I have fallen completely in love with the Epic of Gilgamesh. In college, I hated Gilgamesh. It took N.K. Sandars (though widely chastised by Sumerologists for her non-at-all-textual translations) to reveal the poetry of this epic to me. It is one of the oldest stories in human history (c. 4-3000BC) and predates Homer by 1,500 years! Originally written in Akkadian Cuneiform (earliest writing system of reed stylus scored clay), the Gilgamesh tablets were recovered from ancient Nineveh, in modern Iraq. The tablets were found piecemeal in the ruins of King Ashurbanipal's Library--- which is ironic: at what point does the museum itself become an artifact like those it houses? I suppose when it gets destroyed by a coalition of angry Babylonians and Scythians in 612BC....
The history Gilgamesh's initial translation is very interesting too. No, really, it is. Once the tablets were brought back to the British Museum in 1855, they sat in perfect mystery for ten years. It took a janitor in the British Museum to unlock its secrets: George Smith, a real life Good Will Hunting, taught himself Akkadian and discovered that much of The Epic was missing. After years of scorn and jealousy for this neophyte, Smith was finally sent to Nineveh to find more tablets. Not only did Smith locate a missing section, but found an account of the Great Deluge, the part most famous and important to antiquity. It told the story of a great flood which wiped out human civilization, except for one man, Utnapishtim, whom the gods granted immortality. Sound familiar? Enter Moses' Sumerian counterpart. So, George Smith became a household name in parlor rooms of Europe's high society, much to the chagrin of decorated scholars. They promptly sent poor George away again. He died near Aleppo of sickness and hunger, penniless and alone. OK, lesson learned: Do not embarrass the pencil-necks of the British Museum.
What I wanted to say, before the excitement of Gilgamesh's backstory swept me up, is that this Epic is sealed in supreme poetry. Beside the obvious monster-slaying, divine encounters with the Sumerian pantheon, and journey to the end of the earth, Gilgamesh is ultimately the tale of a man obsessed by his own mortality. At its heart is the relationship between King Gilgamesh and Enkindu. Enkindu was crafted by the goddess Aruru to be Gilgamesh's equal, a soulmate if you will. How the two men meet is truly the stuff of a legendary romance: (SPOILERS BELOW)
When their King becomes tyrannical, the people of Uruk cry out. It is when a trapper sees the Wild Man that a solution presents itself. Shamhat (a divine whore, basically) is sent to tempt Enkindu from wilderness into civilization. Actually, let's spend a minute on Shamhat: how heartbreaking is it that a woman is sent to lead man astray, out of paradise... Oh, wait. Anyway, Enkindu, now wise to pleasures of the flesh, follows a whore to Uruk. Gilgamesh is waiting, though, having heard that one had come to challenge his throne. After slinging boasts and insults, Gilgamesh and Enkindu get into scuffle. But, this is no mere bar fight. Our two heroes throw each other through doorposts and walls, snort like bulls, and shake Uruk to its very foundations. Finally, Gilgamesh manages to pin the Wild Man down. Instead of fury, Enkindu is full of grace. He says, "There is not another like you in the world". Breathless and humbled, Gilgamesh helps Enkindu up and embraces him. The two are inseparable from then on.
Through a series of tribulations common to many epics, Enkindu finds himself cursed by Ishtar, goddess of Love, who had vied for and lost the attentions of Gilgamesh. On his deathbed, Enkindu has a series of tormented dreams of the underworld that legitimately terrify me. Trying to calm his friend, Gilgamesh leans close and says: "The dream was marvelous but the terror was great; we must treasure the dream whatever the terror." Then, Enkindu dies in his arms. Stricken by grief, Gilgamesh rips his clothes and utters one of the most romantic lines I've ever read:
"I will make the princes of the earth kiss your feet. The joyful people will stoop with sorrow; and when you have gone to earth I will let my hair grow long for your sake, I will wander through the wilderness in the skin of a lion."
And he does. Gilgamesh journeys the world over. There, he encounters Siduri, matron of a bar at the edge of the world and immortal Utnapishtim. After a lifetime of searching, the King returns weary to his Kingdom. Instead of returning a hero, made immortal, Gilgamesh returns a plain man, dressed in animal skins. He decides that instead of achieving immortality, his greatest feat is to be a good king to his people. How un-epic is that?! It's an entirely modern theme: Do as much good as you can in your short life. Live well and love well. And that's why The Epic of Gilgamesh is a lasting work of art. Though, I don't know what it says about me that I think literature lived and died 6,000 years ago.
"It was a miserable machine, an inefficient machine, she thought, the human apparatus for painting or for feeling; it always broke down at the critical moment; heroically, one must force it on."