One November day in the British Museum in London 150 years ago, a man called George Smith jumped up from the desk at which he had been working and—to the astonishment of onlookers in that hushed space of learning—“rushed about the room in a great state of excitement,” pulling off articles of clothing as he went, uttering cries of delight and shouting: “I am the first man to read that after more than two thousand years of oblivion.”
“That” was a baked-clay tablet on which was inscribed in dense cuneiform script the eleventh section of the Epic of Gilgamesh, a long poem now recognized as one of the earliest written works of world literature. Smith was a young working-class Londoner who had taught himself to read cuneiform during his lunch hours while employed as an engraver at a printing firm in the 1860s. His talent for ancient languages was spotted by British Museum staff, and—against the social grain of the day—he was in due course appointed as an assistant in the Assyriology department, tasked with sorting and decoding the thousands of tablets and tablet fragments in the museum’s holdings. Smith’s ecstasies in 1872 were triggered by his realization that the tablet he was translating recounted a version of the Flood myth that significantly predated the Book of Genesis. His discovery stoked the heated Victorian debates over the age and origins of the Old Testament.
The “Flood Tablet,” as it’s often called, is now on permanent display in the British Museum. It is surprisingly small: around six inches tall, five inches wide, and one and a quarter inches deep. The cuneiform script is tiny, and crammed tightly to all four edges of the tablet. There are almost no gaps between the symbols, nor are there punctuation marks or paragraphs. Cuneiform means “wedge-shaped”; the script on such tablets was made by pressing the triangular end of a small stylus—typically a trimmed river reed—into prepared wet clay, which was then baked to harden it. This method made tablets both durable and fragile: baked clay doesn’t rot, but it does crack and shatter, as happened to the Flood Tablet; significant parts of its left-hand and lower margins are missing, as is a thin triangular chunk of the upper right corner.
That the Epic of Gilgamesh exists at all is close to a miracle, and has much to do with the bibliophilia of the last great Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal (reigned 669–627 BCE), as well as the curatorial talents of desert sand. Partial versions of Gilgamesh are found in multiple languages, including an older Sumerian cycle of five (probably freestanding) stories that date back in written form to circa 2100 BCE; an Old Babylonian version from circa 1750 BCE; and the twelve-tablet Standard Babylonian version, which provides the main basis of all modern translations of Gilgamesh and is thought to have been edited between circa 1200 and 1000 BCE.
The best-preserved tablets bearing the Standard Babylonian version were recovered in the mid-nineteenth century from the buried ruins of the Library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh (now Kouyunjik in northern Iraq). A cultured despot, Ashurbanipal used the might of his empire to create the greatest library of the age. He ordered the regional centers of Mesopotamia to send him copies of significant texts in their holdings, he plundered the repositories of the cities defeated by his armies, and he hired scholars and scribes to make copies of Babylonian sources on fine clay, and in many cases to stamp those copies with a colophon recording his ownership.
The total holdings of the library at its height, spread between numerous rooms in the palace complex at Nineveh, ran into thousands of texts, recorded on clay tablets, clay cylinders, wax writing boards, and leather scrolls. They ranged from military history and financial ledgers to divinations and incantations, entreaties to gods, astrological forecasts, medical prescriptions, recipes, and literary works—of which Gilgamesh was one.
Nineveh’s destruction, paradoxically, ensured the library’s partial survival. In 612 BCE the city was invaded by a combined army of Babylonians, Scythians, and others, and the palace was sacked and burned. Though the wax boards and leather scrolls were lost to the fire, the heat seems to have baked some of the tablets into greater hardness, while shattering others. When the site was abandoned after the sacking, many of the library’s texts—some now in fragments, some still whole—remained in its storage rooms.
In the centuries that followed, the shifting desert sands closed over the ruins of Nineveh, gently protecting the tablets. There they lay buried for more than 2,400 years, until in the early 1850s the ruins began to be excavated, first by the British archaeologist Austen Henry Layard and then by Hormuzd Rassam, a talented Assyrian archaeologist from Mosul whose name has too often been elided from accounts of the Nineveh digs. Between them, Layard and Rassam shipped tens of thousands of clay tablets and fragments to the British Museum. During the process of excavation and transport, however, the pieces became jumbled together, with minimal records kept of which texts had come from which sites in the palace complex.
This was the vast jigsaw puzzle that George Smith set out to solve at the British Museum. The labor of matching and translating the tablets required painstaking detective work and exceptional pattern recognition—skills Smith possessed in abundance. He quickly made a number of significant discoveries with regard to the dates of an eclipse and an invasion, which helped fill gaps in ancient Middle Eastern chronology. In the years that followed his sensational identification of the Flood Tablet—buoyed by celebrity, and funded by the British Museum and The Daily Telegraph—Smith led his own archaeological expeditions to the Middle East, seeking, finding, and translating more parts of the Epic of Gilgamesh, both in the palace ruins at Nineveh and from the British Museum’s existing holdings. His pioneering career as an Assyriologist was really just getting started when he died of dysentery in a village near Aleppo in 1876, aged thirty-six.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is therefore both ancient and young. Because of its 2,400-year sleep beneath the sands at Nineveh, and unlike the Iliad or the Odyssey, it has not yet been “worn down by age,” as Sophus Helle notes in the introduction to his excellent new translation of the poem. In the century and a half since its rediscovery, however, and especially since World War II, Gilgamesh has made up for lost time. It has been translated into at least two dozen languages and been the inspiration for countless works of theater, film, poetry, fiction, and visual art. Musical responses to Gilgamesh include several operas, a ballet, hip-hop, jazz fusion, and an ear-pummeling track called “Gilgameš” by the Greek extreme metal band Rotting Christ.
Gilgamesh has also been acclaimed as the earliest work of ecological literature and included in The Columbia Anthology of Gay Literature as a founding text of queer writing, for its treatment of the relationship between Gilgamesh and his wild-man friend, Enkidu. The cultural energy of Gilgamesh shows no sign of dimming; the novelist Naja Marie Aidt describes it as a “fireball” that “has torn through time,” constantly in a process of reentry to the present.
Its plot runs something like this. Gilgamesh is a god-king who rules the city-state of Uruk with an iron fist and a wandering eye. Seeking to improve his behavior, the gods create Enkidu, who is part human, part beast: “a man all muscle, the mightiest in the land,/as mighty as a meteorite fallen from the sky,” in Helle’s translation. Enkidu leaves the wilderness where he dwells with the antelopes and walks to Uruk. There he encounters Gilgamesh and—in a scene that begs for an Ennio Morricone soundtrack—these two alpha males confront each other and then brawl in the main street: “They took hold of each other, butting like bulls.” Once the fight is done, of course, they become best friends and embark on a series of martial and amatory adventures together.
Calamity strikes when the Bull of Heaven is sent by the gods to punish Gilgamesh and Enkidu. The friends kill the Bull and dismember it, and Enkidu rudely hurls its penis at the goddess Ishtar. The gods decide that one of the two men must die for their actions, and that it should be Enkidu. A sickness is sent to strike him down, and after a twelve-day illness he perishes, pitching Gilgamesh into a madness of grief. “What sleep has seized you now?” Gilgamesh cries to Enkidu’s corpse. “Come back! You do not hear me.” He will not allow Enkidu’s body to be buried until—in one of the many details that leap piercingly across the millennia—a maggot crawls out of one of Enkidu’s nostrils.
Stricken by despair and appalled by the newfound knowledge of his own mortality, Gilgamesh sets off on foot to “wander the wild,” in an effort both to outpace his sadness and to locate the secret of eternal life. He passes through numerous tribulations, including a twenty-four-hour journey through the heart of a mountain, a deep dive into the ocean to retrieve a medicinal plant, and battles with lions and “scorpion people…whose eyes were death.”
Eventually Gilgamesh rows across the Waters of Death to the Island of Immortality, home to Uta-napishti, the only survivor of the great Flood. “The Thief of Life has a hold on my heart,” Gilgamesh tells Uta-napishti in Helle’s translation. “Death is sitting in my bedroom,/and wherever I turn, there too is death.” Uta-napishti recounts the story of the Deluge but also explains that Gilgamesh will never achieve eternal life. So at last Gilgamesh returns to Uruk, humbled and human.
“Gilgamesh is tremendous!” wrote Rainer Maria Rilke in 1916, before adding, “It concerns me.” Why does Gilgamesh continue to concern us? One reason is the durability of its central preoccupations. Ecocide, poor governance, toxic masculinity, fear of death, invasion, insomnia: Gilgamesh’s themes could be transcribed from yesterday’s newspaper.
It is also a poem of firsts: the first cities, the first axes, the first male friendship, the first queer love story. The character of Gilgamesh has much to do with what Helle calls the “strangely fresh” nature of the poem. Gilgamesh is fascinatingly complex: variously a vulnerable aesthete and a knuckle-dragging silverback, a grieving lover and a swinging-dick bullyboy. At times (priapic, solipsistic, childishly delinquent) he resembles Boris Johnson; at others (tired, wiser, sadder) he’s more late Franklin Roosevelt. Like a status-conscious middle manager, Gilgamesh is prissily precise about the degree of his divinity: he is “two-thirds god,” no more and no less.
“Gilgamesh the hero is youthful and rash,” notes Helle, “but Gilgamesh the epic is much more melancholic, full of meditations on death and the burden of community.” He describes Gilgamesh as “a work of passionate philosophy” and is very good on its rhythms and tempo contrasts, which “lur[e] the reader in with a mix of wild energy and sober reflection.” Something similar might be said of Helle’s own critical tone, which runs a multi-octave range in the zingy essays that accompany his translation. Though I can’t quite assent to his description of Gilgamesh as “verg[ing] on the camp,” I do like his account of the poem’s energies as “extra,” or what my teenage son, drawing on video-game argot, would call OP (overpowered). Occasionally Helle’s fondness for folksy plain speaking gets to be too much, as in the apologia pro vita sua with which he ends his introduction: “What follows is merely my take on this ancient masterpiece.”
Helle is a young Danish Assyriologist and postdoctoral fellow at the Freie Universitat Berlin; he writes for newspapers, appears regularly on radio, and has designed a free-to-download keyboard layout that makes it easier to “transcribe and transliterate Akkadian and Sumerian.” Next year he will publish a new translation of the complete poems of Enheduana, a high priestess and royal princess who wrote in Sumerian around 2300 BCE. In 2019 he collaborated with his father, the poet Morten Søndergaard, on a Danish translation of Gilgamesh, which became a surprise best seller in their home country. His English translation of Gilgamesh is lively, earthy, and scrupulous in its scholarship.
The gold-standard scholarly edition of the poem is that published by the British Assyriologist Andrew George in 2003. Helle acknowledges this edition as a “master class in philological precision and ingenuity,” and notes that he has sought in his own translation to pick a path between George’s “scholarly endeavo[r], whose primary aim is philological faithfulness,” and the numerous “translations of translations” undertaken by those who do not have the language skills to work with the original cuneiform, such as the poet Stephen Mitchell’s very free 2004 version.
Translating Gilgamesh from the Akkadian, Helle explains, is exceptionally “challenging, painstaking work”: “there is no textual formatting to speak of…no commas or capitals, no meaning-bearing difference in color or spacing.” Most of the six hundred or so commonly used cuneiform signs have “more than one meaning” and “can also be used in more than one way: as either syllabograms representing a syllable or ideograms representing a whole word,” such that the text teems with ambiguities and connotations. The original poem does not rhyme, but it does make extensive use of alliteration and assonance; a hallmark of Helle’s translation is the attention he pays to forms of “aural patterning,” in an effort to “re-create the sinuous and sonorous pleasure of the poem.”
A further, immense difficulty of translation is caused by the missing matter of Gilgamesh. Even in its complete form, it would be a relatively short epic: around three thousand lines, which Helle compares with Beowulf (3,182 lines) and the Iliad (15,693 lines). But because of the material conditions of its transmission, Gilgamesh is not complete; only around two thirds of the text of the poem is available to scholars. Translators therefore face the question of how to deal with both the absolute lacunae (for which no version exists at all) and those parts absent from the Standard Babylonian version that do exist in others (such as the Sumerian or the Old Babylonian).
Like Andrew George, Helle fills some of the gaps in the Standard Babylonian by “inserting passages from an older version in which the scene survives”; he indicates these interpolations with capitalized notes in the margin (“old babylonian version”; “ugaritic version”). While acknowledging the risk of such quilt work, he thinks it is “better than leaving the gaps blank,” and I agree with him. Many lacunae remain, though, and Helle has chosen to indicate these absences with a raised dot, rather like a hovering full stop. This mark allows the reader a relatively smooth linear journey through the poem, without ignoring the existence of the voids.
The poet Yusef Komunyakaa has called the “hundred ellipses” of Gilgamesh the “great silences in the piece,” but they are also provocations to the reader to make them speak. Imagination often rushes in to fill the vacuum, as in the closing section of the Seventh Tablet, when Enkidu dies. Helle’s version looks like this on the page:
He called out to Gilgamesh and · ·
“My friend, I have been cursed to··
When in battle · ·
I feared war · ·
My friend, those who in war · ·
I, who in war · ·”
The sadness and strangeness of Enkidu’s divinely ordained death—his entry into what Helle and George each call “the house of dust”—is here intensified by the stuttering rhythms and curtailed utterances. Speech trails off; death is a Morse-code flat line: dot, dot, dot, dot. It is among the principal fascinations of reading Gilgamesh that one becomes an active collaborator in meaning-making; the precariousness demands both attention and action, like throwing track out ahead of yourself as you walk across a chasm in a tunnel floor. This is another reason why the text remains so modern: each new reader functions as coauthor, inscribing contemporaneity back into this ancient poem.
Translators of Gilgamesh must deal with appearances as well as absences. The myriad clay fragments out of which the poem has been pieced together are still being added to by new excavations. Advances in digitization and the creation of software capable of seeking and matching fragments are also speeding up the detection of the poem’s missing parts. Two weeks before Helle was due to complete this English version of Gilgamesh, for instance, several new lines of the poem’s third episode were discovered, including a beautiful image in which Gilgamesh’s mother asks the Sun God to “open the road and ready the mountains” for her son.
In 2018, while Helle and his father were completing their Danish version, a new scene from the beginning of the Second Tablet came to light, with startling implications. It concerns what might be called Enkidu’s civilization process, the rites of passage that transform him from wild man to Gilgamesh’s wingman and friend. These involve Enkidu shaving off his body hair, swilling several jugs of beer, singing a merry song, and making love with a priestess called Shamhat.
Until the new scene came to light, this coital session was thought to last without pause for six days and seven nights, giving Enkidu probably “the most robust erection in literature,” as Joan Acocella put it. The newly discovered scene, though, doubled the duration of Enkidu’s coupling with Shamhat to a full fortnight (with a brief drinks break toward the end). Headline writers had a field day: “Ancient Sex Saga Now Twice as Epic,” quipped the London Times. The sudden surfacings of new shards of Gilgamesh, notes Helle, creates “a bizarre experience for a translator…like trying to paint a model who refuses to sit still.”
In March 2020, during the first days of the first Covid-19 lockdown in England, I began to reread the Epic of Gilgamesh, both in Andrew George’s translation and in Stephen Mitchell’s. Seeking routine and refuge in a world turned suddenly upside down, I formed a two-person Gilgamesh reading group with a friend, the musician and actor Johnny Flynn. Together we delved deep into the poem’s stories, and also into the complex meta-story of Gilgamesh’s composition, loss, and rediscovery. Out of those conversations grew songs, and those songs in turn grew into an album called Lost in the Cedar Wood, shaped by Gilgamesh and the pandemic through which we were then living.
Unable to meet up in person, Johnny and I swapped fragments of lyrics via WhatsApp and pieced songs together out of scraps of melody and word shards. In breaks from homeschooling his three young children, Johnny used his phone to record demos while sitting at his kitchen table, and sent those to me. When a brief slackening occurred in the lockdown rules, we recorded the first eight songs of the album on solar-powered equipment, in a cottage deep in the English woodlands. We subsequently adapted Lost in the Cedar Wood into a two-handed story-and-song show, which we first performed by candlelight at Shakespeare’s Globe last winter, shortly after the first Omicron wave had passed through London, to an audience who proved hungry for live performance and alert to the echoes of this ancient story in the present moment.
In the course of our two years working closely with the poem, Johnny and I became fascinated above all by the episode at the heart of Gilgamesh known as the “Journey to the Cedar Wood,” which occupies Tablets II to V of the Standard Babylonian version, and a version of which is also present in the earliest Sumerian story cycle. It describes how Gilgamesh and Enkidu set out on foot to a distant old-growth forest, hundreds of miles from Uruk. Before they reach it, the Cedar Wood is a beautiful and sacred place. In language unusually ornate for Babylonian poetry, the epic emphasizes the forest’s harmony and beauty; the call-and-response of birdsong “fill[s] the forest with resounding joy,” in Helle’s translation. Andrew George and fellow Assyriologist Farouk al-Rawi note that the Cedar Wood episode contains “one of the rare passages of Babylonian narrative poetry that is given over to the description of nature.” It has a strong claim to being the earliest known passage of nature writing in world literature.
The Cedar Wood is specifically described in animist terms; it has agency and voice, it “exults” (George), it has a “mind” (Helle). That is, until Enkidu and Gilgamesh reach it. They arrive at its brink armed with axes weighing 120 pounds each. There—in a magnificently dramatic pause—they hesitate, awed by what lies before them. Here are George’s lines prefacing the heroes’ entry into the Cedar Wood:
Cedars scabbed with resin grew sixty cubits high,
The resin [oozed] forth, drizzling down like rain,
[flowing freely] for ravines to bear away.
[Through] all the first a bird began to sing,
[hen birds] gave answer, a constant din was the noise.
And here are Helle’s:
The trees were webbed with creepers a hundred feet tall,
and the resin that oozed from them fell like raindrops
to be swallowed by the ravines.
The song of a bird went through the forest,
Calls came back and song became clamor.
George’s version is more honest about its gaps and its knowledge; his square brackets and italics indicate the uncertainty of “flowing freely,” while Helle keeps his text uncluttered. Helle is content with “calls,” but George provisionally specifies that it is “hen birds” that answer. Both translators reach for a strong figurative verb—“scabbed” and “webbed”—but Helle has the trees “webbed with creepers,” George “scabbed with resin.” George uses the passive (“a constant din was the noise”), Helle a more active, alliterative voice (“Calls came back and song became clamor”). Mitchell has Enkidu and Gilgamesh, gripping their weapons tightly, come to a halt “at the edge of the Cedar Forest,/gazing, silent. There was nothing to say.” This is the pause in which all of human history trembles on the brink of a new extractive and destructive relationship with nature.
Once Enkidu and Gilgamesh cross the threshold of the forest, devastation begins. Protecting the Cedar Wood is a monstrous guardian spirit called Humbaba, a shape-shifting being whose seven magical auras give him the power to fight off those who would harm the forest. He is, explicitly, the manifestation of the Cedar Wood’s life force and sentience.
Humbaba’s powers cannot save him from Enkidu and Gilgamesh, however. “Destroy…the guardian of the cedars,” cries Enkidu in Helle’s translation. “Destroy him, kill him! Crush his mind!” Humbaba begs for mercy, offering an annual tithe of lumber in return for his life, but Enkidu and Gilgamesh ignore his pleas, tear the tusks from his jaws, and slice out his lungs. Then the two raiders turn their axes upon the trees. Gilgamesh cuts down the trees as far as the banks of the Euphrates, while Enkidu locates the best timber. They fell the mightiest of the cedars in order to make a temple door. They fashion a raft, load it with lumber and the head of Humbaba, and set sail for Uruk, leaving behind them a “wasteland” that was once a living forest.
The Cedar Wood episode is an astonishing story, an epic within the Epic. For the conventions of the genre, it fulfills the need for a testing journey in which the heroes can prove their might. Historically viewed, it is a military raid targeting the timber-rich resources of a neighboring realm; there is good evidence that such raids took place in what is now Lebanon, where cedars grew in abundance, in order to plunder building materials for the timber-poor Mesopotamian region. Intention is hard to reconstruct in a contemporary poem, let alone one first set down more than four thousand years ago, but there are strong signs that the Cedar Wood episode is intended as a parable of environmental exploitation. Helle suggests that “Gilgamesh’s crime,” as judged by the gods, “is not that he defeats Humbaba but that he turns down Humbaba’s offer to remain in the Cedar Forest and act as his vassal.” I read the episode differently, tending more to Helle’s later point that the contrast between the lushly detailed living forest and the bluntly razed “wasteland” is “the closest Babylonian literature comes to an ecological critique.”
Given the crumbling ecological edge upon which we now find ourselves, it’s hard not to hear the Cedar Wood story as a warning against the consequences of disenchantment and extractivism. The sequence is clear: at first the forest is complexly, beautifully alive; it has a mind, and Humbaba manifests its spirit. Once that “life” is extinguished, the forest becomes resource, ready for removal and conversion into commodity. As a result, disaster occurs in the form of disease and the destabilization of government.
Violence, exploitation, suffering: so the history of human relations with the living world has proceeded in the four millennia since the earliest version of this story, bringing many people unimaginable affluence and ease, immiserating countless more, and pushing the earth to the brink. In the summer of 2020, even as Johnny and I were writing a song called “Tree Rings” in response to the Cedar Wood episode, hundreds of protesters were gathering at Fairy Creek, an old-growth watershed forest region on southern Vancouver Island, in order to prevent the planned logging of trees there—including yellow cedars up to one thousand years old. That protest became one of the largest acts of civil disobedience in Canadian history, with more than a thousand arrests to date. Helle describes how, at a reading from his Danish translation in 2019, while wildfires burned across the Amazon region, an audience member “teared up” at the destruction of the Cedar Forest. “It’s just too real,” he told Helle.
An earlier version of this article misstated the time period of the poet Enheduana.
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