The Magazine

Once in Babylon

The Flood, immortality, sex--it's all here.

Sep 26, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 02 • By JOHN SIMON
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IT IS THE FIRST WORK of literature ever written down, The Epic of Gilgamesh, and it's a masterpiece. Ironically, it stems from that cradle of civilization, Mesopotamia, which has gone by many names but is now Iraq. Where once the civilizing art of letters sprung up, there now is war and destruction. There was plenty of strife in Gilgamesh's time, too, but it was waged nobly by facing antagonists; no roadside bombs or crazed self-immolations.

Around 2700 bc, there may have existed in Sumerian Uruk a ruler named Gilgamesh, who built a great wall around the city. But he could have been a myth, which may have helped him become a judge in the underworld. Whether lays about him were part of an oral tradition has been disputed; certain it is that some were written down in the late third millennium bc in cuneiform on clay tablets.

The history of how these and later tablets were excavated is long and fascinating, and can be readily gotten from The Epic of Gilgamesh, translated and edited by Benjamin R. Foster, (W.W. Norton, $10.95) and highly recommended. Here you will find the principal versions of the epic in sound, scholarly translations, duly introduced and annotated. Fascinating, too, as you'll gather from the book, is the history of the poem itself, which exists, after the early Sumerian fragments, in the Babylonian-language "old version" of 1700 bc. From this derives the standard version, prepared in the seventh century bc for the marvelous library of the great king Ashurbanipal. There are later versions in Hittite and Hurrian; indeed, parts have been dug up in Mesopotamia, Syria, the Levant, and Anatolia. There is a reference to Gilgamesh even in the Dead Sea scrolls.

Remember, though, that sections of the story are not available in any version so far excavated, and that the languages in question are imperfectly known, so that even available words and phrases have been variously interpreted. There have been translations into many modern languages, often by established poets, and the epic has elicited much literary criticism. What, then, is this widespread and long-lived poem about?

Gilgamesh, strong and valiant, rules in Uruk, which he has fortified with a giant wall. He is, however, a tyrant, exhausting the young men in ceaseless sports, and deflowering brides on their wedding night. People's complaints reach the gods, one of whom creates out of clay a companion to occupy Gilgamesh more constructively. This is the primitive giant Enkidu, naked and hairy, living on the steppes with fellow animals, and destroying the traps men set for them.

One day he scares the daylights out of a trapper, who then consults with Gilgamesh, himself a giant, one-third human and two-thirds divine, his mother being the wild cow-goddess Ninsun. She counsels him and interprets his dreams about Enkidu. Gilgamesh instructs the trapper to conduct Shamhat--a priestess-prostitute in the temple of Ishtar, goddess of love and war--to the drinking place of the animals, there to seduce and thus humanize Enkidu.

This happens, and after seven days of nonstop sex, Enkidu is shunned by the animals as no longer one of them. Shamhat now combs and clothes him, and induces him to come meet Gilgamesh. The two mighty ones fight. It is unclear who wins--perhaps it is a draw--but the pair become boon companions. It is an Achilles/Patroclus or Jonathan/David kind of relationship, and may well be homosexual.

One of their exploits is a trip to a distant cedar forest guarded by the god-appointed monster Humbaba, to bring back cedar wood for a great door. They fight and overcome the dread guardian, and though Gilgamesh would spare his life, Enkidu angrily kills him. Back in Uruk there are celebrations, and the goddess Ishtar, seeing Gilgamesh in his finery, becomes enamored and asks him to marry her. He is indignant and insults her, reproaching her with the sticky ends to which her six previous husbands have come. Furious, she prevails upon the chief god Anu to send down the Bull of Heaven to avenge her. The warrior friends kill the bull, and Enkidu even tosses the beast's haunch at the goddess.

After the victory banquet, Enkidu learns in a dream that the gods will spare Gilgamesh, but punish him. He curses Shamhat, who lured him there; but Shamash, god of justice, invoking the wonderful friendship with Gilgamesh, gets him to bless her instead. In another dream, he sees the terrors of the underworld: the dead squatting in utter darkness. A god-decreed illness overtakes him; he dies, leaving the disconsolate Gilgamesh to bury and grieve for him.