The Epic of Gilgamesh.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest book I've ever read. By far. It was composed around 2,100 B.C., 1,300 years or so before Homer's Iliad; about 4,117 ago from 2018 in fact. That alone is pretty mind-blowing stuff. There's suggestions it may have been composed in what is now modern day Iraq on the premise that a copy of the epic was found in the ruins of the library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, the capital of Assyria being Aššur in Iraq, and the oldest surviving tablets are from Babylonian from the central-southern Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq). After being lost it was then discovered by Hormuzd Rassam in 1853 and translated into English in the 1870s by George Smith. It remains incomplete. 

It tells the story of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk (now Ahwar, in southern Iraq). He is said to be two-thirds god, one third man - 
When the gods created Gilgamesh they gave him a perfect body. Shamash the glorious sun endowed him with beauty, Adad the god of the storm endowed him with courage, the great gods made his beauty perfect, surpassing all others, terrifying like a great wild bull. Two thirds they made him god and one third man.
He is a tyrant intent on oppression his people despite some of his great achievements, particularly architectural. The people cry out for one who can match him, and so the gods created Enkidu, a wild man, to prevent Gilgamesh from hurting his people further. Enkidu and Gilgamesh become great friends, travelling about together encountering gods and demons, and Enkidu exercising a good influence on his friend. They're soon met with trouble however and the gods punish them by killing Enkidu. Gilgamesh is bereft, and terrified of dying himself, so he goes alone to discover immortality. We see in this many Biblical themes: the Garden of Eden, for example, in the creation of Enkidu and Noah's Flood towards the end of the work. It is a fascinating account for that alone.

I love this book very much. Firstly, most superficially I suppose, for its age: that it survived for over four thousand years is incredible. What is also quite beautiful about it is it's timelessness. The names of the gods, the setting of Mesopotamia, is to me completely unfamiliar, but the themes of friendship and the fear of death carried on these four thousand years throughout history to now throughout cultures. That friendship and love is an all important force on personality, and can change one's path through life, and that that has been said since the dawn of literature is a great and beautiful message. As in the Ancient Greek works we also see the danger of the gods who are not necessarily a force for good: they are simply a force, and one must deal somehow with what they thrown - this is another timeless theme that manifests itself in a variety of ways still today. The Epic of Gilgamesh is a wonderful and important work, I enjoyed it, and somehow I felt more centred having read it.

Comments

  1. I recently read a beautiful version of this retold and illustrated by Bernarda Bryson. I had never read the full story, only references to it and it blew me away with its powerful pictures of the human soul in its encounters with life and death, good and evil, the transforming power of friendship and love. I would like to read something closer to the original source now.

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    1. Well I do think this was a good translation, though I've nothing to compare it with. It was mind-blowing, I agree :)

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  2. great stuff... i read it once and liked it for the reasons above stated; humanity is everywhere and eternally the same...

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    1. Indeed. Both comforting and alarming :)

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  3. I am definitely reading this, at some point. It probably is on my WEM poetry list, but even if it isn't, I'm getting my own copy. I've read children's versions, retold and illustrated by Ludmila Zeman. They are beautiful, and so is the story.

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    1. I think it might be on your WEM list (I was looking at your list not that long ago). It's amazing, I hope you love it :)

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  4. I bought this a couple of weeks back and I have to get started! It sounds exactly what I think it was meant to be - immortal!

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    1. Enjoy it when you get to it! Hope you love it :)

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