Friday, 19 February 2010

Prelude to the Gilgamesh

The Gilgamesh is an epic poem and the oldest written text in any language, dating back to before 2000BC. It was originally in Sumerian, but most of it is lost and what we have is the translation into Babylonian (Akkadian) from a thousand years later, which itself remained undiscovered in the sands of modern-day Iraq from 700BC until 1849 when it was found by the British archeologist Austen Henry Layard. The cuneiform script was decoded and translated into English as early as the 1880s. There are apparently interesting parallels with the ancient Greek story of Odysseus and also with elements of the Bible, such as the story of Noah's Ark, though it predates both by over a thousand years.
I've yet to read more than the general gist of the story myself. I'm told that the best translation is by Stephen Mitchell, and you can see his version of the Prologue here. But despite that, I offer you my version of the Prologue and in verse(!), and perhaps it will whet your appetite to read more.

Prelude to the Gilgamesh
I tell of he who had seen everything,
Who in life experienced every feeling
From highest ecstasy to dark despair,
Of all things alike, granted knowledge rare.

By himself, the Secret untold he found,
And that which was Hidden deep underground
Its mysteries buried under the mud
From the primeval world before the Flood.

On an epic quest he tired himself out,
But then he found peace and spread it about,
Carving in stone stela,
of all his toils,
And restoring the walls and temples and soils.

Behold this glorious city of Uruk
The holy sanctuary, Eanna,
How it gleams like fire opal in the sun,
Inspect closer -- it is equal to none.

Hold the threshold stone that dates back so far,
Approach the temple, sacred to Ishtar,
Climb the city walls, examine around
The foundations, the plans, the brickwork sound.

Seven Sages of yore laid it all out,
One league of city and all about
One league of palm gardens and one of land,
And half a league for Ishtar’s temple grand.

Seek out and discover the copper box
Whose secret fastening of bronze unlocks.
Open the lid and inside you will see
Our tale inscribed in lapis

Take out the tablets and read of the king,
This legend that into the land I bring,
Of Gilgamesh who suffered everything.
And how he overcame his suffering.


  1. Yes it did indedd whet my appetite :-)

    I find it fascinating how the translation works. How much poetic license needed to be taken to make it flow like this in english?

  2. I gave links to my sources, if you click on the links in green above and want to compare... but just for ease here they are again

    The original said that the temple wall gleamed like copper, but they weren't sure and that sounds too ordinary, while gold seems too obvious, so poetic license meant I replaced it with jade. I'm not sure if jade gleams at all though, so it might not make sense.

    My "rule" was to keep it to exactly 10 syllables per line and have it rhyming. Of course, this is far too strict to do any longer translation. Stephen Mitchell was apparently following the rule of having the same number of "beats" per line, which is probably what poets pay more attention to, but personally I prefer syllables. I guess in a way, I was just lucky that I could make it work out without losing (I hope) any of the original sense. If anything, I'd say I'm closer to the literal translation of the tablet (first link) than Mitchell in some ways.

  3. Wow....sorry. I completely missed read that and somehow missed that it was your translation! And again - wow! That is even more impresive :-) You really do have a gift :-))))

    What I meant by the the translation thing - uuuugg....I'm not going to be able to get this out right....its cool how it can be translated to another language and have it be made to rhyme and fit a certain prose and still maintain its meaning. And how much of the original meaning is lost or perhaps even revealed with the translation. Something like that anyway lol

  4. Oh wow! This is great Okei :) It does make me want to read more. I have read Gilgamesh a few years ago, but back then everything was read just to pass a test, lol. I am so fascinated by this era. I want to know more about this period in history and earlier. I suppose this would be as far back as one could go? I've been interested in the myth (?) of Atlantis lately and perhaps this might relate?

    Thanks for sharing...your writing is excellent! :)

  5. It was originally in Sumerian, most of what we have is in Akkadian, and somehow they managed to decode the Akkadian at the end of the 19th century and understand what it meant in English. For sure, a lot must be lost translating from a dead language from tablets full of gaps(!). Having got it into English then, I guess it's a question of working out the essence so as not to lose even more. What the essence is might depend on the one translating and the message they read in it. I think a brilliant example is the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam "translated" by Edward Fitzgerald, where he took the spirit of the original and wrote something completely different, a shortened version of which was my very first post to Multiply!

    This, on the other hand, is as literal as possible, i.e. as close to that first link I posted.

  6. Thanks Kasey! I don't know much about Atlantis. But for sure, the idea of an old and great civilization being destroyed is one that comes up again and again all over the place. I think all we know about Atlantis is from the ancient Greeks, and they seemed to say that it was an island. I have no idea, really.

    I've made a few little changes, and still wondering how to describe the overall effect of the temple walls. I think they were copper-coloured with jewel ornaments, so I'm going with "fire opal" for the moment.

    I've also now posted my version of the beginning of "Tablet I", but I'm not likely to do any more -- in any case, I'd probably run out of rhymes soon. Pity, because it's about to get interesting, lol.

  7. You are quite talented, Okei! and accept the compliment please.

  8. And you are very insightful, Cyn! (...says okei lapping up the compliment and adding melted chocolate on top.)

  9. I just found this whole blog online devoted to interpreting the Gilgamesh story and it also makes exactly your point..... if it's done at school, then it automatically makes it boring for us.

    For me though, I didn't know the first thing about him or that this was the earliest story ever written till a few days ago (inspired by my previous post which was a poem by Erica which I extended and it felt pretty epic at 20 verses, so it got me thinking about the real epic poems like Gilgamesh which I'd heard of but knew nothing about). And I was wondering how come we didn't get introduced to it at school. Ok, I know why really... because of the sex scene already in Tablet I. But really, it seems to be a very interesting work, not only historically and in context with the Bible and Greek legends, but also philosophically and aesthetically as a story. Yet before a few days ago I knew nothing of it. Indirectly, I have Erica to thank!

    It's true, I haven't read very much yet, but just look at the first lines and here's something I noticed... he had seen everything, experienced every feeling, knew everything... the first three of the Buddhist pentad of things of which one should be mindful (I believe these are sense-contact, feelings, perception, volition and the fifth of consciousness that encapsulates the previous four.)

    Note also, these are all passive. He is granted these things by Lord Anu. It then turns to the things which he set about doing himself, finding the Secret, uncovering the Hidden, etc.. So arguably, the fourth of the pentad, of volition, is there too. Impressed? I am.

  10. What you have written is quite beautiful..I suppose you have all read the books of Zechariah Sitchen?..This magnificent elderly scholar/linguist has written at length about Gilgamesh.. I find him fascinating..

  11. What you have written is quite beautiful..I suppose you have all read the books of Zechariah Sitchen?..This magnificent elderly scholar/linguist has written at length about Gilgamesh.. I find him fascinating..

  12. I'd never heard of him, but looking him up he's someone who clearly once was a scholar of Sumerian literature, came up with some pet theories about the origins of man, and has refused to adjust those theories in the face of contrary evidence. If theory and evidence disagree with each other, either the theory is wrong or the evidence is wrong. Usually the theory, but on some rare occasions the theory is so beautiful that it must be right and it makes you look again at the evidence and the evidence does turn out to be wrong. In the case of this guy, the beauty of his theory is that he made it up, he has got rather attached to it and his books give him a good income. This is a betrayal of the ideals of scholarship which is to accept one's mistakes in the search for the truth. Otherwise, it's pure fantasy, and there's nothing wrong with fantasy... it makes great reading.

  13. Oh, sorry for the rant by the way, Rachael. And thanks for dropping by!

  14. Oh, not a rant to me friend..where would we be if we couldn't be free to share ideas and hold discourse?..I honor your expression and thoughts.. Rachael

  15. Btw, if you want you can utube him..maybe you already friend had sent me 5 of his books several years ago..the one I'd like to read is The 12th's interseting to me..I enjoy reading from a variety of sources...and as you say, it could be fantasy..I know there was a scandal regarding artifacts..but I don't know if they were valid..hmmm..

  16. Btw, if you want you can utube him..maybe you already friend had sent me 5 of his books several years ago..the one I'd like to read is The 12th's interseting to me..I enjoy reading from a variety of sources...and as you say, it could be fantasy..I know there was a scandal regarding artifacts..but I don't know if they were valid..hmmm..

  17. Beautiful verse, okei. You're into history, i see.

  18. Dryad of the golden wood, thanks! Indeed, 3000-4000 year-old history! Thanks for dropping by!

    Rachael, so many messages! I don't have a computer connection at home, so just got online to reply now...

    First off, I would say we should apply the principle of Occam’s Razor of looking for simplest possible explanations. Introducing aliens to solve the mysteries of how humans came to be just moves the problem back one step to how aliens came to be. If we do so, it must be on really solid evidence. Otherwise, why introduce such complications? Why not just say that God or evolution or whatever combination you believe in created all?

    Instead of basing on solid evidence, the theory is based on intractable mysteries. There are always things beyond the realm of human knowledge and science, and there have always been those who would explain these mysteries as having divine cause or in this case alien cause. Why not just admit the fact we don’t know? Keep an open mind! Keeping an open mind means we don’t claim our fantasy speculations of how it might have been is the truth.

    Finally, this guy has clearly done a lot of research, but this doesn’t make him an authority. Tolkein did a lot of research for The Lord of the Rings, a classic, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to read it as history, even though we’ve since discovered that a race of hobbits quite different from humans really did exist! I wonder if Tolkein is chuckling to himself, “I told you so!”

    As for the number of planets in Sumerian cosmology, the consensus seems to be that they knew of only five.

    In summary, I keep an open mind, unlike the author of these books.

  19. I absolutely agree..keep an open mind..and I'm sorry for so many messages..if they are's a glitch of some sort since I'm accessing net currently from my cell phone..annoying I know..

  20. No problem at all! I was just kidding anyway. :^)

    This is now the first of three blogs on the first few verses of the Gilgamesh, the next being The Creation of the Wild Man and the third being The Seduction of the Wild Man.

  21. :-)))) to have even a tiny role in inspiring you in with the brillant poetry you've just written is a great honor. Thank you!!

  22. Well, i can understand about the divine cause. But alien cause? It's kinda. . . Weird, isn't it?

    i just read about gilgamesh in wiki. He's a sumerian king, right(we didn't learn about mesopotamia history at school, unfortunately). Can you tell me a bit about why he's so special? I'm sorry for the stupid question. But i really want to know. Gilgamesh sounds pretty familiar for me. Tho, i know nothing about him.

  23. Erica, it's all fine with me... The Siren's Call at least doubled up in length on anything I'd ever done before, and these three blogs taken together even double that up in length (though in some ways it was easier because the aim wasn't to say something original myself or understand some complex idea as in your poem, but just to stick to the literal translation as much as possible). But of course, I'm still a believer in the short and sweet, simplicity and no words wasted... like the haiku. Life is complicated though, so this is not always possible.

    Dear Dryad, snap! ten days ago, the name Gilgamesh sounded familiar to me, but I didn't know anything about him and they didn't teach us this in school either. They believe he was a Sumerian king around 2600B.C., but he might not have existed. However, the Gilgamesh we know is the mythological Gilgamesh who is the hero of this epic poem called after his name, "The Epic of Gilgamesh". What's special about him is that this poem in the fragmentary state that we have it today is the oldest surviving written text anywhere in the world (!), but not only because of its ancientness, but it's also a very impressive story in its length and in its depth and also in its philosophical issues: the conflict between civilization and nature, the transitory ephemeral nature of life and inevitability of death, the shades of grey in questions of good and evil (because they were polytheistic, so gods themselves could do evil things), the question of solving restlessness and finding peace and in the blogs I've posted... the question of self-knowledge and what raises man above other animals... like the forbidden apple in the Garden of Eden.

  24. I heard Jericho is the oldest continually inhabited place in the world, going back to 9000BC, and though it was small, it was a walled city(!). While the first trace of really organized civilization that we know of was the large settlement of Hamoukar in northern Syria between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers dating back to 4000-6000BC, and it seems to be about a thousand years older than anything else we know of (presumably pre-Flood?). While it wasn't technically an island, I think something like this is quite likely to be Atlantis. Apparently, Mesopotamia means "land between two rivers", and in translation this is quite likely to come out as "island". In the prelude above, it refers to the seven sages of yore from before the flood... it's possible that Mesopotamian civilization originated somewhere else and was transplanted there, but going for simplest explanations, it does seem probable that Atlantis as described by Plato was somewhere in Mesopotamia. So now I think of it, yes, I do think it might relate!

    And here's a great link about the earliest settlements of civilization:

  25. I forgot to post this earlier, but I found this image online of the "cone mosaic" temple of Eanna at Uruk (described in the poem) dating back to 3500B.C.. Presumably the circular indentations were filled with precious shiny things which reinforces my thought that "gleams like copper in the sun" as the other translations had it was surely too boring. I was thinking of various possibilities, like burnished copper, but I'm led to understand this doesn't look too exciting either, so I went with "fire opal" in the end, and thanks to Titou on Yahoo Answers for suggesting it.

  26. Finally getting a chance to drop in on this blog....wonderful story/myth/metaphor about internal transformation. Thanks for the reminder! Worth rereading...

  27. Nancy, I'm not sure if you saw the continuation, but this was the first of three blogs I wrote covering the whole of Tablet I of the Gilgamesh. Thanks for reading!

  28. No, I will find them.....thanks!