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. 

The Archetypal Significance of Gilgamesh, by Rivkah Scharf Kluger

The Archetypal Significance of Gilgamesh: A Modern Ancient Hero
By Rivkah Scharf Kluger
As a young student of Jung, Kluger was encouraged by her mentor to study the archetypes of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Throughout her career, she gave many lectures on the subject, and was working on this book when she died. This is Kluger’s posthumous opus about the archetypes of Gilgamesh. As you can imagine, this is a very Jungian literary analysis. Her thesis was that the Epic of Gilgamesh was a coming-of-age story in which the character developed became fully aware (or conscious). 

In the first part of the story, Gilgamesh has only an id. He is wild – forcing the men to slave night and day on his building projects. Mothers would weep at the untimely deaths of their husbands and sons who had died from overwork. Gilgamesh would rape the maidens. He would ride around on the shoulders of children (how he managed this feat, I don’t know). Enkidu, likewise, was pure id – though in a different sense. He was someone who could run with the animals because he wasn’t yet quite human. 

When Enkidu and Gilgamesh met, there was the first inkling of ego – they became conscious that there was something else to their selves besides this wild energy. But even after they fought Humbaba, they were still a little wild. They scorned Ishtar, throwing insults (and bull haunches) at this revered and dangerous goddess. They were aware of their egos – they wanted immortality through glory – but they still had no self-control. 

This insult to Ishtar was another step in their development. Ishtar was the mother goddess, as well as the sexual goddess. By insulting her, they separated themselves from their “mother figure,” thus becoming men. Granted, immature men, but men all the same. 

After insulting Ishtar and maddening some others of the gods, Enkidu died. Neither Enkidu nor Gilgamesh was ready for this turn. They had not come to grips with the reality of death. In fact, even after Enkidu’s death, Gilgamesh was in denial. He waited for his friend to return until maggots fell out of Enkidu’s nose.

This realization of death was a new step in Gilgamesh’s life. He now needed to discover his superego,  which is the part of himself that would moderate the impulses of the id – his child-like, uncontrolled desires – with his ego – the part of him that was aware of the needs of the real world. Basically the superego is his conscience. 

He dressed himself as a wild-man, in some ways regressing away from his ego’s consciousness, and went on a quest for immortality. Along the way, he was tested – over and over – by gods and men. They kept telling him to turn back, his quest was pointless. But he passed all of those tests and reached his goal: Utnapishtim, the man who had survived the deluge and achieved immortality. Much to Gilgamesh’s disappointment, Utnaphishtim couldn’t tell Gilgamesh how to become immortal. But he gave Gilgamesh a plant which would restore the youth of whomever ate it. 

Instead of eating it right away, Gilgamesh decided to bring it back to his home in Uruk to share with others. Perhaps this was his first glimmer of conscience? But, of course, even this plan failed. A snake found the plant and ate it. Gilgamesh’s journey for immortality had failed. But it was not pointless. Because in that journey, Gilgamesh had gained wisdom. He’d become aware of his conscience. He was fully conscious. 

This was a very difficult book for me to read because I’m not very familiar with Jungian literary analysis. In fact, I don’t think I really processed what Kluger was saying until I tried to put it into my own words. Therefore, this book wasn’t very enjoyable to me, and it will not get a very high star rating. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good analysis, only that it wasn’t for me. 

Evil Hours, by David J. Morris

The Evil Hours, by David J. Morris
Narrated by Michael Chamberlain

In this important work, Morris traces the history of what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), even back into the ancient days. He begins the book with his own experiences with PTSD. He experienced many traumatic events when he was a war journalist in Iraq, most notably “the time he was blown up.” He remembers shortly before, one of the men asked him tentatively “Have you ever been blown up, sir?” Although the rest of the group chastised the man, it was too late. Morris had been “cursed.” When he was “blown up,” one of the men turned to him and yelled “What are you doing here?! We all want to go home and you’re here voluntarily?! What are you doing here?” Morris couldn’t answer that question. He understood that this moment had torn a rift between himself and this angry soldier – because Morris had chosen to put himself in danger. To be honest, I’ve often felt that way about war correspondents. Not that they deserve PTSD, no one deserves that. But if they repeatedly and purposely put themselves in danger, something will eventually happen.

In his book, Morris discusses not only his own PTSD & the history of PTSD, he talks about how PTSD affects the lives of its sufferers. He also discusses the major treatments for PTSD, many of which he has tried out himself. He apparently interviewed quite a few people for the book – at least he claims he did – though those interviews are generally chiseled down into two or three sentence mentions. 

One point that Morris brought up about “PTSD” in ancient culture is his suggesting that Epic of Gilgamesh and The Odyssey could be interpreted as allegories for PTSD. This was a fascinating new way to interpret an epic that I have been spending a lot of time thinking about lately (Gilgamesh, of course). The way he interpreted it, travel is good for the war-ravaged brain – seeing new places and having new experiences can release the trauma so that you can eventually return home to your life. I interpret it differently. I say that the voyage itself is in the mind. The voyage itself is the PTSD. Gilgamesh’s desperate hunts for immortality – whether by glory, by physical longevity, or by wisdom –  they’re different stages in his growth and healing from a trauma. I’d have to think about it more, but it’s definitely workable.

Morris also had an interesting section on treatments. The first he discussed was one that is highly lauded as the most successful treatment for PTSD: prolonged exposure (PE). In PE, the patient is made to relive his trauma in exact detail over and over. The theory is that after reliving it so many times, the mind becomes immune to the trauma, and is able to move on. This treatment has fantastic success rates. Problem is, the “success rates” of these studies don’t generally include people who drop out of treatment. And most people drop out of treatment because it makes their symptoms worse (at least at first). So is this a highly successful therapy? Or a potentially harmful one? Morris dropped out of PE because he became much, much worse. Morris also tried a form  of cognitive behavioral therapy which worked out much better for him – though Morris thought the idea of meshing out his cognitive distortions to be pointless and annoying. Morris also briefly talked about antidepressants. He pointed out that there is no proof that antidepressants have any effect at all on the symptoms of PTSD, but they might help the depression and suicidal ideation that often accompany PTSD.

One thing that disappointed me is that this is not a book about PTSD in general – it is a book about PTSD in military. PTSD is suffered more by women than by men. Most Americans with PTSD are women who have been raped or beaten or otherwise traumatized during a non-war setting. One review I read said “rape is also discussed extensively.” It wasn’t. Rape got a side comment every once in a while – generally in the form of a quote from Alice Sebold’s memoir. However, most of the research on PTSD, and Morris’ own personal experience with PTSD, is military-related, therefore it is understandable that he would focus on military PTSD.

The book also tended to wander and get a bit dull at times. And every once in a while there was a little touch of ignorance that the snobby intellectual will cringe at. Such as saying “as soon as I left PE, my stress almost mathematically declined.” That sentence is meaningless. Every decline can be modeled mathematically. I suppose he meant “exponentially declined.” But…sorry….I know….I’m a snob.

In the end, I thought this was a good book that could have been an amazing book if he had taken that extra step to include womens’ experiences a little more. Women are the majority of the sufferers of PTSD in the US, and a great journalist would certainly have the resources to look into this subject as well. 

A generous 4 stars for important content and good personal tie-ins

The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels, by Alexander Heidel

This classic book published in 1946 begins with a short introduction to The Epic of Gilgamesh, gives Heidel’s translation of the Epic, and finally provides a comparison of the Epic of Gilgamesh, and other Mesopotamian tablets with similar stories. Heidel’s translation is organized into tablet format, with fragments and unsure translations represented with an ellipsis and brackets.
Heidel begins his comparison with a chapter about death and the afterlife. In Mesopotamian literature, gods can die, evil was innate because humans were formed from the blood of a “bad” god, and there was an afterlife in which a person carried the objects buried with him into the afterlife. In Hebrew tradition, the one God can not die – he lives forever. However, there is a concept of original sin, similar to the Mesopotamian belief of innate evil. There seems to be some contradiction about whether Hebrews believed that there was an afterlife or not – most likely because of different beliefs of different sects.
The Mesopotamians partook in ancestor worship, which suggested that the ancestors could somehow intercede on behalf of their descendants. On the other hand, in Hebrew culture, there doesn’t seem to be any contact between the spirits of the dead and the living people.
The second, and final, chapter of Heidel’s book compares the Utnapishtim’s flood story that took place in the Epic of Gilgamesh with Noah’s flood story that took place in the Old Testament. There are obvious similarities. Utnapishtim and Noah both built ships to save them from a massive flood that the gods (or God) unleashed on the earth. They collected a male and female of every animal so that they could repopulate the earth. And at the end they released birds to let them know if the flood had subsided. Both the gods and the one God promised never to kill off humanity with such a calamity again.
But there were some interesting differences. First of all, Utnapishtim was not directly told of the flood. Nobody was meant to be told. But a god that favored Utnapishtim whispered to him through the wall of his home while Utnapishtim was sleeping. He told Utnapishtim to lie to the people around him – saying that one of the gods hated him, and that in order to save the entire community, he must leave in a ship. If the community helped Utnapishtim build the ship, they would be rewarded with a season of plenty, which would start with a “wheat-rain.” The community built the ship. Utnapishtim loaded on his family and his entire household of servants. At the end of the story, not all of humanity had died – just most of them. Some had survived the flood.
In the Old Testament, Noah was told directly by God to build a ship. He was asked to warn the community – telling them they must repent. The community did not repent. Noah built the ship and took only his family with him. All of humanity died.
Finally, Heidel discussed arguments of whether the Old Testament story had been derived directly from the Gilgamesh Epic, or if they had the same origins from a different source. He also wrote an interesting, though incredibly theoretical discussion about whether the flood really did happen, and what could have caused such a flood.
In the end, this book was very interesting, though I was hoping for a little more from it. However, I’m not quite certain what I expected, or why I expected it. After all, it delivered what was promised in the title. I think part of my higher expectations came from the fact that pretty much every list of references for studying the Gilgamesh Epic included this book.
Besides the rather silly overly-detailed theoretical discussions about the origins of the flood, one other thing I found annoying about this book was his over-use of the word “obviously.” These points were certainly not obvious to me, so why did he keep using that word? Perhaps his target audience was nothing like me.
3.5 stars for excellent research and being a classic reference book for Gilgamesh Epic.

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: 

The Epic of Gilgamesh – Analytical Summary

The Epic of Gilgamesh is a story about the futility of seeking immortality. It’s a journey of self-discovery in which Gilgamesh learns the ultimate truth – every human dies. It follows Gilgamesh, king of the ancient city of Uruk in southern Mesopotamia. As a youth, Gilgamesh was a capricious and domineering king. He deflowered the maidens, bullied the children and elderly, and forced labor on the men. His people prayed to the gods that they would send respite. So the gods formed the magnificent wild-man Enkidu out of clay. Enkidu fought in mighty hand-to-hand combat with Gilgamesh. When they found themselves nearly equal in strength, they embraced and became dear friends. 

Gilgamesh found entertainment and love in his new friend, and left the people of Uruk alone. But the two unearthly men soon became bored. They decided that they wanted to earn immortality by achieving great feats – or at least die trying. Rash youths, they glorified death, thinking it would immortalize them. 

First, they set out to defeat the beast Humbaba, whom the god Enlil had appointed protector of the forest. Once conquered, Humbaba begged for mercy. But the two youths, mistaking death for victory, chopped off his head and then downed many of the huge trees Humbaba had protected. 

Gilgamesh and Enkidu certainly made an impression, because upon returning to Uruk, Ishtar, the fertility goddess, fell in love with Gilgamesh. In his blood-glory, Gilgamesh scorned the love of Ishtar, who ran to daddy and pouted and screamed until her father loaned her the Bull of Heaven to punish Gilgamesh. 

The Bull brought famine and drought. He drank the Euphrates in a few gulps. He snorted, and the earth cracked before him. But Gilgamesh and Enkidu were in a blood-lust fury. They tore the Bull apart, and Enkidu threw the shank of the Bull at Ishtar claiming he’d tear her limb from limb if only she’d come down from the wall. Then Gilgamesh and Enkidu rode through the streets exclaiming: “Who is the most magnificent hero? Gilgamesh is! Enkidu is!”
With these two “victories” over death, Gilgamesh and Enkidu fancied themselves equal to the gods. But they soon found themselves sorely wrong. The gods punished the two by giving Enkidu a wasting illness. Before, they had glorified death as a path to immortality. But now they were standing face-to-face with death, and they were appalled by what they saw. To slowly die breath by breath? Humiliating! The loss of life, of friendship, of love? Tragic!
Gilgamesh could not face the reality of his friend’s death; refusing burial until maggots fell out of Enkidu’s nose. Then Gilgamesh melted down. He realized that he is human – and humans die. And death is not glorious. It leads to rot and decay. This was the second stage of Gilgamesh’s folly: he no longer saw death as a path to immortality, nor did he see it as a natural part of life. To Gilgamesh, death was an enemy who must be defeated.

Gilgamesh wrapped himself in the bloody skins of a lion and roamed the earth trying to hide from death. He became increasingly more violent and insane. In one passage, he found a boat that would take him to a man-god who Gilgamesh thought could advise him on becoming immortal. But instead of asking the boatman to ferry him across the lake to Utnapishtim, Gilgamesh furiously destroyed everything in sight. Having shown his power, he then demanded the boatman ferry him. But the boatman told him “How can I? You have destroyed the tools I need to do that.”

Everyone Gilgamesh talked to on his journey told him the same thing – death is inevitable. You are wasting your life in futility. But he would not listen. 

He finally reached Utnapishtim and asked the man-god how he had become immortal. Utnapishtim related the story of an annihilating flood which killed all but him, his family, and the animals he brought on his ship with him. Realizing the horror that they had empowered, the gods rewarded Utnapishtim with god-hood – promising never again to destroy the inhabitants of earth. But, Utnapishtim assured, the gods would never again grant immortality. Death was now the inevitable finale of life.

Gilgamesh was relentless, so Utnapishtim challenged him to fight death’s younger brother sleep for only seven days. Gilgamesh reclined and immediately fell asleep from exhaustion. He slept for 7 days before Utnapishtim woke him. 

Defeated in the realization that death could not be overcome, Gilgamesh prepared for his journey home. He bathed, anointed his body with oils, and donned civilized clothes. He was now willing to face death as a man. But there was one more lesson Gilgamesh had to learn before returning to his kingdom. 

As a parting consolation prize, Utnapishtim told Gilgamesh that at the bottom of the lake lay a plant that would return youth to whomever ate it. Gilgamesh dove into the lake and retrieved the plant. Instead of eating it right away, Gilgamesh decided to take it back to Uruk. In his hand, he finally clutched a tiny morsel of immortality, something that would allow him to return to Uruk wise and youthful. Yet he hesitated.

While on his return journey, Gilgamesh stopped by a lake and bathed. He carelessly placed the plant on the shore. Of course, the plant was stolen by a passing snake, which sloughed its skin and slithered youthfully into the ground. 

Thus Gilgamesh realized that his entire quest for immortality – from the glory-seeking of his youth, to the insane grasping for godhood, to his desperate clutching at the comfort of youth – was in vain. He returned to Uruk an introspective, wise king. This elderly Gilgamesh finally attained a form of immortality: he built temples, halls, and the great wall of Uruk (parts of which have been found by archaeologists today). He brought prosperity to the city. 

My one lingering question after writing this analytical summary is why did Gilgamesh hesitate to eat the plant? Was it his final folly to hesitate? Or was this hesitation encouraged by his new-found wisdom? I can’t decide.

There are so many things to say about The Epic of Gilgamesh, and I had big plans for this post. But I see now that there’s no way to give even a small portion of Gilgamesh’s due in one post. So I will break this into a series of posts. More is yet to come. If you have anything specific you’d like me to discuss, let me know.

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