Books: Still a thriller, 4,000 years on

Paul Binding is enchanted by a new translation of the world's first literary masterpiece; The Epic of Gilgamesh trs Andrew George Allen Lane pounds 20
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The Independent Culture
A youth brought up by wild animals who joins humankind; the ritual breaking of bread before an important task; strange dreams signifying the future and demanding interpretation; a hostile giant guarding a forest; two loving comrades, one of whom dies young and is lamented by the other; a tavern at the world's edge; a man who has survived a universal deluge thanks to the building of an ark; a bid for eternal life foiled by a snake ... How deeply familiar these all seem through our long knowledge of the Bible and Greek mythology, but in The Epic of Gilgamesh we find them in their very earliest written forms.

The Epic of Gilgamesh was set down in Akkadian in about 1200 BCE - that is, in the second millennium before Christ - but in fact it is considerably older than that. Before the written Akkadian there was the oral Sumerian, 2200 BCE and written down 200 years later. Passages from Sumerian poetry were reworked and incorporated into the text on cuneiform tablets which now stands as humankind's first literary achievement. If for no other reason, Gilgamesh should compel us as the well-spring of the great tradition of which we are inheritors. Sumerian, spoken in Ur and the cities of southern Mesopotamia, has no discernible kinship with any other language; however, Akkadian (originating in the north of the country) is Semitic. So this greatest of Babylonian poems - composed, it would seem, not for ritual or religious purposes but for pleasure - is a cultural ancestor of those fusions of history and fiction which have most nurtured our minds and sensibilities.

Gilgamesh, a king in historical reality (floruit 2800 BCE) is, when first we meet him in the epic, a youthful tyrant; his strength and energy are employed in contests against young male subjects and in seductions of young female ones. As son of Ninsun (Lady Wild Cow), a minor goddess, he is semi-divine, though his behaviour might seem only too human. After complaints have been made about him to the gods by the citizens of Uruk, heaven decides to create a companion for him, one who will be his equal in ability and physical prowess. And so Enkidu comes into being, the poem's most haunting character, and a reminder of the bond that connects us all to the creature world.

For after his creation, Enkidu grows up with gazelles, sharing their roaming life; it is surely of great anthropological importance that his animal associates are gentle (if strong and fleet) and also herbivorous. "Coated in hair like the god of the animals, / with the gazelles he grazes on grasses, / joining the throng with the game at the water-hole, / his heart delighting with the beasts in the water." A hunter appears, who, seeing and fearing Enkidu, determines to lure him away from his life with the deer by putting a prostitute in his path. His plan works. Enkidu couples with Shamhat, is erect "for six days and seven nights". When his sexual ardour has abated, he tries to rejoin the herd of gazelle, but, interestingly, they now regard him as one defiled. From henceforward his way is among humans, though he does not forget his early animal connections. He goes to Gilgamesh's city of Uruk, where he intercepts the King in one of his favourite pursuits; exercising droit de seigneur on a young bride. There's a fight, in which Enkidu puts up a good show, but Gilgamesh is the victor. This contest is a moral turning-point. It is not explicitly stated that being challenged is beneficial to Gilgamesh's character, but the reader cannot but understand this. From this moment on until Enkidu's death, the two men are inseparable, and Gilgamesh's mother adopts the wild, shaggy- haired youth as if he were her own. The scene of Enkidu's adoption has great tenderness and beauty.

The two main adventures of Gilgamesh and Enkidu are the killing of Humbaba, the giant guardian of the Cedar Forest, and the dispatching of the Bull of Heaven. When Enkidu dies, leaving Gilgamesh desolated, he does not do so in combat, as one might expect, but after a delirious illness preceded by visions of death. Both his passing and his funeral are recounted in rich detail. Gilgamesh grieves (in lyrical lines) for his "friend Enkidu, wild ass on the run, donkey of the uplands, panther of the wild", and as a result of his grief, makes a journey to the edge of the world beyond which lives Uta-napishti, the man who with his wife and chosen animals, survived the flood sent by the god Enlil to destroy humankind. Remonstrating with the god for his severity to mortals, Uta-napishti was given immortality as compensation for suffering. Why should Gilgamesh not have this gift also, king and hero that he is?

This section of the epic is perhaps the most remarkable. According to translator and editor Andrew George, Rilke, after reading an early German version, enthused that this masterpiece was das Epos der Todesfurcht, the epic about fear of death. Perhaps in his praise he simplified, for the epic is in truth about many human attributes, but outstandingly among ancient narratives it enters a person's mind. It explores in interior terms the fear of dying, the dread of what, if anything, lies beyond this life. And when Gilgamesh loses the possibility of immortality through carelessness - a snake carries away the fragrant plant which could have endowed him with it - we feel: "That's just how any man or woman would have behaved!"

It's only appropriate that this parent of all literature should deal, frontally, with that aspect of life, its certain ending, that most disturbs and baffles us, and yet also leave us consoled. This edition of Gilgamesh gives us the epic as translated from all the most recently recovered tablets, lacunae being made good by transcriptions from other versions than the "standard", plus extracts from other tablets and from the earliest Sumerian poems. Andrew George provides an excellent critical and historical introduction. Yet, as he points out, Gilgamesh can be read in ignorance of its context. Not just for story and themes, but for the generous spirit that informs it. Many examples of this could be found; one must suffice. Enkidu, dying, curses the harlot who brought him away from his participation mystique with the gazelles. But he is persuaded before he quits this life to convert his curse into a blessing. "No soldier," he then says, "shall be slow to drop his belt for you, / obsidian he shall give you, lapis lazuli and gold." Across a gulf of four thousand years, we can feel a warmth of heart.