The manuscript you see above was not written by Charles Dickens. Not even remotely. Book #40 is not only the oldest book on my list, but it's also the oldest frickin' book in existence. Seriously dude, it's old. It was written in the days when people chiseled their books on rocks instead of penning them on paper. Yep, I'm talking Flintstones old. The historical Gilgamesh, and there apparently was one, lived around 2750 BC, and this epic was written sometime around 1000 B.C. That can start to boggle your mind if you think about it; the time between Gilgamesh's death and the birth of Christ was longer than the time from Christ's birth to the present day. That's a long time. The geologists I know (and I do know a few) would argue that this is really just a short bit of time, but almost everyone else would not.
The Epic of Gilgamesh as we know it is incomplete. It was discovered in the mid-1800s by a British archaeologist and wasn't translated for years. The "manuscript" was carved onto 12 stone tablets, and is not always 100% legible. Tablet #12 seems out of place narratively, and is assumed to have been added later. Also, there seem to have been many versions of this epic during ancient times, as well as many poems written about the life and adventures of Gilgamesh. The 12 stone tablets are clearly not the first version of this story. The edition I read was by Stephen Mitchell, who filled in the blanks from the writing on the tablets with phrases from other versions of the epic and added lines and transitions as necessary. So while not a literal word-for-word translation, it is probably a better version to read if one wants a literary experience rather than a primarily archaeological one.
The story is not long; I read it in an evening. But it's a good story, and fun to read...all the more so for being over two billion years old. Turns out people back then worried about the same things we do: how to avoid death, the suckiness of growing old, and who can I sex it up with tonight. When the story opens, Gilgamesh is king of the Mesopotamian city of Uruk. He's strong and powerful, and is described as 2/3 god, 1/3 human. But not only is he king, he's a total asshole as well. In particular he makes sure he gets to take the bride's virginity before any couple in the city can get married. Yep, that's gonna win the people over. Plus he "crushes" the young men of the city, whatever that means. So the people call up to the Gods, who take pity on them and decide to create a man of equal strength and courage to Gilgamesh. The plan is that this man, Enkidu, will balance out Gilgamesh. And it actually works.
Enkidu is a wild man living in the woods with the animals after the Gods first send him down to Earth. A hunter discovers Enkidu, and send word to Gilgamesh, who decides to send out a prostitute from the temple to "tame" Enkidu. The prostitute comes to the forest and she and Enkidu get it on. I mean REALLY get it on. For seven days straight. I have to say that this is one of the sexiest passages I've read in quite awhile...and it's quite explicit. It's nice to know that some things have not changed with time. Anyway, after Enkidu is exhausted from all the ancient Sumerian nookie he realizes he's no longer an animal, and decides to come to the city. He's been civilized by sex. He hears of Gilgamesh from the prostitute, and he longs to both challenge Gilgamesh to feats of strength as well as to befriend him, because he's lonely and needs a friend. It's interesting that sexual intimacy with a woman still finds him lonely and wanting friendship. He needs a guy friend with whom he can hang out, drink beer, watch some football, and slay savage dragons (more on that later). And so does Gilgamesh.
So Enkidu heads for the big city lights. Along the way he hears how Gilgamesh treats new brides, and this pisses Enkidu off. So when he gets to Uruk he goes to a wedding and blocks Gilgamesh from entering the bridal chamber. Gilgamesh is not happy about this. No he's not happy at all. So they have a big long homoerotic fight, and Gilgamesh eventually pins Enkidu down, who then admits that Gilgamesh is stronger. This makes Gilgamesh happy, and they are now officially BFFs. Gilgamesh is so excited about having a new friend he suggests they go risk their lives and try to kill Humbaba, a crazy monster out in some distant holy forest where mortals are forbidden to go. Enkidu is clearly not as stoked about this idea as Gilgamesh, but he soon caves and they prepare for their adventure. The city's elders are not too convinced that their adventure is a good plan, but now that Gilgamesh has found his new buddy he's totally into going out and getting some serious glory, rather than staying home and raping more brides, so that's that. He and Enkidu make a bunch of weapons in preparation for their adventure.
Gilgamesh and Enkidu set out on their journey, and they travel way faster than mere mortal men. And they don't even use jet-packs! Along the way Gilgamesh starts to chicken out, but Enkidu talks him back down, and then awhile later Enkidu freaks out and Gilgamesh has to talk HIM back down. Gilgamesh has as series of bad dreams but Enkidu keeps cheering him up by putting an almost laughably optimistic spin on their interpretation. So with their mutual support they finally make it to the forest where Humbaba lives.
Gilgamesh and Enkidu proceed to chop down some of the sacred trees in the forest, and a very annoyed Humbaba suddenly appears. They fight! Things aren't looking so good for the BFFs when Gilgamesh appeals to the god Shamash for help. Shamash hears his plea and sends down some storms to attack Humbaba. Humbaba falls under the onslaught, and Gilgamesh moves in for the kill. Humbaba reminds Gilgamesh that he's working for the god Enlil, and Enlil will be really pissed if Humbaba turns up dead. Gilgamesh starts to get all merciful when Enkidu speaks up and tells him just to kill Humbaba and then they can leave before Enlil even finds out. Gilgamesh listens to his buddy and kills Humbaba, and they travel back to Uruk with a pile of new lumber from the sacred forest they cut down, along with Humbaba's head as a trophy. When they return they build a huge city gate with the lumber from the forest.
Now that our two friends have thoroughly insulted the God Enlil, they continue on their hubris ways by insulting the god Ishtar, who wants Gilgamesh to become her lover. After Gilgamesh points out that Ishtar got tired of all her previous lovers and punished them terribly, she gets very angry and tries to kill Gilgamesh and Enkidu with a sacred bull. But the two BFFs kill the sacred bull and openly taunt Ishtar. Never a good thing to do with a God. Now all the Gods are getting pissed at them. So the gods have a meeting, and they decide to cause Enkidu to fall ill and start to slowly die from disease. Enkidu is really bummed out about this, but when Shamash tells him on his sickbed that Gilgamesh will be inconsolable after he dies Enkidu cheers up a bit. And then he dies.
Gilgamesh is indeed inconsolable upon Enkidu's death. He like totally loses it. He goes into denial and refuses to bury Enkidu until he sees a worm crawl out of his nose, which seems to jolt him back to reality for a minute. But Enkidu's death has made Gilgamesh totally freaked out about death. So he puts on animal skins and goes out to wander in the wilderness, trying to find Utnapishtim, who managed to survive the great flood that almost destroyed humanity, and who is the only person upon whom the gods have granted immortality. His search won't be easy as Utnapishtim lives in the place where the sun rises, where no mortal has ever been. Gilgamesh travels a long time to a double-peaked mountain and then to the entrance of the tunnel where the sun travels every night to get to the other side of the Earth. Gilgamesh has only 12 hours to cross through the pitch-black tunnel before the sun comes through and burns him to a crisp. So he runs and runs through the pitch black tunnel, and yes, he makes it on time...otherwise there wouldn't be a story, really. On the other side of the tunnel is a lush land from where the sun rises. After some more adventures and trials Gilgamesh finally meets Utnapishtim and asks him how he too can become immortal. Utnapishtim tells him to chill out, that nothing lives forever. He explains that when the gods bring someone into the world, they also decide the day of death. Death is certain, so get over it.
Utnapishtim then tells Gilgamesh his story, which is one of the most interesting parts of the book, because his story is remarkably like Noah's, even though The Epic of Gilgamesh was written before the Old Testament. The god Enlil once decided to destroy all of humanity with a flood (he certainly seems like a peevish God), but fortunately another god tipped off Utnapishtim, who was a king, and told him to build a huge boat and take two of every living thing on it. Sound familiar? So Utnapishtim builds the boat and there's a huge flood and everyone else dies except for Utnapishtim and his wife. Utnapishtim and his boat come to land first on a mountain, and he releases a series of birds to see if they can find land. The third bird returns, and Utnapishtim eventually reaches shore. When Enlil finds out humans have survived he's royally pissed, but the the other gods tell him he's a jerkwad for killing everyone indiscriminately and he should be ashamed of himself. He sees their point, and so he makes Utnapishtim and his wife immortal to make up for killing everyone else. Um, perhaps too little too late, Mr. Enlil.
Utnapishtim finishes his story and tells Gilgamesh to get the f#&k out of there, that he won't ever be immortal and he needs to go home. But at his wife's urging, he relents a bit and tells Gilgamesh of a magical plant that grows at the bottom of the sea, which will make old people young again if they eat a little bit of it. This satisfies Gilgamesh's urge for immortality, even if it involves eating part of what's probably a nasty-tasting plant every once in awhile, and so Gilgamesh dives to the bottom of the sea (with the help of rocks tied to his feet) where he grabs one of the plants. Then Utnapishtim sends Gilgamesh off across the sea towards home, piloted by Utnapishtim's private boatman. Gilgamesh is feeling pretty good about everything. Until he fucks it all up. One evening, as he and the boatman are camping, Gilgamesh decides to go for a swim, leaving the precious plant unattended. No, Gilgamesh, what are you thinking?!? So the inevitable happens: a snake crawls and eats it. Yep, now there's a really young snake and the magic plant is gone along with Gilgamesh's dream of a new youth. Oops. Dude, NEVER leave a precious plant unattended! How did you get to be king anyway? When Gilgamesh sees what's happened, he sits down and cries like a little girl. Then he goes home to Uruk. In the final scene, he shows off the great city to the boatman, who is still accompanying him, pointing out the great walls and marvels of the city.
At first glance the ending seems like a WTF ending...as in "WTF, that's it?". But then, upon thinking about it, it all makes sense to me. Gilgamesh has given up the search for immortality, given up his epic struggles with the gods and monsters. He has come to live in this world, and can now appreciate how beautiful his city is. It's never stated outright, but one knows that he will be a good king from now on, building his city and being good to his people. The bride raping won't be continuing. And we know that the legend of the good and great king Gilgamesh has been passed down, verifying this interpretation. His hubris was punished, but he has learned his lesson. Even though he is 2/3 god, 1/3 human, one senses that he has become all human by the end of the story. In a way, this is a very odd bildungsroman (now there's a word, like weltanschauung, that's only used by graduates of a liberal arts college).
I found this story fascinating. I can imagine reading it again in a few years (it's short, so that's not that big a commitment). The parallels to Biblical stories (Noah, the snake and the fall from Eden) are really interesting...where did these stories originally come from?...how were they passed along through different societies? The fact that the story of Gilgamesh is so old, that it's the first recorded story humanity ever told, is captivating in and of itself, but the fact that it has so much symbolism and allegory and humanity...so much that we can still relate to 3000 years later...makes it all the more incredible. The world has completely changed since the days of Gilgamesh, yet people are still the same. Maybe the geologists are right...3000 years is really only the blink of an eye.