There were two ancient languages and literatures: Greek and Hebrew. One of them, probably Hebrew, was the original language, from which (after the Fall) all the others arose as degenerate and distorted descendants. That was, roughly, how things looked to educated Westerners until, in the early nineteenth century, there began a great age of discoveries and decipherments. European conquests and Western inquisitiveness combined to unearth, and gradually to make intelligible, a huge variety of ancient scripts and forgotten languages: Egyptian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Hittite, Phoenician, and more. The history of mankind became suddenly much longer and more complex. At the same time, the sciences of geology and archaeology were busy extending the age of the world and the evolution of species, the human race itself—very controversially—not excluded.

The decipherment of those scripts and those languages is one of the truly great stories of human intellectual history. An extraordinary series of achievements, it has changed our image of the world and of our place in it at least as much, perhaps, as the invention of nuclear fission or the possibility of space travel.

The world, it turned out, was enormously older, and history enormously more complex, than anyone had suspected. What of civilization? What of culture, the arts, literature, religion? Passions ran high over the theory of evolution and its impact on literalist belief in the Book of Genesis. The unquestioned ascendancy, in education and history, of the classical world of Greece and Rome, their status as the fountainhead of culture, seemed no less threatened than that of the Bible in matters of faith. What to do, in fact, with all this new material: How to fit it into a coherent and intelligible history?

As some of the dust began, slowly, to settle, the shaken disciplines of theology and classical studies began to mark out fields which they could claim as especially their own. Assyrian histories of conquest, Egyptian creation myths, Canaanite legends: none of them, really, could claim the unique truth of the Bible, or the aesthetic beauty or deep human significance of the masterpieces of classical literature—of the serene yet terrible poetry of Homer, or the penetrating and skeptical history of Thucydides, or the universal genius of Plato or Aristotle.

That was, perhaps, not wholly unconnected with the fact that in those days many educated people had learned some Greek and Latin, could read some of those literatures, felt at home with their forms and their content; while the new discoveries, which were never going to make it onto school syllabuses, have remained exotic, unfamiliar, and rather remote.

How good, in fact, was any of this literature? Did it really stand comparison with the glory that was Greece, or even with the grandeur that was Rome? One of the strongest cases, it emerged, could be made for an extraordinary epic poem, turning up and gradually becoming known in several recensions, of quite widely separated dates and in various languages, on the mythical career of the great Mesopotamian hero Gilgamesh. The name was not a familiar one. Diligent search of the Greek sources found it occurring once, as an exotic item in a magical spell. To all practical purposes, Gilgamesh had been lost to memory.

Who was he? He was king of Uruk, or Erech, a city of Mesopotamia, in what is now Iraq. He was more than merely human, in fact he was, like Homer’s Achilles, the son of a goddess; and (more quaintly) he was two-thirds divine. Not surprisingly, perhaps, he was of superhuman stature and strength. Our earliest texts about him date from about 2100 BCE, and various poems on his exploits and fate have come to light, in the Sumerian, Akkadian, and Old Babylonian languages, all of the Semitic family, which were recorded on baked clay tablets, most of them nowadays reposing in the British Museum in London. The longest, most coherent, and most readable version is in Old Babylonian, composed, it seems, about 1200 BCE, by a scholar-priest named Sîn-l��eqi-unninni.

That is essentially the version which underlies the new translation, ingenious and very readable, by Stephen Mitchell, who has published versions of such other classics as the Tao Te Ching, the Bhagavad Gita, and selected poems of Rilke. He makes no claim to be a scholar of those widely different literatures, and he relies for his text on the work of professionals. He has produced a satisfying result. It is cast in the form of lines with four rhythmic stresses, unrhyming, in a diction raised a little in tone, but not unrecognizably far, from that of speech.

Gilgamesh appears at first as a tyrant and oppressor:

The people suffer
from his tyranny, the people cry out
that he takes the son from his father and crushes him,
takes the girl from her mother and uses her,
the warrior’s daughter, the young man’s bride,
he uses her, no one dares to oppose him.

The people cry to the gods, who raise up an opponent for him: a wild man, Enkidu. At first he runs with the animals and does not eat human food; a woman has to be sent out to meet him in the wilderness, a sacred prostitute and priestess of the goddess Ishtar. Her name is Shamhat. She introduces him to sex and to human cuisine. After that, the animals shun him: he must become a man. He challenges Gilgamesh, wrestles with him in a mighty duel, and is defeated. Gilgamesh and Enkidu make friends:


They embraced and kissed. They held hands like brothers.
They walked side by side. They became true friends.

Parallels come to mind: David and Jonathan; Achilles and Patroclus.

Such a pair of young heroes must feel the need of heroic exploits. Off they go together to the Cedar Forest, to fight the monster Humbaba, a fearsome giant with fiery breath, whose “jaws are death.” Killing him, we read, will drive from the world “the evil the gods hate.” That evil is never specified or described: it is not really what interests the poet. And the story has an unexpected complexity. Humbaba, it turns out, has been put there by the great god Enlil himself, and for a purpose. Defeated and threatened with death, he pleads for his life:

Humbaba said, “If any mortal,
Enkidu, knows the rules of my forest,
it is you. You know that this is my place,
and that I am the forest’s guardian. Enlil
put me here to terrify men,
and I guard the forest as Enlil ordains.”

A modern sensibility is disconcerted: this monster has an unexpectedly Green and eco-friendly side. But the two heroes kill him. Enkidu encourages his friend:

Enkidu said, “Dear friend, quickly,
before another moment goes by,
kill Humbaba, don’t listen to his words,
don’t hesitate, slaughter him, slit his throat,
before the great god Enlil can stop us,
before the great gods can get enraged….
Establish your fame, so that forever
men will speak of brave Gilgamesh,
who killed Humbaba in the Cedar Forest.”

Heroism prevails over ecological scruples—as usual. The monster dies, but not before cursing them both. Next the goddess Ishtar, queen of sexual delight, becomes enamored of Gilgamesh; he rejects her rather direct advances with words of insult. In revenge, the furious goddess gets her father to send the Bull of Heaven to ravage the country; Gilgamesh kills it, and flings its thigh (possibly a euphemism, though Mitchell does not say so) in Ishtar’s face.

So far, so good! But gods, even disagreeable ones, cannot be defied with impunity. For killing Humbaba and the Bull, either Gilgamesh or Enkidu must die. A dream reveals—the epic is studded with prophetic dreams—that it is Enkidu. He falls ill and is marked for death. In despair he curses Shamhat, the woman who made him human:

Never may you have a home and family,
never caress a child of your own,
may your man prefer younger, prettier girls,
may he beat you as a housewife beats a rug…
may wild dogs camp in your bedroom, may owls
nest in your attic, may drunkards vomit
all over you, may a tavern wall
be your place of business….

The sun god Shamash points out that this is unfair, and Enkidu retracts his curses:

May you be adored by nobles and princes,
two miles away from you may your lover
tremble with excitement, one mile away
may he bite his lip in anticipation,
may the warrior long to be naked beside you,
may Ishtar give you generous lovers
whose treasure chests brim with jewels and gold,
may the mother of seven be abandoned for your sake.

But Enkidu dies. Gilgamesh mourns for him inconsolably: like Achilles for Patroclus, we interject, or like David for Jonathan. By and by he sees a maggot fall out of his unburied friend’s nose, and his grief takes the form of reflecting that Enkidu’s fate foreshadows his own:

Must I die too? Must I be as lifeless
As Enkidu? How can I bear this sorrow?

Gilgamesh sets off to find the one man who has succeeded in becoming immortal: the Mesopotamian Noah, the survivor of the great Flood, Utnapishtim. Advised by an alarming but friendly couple, called the scorpion man and the scorpion woman, he must run through the tunnel which is the nightly path of the sun from west to east, for twelve hours in pitch darkness, and outstrip the sun as it pursues him.

He meets an immortal woman who keeps a sort of inn; he has other adventures, and in the end he meets Utnapishtim, who tells him the story of the Flood, sent by heaven to destroy the human race for their sins. Its resemblance to the Genesis narrative is striking and unmistakable.


The story of a great primeval flood and a single survivor, favored and preserved by heaven, meets us again in another ancient and popular Mesopotamian tale: that of Atrahasis. He, too, is warned by a god, builds a ship, and survives the deluge. The Hebrews, on the edge of the Mesopotamian world (we remember the Babylonian captivity), followed the traditional story pattern: their God had saved one man, Noah, and his nameless wife. The Greeks, a little further still from the ancient centers of culture, told how Zeus drowned all mankind except for the prudent Deucalion. He was warned by heaven, built a boat, and, with his wife Pyrrha, survived the otherwise universal watery disaster.

The similarity of all these stories is striking and unmistakable. We are confronted, in fact, by a set of variations on a theme that ancient audiences found both exciting and morally edifying. In the nineteenth-century pious explorers hunted on Mount Ararat for remains of Noah’s ark; but nowadays those other Floods and other Noahs have made that story look distinctly more mythical, and that quest considerably less promising.

Utnapishtim sets Gilgamesh a simple test:

“Just stay awake
for seven days. Prevail against sleep,
and perhaps you will prevail against death.”
So Gilgamesh sat down against a wall
to begin the test. The moment he sat down,
sleep swirled over him, like a fog.
Utnapishtim said to his wife,
“Look at this fellow! He wanted to live
forever, but the very moment he sat down,
sleep swirled over him, like a fog.”

Knowing that Gilgamesh will try to deny his failure, Utnapishtim gets his wife to bake a loaf for every day he stays asleep; when he wakes Gilgamesh after seven days, there are the seven loaves, variously stale and moldy, to refute his claim that

I was almost
falling asleep when I felt your touch.

Utnapishtim’s wife induces her husband to give the crestfallen Gilgamesh another chance. There is a secret herb in the depths of the sea, which can confer the gift of eternal youth. The hero succeeds in getting it, but foolishly leaves it on the ground, where it is eaten by a snake. And that, O Best Beloved, is why snakes can slough off their old skin and be young again. But we, alas, cannot….

The poem ends with Gilgamesh despairing of immortality, first weeping and then returning home to Uruk. By a marvelously sensitive turn, he appreciates the place for the first time. His story ends where it began, repeating the opening lines in praise of the great city.

This is
the wall of Uruk, which no city on earth can equal.
See how its ramparts gleam like copper in the sun.
Climb the stone staircase, more ancient than the mind can imagine,
approach the Eanna Temple, sacred to Ishtar,
a temple that no king has equaled in size or beauty,
walk on the wall of Uruk, follow its course
around the city, inspect its mighty foundations,
examine its brickwork, how masterfully it is built….

The reader may well be reminded of Psalm 48:

Walk about Zion, and go round about her: and tell the towers thereof;
Mark well her bulwarks, consider her palaces: that ye may tell them that come after….

The story of the Flood is not the only link that connects this very ancient work with the Hebrew scriptures. One remembers also the idea of G.K. Chesterton, that the point of a long journey is to see one’s own home again, and to see it as if for the first time.

The poem of Gilgamesh was restored to the modern world after three thousand years of silence. It is heroic but also complex. Again and again the first impressions of the narrator turn out to be misleading. The monster is allowed a speech that raises valid and disturbing points, and his slayer must suffer for his heroic deed. (By contrast, Saint George, for instance, does not have to argue with the dragon, or to suffer for killing it.)

Fresh from his triumph, the hero confronts the fact of death. He must mourn for his friend, and he must face his own mortality. A superhuman exploit brings him at last the secret of eternal life; he has it in his grasp; but (of course) he must lose it. The end of triumph is mourning. The end of heroism is death. Gilgamesh laments,

Was it for this that my hands have labored,
was it for this that I gave my heart’s blood?
I have gained no benefit for myself
but have lost the marvelous plant to a reptile.

There is no happy ending, even for mighty heroes who are close to the gods. We may be reminded of another great epic, the Iliad of Homer. That, too, is a tragic tale, which ends with Hector, brave and attractive, lying dead, his body abused, his city and his family doomed; and with his slayer, the victorious hero Achilles, blaming himself for the death of his best friend and knowing that he, too, is about to die.

In other heroic traditions, the Nibelungenlied ends with a general slaughter of the great warriors who have engaged our attention and sympathy; the lay of Tristan ends with the lovers Tristan and Ysolde dying pathetic deaths; in the Song of Roland the great paladin is betrayed and killed at Roncevaux; King Arthur’s knights are at last betrayed by Ganelon, defeated, and slain, and their kingdom passes away.

This is the true epic vision. The Odyssey flinches from its austerity and tries to evade it, bringing the hero and his wife together happily at the end, and saying only that sometime, in the future, the hero will have to journey again, before at last he is released by a gentle death. A modern epic like The Lord of the Rings can deny the dark epic vision altogether and finish with victory and triumph for the good, and poetic justice dished out all around. An older wisdom, and a truer poetry, sees that the highest nobility and the deepest truth are inseparable, in the end, from failure—however heroic—from defeat, and from death.

This Issue

March 9, 2006