Societies, as much as individuals, need role models. For good and for ill, our cultural tradition has been influenced by the figures of Achilles and Odysseus, placed at the center of our moral imagination by Homer almost three millennia ago. The shaping power of the tradition is clearest where there has been no direct influence, as when Machiavelli talks of “the Lion and the Fox” or when popular art divides its heroes into the quiet strongman and the wise-cracking Trickster. One reason for the immense staying power of action movies over the last decades is their unwavering loyalty to the mythological symbols that still rule our imagination.
“There were many brave men before Agamemnon,” the poet Horace reminded us, and there were heroes before Achilles and Odysseus. These were symbols of courage and strength and survival that shaped the imagination of the high cultures of the Near East, where mankind first developed urban life, irrigation, pottery wheels, smelting, bureaucracy, and many other inventions, large and small, that still structure the routine of our daily lives. Noah Kramer wrote about some of these inventions in his History Begins in Sumer. While in the strict sense, history did not begin in Sumer—it began in Greece, the home of science, tragedy, and democracy—the many discoveries that did begin in the Fourth and Third Millennium world of Mesopotamia still affect our lives in ways we do not notice or understand.
A continuous cultural tradition dominated the urban world of the ancient Near East from the third Millennium until Cyrus the Persian and his descendants conquered it in the second half of the sixth century B.C. Its shaping heroes bore the strange names of Gilganiesh and Enkidu. Gilgamesh, unconquerable warrior, insatiable lover, was king of Uruk in Mesopotamia (Biblical Erech, Warka in modern Iraq); the gods created as his peer and rival Enkidu, the wild man. The two met, fought, and became best friends. When Ishtar, goddess of sex, failed to seduce Gilgamesh, she sent the Bull of Heaven to ravage their lands. The two heroes slew the bull, and in revenge Ishtar caused the death of Enkidu. Gilgamesh mourns his friend in a lament that takes up most of a clay tablet and then decides to seek the elixir of life from the only human to win immortality from the gods: Utnapishtim, who survived the Great Flood. The Tenth and Eleventh tablets tell of Gilgamesh’s search for Utnapishtim, of the latter’s tale of the Hood (having many parallels to the Biblical story of Noah), and of Gilgamesh’s departure with the herb which will give eternal life to Gilgamesh and his people. While he is swimming in a pool, a snake eats the herb. Gilgamesh will not live forever, but his memory will be immortal.
Tales about the adventures of Gilgamesh and Enkidu have been found in many languages all over the Near East from the two millennia that preceded Cyrus’s conquests. The most complete version was written down for the library of the great Assyrian monarch, Ashurbanipal, in his capital city of Nineveh by the Tigris in the seventh century B.C. When the resurgent Babylonians destroyed Assyrian power shortly after Ashurbanipal’s death, the 12 clay tablets of The Epic of Gilgamesh remained covered by hot, dry sand for thousands of years, until English archaeologists unearthed them and brought them to the British Museum in London. A hardworking and quiet pedant named George Smith worked for months on the clay fragments, piecing together what we now call the Eleventh Tablet, the story of a flood that resembles the deluge in Genesis. Finally he got far enough to see what the story was about. His fellow workers heard a commotion from his study and went in to see what was happening. They found Smith stark naked, singing and dancing around the room, overcome with joy at his new discovery. Gilgamesh, like other epic heroes, rejoices in conquest and grieves at defeat and death. Did any great hero in his warmaking and lovemaking ever know the emotion that filled George Smith the day he first deciphered that broken tablet?
Will this new translation by Danny P. Jackson give the reader some of the same joy? That is an unfair question, but there are at least two audiences who will derive much pleasure from this latest attempt to breathe life into the dead bones—or sun-dried clay tablets—of this old epic. Jackson’s version tells the story in a clear and effective fashion, with attention to levels of language and narrative form. The first is students in university Myth classes, who will be able to grasp the story and its characters without being confused by scholarly minutiae. The $4.95 price for the student edition is just right, although it means seeing Thorn Kapheim’s effective and sometimes powerful illustrations in black and white, instead of the brooding dark colors of the regular editions. (There are also 18 pages of photographs of ancient art and documents.) The second is those who are seeking in translations from the West’s rich past a way to resurrect the art of poetry in our day, or to initiate its resurrection in the next generation. Contemporary poetry has lost its mission and, as in the 16th century, it is seeking in translation of ancient works a means of finding its way out of the dark forest and back onto the high summit it once occupied. Unfortunately, the recent wave of translators has given us few masterpieces. I am impressed by Ted Hughes’ version of Seneca’s Oedipus from the late 60’s and Dana Gioia’s translation of Seneca’s Hercules Furens, hot off the Johns Hopkins University Press. There are several works which dilute great success by dubious experiments: David Slavitt’s Eclogues of Vergil, Tony Harrison’s Oresteia of Aeschylus, Christopher Logue’s version of Homer’s Iliad.
Danny Jackson’s Gilgamesh holds a middle position in this school, maintaining a consistent level of poetic accomplishment. I am dubious about the idea of having the gods speak in short, staccato rhymes. This technique is amusing in Tablet Six, where Ishtar, the goddess of sex, tries to seduce Gilgamesh, but it is less effective in the mouth of the Sungod, Shamash, as he addresses Enkidu before his death. The decision to call Ninhursag, mother of the gods, “She-who-must-be-obeyed” (for Belet-ili, “mistress of the gods”) introduces an intrusive reminiscence of Public Television’s Rumpole, who always uses the title (borrowed from Rider Haggard) in reference to his wife.
As a whole, Jackson’s work is lively, exciting, and dignified. It will interest students, and may provide future generations with lines and expressions that will form part of a new birth of great poetry. Those who are not poets may learn from Gilgamesh and his best friend the lure of high accomplishment, the ennobling excitement of facing fearful odds, and the bitter tragedy of death, which ends even the greatest adventures. This is the moral poetry that has urged our culture into so many high achievements, and may do so again, if we will listen to its music.
[The Epic of Gilgamesh, by Danny P. Jackson (Chicago: Bolchazy-Carducci) 101 pp., $15.00]