilgamesh, and that I would translate it. In a sense, the whole work had already been completed in that one line. I felt that in it I had found a living voice for the poem: words that were lithe and muscular enough to match the power of the story.

I was exhilarated, but also a bit puzzled at the choice that seemed to have been made for me. Of course, the fact that Gilgamesh is the first masterpiece of world literature — a thousand years older than the Bible or The Iliad — is reason enough to be interested in it. But I have always been attracted to wisdom texts like The Book of Job, the Tao Te Ching, and the Bhagavad Gita. And my question at that moment was: What wisdom is there in this book, with all its rawness, violence, and unabashed, testosterone-flooded male heroics? A friend of mine, in an email, said that it is "a wisdom book that is unaware it's a wisdom book." By the time I got around to asking him what he meant, he had forgotten. So I chewed on the remark as I worked; it was a kind of Zen koan for me. In the end, finding the wisdom of Gilgamesh turned out to be as exciting as creating an authentic language for it. (If you're curious about these discoveries, you may want to read the introductory essay in my book.)

People have asked me what interested me most as I worked on the book. There were many things, of course, because a masterpiece is a mirror that shows us who we are. And it's fascinating to immerse yourself in a culture that is so much older than our own. As a culture, we don't know any more about the human heart than the ancient Babylonians did; perhaps we know less. For one thing, there seems to be, in Gilgamesh, a balance about sexuality that we no longer have. Sex is seen as a civilizing event rather than as something dangerous to the social order. In Book I, there is a terrific, very steamy scene in which Enkidu is seduced by Shamhat. Enkidu's erection last for seven days, and the lovemaking is how Enkidu comes to know himself as a human being. When Shamhat invites Enkidu to come to the great city, she says,

"Come," said Shamhat, "let us go to Uruk,
I will lead you to Gilgamesh the mighty king.
You will see the great city with its massive wall,
you will see the young men dressed in their splendor,
in the finest linen and embroidered wool,
brilliantly colored, with fringed shawls and wide belts.
Every day is a festival in Uruk,
with people singing and dancing in the streets,
musicians playing their lyres and drums,
the lovely priestesses standing before
the temple of Ishtar, chatting and laughing,
flushed with sexual joy, and ready
to serve men's pleasure, in honor of the goddess,
so that even old men are aroused from their beds.

It is the lovely, joyful priestesses, themselves gratified in the act of gratification, who light up the poet's portrait of the city. Their laughter and sexual glow is for him one of the principal glories of civilization.

It was also fascinating to see the parallel between Gilgamesh's mission to kill the monster in the epic and current the war in Iraq (hard to miss, really, especially since the epic was written in ancient Iraq). "Now we must travel to the Cedar Forest," Gilgamesh says,

"where the fierce monster Humbaba lives.
We must kill him and drive out evil from the world."

If you substitute "Baghdad" for "Cedar Forest" and "Saddam Hussein" for "Humbaba," you're standing inside the mind of George W. Bush. From this perspective, Gilgamesh's action is the original preemptive attack. But once the monster is killed, things go drastically wrong. Gilgamesh learns, to his great sorrow, that violent acts have unforeseen consequences, even if they are done with the noblest of motives, and that it is the height of arrogance to think that you know what's best for the world. The poet doesn't see the world in terms of black and white, good and evil. Unlike Grendel in Beowulf, Humbaba is not seen as the enemy of God; there is no devil or negative metaphysical force in the poet's cosmology for him to be an instrument of. The gods wanted him to be where he was; it was his job to terrify human beings away from the Cedar Forest, where they have no right to intrude. When he pleads for mercy, he actually becomes a sympathetic, slightly comic character. I love it that in this heroic poem we aren't meant to be on the side of the hero.

It also fascinated me that the first great friendship in literature — a thousand years before David and Jonathan or Achilles and Patroclus — is so obviously homoerotic. Even before he meets Enkidu, Gilgamesh dreams of him in an image of great physical tenderness. A boulder falls from the sky; at first it is too heavy to budge, then it becomes the beloved in his arms, stone turning to warm flesh through the power of the metaphor. Gilgamesh's mother, in interpreting the dream, says that that is indeed how it will be, that the boulder

"stands for a dear friend, a mighty hero.
You will take him in your arms, embrace and caress him
the way a man caresses his wife."

When Enkidu arrives in the city of Uruk, he challenges Gilgamesh; their combat is an entrance into intimacy, and as close to lovemaking as to violence.

Gilgamesh, raging,
stepped up and seized him, huge arms gripped
huge arms, foreheads crashed like wild bulls,
the two men staggered, they pitched against houses,
the doorposts trembled, the outer walls shook,
they careened through the streets, they grappled each other,
limbs intertwined, each huge body
straining to break free from the other's embrace.

The poem comes just short of stating that the relationship is sexual; but in a few lines in Tablet XII — a separate poem appended to the epic — the genital sexuality is explicit. Our clearest insight into the love between the two men is the intensity of Gilgamesh's grief after Enkidu dies. He veils his dead friend's face "like a bride's," and gives voice to his desolation in a long, exquisitely beautiful elegy, then leaves his kingdom to embark on a futile search for immortality. Everything about the friendship implies an intimacy and an intensity that make it one of the most passionate relationships in world literature.

But, of course, what most fascinated me was the process of translation, or rather adaptation. I don't read cuneiform and have no knowledge of Akkadian; for the meaning of the text, I depended on literal translations by seven scholars, and am particularly indebted to A. R. George's great two-volume edition of the original texts. What was most important was tuning the verse, a four-beat, non-iambic, non-alliterative line (used by T. S. Eliot in parts of Four Quartets), so that it was rhythmically fresh in every line and, in addition to the dignity of formal verse, had the naturalness and suppleness of spoken English. When possible, I kept fairly close to the literal meaning; when necessary, I was much freer. I also filled in the many gaps in the text; I changed images that were unclear; I added lines when the drama of the situation called for elaboration, or when passages ended abruptly and needed transitions; I cut out a number of fragmentary passages; and when the text was garbled, I occasionally changed the order of passages. While I tried to be faithful to the spirit of the text, I was often as free with the letter of it as the ancient Babylonian poet was with his material.

For example, a literal version of the passage quoted above — that one that begins "'Come,' said Shamhat, 'let us go to Uruk'" — might read as follows:

"Let him see your face, I will lead you to Gilgamesh, I know where he will be. Come, Enkidu, to Uruk-the-Sheepfold, where the young men are girt with waistbands. Every day a festival is held, the lyre and drum are played, the harim?ti [a term we have no English equivalent for; something like "sacred prostitutes"] stand around, lovely, laughing, filled with sexual joy."

You can see how far from the literal I felt I needed to go. I hope that you'll also see (or rather hear) how the passage has come alive.

Here's another example, a passage from the beginning of Book I, which describes the people's response to Gilgamesh's tyranny. Literally, the passage might read:

"The people took their complaint before the gods: 'Powerful, preeminent, expert, Gilgamesh does not leave a girl to her bridegroom, the warrior's daughter, the young man's bride.' The goddesses kept hearing their complaints. The gods of heaven, the lords who command, said to Anu, 'You have created an arrogant wild bull in Uruk-the-Sheepfold, he has no equal who can raise a weapon against him, his companions are always ready to obey his orders, he oppresses the young men, he does not leave a son to his father, day and night his violence grows worse. Yet he is the shepherd of Uruk-the-Sheepfold, Gilgamesh, who guides the teeming people, he is their shepherd and their guide, powerful, preeminent, expert. Gilgamesh does not leave a girl to her bridegroom — the warrior's daughter, the young man's bride.'"

And here is my version:

But the people of Uruk cried out to heaven,
and their lamentation was heard, the gods
are not unfeeling, their hearts were touched,
they went to Anu, father of them all,
protector of the realm of sacred Uruk,
and spoke to him on the people's behalf:
"Heavenly Father, Gilgamesh —
noble as he is, splendid as he is —
has exceeded all bounds. The people suffer
from his tyranny, the people cry out
that he takes the son from his father and crushes him,
takes the girl from her mother and uses her,
the warrior's daughter, the young man's bride,
he uses her, no one dares to oppose him.
Is this how you want your king to rule?
Should a shepherd savage his own flock? Father,
do something, quickly, before the people
overwhelm heaven with their heartrending cries."

If I have succeeded with my Gilgamesh, readers will discover that, rather than standing before an antiquity in a glass case, they have entered a literary masterpiece that is as startlingly alive today as it was three and a half millennia ago.

1 "Take hold of the threshold stone-it dates from earliest times!" (Kovacs); "Mount the stone stairway, there from days of old" (Foster); "Take the threshold, which is from time immemorial" (Dalley); "Touch the stone threshold, which is ancient" (Gardner & Maier); "Touch the threshold, it is ancient" (Sandars); "Take the stairway of a bygone era" (George). spacer

  • back to top


Powell's City of Books is an independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon, that fills a whole city block with more than a million new, used, and out of print books. Shop those shelves — plus literally millions more books, DVDs, and gifts — here at Powells.com.