N.K. Sandars,
The Epic of Gilgamesh
(Penguin, 1960; 1972)

The Epic of Gilgamesh is a fascinating tale of great historical importance. Composed 1,500 years before Homer's epics, the story is one that modern readers can readily understand and appreciate. Gilgamesh was the more than capable ruler of the ancient town of Uruk; his strength and physical beauty were unmatched by any in the land, and his subjects adored him. Although he possessed so much, Gilgamesh wanted desperately to live forever like a god. He was two-thirds god and one-third human, but he refused to accept his destiny to die. If it were his lot to die, he wanted to perform great deeds so that his name would never be forgotten.

The story opens with the story of Enkidu, a wild man of nature who was to become Gilgamesh's best friend and accompany him on his dangerous journeys. The first trip takes them to the Land of the Cedars where Gilgamesh sets out to kill Humbaba, the guardian of the forest. When he later slays the Bull of Heaven, the anger of the gods is turned upon him and Enkidu, leading to new suffering by Gilgamesh. In desperation, he seeks Utnapishtim in the land of the gods; Utnapishtim was granted eternal life after preserving mankind in the wake of a great flood. Gilgamesh again finds only heartache for his troubles. Returning to Uruk, he preserves the story of his journeys and deeds in writing, and it is, perhaps ironically, in this written record that Gilgamesh is recognized today for the great man he was.

One learns much about the ancient gods in this tale, and the story of the great goddess Ishtar's role in the related events is pretty amazing. When Ishtar invited Gilgamesh to be her husband, he issued forth a litany of former lovers whom Ishtar had turned out and cursed, boldly rebuffing Ishtar's advances. It is this brave act that led to most of Gilgamesh's later troubles. Even Enkidu, whose reported bravery is belied by his reluctance to aid his noble friend in several situations, is rather astonishingly disrespectful to the goddess.

N.K. Sandars does a remarkable job of putting the epic in its proper historical and literary perspective. A glossary of relevant gods and characters is particularly helpful. Along with providing a short history of the man, the gods and the epic itself, she goes to great lengths to explain her method of producing this modern translation. There is no one extant copy of The Epic of Gilgamesh; a number of tablets, in varying degrees of condition and legibility and differing somewhat in the details of the story, have been compared and contrasted in order to produce the story as she presents it. Perhaps the most useful part of the introduction is an explanation of the form and style of the text. The text was originally told in verse, and Sandars explains that she chose to produce the text in narrative form in the interest of readability. As the order of events is not universally agreed upon, she explains why she chose the order she did for events.

One annoying feature of the text, at least to the modern reader, is the constant word for word repetition of speeches between characters, and Sandars does the reader a great service by warning of this and explaining the rationale behind its use by the ancient writers.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the oldest written texts in history, yet its theme is timeless, its characters all too human and its appeal universal. Sandars' modern, narrative translation transforms the historically important epic into an eminently readable, quite enjoyable story. The tale of a great flood in this incredibly ancient tale has raised eyebrows ever since the text was discovered. The parallels to the Biblical tale of Noah are obvious, adding great strength to the argument that the legend or memory of a cataclysmic flood was common to diverse cultures in the ancient Near East. Those familiar with the ideas of Zechariah Sitchin will find this story especially fascinating and illuminating.

by Daniel Jolley
22 October 2005

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