Gilgamesh: A New English Version
Stephen Mitchell, 2006
Akkadian, c. 1700-1000 BCE

Humbaba said, “Gilgamesh have mercy
Let me live here in the Cedar Forest.
If you spare my life, I will be your slave,
I will give you as many cedars as you wish.
You are king of Uruk by the grace of Shamash,
honor him with a cedar temple
and a glorious cedar palace for yourself.
All this is yours, if only you spare me.”

Enkidu said, “Dear friend, don’t listen
to anything that the monster says.
Kill him before you become confused.”
(Book V)

There is a scene near the center of the ancient Mesopotamian epic poem Gilgamesh that strikes me. Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk, and Enkidu, his closest friend, are in the midst of the Cedar Forest. Aided by Shamash, the sun god, they have the monster Humbaba at their mercy. Humbaba is a guardian, charged by the god Enlil to guard the Cedar Forest. He is fierce, frightening. Enkidu, stout of heart and fighter though he is, fears him. Even Gilgamesh, who decreed that they must kill Humbaba to “drive out evil from the world”—or perhaps merely for the fame—grows afraid once within Humbaba’s presence. But this doesn’t stop the epic’s protagonists. They subdue Humbaba. The monster now pleads for his life, and Gilgamesh seems to hesitate. Perhaps the victory is enough. But Enkidu, initially opposed to the journey to the Cedar Forest and the killing of Humbaba, eggs the king on. So the monster is slain, the trees are cut down. It is not clear from the poem if all of the trees are cut down, or just some. Are they to be shipped to Uruk for construction, or is this merely a demonstration of Gilgamesh’s might?

It is a turning point of the poem. Leading up to these events, we have been introduced to the protagonists and have seen them set off on their early adventures. But now we watch them make a decision: to kill, to destroy. Coupled with the next episode (when they kill the Bull of Heaven, sent by the goddess Ishtar as punishment for Gilgamesh’s refusal to become her husband) we have reached the apotheosis of Gilgamesh’s arrogance. The gods will decide that someone must pay the price for these crimes against the gods, against their favored monsters. And so Enkidu must die.

Coming at this from a twenty-first century lens of conservation and stewardship, it is hard not to read Gilgamesh’s arrogance and destruction here as emblematic of the arrogance and destruction of humankind. It suggests to me to the question: who is the real monster: Gilgamesh or Humbaba? We aren’t given enough context to know. A twenty-first century reading is likely completely off base, but it speaks to the power of this ancient epic, that even with the passing of millennia, still it resonates.

One of the oldest surviving pieces of literature we know, Gilgamesh is perhaps most familiar to many Western readers for the story related in the latter half of the poem (Book IX) that greatly resembles the flood story found in the Biblical book of Genesis. But the epic is mostly Gilgamesh’s story and his personality dominates. Enkidu–wild man of nature–has been sent by the gods to relieve the citizens of Uruk of the tyranny of a king who “Takes the son from his father and crushes him,/takes the girl from her mother and uses her,” (Book I) and to the extent that Gilgamesh is distracted from his city and his people, this is successful. But Enkidu, Gilgamesh’s balance, does nothing to subdue Gilgamesh’s ego. It is only Enkidu’s death–the price paid for slaughtering Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven–that knocks Gilgamesh back. Yet still he rages: now he is forced to face mortality but still he seeks to subvert it, searching out the only known man to have defeated death and been granted immortality, Utnapishtim, survivor of the Great Flood.

It is a short poem (at least what survives), but still manages to pack in what feels like a lot, not only of the adventures of Gilgamesh, but the journey he takes in learning to accept that he too will die, no matter how great he is or his city or his feats. The death of Enkidu brings this to the fore but it still takes Gilgamesh additional wanderings and ultimately, failings, before he can accept mortality for himself. Gilgamesh’s pride in his own abilities is humbled, not by another, but by the ravages of time. And yet, at the end he still brags, showing off his city, the great city of Uruk. It is if he knows that thousands of years later we will still read of him and his exploits.

I have now read two English versions of Gilgamesh, the first a prose version by N.K. Sandars (1972 revision) and the second a poetic version by Stephen Mitchell (2004, the version quoted here). I found the poetic version to my preference, though I do not agree with all of Mitchell’s liberties with the text. True, given the nature of the original—fragmentary and difficult for all but the most specialized scholars to read—any edition for the lay reader will require additions and clarification to make sense of it. Mitchell helpfully includes notes on his changes (indeed, his notes and Introduction combined are longer than the poem), but I question why he rearranged sections of the poem. And I would prefer that he hadn’t removed some of the repetitions, which he felt would be off-putting to the contemporary reader. Perhaps. But to me the circularity, the word-for-word repetitions of complete passages, gives a sense not just of what the original may have been like, but of a literature that is in fact not Western. On the other hand, he produced a very readable text that maintained a poetic from and kept the same divisions (largely) of the originals, while Sandars’s version turns it to prose chapters that break in different locations than the clay tablets on which it was originally found.

I read Gilgamesh as part of my Classics Club project list and for Back to the Classics, Translation category.