We’ve posted a few times about how sometimes it is what is left out of a story, as much as what is put in, that can make it compelling, and how that void can fire the imagination. If that is a measure of how compelling a story is, that we keep thinking about it and imagining what was not explicitly told after we have finished it, then the Epic of Gilgamesh certainly qualifies. If only its omissions were more intentional.
Of the ancient texts that I’ve read, most of them have been remarkably complete. Works like the Babur Nama, which was relatively recent, or Herodotus’s Histories, which have been deliberately preserved by scholarly efforts throughout the intervening centuries, were like you would expect them to be: whole, ancient texts from which we could then translate into our modern languages (and by we, I mean people with far more linguistic skill than I possess). The notable exception would be the Popol Vuh, which was more of an interpretation of pictograms and ancient image-based recordings than it was a translation of a text in another language. Another notable exception would be the Epic of Gilgamesh.
In my head, I was expecting the translation of the Epic of Gilgamesh to read a lot like a translation of the Odyssey or the Iliad, which we have in more or less complete forms passed all the way down from Homer’s time. This seemed reasonable, as it is a well-known (for an ancient text) piece of literature that is also of the epic poem format, and shares similarities in themes, ideas, and roles in their societies. What I found instead was a poem that has been painstakingly pieced together by modern scholars from ancient, scattered fragments across that region of the world, from multiple time periods and in several distinct languages.
Out of this archeological sleuthing, a standard version of the Gilgamesh story has been reconstructed, which is referred to as the Babylonian version. It is the most complete of all of the versions that have been pieced together, and the translator for the version I read used fragments from two other versions – the Sumerian and the Old Babylonian – to fill in the gaps, which in translations are referred to as ‘lacunae.’ About half of the book consisted of this translation, following Gilgamesh’s classic adventures: meeting Enkidu, the Forest of Cedar, the Bull of Heaven, and his quest for immortality.
Even with these attempts to fill in the gaps, the story is incomplete. Not in a way that you are left wondering what one significant thing might have been, but enough that I found myself often wondering about what was in those gaps, what details have been lost to time, and how they might change our understanding of the poem and its place in history. Would the Gilgamesh who emerged from the pages of a more complete translation be a different character than the one we see in what remains, perhaps a more dynamic and fully-fleshed one? We may well never know, although the translator of my copy asserts that the durability of the original writing medium (clay tablets, primarily) makes it likely that there are more remnants to be found. Various versions and portions of the epic were used by several civilizations in succession as a practice text for scribes, which is a large part of why we’ve been able to recover as much of the poem as we have.
During Gilgamesh’s quest for immortality, we are treated to a summary of the Babylonian story of the Deluge, since the whole quest revolves around Gilgamesh finding Uta-Napishti, who is the Deluge’s version of Noah. One of the most fascinating things to me was how much of the Abrahamic religion can be found in the story of Gilgamesh. The story of the Deluge is especially resonant, even to Uta-Napishti abandoning his livelihood, building a giant wooden boat despite the scorn of his peers, and saving himself, his family, and two of every species when the gods drown the world with rain to eradicate humans. He then sends out birds to tell when there is land again. The story of the Great Flood can be found in almost every creation story on Earth, even those that should have developed in isolation from each other.
There are other religious aspects of the Gilgamesh stories that intrigued me, like the reverence for the number seven, the nature and ordering of the Netherworld (a little different from Dante’s vision), and how confused the gods seemed. Half the time, the gods didn’t even seem to know who was a god and who wasn’t a god, and they disagreed most of the time, to the point where one god would tell Gilgamesh that he should totally do a thing, and some other god then decides he needs to be punished for doing that thing.
Speaking of religion, I really should one day read through the Bible the way I’ve been reading through all of these other ancient texts. Just imagine how controversial any reviews I write for those books would be.
The other versions included some minor variations on the same stories as the Babylonian version, as well as additional stories and poems that were not part of what is considered the core Epic of Gilgamesh. These were well worth reading for the differences and evolutions they demonstrated, and the new content that enlarges the Gilgamesh world.
This was not a long or heavy read, but there was a lot of thinking that it inspired. It provided insight into a period of time and a place that was part of the very earliest human civilization, and its stories of Gilgamesh and Enkidu show both how humanity has changed, and remained constant, throughout the intervening millennia. What was missing as much as what was there led me to wonder if perhaps I should consider writing a modern interpretation of the Gilgamesh epic, something not intended as a scholarly or historical piece, but rather a telling of how the story could have been, based on my reading and my own imagination. We’ll see if I come back to that project idea often enough to make it worth doing, but for now, I hope that you consider reading one of the oldest pieces of human literature the world over.