The Epic of Gilgamesh

Late last year, I set myself the goal of reading more of literature’s classics.  One of those I’ve been wanting to read was The Epic of Gilgamesh.  I remember reading this is high school, but I couldn’t remember whether or not we’d read the whole epic.  It turned out that we hadn’t.  The only part that was familiar was at the beginning: from the creation of Enkidu to his meeting with Gilgamesh.  And maybe some of the Flood story.

Actually, I read two versions this month:  The Epic of Gilgamesh (Penguin Classics Edition with Introduction by N. K. Sandars, c. 1977) and Gilgamesh:  A New English Version by Stephen Mitchell (2004).

The first was a translation, using the Assyrian version from the Nineveh archive, the Old Babylonian version, the Hittite version from Hattusas, and the four Sumerian poems that went into creating the epic.   Sandars even included the Sumerian poem The Death of Gilgamesh, which most scholars agree wasn’t part of the epic.  And, intriguingly, to me, anyway, he hinted that there might have been an entire corpus of poetry devoted to Enkidu.

There are many fragments and lines of the poem that are missing, even today, so there was probably even less to work with in the 1970s.  This is why I decided to read a later version.  Disappointingly, it turned out to be an actual version, not a translation.  Mitchell merely borrowed bits and pieces from other translations, mostly of the Old Babylonian and Assyrian versions, and added lines and rearranged them where he chose.  Supposedly for clarity.  I also thought that there was way to much of his personal beliefs showing in his introduction.  Although, I must say that I prefered his frank acknowledgement of the sexual relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu, which the poem heavily implies, to Sandars who didn’t even mention the possibility.

I enjoyed this poem very much.  Which goes to show just how immortal some pieces of literature can be.  You only ruin it if you try to modernize it.  It is, after all, the oldest story in the world, that we know of, and is still read for a reason.

Ratings:  Sandars – 4 out of 5 stars; Mitchell – 2.75 out of 5 stars

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