Friday, December 13, 2013

Epic of Ancient Mesopotamia

Gilgamesh: A New Rendering in English VerseGilgamesh: A New Rendering 
in English Verse 
by David Ferry

“How long does a building stand before it falls?
How long does a contract last? How long will brothers

share the inheritance before they quarrel?
How long does hatred, for that matter, last?

Time after time the river has risen and flooded.
The insect leaves the cocoon to live but a minute.

How long is the eye able to look at the sun?
From the very beginning nothing at all has lasted.” 

― David Ferry, The Epic of Gilgamesh

The Epic of Gilgamesh is the first of its kind in Western literature, coming from the ancient civilization of Mesopotamia . The hero is a legendary King, but men and gods are the inhabitants of this epic. While the epic transcends the real world of historical time it still speaks to us today with its story of the heroic journey and the friendship of Gilgamesh for Enkidu.
Enkidu is a wild man created by the gods as Gilgamesh's equal to distract him from oppressing the citizens of Uruk. But Enkidu dies and Gilgamesh's grief for his friend is described in this way:

"Gilgamesh, weeping, mourned for enkidu:
It is Enkidu, the companion, whom I weep for,
weeping for him as if I were a woman.
He was the festal garment of the feast.
On the dangerous errand, in the confusion of noises,
he was the shield that went before in the battle;
he was the weapon at hand to attack and defend.
A demon has come and taken away the companion." (p 44)

What follows is Gilgamesh's journey against death--seeking escape from this terrible foe that took away his dear friend and companion. It tells of his wandering through the darkness of the celestial mountain and his crossing the waters of death, his meeting with his forebear Utnapishtim, who escaped the Great Flood and was granted immortality by the gods. Gilgamesh seeks his wisdom and the secret of eternal life.
The epic of Gilgamesh was the first to develop themes that would continue through western literature, such as the use of the "double" and the contrast of civilization, represented by the city, with the wilderness. It is here that the story of the Great Flood is first recorded. The mythic qualities of this epic have resonated throughout Western literature ever since as evidenced by sources as disparate as the Old Testament of the Bible, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid. 
David Ferry's modern translation allows these themes to come through the text without using a precise literal line by line translation. This is a very readable rendition of the original western epic.

View all my reviews


Brian Joseph said...

I read the Ferry translation of this work a few years ago and I too highly recommend it.

As you allude to James, it is striking as to how many concepts and these that were touched upon in this work have filtered down through the ages. I wonder just how many other great works were created in this time and place but that now are lost to us.

James said...

Great question for there are undoubtedly writings that have been lost. Even the Gilgamesh is only available in fragments that Ferry used as source for his "rendering".
I also read this some time ago, but returned to it, spurred by my reading of The Torch in My Ear by Elias Canetti (volume two of his memoirs) where he tells of his encounter with this epic and the impact it had on him.