When the gods created mankind, / they also created death, and they held back / eternal life to themselves alone. / Humans are born, they live, then they die, / this is the order that the gods have decreed. / But, until the end comes, enjoy your life, / spend it in happiness, not despair.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is considered one of the oldest texts in history. It is over a millennium older than Homer, who is considered the oldest writer in the West. Originating from Sumer (a civilization in Mesopotamia which is now present-day Iraq), the epic is of significant historical and scholar importance. One can also learn lots about Mesopotamian mythology from reading this epic, and their treatment by the Mesopotamian people. There are also some resemblances to the Bible, viz. the Garden of Eden and Noah’s Flood.
The story centers around King Gilgamesh (hence the title), two-thirds divine and one-third mortal, of Uruk, an ancient Sumerian settlement. His strength and traits are unparalleled to all, and he has gained respect thus. However, he is a very oppressive king, and the townsfolk eventually beseech the gods to rid his tyranny. Hence, they create Enkidu, a forest-dwelling wild man, to assuage Gilgamesh’s tyrannical reign. The campaign is successful, and Enkidu and Gilgamesh become friends. They journey to the Cedar Forest where they kill Humbaba, its guardian, and later slay the Bull of Heaven, which results in rather dire consequences.
After the slaughter of the Bull of Heaven, Gilgamesh is constantly haunted by the question of death and why humans cannot be immortal. He thereby travels to the Land of the Gods to see the immortal Utnapishtim to seek immortality. Utnapishtim was granted immortality by the gods after saving mankind from a titanic flood. The Epic of Gilgamesh can be classified as a self-metamorphosis because Gilgamesh realizes that death is an inevitable part of human life; he realizes that the gods created mankind to have finite life; until he expires, he should enjoy his life to the fullest extent.
As aforementioned, there are some resemblances to the Bible. Enkidu’s creation and entry into civilization parallels the the tale of Adam and Eve, since Enkidu was created by the gods, eventually beguiled by a woman (Shamhat), and was forced to leave the forest and never return. In addition, Utnapishtim’s narrative of the titanic flood bears resemblance to Noah’s Flood. These scenes show that there were civilizations in the East with their own legends/tales of a major flood and the creation of a man.
I would recommend this book to people who like poetry, adventure, and ancient history. The edition which I read was published by Simon and Schuster and translated by Stephen Mitchell, who has also translated several other ancient works, e.g. the Bhagavad Gita. His translation has been compared to Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf (which I have also reviewed), as it is translated in very straightforward and plain English which flows as naturally as a river. The actual epic is only about 120 pages; however, Mitchell’s verbose introduction coupled with his comprehensive endnotes encompass about 170 pages! Nonetheless, the Epic of Gilgamesh is still accessible and intelligible to the average reader, regardless of its age of four thousand years.