Conversations with Gilgamesh

Benjamin Gibson 18 August 2020
Image Credit: Penguin Books Australia

Almost five thousand years ago, as the rocks of Stonehenge were being raised on Salisbury Plain, and before the first stones of Khufu’s Pyramid were cut from the earth, a king named Gilgamesh ruled in the city of Uruk. That city is gone now. Round its decay, the lone and level sands stretch far away. Amidst the desolation, a handful of stories remain. One stands above the others – an overflowing tale of high adventure, mighty deeds, divine mischief and terrible monsters. But also, of love, friendship, grief, and mankind’s relationship with the natural world; of fearing death, and anxiety about the legacies we leave behind. Themes that are as eternal today as they were that eternity ago burn in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the world’s oldest great work of literature.

For all this, Gilgamesh does not, as a rule, hold the same position in our cultural consciousness as the other epics of the ancient world. Even if they had never so much as turned over its first page, most people, when asked, might be able to tell you that the Iliad is set during the siege of Troy. They might recognise the name Achilles. And were their only source Andrew Lloyd Webber, they might be able to name a Biblical son of Jacob.

By contrast, Gilgamesh may require some introduction. The story of the king of Uruk – of how he cut down the trees of the Cedar Forest, defied the goddess Ishtar and crossed the Sea in search of immortality – has not, unlike those other ancient stories, laid roots in our general cultural awareness.

The blame for this lies at the feet of the twisting path by which the epic has come down to us. Once, there was indeed a king named Gilgamesh in Uruk. That city then stood in Mesopotamia, on the banks of the Euphrates, in what can now be much less poetically described as southern Iraq. Gilgamesh won his fame by raising for his city a great defensive wall.

Fame flowed into greater fame like tributaries to a river. By 2500 BC his people had deified him, and all manner of tales and adventures had attached themselves to his name. From about 2100 BC, these stories began to be written down, culminating, in a sense, with a version carved onto twelve tablets by a scribe named Sîn-lēqi-unninni in about 1200 BC. The epic had, by this time, attained the shape, scope and themes by which we commonly know it today. Widely translated in its age, it was blown to the corners of the Near East and beyond. Four copies were kept in the great Library of King Ashurbanipal at Nineveh, the Assyrian capital. But time marched on, and the sands grew; empires rose and empires fell. Nineveh was lost, and Uruk abandoned. Gilgamesh, who had sought eternal life, was laid to rest at last.

However, as H. P. Lovecraft put it in wildly different circumstances, ‘that is not dead which can eternal lie’. And so it was that in 1853, when Assyriologists Austen Henry Layard and Hormuzd Rassam brought their trowels and 19th century spirit of prodding around to Nineveh’s remains, they unearthed the mound of Ashurbanipal’s palace and library. Thousands of the clay tablets within, which Layard and Rassam were unable to translate, were shipped back to the British Museum.

They stayed there, untranslated, until 1872. It was then that George Smith, a precocious, self-taught student of Assyria, set to deciphering the cuneiform script and discovered on one of the tablets a tale of the Great Flood which seemed to pre-date the Hebrew Bible. In the ensuing flutter of publicity came funding for further archaeological expeditions, further discoveries, further scholarship. And from all this the dust was blown from the face of the complete story at last, so long forgotten below the earth.

The tale Smith found unfurls over an uneasy king and a tyrannised city. First, Gilgamesh must learn how to live, what to do with the restless energy that rules him and oppresses his people. The gods send him Enkidu, a wild man, to be his companion. In the uncertain flush of youth, determined to secure a legacy for themselves, they travel to the fabled Land of the Cedar Trees and slay the giant who keeps watch there. But eventually they trespass too far. The gods strike Enkidu down in retribution, and Gilgamesh is left bereft. Not only has his best friend been torn from him, but he sees in Enkidu’s end the fate he too will one day share. His words will fork no lightning; his works are dust in the wind. Now, Gilgamesh must learn how to die.

He sets off to roam the wilderness in search of his ancestor, Utnapishtim the Faraway, the only mortal man to have found eternal life. For uncounted days he travels; he passes through the mountains which hold up the heavens and walks the path the sun travels by night. He comes to the land beyond the meeting of the rivers, and he crosses the Sea. There he finds Utnapishtim, in the ease of eternity, and is told a story of a great flood, and an ark built to hold all the animals of the Earth. He is set a challenge to see if he is worthy of immortality – but Gilgamesh, old now, and tired, fails at the last. All that is left for him is to return home, empty handed and without pomp, to meet death with uncertainty in his heart.

The Western world has spent two and a half thousand years in conversation with Homer; two thousand with Virgil. Its dialogue with Gilgamesh, however, is marked by a glaring, two millennium long lacuna. The stories of Greece, Rome and Israel have for so long been our stories. Throughout the ages we have used them, mined them, reworked them, made a point of disregarding them. The Gilgamesh epic, on the other hand, is defined by silence. The connection between us and the king of Uruk has been obscured, like a line scuffed out in the dirt. The roots it laid down those long years ago were torn from the ground, and the story is only beginning to recover.

There are faint traces left. The epic was popular and widespread enough in its own time that notes of Gilgamesh have been sniffed out in Homer, the Arabian Nights, and even the epics of India. Once, he too spoke and was spoken to. Then he fell silent. The only known mention of the name Gilgamesh for that span of 2,000 years comes as the lightest of passages in the Roman author Aelian’s De natura animalium, from around the start of the 3rd century AD, as part of a series of anecdotes illustrating the kindness of animals.

Even after the Library of Ashurbanipal was uncovered, it took decades before the epic was appreciated in its own right as a work of literature. Initially, discussion both scholarly and popular raged almost entirely around its eleventh tablet, the tale of the Great Flood. The Chaldean Account of the Deluge was the title by which George Smith first referred to the epic and his 1872 talk of that name to the Society of Biblical Archaeology in London caused such a stir that soon the popular press began to clamour after each new fragment translated. The ensuing controversy over the implications for the Hebrew Bible, pithily dubbed the battle of ‘Babel und Bibel’ by the German press, trampled most other approaches to the text for several decades.

Only in the years following the Second World War did Gilgamesh find widespread popular translation, reception, and adaptation. Simultaneously the newest and oldest of the canon of world classics, Gilgamesh’s ambiguous status led to his adoption by artists on the fringes – cult writers, experimental poets and avant-garde composers. Its existential themes made it a natural fit for those coming to terms with the wreckage of war, especially in Germany. There, Hans Heny Jahn drew heavily on Gilgamesh in his 1949 magnum opus, the strange and sprawling trilogy Fluß ohne Ufer (‘River without Banks’).

Meanwhile, American poet Charles Olson was Gilgamesh’s greatest post-war advocate in the New World. In poems such as La Chute and Bigmans, he reworked passages of the epic in an attempt to reach over the head of 2,500 years defined by what he called a ‘consciousness of history’ and get back at the ‘origins’ of ancient Sumeria. For literary outsiders like Olson, Gilgamesh’s silence became an asset, a means to recover from an estrangement they felt from a fractured contemporary world.

Social outsiders too. From the 1960s onwards, the love between Enkidu and Gilgamesh proved such a point identification for the gay community that, after it was passed over for inclusion in most other major anthologies, the Epic of Gilgamesh found a home in the Columbia Anthology of Gay Literature.

At time of writing, Gilgamesh has met Doctor Who, and appeared in Star Trek and Marvel Comics. He has been used to explore growing anxieties about mankind’s place in nature, such as in a 1954 BBC radio adaptation which explicitly framed the battle in the Cedar Forest in terms of man’s conquest of the natural world (‘and there were no more battles like that one till Franklin began to fly his kite, and Faraday ran rings around an iron core…’). He has even found expression in a novel by Saddam Hussein. Though still largely a cult figure, Gilgamesh has never been so popular, so diverse, so widely read and relevant. Not in all his long millennia has he spoken to so many people as he does today.

Most immediately of all, after thousands of years of silence, Gilgamesh spoke to me. The emotions of the epic roar like a swelling tide, its hero’s fears and grief and anger and passions spill over and constrain in a way which grips at the reader’s own heart. It is a story which shouts everything it is to be human to the sky. I found myself moved by moments such as Gilgamesh’s cry to heaven before setting out to the land of the cedar trees, when, overcome with despair and restless, aimless passion, he cries out to the sun god with tears in his eyes: ‘I am going to that country, O Shamash, I am going…If this task is not to be accomplished, why did you move me, Shamash, with the restless desire to perform it?’.

Similarly moving is Gilgamesh’s return from the land of Utnapishtim, which reads like a sad, quiet breath out upon arriving home. It’s the feeling of pulling the car into the drive at night after a long journey. Having failed in his search for immortality, and accompanied by Urshanabi the ferryman, he arrives before Uruk and sees afresh the city whose walls he constructed; sees what his legacy will be. With a quiet pride, he describes the city to his companion: its walls of burnt bricks, its foundations laid by seven wise men. ’This, too’ the story ends as it began, ‘was the work of Gilgamesh’.

Death comes for Gilgamesh in the end. If he died a second death when that story was lost beneath the ground, then Gilgamesh has made a sudden and remarkable recovery since, a recovery which speaks to the immortality of the themes he personifies. In our own search for purpose, meaning, and resolution, he has left us his words, just as he in his own search is left with the words of Siduri the innkeeper on the banks of the sea: ‘As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child that holds your hand and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man’.