Friday, April 6, 2012

Gilgamesh by Stephen Mitchell

Publisher: Free Press (2004)

Blurb from An English-language rendering of the world's oldest epic follows the journey of conquest and self-discovery by the king of Uruk, in an edition that includes an introduction that places the story in its historical and cultural context.

I chose to read this book as part of two challenges; Once Upon a Time VI over at Stainless Steel Droppings and the poetry challenge over at Darkcargo Explorer. I placed this under the 'mythology' category for Quest the Second, which requires 1 book from each of 4 categories (mythology, fairy tale, fantasy, folklore).

First, I will discuss the epic poem Gilgamesh itself. In short, it is awesome. This is what poetry should be. At first, y3I did not like the King Gilgamesh. He is arrogant, aggressive, and a tyrant. The gods send him a true friend, Enkidu, who must be tamed from the wild. Gilgamesh sends a priestess of Ishtar to show him civilization through the art of sex. I love how the ancient Akkadians and Sumerians were not shy about describing the priestess's efforts.

Enkidu and Gilgamesh have a tussle for superiority upon their first meeting, which has some homoerotic imagery to it (I told you the Akkadians rock) and then they become the best of friends. Through this friendship they defeat a few beasties and insult a few Gods, including Ishtar. I won't spoil the tale for you, but eventually there is a Noah-like flood story thrown in while Gilgamesh is off looking for the secret to eternal life.

The book by Stephen Mitchell was fascinating. He has this long (~60 pages) introduction talking about what we know and what we don't know concerning the tale of Gilgamesh. I read the tale first then went back to the intro and the footnotes to get the historical context. The intro flew by, it was so easy to absorb. Gilgamesh was a very popular tale, retold by subsequent empires (Akkadians to Sumerians to Hittites all the way to present day). There are parts of the tale that are incomplete to this day because we have not found the clay tablets, yet. Also, Gilgamesh refers to other tales, such as Ishtar's romantic relationships with the roller bird and Ishullanuh. We haven't found these other tales (hence, I can't tell you what a roller bird is). The introduction really fleshes out how very old this tale is and how lucky we are to have some form of it carried down to us.

Pluses: Ancient, epic poetry; sex as an enlightening, civilizing force; strange, wondrous monsters; Gilgamesh learns he can't always bully his way to what he wants; Enkidu's name is just fun to say.

Minuses: Everything is up to interpretation, especially when it is this old, so I will never understand this tale fully.