Gilgamesh & the Garden
The Opening Stanzas of The Epic of Gilgamesh:
We tell of him—the man who saw the Deep.
Bold, more brilliant, noble, he vowed to keep
alive the genius, challenge heaven’s blood,
a will that says all lesser flesh must die.
Crossing the edge, by means stark and sly
he gained a gift: knowledge of the Flood.
Gilgamesh! Of him we speak, progeny
of god and man, the child unforeseen
by city and assassin. His father slain,
the goddess sheltered him among her acolytes.
The boy established his daring, resolved to fight
and kill the murderer, to win his reign.
But first he fled, his lineage revealed.
He took up arms, a contender in the common field,
earning distinction, gathering a cunning band
of warriors to his name. He lead them against
renegades and lawless cities, wrested
victory from daunting circumstance.
© 2004, Eric Quinn
I have been working on a version in verse of The Epic of Gilgamesh for more than 10 years. Initially, I was attracted by the story’s quality and its antiquity–it is the oldest long story we possess. Also, the poem looked relatively short; little did I know…
The story’s roots go back to the beginnings of the world’s first urbanized culture, Sumer (now southern Iraq), more than 5,000 years ago. It survived, read all over the Middle East (fragments have turned up in Iraq, Armenia, Israel/Palestine, and Turkey), until the sack of Nineveh (612 B.C.). After the destruction of the Assyrian Empire, it was forgotten until the palace of Ashurbanipal was excavated in the 1840s and 50s.
About 60 percent of the story has been recovered, although (literal) pieces of it are turning up all the time.
At this point, of the epic’s eleven tablets, I have finished and copyrighted the first two, and have all but the last two in second draft. My chapbook, Amassunu, contains a 100+ line extract from tablet IX.
Why is Gilgamesh important? Here are some big reasons:
1) The story, even in fragmentary form, is superb. Its narrative is a tour-de-force, including material that ranges from elegy to high drama to burlesque. The epic contains set pieces, such as Ninsun’s petition of the sun-god in tablet III, that are written in poetry of the first order, as intense and beautiful as any written since.
2) Gilgamesh takes us back to a civilization and landscape that both disappeared thousands of years ago. The climate of the Middle East was not always as dry and harsh as it is today. At that time, it was a grassland rather like the savannah of eastern Africa today; lions, Indian elephants, and ostriches roamed in large numbers. The river valleys were also lusher, and along the banks of the Euphrates sprang up the world’s first cities, the most powerful of which was Uruk, the city that Gilgamesh ruled.
3) The writer(s) of the oldest parts of the Hebrew Bible knew Gilgamesh. In fact, Noah’s Flood is clearly written in response to the Sumerian Flood at the end of Gilgamesh. But there are other correspondences, including two versions of the Eden story.
4) Gilgamesh records the struggle between men and women for power in the world’s first civilization, and the transfer of power from the goddess to the gods. The goddess Inanna is a character in the story, and tablet VI contains the story of their struggle for supremacy.
5) The story contains the first great portrayal of Hell and the first search for eternal life. When Gilgamesh rejects Inanna’s love, she in revenge kills his intimate companion, Enkidu. Before he dies, Enkidu receives a vision of the underworld, which he reports to Gilgamesh (the poetry in this vision is some of the finest in the epic). After his death, Gilgamesh laments his companion (more outstanding poetry) and then goes on his quest for eternal life. During this quest, we are introduced to an imaginary landscape quite different from those to be found in later writing.
6) The Sumerian Flood, which predates Noah’s Flood by many centuries. When the first people to read the tablets in the 19th century reported that they had found an earlier version of the flood, it caused a sensation in London, and enough money was raised to send the explorers back to Nineveh to retrieve more tablets. Though the details of the two versions of the flood share many details (even down to wording), they each reflect a quite different understanding of the cosmos.
7) My version is different from others already in print. The originals of the story are recorded on clay tablets that were subsequently broken into many pieces large and small. As I mention above, about 60 percent of the story has been recovered. In my version, I fill in the missing material from the logic of the surrounding material and my imagination. Other versions eliminate lines that are fragmentary. My goal has been to make the entire epic read continuously, and in a formal (but never unintelligible ;)), sometimes rhymed, verse.
The passage from the story in Amassunu concerns Gilgamesh’s encounter with the Scorpion Gods.
I’ll say no more, but will provide (for the last time, at least for a while) a link to Lulu where you can buy the book.
So, come on, give it a try–a story 5,000 years in the making has got to be worth checking out!
Image: Statue of Gilgamesh, University of Syndey, Author: Samantha; Licence: CC 2.0; Src: WikiCommons.