Gilgamesh: A New English Version
by Stephen Mitchell
Reviewed by Doug Brown
I read Gilgamesh as part of my "classics year" project, to read all those classics I've been meaning to. This work always gave me the impression of being an inaccessible epic, like the tome poems of Homer that go on for hundreds of pages. However, that is not the case. Like Beowulf (I highly recommend Seamus Heaney's translation), Gilgamesh is a short, quick read, with lots of rollicking battles and sex. Part of the shortness comes from the fact that the story is incomplete -- it is known that several books are missing from the original narrative. Hopefully one day those missing sections will surface.
Having only read Stephen Mitchell's version, I can't compare the salaciousness to other translations, but in Mitchell's the sex is right out there with nothing left to the imagination. The world of Gilgamesh is populated with people like the priestesses of the temple of Ishtar, who give their bodies to all comers (no pun intended) in honor of their goddess. Sex, rather than the shameful process our society has made it, was a natural and even sacred act.
When we meet Gilgamesh, he is king and loving it. Loving it a bit too much, as he has become something of a tyrant to his people. The gods see this and create a champion to balance him out: Enkidu. Enkidu is a wild man, running around in the woods with the animals, until Gilgamesh sends one of the priestesses of Ishtar to seduce him. Once Enkidu has had sex, the animals avoid him, so he must leave the forest. There are parallels to the (much later) story of the Fall from the Bible, but here sex is not a shaming act, rather a rite of passage. It is time for Enkidu to enter the world of men, and put away childish things. Sex meant enculturation to the author of Gilgamesh; Enkidu has not lost a greater world, he has gained one. When Enkidu and Gilgamesh meet they wrestle, with Gilgamesh eventually winning. However, given the evenness of the match, the two become best friends (and there are hints that they may have been more than just friends).
For many people Book XI will be particularly interesting, as a man with the unfamiliar name of Utnapishtim tells a very familiar story. He was a king when the head god decided to send a flood to wipe out the world. The gods swore an oath to keep this secret, but one of the gods told Utnapishtim's fence to build a boat and take each type of animal on it, which of course Utnapishtim was intended to overhear. The boat Utnapishtim builds is much larger than Noah's ark, being a square with the deck an acre large, and having seven decks. It rains for a week, and finally the ship runs aground on Mount Nimush. Gilgamesh sends out a dove, which returns. Then he sends a swallow, which returns. Then he sends a raven, which finds a branch to land on and doesn't return. Gilgamesh then sacrifices a sheep to all the gods except the one who sent the flood, who in turn is mad because no one was intended to survive the flood. The gods then get into a very interesting (and very non-Biblical) debate over the wisdom of punishing the entire human race over the sins of a few. Written almost a thousand years before the story of Noah, the Gilgamesh version of the flood legend is much more nuanced. Like a Hollywood remake, the Bible version took the main plot elements but lost the subtleties of the original. The Gilgamesh version is itself a retelling of an already existing flood legend, but Gilgamesh first encoded it in a widely accessible form.
Gilgamesh is a quick read; in the Mitchell version, the text itself is only 130 pages long (and that's poem pages, which read fast). Most of the rest of the book is an introduction/analysis by Mitchell, and almost a hundred pages of endnotes. Mitchell did not directly translate the work himself; he relied on several different verbatim translations, and fleshed those out to make a readable version. In the end notes he often gives the strict literal translation of passages so the reader can compare. As with many stories that were originally orated, Gilgamesh incorporates much use of repetition. Someone will have four dreams, and each dream will begin the same way, or they will travel for seven days, and the story of each day is told using the same phrases. The whole story starts and ends with the walls of Gilgamesh's city Uruk, in bookend fashion. Gilgamesh is a classic that can be taken in without a large time commitment, and the original flood legend alone is worth the price of admission. As with Beowulf, this was not a story intended for marbled halls or the Academy; it was told around campfires and beer halls, where people want to hear about sex, monsters, and fighting. And Gilgamesh provides them all aplenty.