The Epic of Gilgamesh, or He Who Saw the Deep

I was just at my local library, searching through whatever caught my fancy. While I did pick up a few books (including the first of Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence, which, incidentally, are quite gorgeous books, and a lot of fun to read), the book which inspired this post was an introduction to Arabic. I have studied Akkadian, the ancient Semitic language of the Babylonians, and was amazed at the similarity in grammar, and even words between the two languages. All this got me thinking about one of my favourite works, and one of the first literary texts of humanity, the Akkadian Epic of Gilgamesh, known as He Who Saw the Deep in antiquity, from its first line. I love this epic; I wrote a paper about it, and presented it at a conference, mostly because it is a subject dear to my heart. Although I have only read it in translation, the beauty of descriptions, the strangeness of its mythology, which connects to the Old Testament, the themes and what one can learn from this work. It is fantastic.

gilgamesh_cylinder

The epic follows Gilgamesh, the half-divine king of Uruk, one of the first cities ever settled (which, by the way, lasted from around 5,000 BC to the first century AD). Gilgamesh is, at first, a tyrant over Uruk’s people, claiming the right of prima nocta, and always fighting with the men. Eventually, the gods create Enkidu, and the pair become friends. Long story short, the two of them kill a demon and a great bull, before the gods punish them. This drives Gilgamesh to wander the land, and finds the edge of the world and meets Ut-Napishtim the immortal, and Gilgamesh thirsts for immortality. In the end, I hate to spoil it, Gilgamesh fails to gain immortality, but instead learns to rejoice in what pleasures mortal life holds.

The poem, as I mentioned, is quite beautiful. My favourite lines of the whole poem are near the start, when Enkidu is fearful of going and slaying the demon; Gilgamesh responds with:

‘Who is there, my friend, can climb to the sky?/ Only the gods dwell forever in sunlight./ As for man, his days are numbered,/ Whatever he may do, is but the wind.’ 

(Note: translations differ, and there are also numerous versions from different tablets; I have chosen the most poetic sounding of all the tablets and translations thereof.)

It’s just so beautiful. The description is wonderful, and, even in translation, still on par with many such expressions of that feeling. As I always tell people, the ancients were pretty great at what they did. It is just such a simple, despairing, and emotive description, ‘it is but the wind.’ I love it. I hope whomever is reading this agrees. The rest of the poem is also pretty great; the battle against the bull; the feast; the description of when Enkidu is struck down by illness. And then, horror of horrors, the worm devouring Enkidu’s flesh! It is brilliantly done. One feels Gilgamesh’s disgust at mortality, and, though at first he desired only the immortality of fame, the reader comes with Gilgamesh in his lust for immortality. And the despair depicted when all is lost, and a snake steals his last hope for life!

‘For whom, Ur-Shanabi, toiled my arms so hard/ for whom ran dry the blood of my hear? Not for myself did I find a bounty’

It goes on. I can’t quote the poem too much, but I hope you see its beauty. There are, also, other great moments. When Ut-Napishtim describes how the gods flooded the world, they starved for the lack of offerings; then, Ut-Napishtim landed his boat and offered a burnt sacrifice to the gods, the poem describes how the gods ‘hovered like flies at a feast.’ It is probably just my modern lenses, but I love the description of the gods as flies at a feast.

There are many other wonderful things about this poem, which I could discuss endlessly. However,  good blog posts are doctoral theses of literary criticism, and so I must draw to a close. I love this poem; its themes are grand, well done, and highly relevant to all, even if we stand some three or four thousand years apart from its creation. The language, at times, is beautiful, and one can truly empathise with Gilgamesh, see his struggle as a struggle for us all, and its lesson of enjoying life, and not pushing always for the unattainable, is interesting, and, perhaps, also relevant. Plus, it is always comforting to see that humanity has struggled with the same problems, and has always found in literature a way of expressing it, confronting it, and overcoming it. I would recommend all read this poem, to see the dawn of literature and the beauty of this epic.

 

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