Jun 17, 2007

The Epic of Gilgamesh

There is no permanence. Do we build a house to stand for ever, do we deal a contract to hold for all time? Do brothers divide an inheritance to keep forever, does the flood-time of rivers endure? It is only the nymph of the dragon-fly that sheds her larva and sees the sun in his glory. From the days of old there is no permanence. The sleeping and the dead, how alike they are, they are like a painted death.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is among the oldest surviving pieces of literature in the world. That alone makes it fascinating for me. I find the appeal of ancientness irresistible. Perhaps because I cannot know, I long to know – how was the world five our four thousand years ago? How were we? What did we think and feel and believe?

It is a great miracle that this epic has survived. But at the same time, its existence makes me wonder what other masterpieces we might have lost. The little we do have is like the few surviving pieces of a puzzle, which, despite being fictional, help us reconstruct a picture of the past.

What I like the most about Gilgamesh is how emotional a story it is. Mythology, more often than not, is pure plot. There is action and struggle and sacrifice, but the feelings of the characters are left for the reader to recreate. But not so with Gilgamesh.

According to the epic, Gilgamesh was a Sumerian king who abused his powers and became tyrannical. His people asked the gods for help, and they send Enkidu, a half-wild man who was the only one who could match Gilgamesh in strength. Enkidu cannot defeat Gilgamesh, but Gilgamesh cannot defeat Enkidu either, and the two end up becoming close friends. The first part of the epic tells us some of the adventures they went on together. The second part, though, is devoted to Gilgamesh’s deep grief and despair when his companion passes away. Gilgamesh misses his friend acutely, and, more than that, his passing makes him realize his own mortality, and he is taken by a deep fear. The last part of the epic tells us of Gilgamesh’s search for immortality.

This is a story of friendship, of loss, or fear, of awareness of mortality, of grief - and what could be more human than that? For thousands of years now we have dealt with these same questions. We have changed a lot over the millennia, but when it comes to some things, we haven’t changed so much after all.

What I read was the Penguin Epics edition of Gilgamesh. It’s mostly in prose, but I found it very well written. The tone is poetic and epic, but it remains very readable. Plus, there is a very useful glossary at the end with the names of the Mesopotamian deities mentioned in the epic. The book is only about 70 pages long, so it’s a fast and satisfying read. For those who love mythology, this is certainly a must-read.

Other Blog Reviews:
Rhinoa's Ramblings
5-Squared (Amanda)
5-Squared (Jason)


  1. When I first read Gilgamesh, I was stunned by the immediacy of the emotions - and awed by the author's skill. One of the deepest truths I discover in reading epics such as Gilgamesh or Greek plays is that human nature does not change, only the trappings --

  2. I read Gilgamesh earlier this year and share your opinion. A very emotional and satisfying little read. Your review is wonderful.

  3. tearbird: that's what I kept thinking. And that reminds me, I need to read more Greek plays.

    Petunia: thank you. I'm really glad to have read this book.

  4. Hi Nymeth - I saw in your comments to Jason back a few months when he read this and reviewed it on 5-squared, that you'd read it (wow that was a convoluted sentence, yes?). Anyway, I came looking. That quote you gave at the top - I don't remember anything like that at all in my version! In Herbert Mason (the translator)'s note on the back of the book, it says he didn't include all the pieces, because some were out of order and didn't fully fit in. He gave an example in the back. It makes me wonder if they've found more or at least pieced more together since 1972 when my edition came out. I'd be very interested to compare it to a more modern version.

  5. Hi Amanda! My translation is by N.K. Sandars. It's a recent (I think) Penguin Edition. It should indeed be very interesting to compare different versions!

  6. The striking think about this epic is the genealogy given, and the reference to the deluge. Awesome review


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