The mid-nineteenth century was a time when very many Western people began to doubt the historical truth of the Bible. Was it really the case that we were all descended from Adam and Eve, whom God created in his own image and placed in a beautiful garden and then, by reason of their sins, banished from there? Did their descendants compound their wickedness, to the point where God decided to drown them all, in a huge flood? And did he, afterward, seeing the destruction he had wrought, make a covenant with the one surviving family, that of Noah, promising that he would never again raise his hand against his creation? “While the earth remaineth,” he decided, according to the King James Bible, “seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.” For many centuries, this story comforted people. Though we might sin, we could hope for God’s mercy, because that’s what he had promised to Noah.
By the early eighteen-hundreds, however, scholars from various young fields—geology, archeology, paleontology—were producing evidence that the earth was much older than anyone had thought, and that human societies had existed long before the dates assigned to the Creation and the Flood. In 1859, Charles Darwin, in his “Origin of Species,” put forth a theory suggesting that human beings might be descended not from Adam and Eve but from lower animals, things with fur. Not surprisingly, such ideas encountered vigorous opposition. Many scientists and scholars redoubled their efforts to find evidence of the truth of the Bible.
Around the time that Darwin was writing his book, a young Londoner, George Smith, who had left school at the age of fourteen and was employed as an engraver of banknotes, became fascinated by reports of artifacts that were being turned up by explorers in what is today Iraq and sent to England. As David Damrosch writes in “The Buried Book” (2007), Smith spent his lunch hours at the British Museum, studying its holdings. The staff eventually noticed him, and, in 1866, the management hired him, to help analyze the tens of thousands of clay shards that had been shipped there years earlier and had been sitting around in the museum’s storage boxes.
The site they came from was Nineveh, an important city in ancient Mesopotamia, and the reason so many tablets had been found in one place was that they were the remains of a renowned library, that of Ashurbanipal, a king of the neo-Assyrian Empire in the seventh century B.C. When the tablets were first dug up, no one could read the curious-looking script, later called cuneiform, in which they were written. Scholars worked on it for decades.
Now George Smith joined the hunt. He studied the shards for around ten years, and it was he who found the most famous passage inscribed on them, an account of a great flood wiping out almost all of humanity, with one man’s family surviving. When he read this, we are told, he became so excited that he jumped out of his chair and ran around the room, tearing off his clothes. This ancient document could support the truth of Genesis, or so it seemed to Smith.
And to others. In 1872, when Smith presented his findings to the Society of Biblical Archaeology, even William Gladstone, the Prime Minister, was in attendance. The discovery became front-page news across Europe and the United States. Soon, London’s Daily Telegraph gave Smith a grant to go to the region to see if he could add to his findings. Within days, he hit pay dirt—a shard that appeared to complete the flood story—and the British Museum financed two further trips for him. On the second of these, he died of dysentery in Aleppo, at the age of thirty-six. He never lived to understand that, in fact, he had not proved the truth of the Old Testament with his clay tablet. (Both flood narratives could have been descended from older sources, quite possibly fictional.) He had done something else, though. He had discovered what was then, and still is, the oldest long poem in the world, “Gilgamesh.”
The poet and scholar Michael Schmidt has just published a wonderful book, “Gilgamesh: The Life of a Poem” (Princeton), which is a kind of journey through the work, an account of its origins and discovery, of the fragmentary state of the text, and of the many scholars and translators who have grappled with its meaning. Schmidt encourages us to see “Gilgamesh” not as a finished, polished composition—a literary epic, like the Aeneid, which is what many people would like it to be—but, rather, something more like life, untidy, ambiguous. Only by reading it that way, he thinks, will we get close to its hard, nubbly heart.
We meet Gilgamesh in the first line. He is the King of Uruk, a splendid, high-walled city in southern Mesopotamia. His mother was a goddess and his father a mortal. Accordingly, he is a fine specimen of a man, eleven cubits (seventeen feet) tall and four cubits from nipple to nipple. He is not an exemplary ruler, however. He wearies the young men of his city in athletic contests, and when they marry he insists on the droit du seigneur: he, not the groom, spends the wedding night with the bride.
The people of Uruk complain to the gods about Gilgamesh’s behavior, and in response the mother goddess, Aruru, pinches off a piece of clay and, from it, fashions a new person, Enkidu, to be a friend to Gilgamesh and distract him from his bad habits. Enkidu is a giant, too, though not as big as Gilgamesh. In the beginning, he is much like an animal. His body is covered with hair. He runs with the gazelles and drinks with them, on all fours, at the water hole. But he has human intelligence; he regularly releases his animal companions from traps. When one of the local trappers objects that Enkidu is interfering with his livelihood, he is instructed to bring a temple prostitute, Shamhat, to the water hole that Enkidu frequents and have her sit at the edge. (There were such beings as temple prostitutes, devotees of local fertility goddesses, in many ancient societies. This was a respected profession.) Enkidu arrives. Shamhat spreads her legs, and he instantly succumbs. With what must be the most robust erection in literature, he engages Shamhat in an uninterrupted act of coitus for six days and seven nights. Then he gets tired, and Shamhat takes him to a shepherds’ encampment. For the first time in his life, he eats bread. He also drinks seven goblets of beer, and he starts to sing. But when he tries to rejoin the gazelles, they shun him. Tragedy thus enters “Gilgamesh.” Through making love with a human being and eating human food, Enkidu has become a man, and nothing will ever be the same for him.
For example, he now has morals. When he hears about Gilgamesh’s exercise of the droit du seigneur, he becomes enraged. He goes to Uruk and draws Gilgamesh into a fight. The door jambs shake, the walls quake, but after a while the two men weary of the quarrel and decide to be friends. Gilgamesh introduces Enkidu to his mother, the goddess Ninsun. She doesn’t like him. Who are his people? she asks. Thus snubbed, Enkidu weeps, and Gilgamesh, to cheer him up, proposes an adventure: the two of them will go to the Forest of Cedar, kill its protector, the monster Humbaba, and harvest some cedar wood for building projects in Uruk.
Humbaba is no ordinary monster. He is like a miasma, or a nightmare. He has seven auras in which he can wrap himself, and which he can send out, as a means of defense. As Gilgamesh and Enkidu approach, he taunts them. “Spawn of a fish,” he calls the fatherless Enkidu. He tells Gilgamesh that forest birds will soon be feasting on his body parts. Though shaking with fear, the two men seize him. Gilgamesh plunges a dirk into his neck. Enkidu rips out his lungs. The auras run away. Then the men cut down several giant cedars, build a raft, and, with Gilgamesh brandishing the head of Humbaba, sail back to Uruk.
Once home, Gilgamesh bathes, puts on clean clothes, and shakes out his long hair. Seeing him, Ishtar, the goddess of love and war, is dazzled, and calls out to him, proposing marriage: “Grant me your fruits, O grant me!” She will give him a chariot of lapis lazuli and gold, she says. His ewes will bear twins; his goats will bear triplets. Gilgamesh responds by inquiring how he would profit from marrying her. You are a brazier that goes out in the cold, he tells her. You are a door that lets in the wind, a palace that collapses on top of its warriors, a water skin that leaks, a shoe that pinches the foot. The men that you loved: what became of them? One you turned into a frog, another into a wolf. No thanks, he says.
Ishtar, greatly insulted, runs up to Heaven, to her father, Anu, and asks to be given the Bull of Heaven, to avenge these insults. Descending to Uruk with the goddess, the formidable beast does serious harm even as it lands. One snort, and the earth opens up; a hundred men fall into it. A second snort, and another pit opens; two hundred men are swallowed up. On the third snort, when the cleft opens, Enkidu falls into it, but only up to his waist (because he is a giant), and he grasps the bull by the horns. It slobbers on Enkidu’s face. It defecates on him. But Gilgamesh stabs it in the neck, and it dies. When Ishtar protests, Enkidu tears off one of the bull’s haunches and throws it at her, saying that he would happily have ripped off her limbs and thrown them at the bull. He and Gilgamesh then wash their hands in the Euphrates and, clasping each other, return in triumph to the palace. “Who is the finest among men?” Gilgamesh asks his serving maids. “Who the most glorious of fellows?”
The triumph is short-lived. That very night, Enkidu has a dream that, to atone for the crime of murdering the Bull of Heaven, one of the two men must die. No one needs to ask which. Enkidu sickens. He starts to complain. Why could he not have died in combat? That way, people would remember him. But then the tablets break off. As Michael Schmidt writes, Enkidu has “some thirty so far silent lines to bid his beloved Gilgamesh good-bye and perish.”
There was a real king called Gilgamesh, it seems. Or, at least, his name appears in a list of kings compiled around 2000 B.C., and he probably lived in the first half of the third millennium B.C. For at least a thousand years after his death, poems were written about him, in various Mesopotamian languages. Then, sometime between 1300 and 1000 B.C., one Sin-leqi-unninni (his name means “The moon god Sin hears my prayers”) collected and edited the stories. We might call Sin-leqi-unninni a scribe or a redactor. According to one scholar, he was also a professional exorcist. What matters is that he pulled together the Gilgamesh poems that he had at hand and, adding this and deleting that, and attaching a beginning and an end, he made a unified literary work, in his language, Akkadian. This composition is what Assyriologists call the Standard Version of “Gilgamesh.” It was incised on eleven tablets, back and front, with roughly three hundred lines on each tablet.
We don’t have a complete copy of Sin-leqi-unninni’s tablets. Through the actions of time, wind, and, above all, war—Nineveh, with Ashurbanipal’s library, was attacked and destroyed by neighboring forces in 612 B.C.—a great deal of the text was lost. Some of the holes can be plugged with material from other Gilgamesh poems, but even once that has been done important sections are missing. Of an estimated thirty-six hundred lines, we have only thirty-two hundred, whole or in part. (Translations often supply ellipses where text is missing, and use italics and brackets to mark varying degrees of conjecture.)
Furthermore, the thing that we are looking at, after the insertions, is a patchwork of texts created at various times and places, in what are often different, if related, languages. One highly respected translation, by Andrew George, a professor of Babylonian at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, gives what remains of Sin-leqi-unninni’s text and then appends the “Pennsylvania tablet”; the “Yale tablet”; the “Nippur school tablet,” in Baghdad; the “fragments from Hattusa” (now Boğazköy, in central Turkey); and so on. Scholars cannot afford to ignore these outliers, because the symbols that constitute cuneiform, up to a thousand of them, changed over the millennium that produced Sin-leqi-unninni’s materials. So the word for “goddess of love and war” on a fragment in Baghdad may be different from its analogue in the vitrines of the British Museum. Indeed, meanings may change in the present as well, as additional discoveries are made. After a new piece came to light in 2015, George wrote that the energetic Enkidu and Shamhat had not one but two weeklong sex acts before repairing to Uruk. The text has no stability. It shifts in your hands.
Also, the text was missing for so long that it is relatively new to us. Schmidt estimates that the Iliad and the Odyssey have been studied by scholars for about a hundred and fifty generations; the Aeneid, for about a hundred; “Gilgamesh,” for only seven or eight. Translators of Homer and Virgil could look back on the work of great predecessors such as Pope and Dryden. Not so with “Gilgamesh.” The first sort-of-complete Western translation was produced at the end of the nineteenth century. I was not taught the poem in school, nor was anyone I know. There is no real tradition for reading it. Modern translators are pretty much on their own.
And they have a special challenge. When, at the conclusion of Tablet 7, Enkidu dies, “Gilgamesh” does not end. On the contrary, something like a new poem begins, in a different key. Before, the two young men were killing monsters and having sex—not such a different plot line from that of a modern action movie. Now, with the death of Enkidu, everything changes. Gilgamesh sends up a great, torn-from-the-gut lament: “O my friend, wild ass on the run, donkey of the uplands, panther of the wild,” may the Forest of Cedar grieve for you, and the pure Euphrates. He calls for his craftsmen—“Forgemaster! [Lapidary!] Coppersmith! Goldsmith!”—and orders Enkidu’s funerary monument: “Your eyebrows shall be of lapis lazuli, your chest of gold.” For six days, Gilgamesh cannot bear to leave his watch over the body. Finally, a maggot falls out of one of Enkidu’s nostrils. (That appalling detail is recorded again and again. The poets knew its power.) Seeing it—and understanding, accordingly, that his friend has truly been turned into matter, into dead meat—Gilgamesh is assailed by a new grief: he, too, must die. This frightens him to his very core, and it becomes the subject of the remainder of the poem. Can he find a way to avoid death?
He flees Uruk and clothes himself in animal skins. First he goes to the mountain where the sun rises and sets. It is guarded by two scorpions. Gilgamesh explains to them that he is seeking Uta-napishti, the one man, he has heard, who became immortal. The scorpions grant him entry to a tunnel that the sun passes through each night. But if he wants to get through it he must outpace the sun. He starts out and, in utter, enfolding darkness, he runs. He can see nothing behind him or ahead of him. This goes on for hours and hours. In the end, he beats the sun narrowly, emerging into a garden where the fruits on the trees are jewels:
A carnelian tree was in fruit,
hung with bunches of grapes, lovely to look on.
A lapis lazuli tree bore foliage,
in full fruit and gorgeous to gaze on.
To me, this is the most dazzling passage in the poem: the engulfing darkness, in which Gilgamesh can see nothing for hours—he is just an organism, in a hole—and then, suddenly, light, color, beautiful globes of purple and red hanging from the trees. God’s world, made for us, or so we thought.
Gilgamesh does not linger in the garden. He at last finds Uta-napishti, the man who gazed on death and survived. Gilgamesh wants to know, How did you do this? Unhelpfully, Uta-napishti explains:
“No one at all sees Death,
no one at all sees the face [of Death,]
no one at all [hears] the voice of Death,
Death so savage, who hacks men down. . . .
Ever the river has risen and brought us the flood,
the mayfly floating on the water.
On the face of the sun its countenance gazes,
then all of a sudden nothing is there!”
“I don’t need a reason—it’s just better if we all kick at the same time, O.K.?”Cartoon by Yael Green
Uta-napishti now tells Gilgamesh the story that made George Smith take off his clothes. We might have done the same, for Uta-napishti’s tale is far more bloodcurdling than the one in the Old Testament. Like Noah, Uta-napishti was warned of the coming catastrophe, and he ordered an ark to be built. The bottom of the hull was one acre in area, with six decks raised on it. (And the vessel seems to have been cube-shaped!) Once the ark was finished, Uta-napishti and his family and all the animals he could lay his hands on, and whatever craftsmen he could summon, boarded the ark. Before he sailed, he gave his palace and all its goods to the shipwright—an ironic gift, since the palace and its goods, and presumably the shipwright, too, would be destroyed the next day. Uta-napishti continues:
“At the very first glimmer of brightening dawn,
there rose from the horizon a dark cloud of black,
and bellowing within it was Adad the Storm God.
The gods Shullat and Hanish were going before him,
bearing his throne over mountain and land.
“The god Errakal was uprooting the mooring-poles,
Ninurta, passing by, made the weirs overflow.
The Anunnaki gods carried torches of fire,
scorching the country with brilliant flashes.
“The stillness of the Storm God passed over the sky,
and all that was bright then turned into darkness.
[He] charged the land like a bull [on the rampage,]
he smashed [it] in pieces [like a vessel of clay.] . . .
“Even the gods took fright at the Deluge,
they left and went up to the heaven of Anu,
lying like dogs curled up in the open.
The goddess cried out like a woman in childbirth.”
These last lines are what everyone quotes. How thrilling they are, with the gods bent over, howling, in the skies and the storm shattering the earth like a clay pot. In the end, the rains stop, and Uta-napishti’s ark, like Noah’s, gets snagged on a mountaintop. He and his fellow-survivors disembark, and re-people the earth.
For suffering this ordeal, Uta-napishti and his wife were granted immortality, but, he suggests, no one but they can live forever. Then he relents and gives Gilgamesh some tests whereby he might cheat death. Gilgamesh fails. (They are silly tests, and he fails in silly ways. The poem is not perfect.) Uta-napishti’s boatman takes Gilgamesh home. When they arrive in Uruk, Gilgamesh tells the boatman to climb Uruk’s city wall:
“Survey its foundations, examine the brickwork!
Were its bricks not fired in an oven?
Did the Seven Sages not lay its foundations?
“A square mile is city, a square mile date grove, a square mile is clay-pit, half a square mile the temple of Ishtar:
three square miles and a half is Uruk’s expanse.”
A few commentators interpret these words as a statement of consolation: we should take comfort in our achievements on earth and accept the inevitability of life’s ending.
With the poem in its present state, however, such a case is hard to make. Having read the lines above, which form the conclusion of Tablet 11, as translated by Andrew George, we turn the page and find not a Tablet 12 but a brief note informing us that what is often presented as the ending of “Gilgamesh”—it describes the conditions of the underworld, where Gilgamesh, after his death, will reign—is not part of the epic at all. According to George, it is a fragment from an older poem, tacked on to supply an ending.
Twelve tablets would have been nice. That is the form of the Aeneid, and the Iliad and the Odyssey are each twenty-four books long. But an eleven-tablet format doesn’t bother George. He proposes that the structure of the poem is 5 + 1 + 5, and sees Tablet 6, in which Gilgamesh and Enkidu return to Uruk after killing Humbaba, as a centerpiece—the manifestation of Gilgamesh at the height of his glory.
I wonder, though. It is surely in Tablet 5, when he kills Humbaba, that Gilgamesh is shown at his noblest. Whereas, in Tablet 6, we get his crudely worded rejection of the infatuated Ishtar and then the slaughter of the Bull of Heaven, which so displeases the gods that they punish Gilgamesh by killing off his beloved Enkidu. The truth, I suspect, is that “Gilgamesh,” as befits something that was buried under a pile of sand for twenty-five hundred years, is simply missing some pieces.
Schmidt, in his book, sort of moseys through the poem, addressing topics as they arise. When the subject of war comes up, he nods at the wars in Iraq, which, beginning in 1990, were being waged when a number of translators of “Gilgamesh” were at work. When the characters are having sex, he discusses Assyrian sex. Did Gilgamesh and Enkidu have a homosexual relationship? He doesn’t think so, but he gives the evidence for and against. He also makes the important point that their friendship is the most tender relationship in the poem. Each night, when the two men are travelling to the Forest of Cedar, Enkidu makes a little house for Gilgamesh to sleep in, and, “like a net, lay himself in the doorway.”
Again and again, Schmidt discusses the translations. You might think that a poem that exists in a pile of broken pieces, in an extremely dead language, would be something that translators would run from in a hurry. The very opposite is the case. Presumably because it is, as Schmidt writes, such an “uncertain, porous” thing, translators are drawn to it. Often they are not, by profession, translators or Assyriologists but just poets. Others are Assyriologists, and, unsurprisingly, not all of them look kindly on people who publish versions of “Gilgamesh” without knowing the language in which it was written. Benjamin Foster, a professor of Assyriology and Babylonian literature at Yale, told an interviewer, “I have no patience with clueless folk who think that they can translate the epic without going to the trouble of mastering Babylonian, though of course they are welcome to retell it.”
Since the mid-twentieth century, there have been, by my count, nearly a score of full-scale translations of “Gilgamesh” into English. The majority of the translators, not to speak of the commentators, have stepped forth from among Foster’s “clueless folk.” What most of these people do is read a literal translation by an expert Assyriologist and then “poeticize” it, pushing it up into verse. Such a procedure should not scandalize anyone in our time. It is, basically, how Ezra Pound wrote his so-called translations of the Chinese poet Li Po, and Auden his versions of the Icelandic Eddas. But with a text so unknown as “Gilgamesh,” so hard for any of us to read, this method certainly raises some questions.
Schmidt doesn’t linger over the questions. He is broadminded. He is a poet, and the thing he is interested in is obtaining poetry, getting the grapes of carnelian truly red and round, getting Uta-napishti’s deathless world appropriately wan and bloodless. Going through the poem tablet by tablet, he stops at his favorite parts and reads to us from various translations. How excited he gets when the men leave for the Forest of Cedar! How ravished he is by the forest’s richness!
A pigeon was cooing, a turtledove answering,
The forest was joyous with the [cry] of the stork,
The forest was lavishly joyous with the francolin’s [lilt].
Mother monkeys kept up their calls, baby monkeys chirruped.
Sometimes Schmidt seems less a literary historian than just a friend, who has come over to our house for the evening, with a bottle, to read us a terrific poem.
He recommends specific translations. He is acutely aware of the age of the poem, and its fragmentary condition, and its authorlessness—“a poem without a poet,” he calls it. The translations he is most wary of are those that try to cover over that strangeness, de-“otherize” the poem, solve its riddles, and thus “free us to be contented literary consumers.” He names names: in England, Nancy K. Sandars (1960); in the United States, Stephen Mitchell (2004). Both, he says, are “guilty as charged,” guilty of producing a poem that tries to convince us that Gilgamesh is our friend down the street, with problems like our own, and speaking the words that we would say. (Or not: in Mitchell’s translation, Gilgamesh, rebuking Ishtar, claims that she implored her father’s gardener, “Sweet Ishullanu, let me suck your rod.” He’s the one she eventually turned into a frog.)
All the same, Schmidt then goes on to suggest that if we haven’t yet read “Gilgamesh” we might as well start with Sandars, to get comfortable with the poem. Next, we should move on to one of the Assyriologists, Foster or George, and find out what the surviving inscriptions actually say. Finally, Schmidt sort of goes wild and sends us to “Dictator: A New Version of the Epic of Gilgamesh” (2018), in which the Belfast-born poet Philip Terry translates the poem into “Globish,” a fifteen-hundred-word vocabulary put together by a former I.B.M. executive, Jean-Paul Nerrière, and published in 2004 as a proposed language for international business, just as Akkadian, the language of “Gilgamesh,” was the lingua franca of Near Eastern commerce in its time. Here, in Globish—with plus signs indicating missing words that Terry apparently doesn’t want to guess at and vertical lines demarcating metrical units—are the trapper’s instructions to Shamhat for seducing Enkidu:
“Here be | the man | party | girl get | ready | for a | kiss + + +
Open | you leg | show WILD | MAN you | love box
Hold no | thing back | make he | breathe hard . . .
Then he | will come | close to | take a | look + + +
Take off | you skirt | so he | can . . . | screw you.”
I think Schmidt is having a little fun with us here, and that he has read too many “Gilgamesh” translations. My own recommendation would be the same as his for the first two stops—Sandars, to get comfortable, and, after that, one of the Assyriologists, to get uncomfortable. Then I might go to “Gilgamesh Retold” (2018), by the Anglo-Welsh poet Jenny Lewis, who teaches at Oxford. Lewis’s version is very musical, with rhymes and chimes and shifting meters. It can be blunt. Its account of the murder of Humbaba is the nastiest I know. Yet her translation is also the most tender, the most tragic—the one, I think, that might be recommended by feminist scholars. When Enkidu meets Shamhat at the water hole, there is no talk of love boxes. Enkidu strokes her thighs; he sings to her. Likewise, when, as a result of his commerce with human beings, Enkidu loses his kinship with the animals, that melancholy fact is given its due:
Far away, under the forest’s boughs
A small gazelle still searched for him in vain
And others sniffed the air to catch his scent
But there was nothing carried on the wind
And in his mind no thought of them was left.
But I have a bizarre proposal: it would not be a bad idea, in approaching “Gilgamesh,” to start with Michael Schmidt’s book. Yes, it is a commentary, not an end-to-end translation, but it includes a lot of translated passages—the best ones, needless to say. And Schmidt’s argument for the poem as poetry, in the modern sense—concrete, unglazed, tough on the mind—is touching and persuasive. I read the book spellbound, in one sitting. (Like “Gilgamesh,” it is short, less than two hundred pages.)
Schmidt has emotions about these ancient tablets. When you handle one, he tells us, “especially the apprentice copyists’ tablets that fit in the palm, almost as if we were shaking hands with the original scribe, the sensation of living contact can be intense. The fine-grained river mud was rolled and patted into shape, sliced, lifted to the eye and, in dazzling sunlight of a scribal courtyard, under supervision, the cuneiform figures were incised.”
He sees the tablets again as, thousands of years later, various underpaid people sat in the British Museum, year after year, trying to figure out what they said. In George Smith’s time, the museum lacked not only electrical light, but gaslight as well. (The management was afraid of fire.) Some of the higher-up staff had lanterns, but George Smith was not a higher-up. If it was a foggy day and the windows did not admit enough light to read by, he had to go home. On other days, though, he was at his post. “With devotion and patient application,” Schmidt writes, these scholars “deciphered the languages, finding human voices in the clay, and a king terrified of dying came back to the long half-life of poetry.” ♦