Sunday, January 18, 2009


So, I just finished reading Gilgamesh, and I was surprised for two reasons. First, it was so short, and simply written. I was kind of expecting a long dull book with lots of hoo-haw. My experience of ancient literature is mostly bits of the Odyssey - not the best way to start, I think.

More than that, I was surprised how current and relevant the story felt, how really meaningful much of it's message still felt. It is easy to understand the Sumerians using this as scripture, and at the same time haunting, because it's not a message of unvarnished, simple hope. Much like Orpheus and Eurydice, it's a story of loss, the search for eternal life, and loss again. The speech of Utnapishtim (think, Sumerian Noah. Flood and all), was one of the most moving descriptions of the horror of eternal life I've ever read:

I think compassion is our God's pure act
Which burns forever,
And be it in Heaven or in Hell
Doesn't matter for me; because
Hell is the everlasting gift
Of his presence
To the lonely heart who is longing
Amidst perishing phantoms and doesn't care
To find an immortality
If not in the pure loneliness of the Holy One,
This loneliness which He enjoys forever
Inside and outside of His creation.

The complexity of grief is served raw and unapolegitically, in this book, and in the end, the moral is difficult to divine. But the journey, and not the end is what matters. Whether he gets the fruit of immortality or not, in the end, what difference is it? In the end, we all have to live, and whether we have our pain alone or with another, that's what life is. Or mostly what life is:

Gilgamesh said nothing more
To force his sorrow on another.

He looked at the walls,
Awed at the heights
His people had achieved
And for a moment -- just a moment --
All that lay behind him
Passed from view


Amanda said...

I know the author for this is unknown, but do you know the aprox time period when it was written? I didn't realize this was Christian. It sounds Christian from the verses you put in, or perhaps that's just the translation? I had thought this was a different culture and religion.

I still say that while this only took you an hour to read, it's going to take me two weeks when I get to it.

Unknown said...

No, not Christian - written long before Chrisitianity or (probably) modern Judaism existed, I believe (though that's always a hard thing to definitively date). In the 27th century BC, I think. Sumerian religion. However (and I don't want to start a fight) some researchers think that Jehovah evolved from a Sumerian mountain god, and many of the themes and basic stories of Sumerian religion are shared with the Jews.

Ana S. said...

"More than that, I was surprised how current and relevant the story felt, how really meaningful much of it's message still felt."

My feelings exactly. Especially when it comes to dealing with loss and mortality. I really enjoyed it a lot.

Amanda said...

I wonder if it's because of the translation that there are so many Christian keywords in it. I know our copy of the book is old, and older translations tended to be done through the veil of Christianity at one point. I wonder if newer translations (if such a thing exists) would have the same.

Rebecca Reid said...

I also was going to ask what translation it is. For a project I'm doing, two versions of Gilgamesh were chosen -- an old translation and a newer one -- and they are completely different (I haven't read either).

I think I'll read this this year. Thanks for sharing your thoughts

Unknown said...

Ms Reid - Herbert Mason was the translator. Also known as translation-that-was-on-sale-at-the-thrift-store. ;)

Ms Nymeth - Glad you enjoyed. I always worry I'll sound uppity and stuffy when I review something over 100 years old, much less something many thousands of years old. Nice to hear someone else liked beyond the cocktail-party-value of having read it :D.

Amanda - I'm certainly not an expert, but honestly it didn't sound Christianized at all. The section I quote there is one of the only sections that I might consider to sound Messianic, and the rest of it... well, they have God(s) and Hell, and stuff, but most religions do. I honestly felt the opposite - whoever owned this copy before me felt compelled to write little annotations in linking the text to Biblical references, which was a bit distracting, and often times somewhat stretched (he walks into a beautiful valley of fruit and precious stones. Nobody lives there. That doesn't necessarily make it 'The Garden of Eden'.).