The Buried Book, by David Damrosch

The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh
by David Damrosch, narrated by William Hughes
This is an interesting study of the discovery of the tablets that comprise the most complete sections of the Epic of Gilgamesh. It starts with a discussion about the archaeologists involved in discovering the tablets – what trials they underwent while digging, politics behind their dig, and even quarrels between archaeologists. (Sounds like Wallis E Budge was a jerk despite his fame.) The most interesting story was that of George Smith. He came from a working class background, but he had a brilliant ability to learn languages so he moved up to a classier job as apprentice in a printing shop. He spent all of his free time in the British Library learning languages and looking at ancient documents. Eventually he was hired on, first as a volunteer, and then as a full-fledged member of the team to research ancient Babylonian tablets. He was the one to discover the flood story within The Epic of Gilgamesh and he got so excited that he ran around the library in a “state of undress.” (How much undressed he was remains a mystery. But I don’t imagine he ran naked through the library yelling Eureka! or anything. He probably took off his jacket and loosened his tie.)

The book then jumps back to the time of Ashurbanipal  (668-627 BCE), a historical king of Nineveh who collected rare literature from around the world (at least the world within reach of himself). It was inside this buried library, which was destroyed in the fall of Nineveh, that the most complete set of tablets for Gilgamesh was discovered. Buried Book tells of Ashurbanipal’s father, who was severely depressed and paranoid. He couldn’t read and was terrified that his assistants were hiding things from him when they read correspondences. Historians believe that this may be why Ashurbanipal was encouraged to learn to read at a young age. I found this section quite interesting and wished that there were more to it than there was. Though I suppose you can’t say THAT much about a historical figure about whom only fragments of records exist. 

The Buried Book then retreats farther into a short analysis of Gilgamesh with historical perspective. It discusses how the trip to tame Humbaba in the forest may have represented Gilgamesh’s famed war to retrieve wood in other parts of Persia. 

Finally, The Buried Book jumped back to how Gilgamesh has affected modern readers – including a longish section on Saddam Hussein. Apparently, Hussein could see Gilgamesh in himself and this impacted his philosophy on ruling. I was pretty interested to hear that Hussein had written a decent novel – I had no clue! Of course, chances are someone else wrote it from Hussein’s notes, but still. Very interesting. 

Gilgamesh Translations

When I chose to read Epic of Gilgamesh, I had a difficult time choosing which translation to use. Did I want a prose translation which flowed freely instead of showing me all the sections that were questionable and fragmented? Did I want a translation which showed me how the tablets were separated and where the fragments were? Luckily, I had access to both types of translation, and read both of them. In addition, I also listened to an adaptation of the various translations. There were pros and cons of each approach. 

English version with an introduction by N. K. Sandars

This just happened to be sitting on my dad’s bookshelf, so I snatched it up. It’s a prose translation which separates the narrative into six “chapters:” Prologue, The Coming of Enkidu, The Forest Journey, Ishtar and Gilgamesh and the Death of Enkidu, The Search for Everlasting Life, The Story of the Flood, The Return, and The Death of Gilgamesh. In addition, this included a lengthy introduction. Of the written translations, I admit to enjoying this one more than the verse translation. Although it is important to some people (especially scholars) to see what portions of the text are questionable and where the fragments are, I don’t think that information is important to my enjoyment of the story. To me, the important part is to understand the meaning of the story. So this translation was quite enjoyable. 

The Norton Critical Edition
Translated and edited by Benjamin R. Foster
This translation was in the “original” eleven tablet format – as it was discovered (in part) in the library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh. Like the translation by Sandars, this book had a lengthy introduction, but it also had footnotes and a lot of supplementary sources. There were several translations of related stories (also discovered in tablet format), and there were essays written by Gilgamesh experts. Thus, although I found the […] and question marks indicating fragmented and questionable translation disruptive, I found the supplementary information in this book well worth reading. So this book was just as valuable to me as the Sandars translation. 

The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels
by Alexander Heidel

I wasn’t a huge fan of this translation, though it’s a classic that many scholars use as one of their base translations. It, like the Foster translation, is in fragmented verse. Only, it didn’t have the annotations. And the typeset in my book was difficult to read. I’d say the benefit of reading this book rather than the Norton Critical Edition is that it is a classic translation and includes Heidel’s analysis about Old Testament parallels. 

Stephen Mitchell’s adaptation of Gilgamesh Epic –
adapted from several translations in English
Read by George Guidall
Wow. This reading was fantastic. I want to get every audiobook ever read by Guidall – and he’s narrated a lot. What’s interesting about this book is that it is not a translation of Gilgamesh. Nor does Mitchell claim to be a Gilgamesh scholar. He simply wanted to bring to life the story in powerful language rather than stilted precise translation. Therefore, he used every English translation he could get his hands on, and adapted them into a powerful verse epic. No changes were made to the story. Trust me. I would have noticed after reading two different translations of the story. There were only a few times where I felt that the language was unfitting to either of the translations I read – he tended to use more shocking (rude) words than the other two translations. 

I read a criticism of this adaptation which complained that it inappropriately made the relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu homoerotic – but the possible implication of homosexual love between the two was present in both of the other translations I read. I think it may have been more evident in this adaptation because of the powerful language Mitchell used. But it was not inappropriate given the context. He was just taking the story that was there and conveying it with powerful words rather than exact translation. 

So which of these books would I suggest you read? Depends on what you want to get out of it. Do you want to just read and get the gist of the story? I’d go with the Mitchell adaptation – audiobook if possible, but that’s not necessary. The Sandars translation is also quite readable. If you want precision in fragments or a lot of analysis essays, go for the Norton Critical Edition. 

This is a series of posts about The Epic of Gilgamesh. Here is a list of all posts thus far: 

The Epic of Gilgamesh – Historical Background

History of the epic

The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest epic still in existence. Coming from the third millennium BCE, it predates Homer’s epics by at least one and a half thousand years. It is from a time long forgotten by historians – only rediscovered in the last century by archaeologists in the Middle East. The fascinating part about the Epic of Gilgamesh is that even though it is 5 millennia old the humanity and passion of the story still resonate with readers today. 

The most complete version of Gilgamesh yet discovered is a series of eleven tablets in the Akkadian language found in the library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh. Ashurbanipal  (668-627 BCE) was a great king of the Assyrian empire and a collector of literature from all over the Middle East. His library disappeared after the fall of Nineveh in 612 BCE, and was uncovered by archaeologists in 1839. The tablets were transferred to the British Museum where they received little attention until 1873, when a scholar named George Smith realized that they included an account of the flood (recounted in the Bible as the story of Noah’s ark). This announcement set off an immediate sensation because it suggested that the authors of the Bible might have been familiar with Gilgamesh’s story (though possibly both versions come from an earlier source). After this discovery, archaeologists dug up more and more tablets and scholars busied themselves with translations. Unfortunately, some of the tablets are fragmented, and the story has to be pieced together from different versions. This leaves the story very open to interpretation. 

Who was Gilgamesh?

The character of Gilgamesh is thought to be based on a real king of the Mesopotamian city of Uruk (Erech in the Bible). The historical Gilgamesh probably raised up the famous walls of Uruk, described in glorious detail in the epic. The walls had a 6 mile perimeter and more than nine hundred towers. Its ruins are near the town of Warka, in southern Iraq. Archaeologists date parts of the wall to around 2700 BCE, so they believe Gilgamesh may have lived around then. According to the “Sumerian king list,” Gilgamesh was the fifth king of the founding dynasty of Uruk. 

Gilgamesh was clearly a great builder – not only building the great wall, but also restoring the shrine of the goddess Ninlil. He very likely led a successful expedition to retrieve timber from the lands to the North – a story which was related in the epic.  

This is a series of posts about The Epic of Gilgamesh. Here is a list of all posts thus far: