Gilgamesh

gilgamesh

A New English Version

Free Press 2004

Editor’s Choice, New York Times Book Review.

A literary event—a brilliant new rendering of the oldest epic in the world by esteemed translator and bestselling author Stephen Mitchell.

Although Gilgamesh is considered one of the masterpieces of world literature, and although there have been competent scholarly translations of it, until now there has not been a version that is a superlative literary text in its own right. Stephen Mitchell’s lithe, muscular rendering allows us to enter an ancient masterpiece as if for the first time, to see how startlingly beautiful, intelligent, and alive it is. His insightful introduction provides a historical, spiritual, and cultural context for this ancient epic, showing that Gilgamesh is more potent and fascinating than ever.

Gilgamesh dates from as early as 1700 BCE – a thousand years before the Iliad. Lost for almost two millennia, the eleven clay tables on which the epic was inscribed were discovered in 1853 in the ruins of Nineveh, and the text was not deciphered and fully translated until the end of the century. When the great poet Rilke first read Gilgamesh in 1916, he was awestruck. “Gilgamesh is stupendous,” he wrote. “I consider it to be among the greatest things that can happen to a person.”

The epic is the story of literature’s first hero—the king of Uruk in what is present-day Iraq—and his journey of self-discovery. Along the way, Gilgamesh discovers that friendship can bring peace to a whole city, that a preemptive attack on a monster may have dire consequences, and that wisdom can be found only when the quest for it is abandoned. In giving voice to grief and the fear of death, perhaps more powerfully than any book written after it, in portraying love and vulnerability and the ego’s hopeless striving for immortality, the epic has become a personal testimony for millions of readers in dozens of languages.

Excerpt


PROLOGUE

He had seen everything, had experienced all emotions,
from exaltation to despair, had been granted a vision
into the great mystery, the secret places,
the primeval days before the Flood. He had journeyed
to the edge of the world and made his way back, exhausted
but whole. He had carved his trials on stone tablets,
had restored the holy Eanna Temple and the massive
wall of Uruk, which no city on earth can equal.
See how its ramparts gleam like copper in the sun.
Climb the stone staircase, more ancient than the mind can imagine,
approach the Eanna Temple, sacred to Ishtar,
a temple that no king has equaled in size or beauty,
walk on the wall of Uruk, follow its course
around the city, inspect its mighty foundations,
examine its brickwork, how masterfully it is built,
observe the land it encloses: the palm trees, the gardens,
the orchards, the glorious palaces and temples, the shops
and marketplaces, the houses, the public squares.
Find the cornerstone and under it the copper box
that is marked with his name. Unlock it. Open the lid.
Take out the tablet of lapis lazuli. Read
how Gilgamesh suffered all and accomplished all.

 

BOOK I

Surpassing all kings, powerful and tall
beyond all others, violent, splendid,
a wild bull of a man, unvanquished leader,
hero in the front lines, beloved by his soldiers —
fortress they called him, protector of the people,
raging flood that destroys all defenses

two-thirds divine and one-third human,
son of King Lugalbanda, who became
a god, and of the goddess Ninsun,
he opened the mountain passes, dug wells
on the slopes, crossed the vast ocean, sailed
to the rising sun, journeyed to the edge
of the world, in search of eternal life,
and once he found Utnapishtim — the man
who survived the Great Flood and was made immortal —
he brought back the ancient, forgotten rites,
restoring the temples that the Flood had destroyed,
renewing the statutes and sacraments
for the welfare of the people and the sacred land.
Who is like Gilgamesh? What other king
has inspired such awe? Who else can say,
“I alone rule, supreme among mankind”?
The goddess Aruru, mother of creation,
had designed his body, had made him the strongest
of men — huge, handsome, radiant, perfect.

The city is his possession, he struts
through it, arrogant, his head raised high,
trampling its citizens like a wild bull.
He is king, he does whatever he wants,
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.
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.”

Anu heard them, he nodded his head,
then to the goddess, mother of creation,
he called out: “Aruru, you are the one
who created humans. Now go and create
a double for Gilgamesh, his second self,
a man who equals his strength and courage,
a man who equals his stormy heart.
Create a new hero, let them balance each other
perfectly, so that Uruk has peace.”

When Aruru heard this, she closed her eyes,
and what Anu had commanded she formed in her mind.
She moistened her hands, she pinched off some clay,
she threw it into the wilderness,
kneaded it, shaped it to her idea,
and fashioned a man, a warrior, a hero:
Enkidu the brave, as powerful and fierce
as the war god Ninurta. Hair covered his body,
hair grew thick on his head and hung
down to his waist, like a woman’s hair.
He roamed all over the wilderness,
naked, far from the cities of men,
ate grass with gazelles, and when he was thirsty
he drank clear water from the waterholes,
kneeling beside the antelope and deer.

One day, a human — a trapper — saw him
drinking with the animals at a waterhole.
The trapper’s heart pounded, his face went white,
his legs shook, he was numb with terror.
The same thing happened a second, a third day.
Fear gripped his belly, he looked drained and haggard
like someone who has been on a long, hard journey.

He went to his father. “Father, I have seen
a savage man at the waterhole.
He must be the strongest man in the world,
with muscles like rock. I have seen him outrun
the swiftest animals. He lives among them,
eats grass with gazelles, and when he is thirsty
he drinks clear water from the waterholes.
I haven’t approached him — I am too afraid.
He fills in the pits I have dug, he tears out
the traps I have set, he frees the animals,
and I can catch nothing. My livelihood is gone.”

“Son, in Uruk there lives a man
named Gilgamesh. He is king of that city
and the strongest man in the world, they say,
with muscles like rock. Go now to Uruk,
go to Gilgamesh, tell him what happened,
then follow his advice. He will know what to do.”

He made the journey, he stood before
Gilgamesh in the center of Uruk,
he told him about the savage man.
The king said, “Go to the temple of Ishtar,
ask them there for a woman named Shamhat,
one of the priestesses who give their bodies
to any man, in honor of the goddess.
Take her into the wilderness.
When the animals are drinking at the waterhole,
tell her to strip off her robe and lie there
naked, ready, with her legs apart.
The wild man will approach. Let her use her love-arts.
Nature will take its course, and then
the animals who knew him in the wilderness
will be bewildered, and will leave him forever.”

The trapper found Shamhat, Ishtar’s priestess,
and they went off into the wilderness.
For three days they walked. On the third day
they reached the waterhole. There they waited.
For two days they sat as the animals came
to drink clear water. Early in the morning
of the third day, Enkidu came and knelt down
to drink clear water with the antelope and deer.
They looked in amazement. The man was huge
and beautiful. Deep in Shamhat’s loins
desire stirred. Her breath quickened
as she stared at this primordial being.
“Look,” the trapper said, “there he is.
Now use your love-arts. Strip off your robe
and lie here naked, with your legs apart.
Stir up his lust when he approaches,
touch him, excite him, take his breath
with your kisses, show him what a woman is.
The animals who knew him in the wilderness
will be bewildered, and will leave him forever.”

She stripped off her robe and lay there naked,
with her legs apart, touching herself.
Enkidu saw her and warily approached.
He sniffed the air. He gazed at her body.
He drew close, Shamhat touched him on the thigh,
touched his penis, and put him inside her.
She used her love-arts, she took his breath
with her kisses, held nothing back, and showed him
what a woman is. For seven days
he stayed erect and made love to her,
until he had had enough. At last
he stood up and walked toward the waterhole
to rejoin his animals. But the gazelles
saw him and scattered, the antelope and deer
bounded away. He tried to catch up,
but his body was exhausted, his life-force was spent,
his knees trembled, he could no longer run
like an animal, as he had before.
He turned back to Shamhat, and as he walked
he knew that his mind had somehow grown larger,
he knew things now that an animal can’t know.

Enkidu sat down at Shamhat’s feet.
He looked at her, and he understood
all the words she was speaking to him.
“Now, Enkidu, you know what it is
to be with a woman, to unite with her.
You are beautiful, you are like a god.
Why should you roam the wilderness
and live like an animal? Let me take you
to great-walled Uruk, to the temple of Ishtar,
to the palace of Gilgamesh the mighty king,
who in his arrogance oppresses the people,
trampling upon them like a wild bull.”

She finished, and Enkidu nodded his head.
Deep in his heart he felt something stir,
a longing he had never known before,
the longing for a true friend. Enkidu said,
“I will go, Shamhat. Take me with you
to great-walled Uruk, to the temple of Ishtar,
to the palace of Gilgamesh the mighty king.
I will challenge him. I will shout to his face:
I am the mightiest! I am the man
who can make the world tremble! I am supreme!’”

“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.
You who are still so ignorant of life,
I will show you Gilgamesh the mighty king,
the hero destined for both joy and grief.
You will stand before him and gaze with wonder,
you will see how handsome, how virile he is,
how his body pulses with erotic power.
He is even taller and stronger than you —
so full of life-force that he needs no sleep.
Enkidu, put aside your aggression.
Shamash, the sun god, loves him, and his mind
has been made large by Anu, father of the gods,
made large by Enlil, the god of earth,
and by Ea, the god of water and wisdom.
Even before you came down from the hills,
you had come to Gilgamesh in a dream.”
And she told Enkidu what she had heard.
“He went to his mother, the goddess Ninsun,
and asked her to interpret the dream.
‘I saw a bright star, it shot across
the morning sky, it fell at my feet
and lay before me like a huge boulder.
I tried to lift it, but it was too heavy.
I tried to move it, but it would not budge.
A crowd of people gathered around me,
the people of Uruk pressed in to see it,
like a little baby they kissed its feet.
This boulder, this star that had fallen to earth —
I took it in my arms, I embraced and caressed it
the way a man caresses his wife.
Then I took it and laid it before you. You told me
that it was my double, my second self.’
The mother of Gilgamesh, Lady Ninsun,
the wise, the all-knowing, said to her son,
‘Dearest child, this bright star from heaven,
this huge boulder that you could not lift —
it 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.
He will be your double, your second self,
a man who is loyal, who will stand at your side
through the greatest dangers. Soon you will meet him,
the companion of your heart. Your dream has said so.’
Gilgamesh said, ‘May the dream come true.
May the true friend appear, the true companion,
who through every danger will stand at my side.’”

When Shamhat had finished speaking, Enkidu
turned to her, and again they made love.

Reviews


Finalist, First Annual Quill Award in Poetry.

Selected as the Book Sense “2004 Highlight” for Poetry.

Holiday recommendation on NPR’s “All Things Considered.”

Stephen Mitchell’s Gilgamesh is a wonderful version. It is as eloquent and nuanced as his translations of Rilke. This is certainly the best that I have seen in English.
—Harold Bloom

Reading Stephen Mitchell’s marvelously clear and vivid rendering makes me feel that I am encountering Gilgamesh for the first time.
—Elaine Pagels, Harrington Professor of Religion, Princeton University, author of The Gnostic Gospels

“It was a revelation. The translation is superb.”
—Harold Pinter

Here is the wisdom and lyrical beauty of yore rendered, offered us anew, by a distinguished, ever-so-knowing translator and poet who has given so many of us a wondrous education these past years. Mitchell connects us to treasures of the past brought alive by his broad and deep sensibility
—Robert Coles, James Agee Professor of Social Ethics, Harvard University

Stephen Mitchell’s fresh new rendition of mankind’s oldest recorded myth is quite wonderful in its limpidity and the immediacy of its live emotions.
—Peter Matthiessen, author of At Play in the Fields of the Lord and The Snow Leopard

Freshly rendered by translator Mitchell, this ancient tale of a cocky ruler’s collision with his own mortality is beautifully retold and a page-turner in the bargain. Like Seamus Heaney’s recent retelling of Beowulf, this book proves that in the right hands, no great story ever grows stale.
—Newsweek

A very readable version in stately verse, printed in a beautiful format…. Mitchell’s version can be warmly recommended. He retains just enough of the strangeness of the original and its robust imagery to capture its essence, and by smoothing the fragments into a coherent narrative he highlights the work’s essential themes.
—Washington Post

Here is a flowing, unbroken version that reads as effortlessly as a novel, where despite the alien landscape of gods and monsters we can discover startlingly familiar hopes, fears and lusts. To Mitchell, who for years has reinvented canonical texts of world literature with an intrepid vigor befitting his hero, this is precisely the point. He believes literary greatness rests in what texts can teach us about ourselves, and he cracks open the lessons in Gilgamesh by rebuilding its clay fragments into a poem easy on the eyes and the transcultural imagination… The result is a quintessentially American version of the ancient Mesopotamian narrative—vibrant, earnest, unfussily accessible…. The muscular eloquence and rousing simplicity of Mitchell’s four-beat line effectively unleash the grand vehemence of the epic’s battle scenes, and the characters’ ominous visions emerge with uncanny clarity.
—New York Times Book Review

Seamus Heaney isn’t the only one intent on making the classics relevant to our times. Stephen Mitchell… offers a limpid retelling of this story about absolute power…. An ancient story’s true relevance to one’s times, Mitchell’s version suggests, resides most in having its message of love, loss and endurance rendered in fresh, forceful language.
—Los Angeles Times

[Mitchell’s verse] propels the reader along through the subtle, muscular music of its rhythms. The language is spare, sinuous, pellucid and often striking. For the reader who wishes to breathe in the spirit of this epic, to relate to it as a work of literature rather than to interpret it as a series of fragments recording some distant legend, Mitchell produces what should become recognised as the standard text. Read it and sense all the wisdom and complexity of the original… Let it settle down into your imaginative depths.
—The Times (London)

As fast-paced and thrilling as a contemporary action film… This wonderful new version of the story of Gilgamesh shows how the story came to achieve literary immortality—not because it is a rare ancient artifact, but because reading it can make people in the here and now feel more completely alive.
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Utterly enthralling reading, thanks to Mr. Mitchell’s skill and flair in recasting the ancient text.
—New York Sun

Since its discovery, the 3,500-years-old Mesopotamian saga has been rendered into English countless times. Not until now, however, has it found a translation capable of evoking its great power—a translation vigorous in its narration, translucent in its poetry, and incisive in its depiction of our clever, struggling, frail humanity. Stephen Mitchell’s Gilgamesh is a masterpiece of storytelling, or re-telling.
—Jack Meinhardt, Archeology Odyssey

For some readers, this story has been about loss and grief; for others, the nature of friendship; for still others, imperialism and hubris. In Mitchell’s version, each of the great themes is present and crucial, but it’s the language–gorgeous, dramatic, laden with objects–that is most striking… Mitchell’s version of the epic is beautifully written and dramatic.
—Austin American Statesman

Passion, violence, remorse, guilt, retribution, fateful moral choices, moments of comic relief: they’re all here in this spirited and wonderfully readable retelling of what Mitchell notes is “the oldest story in the world.”
—San Jose Mercury News

Remarkable: a rendition that, while taking no great liberties with the text, somehow makes it available as a work of literature, rather than as a set of fragments from a vanished cosmology…. The lines of verse move swiftly, gracefully, yet never indulge in any misbegotten effort to sound poetic; the diction is simple and clean, evoking the sense of a time when the world was new and first being named. Reading this Gilgamesh gave me a sense, for the first time, of understanding Rilke’s devotion to the poem.
—Newsday

With this eminently readable adaptation, respectful as it is of the original material and also the intelligence of his readers, Mitchell makes one of humanity’s oldest and greatest stories accessible to a general audience. Henceforth, no person can consider himself or herself to be fully educated without having read, in addition to the Bible, Homer, and Shakespeare, this oddly humane and curiously modern story.
—Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel

Mitchell has done a superb job of filling in gaps and sustaining the flow while staying true to the vision of the original scribe.
—Dayton Daily News

As narrative verse, this Gilgamesh gently entrances and enthralls. Its liquid, intimate four-stressed lines … negotiate the rapid shifts between everyday pleasures, heroic feats and blazing visions in this mythic world where the sensual and spiritual always intersect. Mitchell manages to slip the mesmerising incantations of the verse … into his reader’s bloodstream.
—The Independent (London)

Mitchell brings a lucid and poetic version of Gilgamesh to a literary rather than academic audience.
—The Observer (London)

A powerful translation of an eerie and unsettling ancient epic… This is the most pellucid version of the epic yet to have been written in English, but what is most startling and admirable about it is the fact that Mitchell has not sacrificed a sense of the weird on the altar of readability.
—The Daily Telegraph (London)

The mysterious, sinewy surge of his verse [is] thoroughly modern, yet, in its formulaic repetitions and unfamiliar meter, an uncanny evocation of the primeval.
—Boston Globe

Stephen Mitchell, the noted translator of many of the world’s seminal spiritual texts, has reached back to ancient Mesopotamia to bring out a version of the 4,000-year-old Gilgamesh epic, literature’s first hero story, that speaks to modern times.
—San Francisco Chronicle

Mitchell’s translation is easily the most readable, and the copious notes provide enough detail to allow the intrigued reader (and you will be) to learn more.
—The Scotsman

Mitchell’s version of Gilgamesh… clips along like an action novel. With its contemporary language and modernized narrative, it would find enthusiastic readers even among those who have no interest in classic literature.
—Baltimore City Paper

Mitchell conveys the emotion of the drama to the modern reader with pace and energy in a version that is flawlessly readable.
—The Liverpool Daily Post & Echo

Stephen Mitchell’s new rendition of Gilgamesh has taken the U.S. literary world by storm… A seamlessly graceful and engaging poem.
—Harry Smith, Confrontation

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