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The Epic of Gilgamesh

by Anonymous, Sîn-lēqi-unninni (Editor)

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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8,949109734 (3.78)2 / 178
The story of Gilgamesh, an ancient epic poem written on clay tablets in a cuneiform alphabet, is as fascinating and moving as it is crucial to our ability to fathom the time and the place in which it was written. Gardner's version restores the poetry of the text and the lyricism that is lost in the earlier, almost scientific renderings. The principal theme of the poem is a familiar one: man's persistent and hopeless quest for immortality. It tells of the heroic exploits of an ancient ruler of the walled city of Uruk named Gilgamesh. Included in its story is an account of the Flood that predates the Biblical version by centuries. Gilgamesh and his companion, a wild man of the woods named Enkidu, fight monsters and demonic powers in search of honor and lasting fame. When Enkidu is put to death by the vengeful goddess Ishtar, Gilgamesh travels to the underworld to find an answer to his grief and confront the question of mortality.… (more)

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Assembled from various fragments, this is thought to be the earliest "literature. Plot concenrs the heros encounters with lust, friendship, loss, and death. There are a couple of moving passages about grief and the quest for meaning.
This edition has extensive glossary for all the names of gods, etc. as well as a pretty scholarly (dense, detailed) introduction. ( )
  brianstagner | Jul 10, 2022 |
This is the oldest epic in the history of literature. As such it provides the first example of the traditional "heroic journey" as defined by the writings of Joseph Campbell. The journey of Gilgamesh, his friendship with Enkidu, and his search for immortality is a transcendent work of literature. Among other things, it includes the legend of the great Flood that many of us have encountered in the biblical story of Noah. ( )
  jwhenderson | Jun 13, 2022 |
In December 1872, George Smith attended a meeting of the newly created Society of Biblical Archeology. For the previous few decades archeologists had been finding more and more of the tablets which had cuneiform writing on them and the specialists were starting to decipher them - finding both the expected household records but also the lines of poetry and myths and all kinds of other things noone expected. And George Smith was about to change the state of the known world overnight - because what he announced at this meeting was nothing less than a record of the Flood, with a man being told how to build a boat and how to save his family and everything else living. That record was at least a few centuries older than even the oldest known records that made up the Bible. And that already very old and unexpected copy was itself a copy of a much older record.

Thus began the uncovering of a literary mystery which proved that the Greeks did not invent literature (as everyone believed at that point). Because that story of the Flood was part of the Akkadian version of Gilgamesh - which was itself based on a series of Sumerian poems about Bilgames (the Akkadian name remained the one in use even when the older sources were found). That initial story was incomplete so everyone kept looking for more parts of the story (just to get the scale, on a single dig, they would often find 40K or more tablets) and pieces started showing up. But not all of them matched - there were the best copies from the buried library of Ashurbanipal (everyone had heard about the Alexandria library and the tragedy of its destruction in 48 BC; the same happened at the end of the Assyrian rule in 612 BC in Nineveh - except that the fires that destroyed Alexandria acrtually helped preserve the tablets here) but there were also versions of a different sequence which somewhat matched but were obviously different. And then there were versions showing up in tablets in all known languages in the area - mainly Sumerian, Akkadian (mainly Babylonian versions) and Hittite but a few of the smaller languages also helped preserve versions. The poem was popular - its 12 tablets were copied and recopied, sometimes parts of the story were moved around (as most of these were essentially passages on the same tablet, one may wonder if this was not a 'printing' error - someone started copying the wrong part first and decided to leave it like that).

Soon the scholars started to see the patterns and realize that they are dealing with two really different versions - so they started to group these different versions producing the what is now known as the Standard version (the best preserved copy is the Ashurbanipal's one (specifically assembled for his library with new translations where needed) but with a lot of additions from elsewhere) and the old Babylonian version. Add to this the set of Sumerian early poems which gave the start of the whole thing and a few tablets in various languages which seem like retellings and you get mist of what we have. Even with all the fitting and all the pieces and jigsaw puzzles being solved, we have only ~2/3rd of the full poem (and for awhile the work was especially tedious because the fragments are all over the world, in different museums and universities and it could take years before someone in Berlin realized that they have a piece which adds 40 lines to an existing known US fragment for example.

But even the best preserved tablets (incidentally the Flood one) are fragmentary - there are missing parts and not all of them can be filled by other tablets. So parts of the story are still somewhat of a puzzle. And then there is the problem of the 12th tablet which simply does not fit - it is a direct translation of one of the existing Sumerian poems and one wonders briefly if maybe there were more of these translated or if they grabbed the wrong tablet to translate (as there is a better fitting poem which does not make it into the Akkadian versions - the one with the death of Gilgamesh). Of course the scholars will probably explain why this is unlikely but as I am not one, I just wonder.

So when you look to read the poem in the 21st century and you read a language with more than one translation, you need to decide which one to read. They seem to be in three broad categories:
- The scholarly ones - where the text is as it was found, translated directly from the languages they existed in, with the normal Akkadian way of expression and with the lacunae unfilled and marked.
- The middle ground ones - where the poem is smoothed over so that it reads better but it is still a fresh translation (sometimes with a bit of help from older ones)
- The pure literary ones - most of these done based on older translations and not based on the actual stories; some of them so far removed from the material that the are more interpretations than they are translations in any meaningful way (but then the modern idea of a translation being exact reproduction into another language is really a modern one).

I fully expected to fall into a translation of one of the first two types but the scholar ones are entertaining if you know the story and the second type seem to be the rarest ones (and for the most part the older ones). And age is somewhat important here because the older the translation, the less of the missing parts that had been found later it contains. So how do you decide what to read? You get a few copies and see which one you like the best of course. So here I was sitting one weekend with 7 different versions of the poem and deciding which one to start with - as it seems like reading all of them will be fun (then I realized I have a few more versions in various anthologies). And the one I decided was the best to start with was the least likely of them all - the prose compilation of N. K. Sandars (also known as the shorter or the older Penguin Classics edition - it got superseded but the scholarly edition by Andrew George in 1999) - not only it is from the third type but it is also in prose. But it is a perfect way to read the story.

So what is the story about? Meet Gilgamesh - a king of Uruk (who as it turned out existed and at least some of this epic appears to be true). Unlike the usual later heroes, he ends up on a journey after his people call to the Gods to stop his oppression - so the Gods create him a companion, Enkidu, and the two friends go have some adventures - walk a lot, kill something's guardian, annoy a God or three, you know - the usual heroic stuff. The poem is all about searching for immortality - first of one's name, later, after Enkidu dies, of one's actual body. Along the way Gilgamesh meets the man who survived the Flood, manages to get close to immortality (some of the funnier parts of the poem are about how he is close but every time he manages not to get it) and to find peace at the end. And this is where the 11th tablet ends. Sandars choses to ignore the 12th and instead to add the old Sumerian poem about the death of Gilgamesh as the end of her story (and this is my minor issue with this version: the religions of the area were not like later religion which insist that it is their ways or the highway (or hell) - instead when two different groups of people with different gods met, they just merged the pantheons. When there were repetitions, they just merged two different gods; when there were none, they just renamed them to match their languages (that's how Sumerian Inanna became Ishtar in the Akkadian/Babylonian pantheon for example). As a result, the stories of most gods and heroes got a bit confused in the retellings and mergings but as a whole, the pantheon held as a unity - and sometimes the clues of where the story originated was in which gods were around. Take for example Marduk. The versions we have from the poem are mostly Babylonian but Marduk is nowhere to be seen. Instead it is the Akkadian gods and heroes which are in play here - thus the dating to earlier days (later confirmed archeologically and so on). But back to the problem with that last chapter - it is a translation from Sumerian. Everything else is from Akkadian. So a few Sumerian versions of people we had heard of show up - the glossary at the end connects them but as this is supposed to be a unified text, it is a bit weird (the one that got me was Tammuz/Dumuzi - I may not even had realized that these are names we had seen before if I did not know about this particular name). But that is a minor gripe).

Early on, the belief was that the Bible stories were copied in some ways from these. But the current scholarship holds that they were all based on even older stories, coming from the pre-literate days of the Mesopotamian civilization - and all later stories in the area drew from them and made them their own (and that's why they are slightly different).

The introduction in this edition is very useful but as usual, if you had not read the story/poem before, it will spoil all the surprises. I actually read the story twice - with the introduction read in the middle - I missed things in the first reading but then I probably missed things in the second one as well. And I still plan to read other versions of this poem. ( )
3 vote AnnieMod | May 16, 2022 |
(This refers to the translation by Maureen Gallery Kovacs)

Yet another version of Gilgamesh. (See The Buried Book and The Epic of Gilgamesh (that review compares several translations)). This one dates from 1989, so it might be a little dated; after all, new bits and pieces of the epic are continuously turning up. I’m assuming everybody is familiar with the basics; if not check some of the reviews referenced above.

Kovacs’ introduction is very good; she notes that there are poems about Gilgamesh and Enkidu in Sumerian, but no complete epic – these date from around 1800 BCE (the first known tablets; they were presumably composed earlier). The first epic version is in Akkadian and is conventionally called the Old Babylonian version, dating from around 1700 BCE. The “standard” version, attributed to Assyrian scribe Sinleqqiunninni, dates from around 400 years later. There are bits and pieces in Hurrian, Hittite, and Neobabylonian. Kovacs comments optimistically that at the rate of archaeological discovery she expects a complete version of the Epic in her generation; alas, events in the Middle East have conspired to prevent that.

All the known copies are fragmentary. The most complete is the “Standard” version, 12 tablets found at Nineveh, but even these were only about 60% complete at the time Kovacs was writing. In many cases there are repetitive passages; for example, when the trapper encounters Enkidu he goes to his father, explains how Enkidu is releasing trapped animals, and asks what to do. His father tells him to go to Gilgamesh and ask for a harlot, who will then seduce Enkidu. The trapper goes to Gilgamesh and in exactly the same language explains how Enkidu is releasing trapped animals. Gilgamesh then gives exactly the same advice as the trapper’s father. Thus missing words and passages in one section can be restored from the other.

In other cases missing sections have been restored from other versions; the Old Babylonian or the Hittite. Kovacs notes these often have a different “feel” from the Standard version, and she’s always careful to note when text is “restored” this way. She also comments on places where the Standard version is more or less intact but other versions are different; for example, part of the encounter of Enkidu, Gilgamesh, and Humbaba is quite different between the Standard version and a Hittite fragment. In some cases she uses transliterations of the original Akkadian – for example, “kisru” and “zikru” – with footnotes explaining various possible meanings of the words that make some sort of sense in context.

This is not a “poetic” translation and it’s not a “smooth” read; there are numerous lacunae (Kovacs always notes how many words or lines are missing), footnotes explaining complicated words or passages, and explanations where it’s been necessary to interpolate the Old Babylonian version. In one of her appendices, Kovacs notes that several popular “translations” of Gilgamesh are no such thing; the authors don’t know any ancient languages and have instead used other’s translations and “retold” them in English. This raises the question of what LibraryThing should consider a “translation”; for example, is T.H. White’s The Once and Future King a “translation” of Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur into Modern English, or is it a “retelling”? In fact, Le Morte d’Arthur is a pretty apt comparison; there were earlier Arthurian tales that Malory consolidated into his story, just like the author of the Old Babylonian version of Gilgamesh probably consolidated Sumerian poems; then there were “retellings” centuries later in Hittite, Assyrian, and other ancient languages that made changes and additions to fit the times, and finally translations and “retellings” in modern languages.

At any rate, this is a very worthwhile book if you’re interested in background for some of the more “poetic” versions of Gilgamesh available. A map of the area, highlighting places mentioned in Gilgamesh; illustrations of some of original tablets. Several appendices (including Kovac’s explanation as why she didn’t include Tablet 12 from the Nineveh “standard” version in her translation), and notes for further reading.
2 vote setnahkt | Apr 9, 2022 |
this is the more literal version of the fragmented remains of this amazing text: how humans learned to lie and call it literature. It's good to read this along with a more Englished version, one that smooths out the gaps.

Culture: it's what you learn from bartenders and whores, in this book. How do you tell time? By how hard the bread is. Eternal life is found at the bottom of the sea.

( )
  AnnKlefstad | Feb 4, 2022 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Anonymousprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Sîn-lēqi-unninniEditormain authorall editionsconfirmed
Burckhardt, GeorgTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ferry, DavidTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Feyter, Theo deTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gardner, JohnTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Guidall, GeorgeNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hämeen-Anttila, JaakkoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Henshaw, Richard A.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Jastrow, MorrisEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kantola, TainaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kapheim, ThomIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kovacs, Maureen GalleryTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Maier, JohnTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Marks, John H.Afterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Mason, HerbertTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Maul, Stefan M.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Mitchell, StephenTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Muss-Arnolt, WilliamTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Pasco, RichardNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Salonen, ArmasTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Sandars, N. K.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Schott, AlbertTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Soden, Wolfram vonTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Thompson, Reginald CampbellTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Vanstiphout, HermanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Warring, LennartTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Westerman, FrankAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wyatt, Thomassecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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First words
I will proclaim to the world the deeds of Gilgamesh. ...

trans. N.K. Sandars (1960)
It is an old story
But one that can still be told
About a man who loved
And lost a friend to death
And learned he lacked the power
To bring him back to life.

trans. Mason (1972)
The Story
of him who knew the most of all men know;
who made the journey; heartbroken; reconciled;

who knew the way things were before the Flood,
the secret things, the mystery; who went

to the end of the earth, and over; who returned,
and wrote the story on a tablet of stone.

trans. Ferry (1992)
He who saw the Deep, the country's foundation,
    (who) knew . . . , was wise in all matters!
(Gilgamesh, who) saw the Deep, the country's foundation
   (who) knew . . . , was wise in all matters!

(He) . . . everywhere . . .
   and (learnt) of everything the sum of wisdom. 
He saw what was secret, discovered what was hidden. 
   he brought back a tale of before the Deluge.

trans. George (1999) 
He had seen everything, had experienced all emotions,
from exaltation to despair, had been granted a vision
into the great mystery, the secret places,
the primeval days before the Flood. ...

trans. Mitchell (2004)
To be sure, the lonely frustrations of the survivors is the same after every death, immorally or otherwise caused. And everyone is wise in saying, There is nothing you can do; but such wisdom does not reconcile any of us really to loss, for we knew the other as a person in himself not as an abstraction we could do without. We lost the one who we didn't realize enabled us to live in other people's worlds; now we have only our own private world and the almost herculean task of constructing a human reentry. [...]

Two friends in Paris helped me to understand two essential ingredients of Wisdom, the third ingredient being acceptance, referred to before, which one can only come by within oneself on one's return.

(Herbert Mason's Afterword to the Mariner edition, pp. 110-111)
(Utnapishtim speaking to Gilgamesh) [...]I would grieve
At all that may befall you still
If I did not know you must return
And bury your own loss and build
Your world anew with your own hands.

(from the Herbert Mason translation)
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This work is any complete, unabridged translation of the Standard Version of The Epic of Gilgamesh. To quote the FAQ on combining - "A work brings together all different copies of a book, regardless of edition, title variation, or language." Translations of the Old Babylonian Versions should remain separate, as should translations of the early Sumerian Gilgamesh stories and poems from which the epic came to be.
Based on currently accepted LibraryThing convention, the Norton Critical Edition is treated as a separate work, ostensibly due to the extensive additional, original material included.
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The story of Gilgamesh, an ancient epic poem written on clay tablets in a cuneiform alphabet, is as fascinating and moving as it is crucial to our ability to fathom the time and the place in which it was written. Gardner's version restores the poetry of the text and the lyricism that is lost in the earlier, almost scientific renderings. The principal theme of the poem is a familiar one: man's persistent and hopeless quest for immortality. It tells of the heroic exploits of an ancient ruler of the walled city of Uruk named Gilgamesh. Included in its story is an account of the Flood that predates the Biblical version by centuries. Gilgamesh and his companion, a wild man of the woods named Enkidu, fight monsters and demonic powers in search of honor and lasting fame. When Enkidu is put to death by the vengeful goddess Ishtar, Gilgamesh travels to the underworld to find an answer to his grief and confront the question of mortality.

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Book description
N. K. Sandars's landmark translation of one of the first and greatest works of Western literature

Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, and his companion Enkidu are the only heroes to have survived from the ancient literature of Babylon, immortalized in this epic poem that dates back to the third millennium BC. Together they journey to the Spring of Youth, defeat the Bull of Heaven and slay the monster Humbaba. When Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh’s grief and fear of death are such that they lead him to undertake a quest for eternal life. A timeless tale of morality, tragedy and pure adventure, The Epic of Gilgamesh is a landmark literary exploration of man’s search for immortality.
N. K. Sandars’s lucid, accessible translation is prefaced by a detailed introduction that examines the narrative and historical context of the work. In addition, there is a glossary of names and a map of the Ancient Orient.

For more than seventy years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world. With more than 1,700 titles, Penguin Classics represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines. Readers trust the series to provide authoritative texts enhanced by introductions and notes by distinguished scholars and contemporary authors, as well as up-to-date translations by award-winning translators.
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Penguin Australia

2 editions of this book were published by Penguin Australia.

Editions: 014044100X, 0140449191


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