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Gilgamesh: The 4,000 year-old giant who speaks to our times

Assyriology — The fascinating tale of the Babylonian king Gilgamesh has been retold in a new translation by Assyriologist Sophus Helle. Dating from ancient times, the story of the restless hero/anti-hero remains relevant, but making it accessible to readers in 2019 required the talents of a modern poet

Four thousand years ago, in a country known as Babylon, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in the part of the world we today consider to be the cradle of civilisation, there was a city called Uruk.

Uruk was a great and marvellous city, and its king, Gilgamesh, was its strongest and most handsome citizen. Unsurpassed at all things, he was a towering figure, figuratively and literally: he stood more than five meters tall.

But Gilgamesh wasn’t happy. Enkidu, the wild man who became Gilgamesh’s close friend and, according to some, his lover, had died. Despondent, Gilgamesh began a desperate quest for eternal life.

If you changed the names and the setting, the Epic of Gilgamesh would be an apt depiction of our post-modern society, in which people can have everything, yet still be ridden with anxiety over life’s unbearable unpredictability.

Fourth printing

On 24 April, a new Danish version of Gilgamesh was published. In addition to being written in contemporary Danish, the new version is retold in a modern, poetic style. Sophus Helle, who has a master’s in Assyriology from the University of Copenhagen, translated the epic from the original Akkadian.

The final linguistic product, though, is a result of a year-long, father-son collaboration between Helle and author Morten Søndergaard.

Their work was a runaway best-seller, somewhat to the surprise of its publisher, Gyldendal. Though Gyldendal declined to disclose sales numbers, the translation needed to be re-printed three times in the first month after it was published.

A family business

The idea for a new translation came, according to Helle, from Simon Pasternak, a Gyldendal editor, who became familiar with the story while working with Naja Marie Aidt, a novelist, on a non-fiction book written to help her cope with the death of her son at the age of 25.

»The editor was looking for someone who could translate Gilgamesh from the original language. As far as he was concerned, I was the perfect choice: I could understand Akkadian and my father was a poet,« Helle says.

More than that, Helle had written his master’s thesis about Gilgamesh, and he had written articles about the epic and its protagonist for several publications, including Aeon, Kaskal and the Journal of the American Oriental Society.

Passionate and restless

The choice of Gilgamesh as a thesis topic, Helle explains, had as much to do with its reputation as with the story it was trying to tell.

»The Epic of Gilgamesh is the most famous text from the Babylonian culture. It’s just a small part of a wider collection of Babylonian epics, but it is the best known because, in my opinion, it has what I describe as ‘passionate philosophy’: a combination of introspection, intense passion and an incredible sense of adventurism and restlessness,« he says.

We expected that it would appeal to people who subscribe to the highbrow Danish weekly Weekendavisen, but a lot of different types of people have picked it up.
Sophus Helle

By modern measurements, Gilgamesh stood 5.5 metres tall. His massive physical stature, according to Helle, is a symbol of other superlative aspects of his personality.

»The original title of the epic was ‘Surpassing All Other Kings’,« he says. »Gilgamesh is extreme in every sense of the word. He outdoes everyone in every aspect: height, emotions, or anything else you can think of. He’s also much more restless than other people. He wants everything. He’s never satisfied.«

As in other great epics, the restlessness of the protagonist is a central part of Gilgamesh, according to Helle.

We read it aloud for each other to find the passages that needed help, and to find out where it worked, where it flowed and where there were things that didn’t sound right.

Sophus Helle on his co-operation with Morten Søndergaard

»It’s his restless heart that drives the story forward, just like the Odyssey and Odysseus’ quest to return home, and like the Iliad is driven forward by Achilles’ anger. We see the same thing in Gilgamesh: the protagonist’s restless heart drives the story forward.«

From rough to readable

Working together with his father was an intense, gruelling experience, Helle recalls.

SOPHUS HELLE

Sophus Helle is currently at Aarhus University, where he is working on a PhD about the origin of the concept of authorship. The earliest literature is anonymous, and Helle is looking into when and why people started to take an interest in who composed the stories they heard and read.

»I did a rough translation that was as faithful to the original as possible, and then gave it to [my father] to work on. A lot what he did involved stripping away the unnecessary elements of my translation and making it more precise. When he was done, we sat down and came up with a compromise between the two.«

The next step was to have other people read the new version to get a sense of whether it was readable, and whether people liked it.

»Another thing we did was to read it aloud for each other to find the passages that needed help, and to find out where it worked, where it flowed and where there were things that didn’t sound right. We spent a lot of time on that,« Helle says.

A classic with a modern appeal

The previous Danish translation of Gilgamesh, by Aage Westenholtz and Ulla Koch, both Assyriologists, was published in 1997. And, in 2006, Bent Haller, a novelist, adapted the story for his book Ba-bels bog (the book of Babel). Likewise, observers of pop culture will also see shadows of it here, including, according to the Danish version of Wikipedia in the 1997 film Batman & Robin.

Gilgamesh med løve, Dur-Sharrukin AO 19862, LouvreThe giant Gilgamesh depicted bearing a lion that appears no bigger than a cat

So while Gilgamesh has never fallen too far out of cultural consciousness in Denmark, a contemporary translation is likely to make it accessible to a broader audience. The fact that it has so many qualities ought to qualify it as required reading for gymnasium students, Helle believes.

An example of its literary merits is one heated exchange, in which Humbaba, an enemy of Gilgamesh and the guardian of the Cedar Forest, dares Enkidu to make good on his threat to kill him.

Come on, Enkidu, you fatherless fishroe;

Son of a tortoise, bereft of your mother’s breast

… I will slit Gilgamesh’s throat, cleave his uvula and feed buzzards, carrion eaters and hungry eagles with his flesh.*

One thing readers of Gilgamesh will quickly become aware of is that the text repeats itself quite often. Helle explains.

»It feels awkward in modern literature, but it’s not without precedent. Morten liked the repetition. He said it reminded him of something you see in modern poetry. Danish poet Caspar Eric, for example, wrote a poem that consists of just two words, ‘rå yoghurt’ (raw yoghurt, ed), written out over 17 pages. In that respect, it bears an amusing resemblance to modern poetry.«

Another reason is that Gilgamesh began as an oral tradition, and being repetitive made it easier to remember, he says.

»And, if it had been an oral tradition, then repetition works differently when you hear it. You can’t skip ahead when you run into something repetitive, so you have to sit through what’s being said.«

A plague be upon your public house

Helle and Søndergaard have been surprised and overwhelmed by the commercial success of their book.

COLOURFUL CAST

The Epic of Gilgamesh features humans, legendary beings, gods and goddesses, and is set in fantastical places. Amongst them:

Enkidu: a wild man created to be Gilgamesh’s friend

Ninsun (also called as Ninsumun): an all-knowing goddess and the mother of Gilgamesh. Her name means “lady of the wild cows”

Shiduri: alewife of the gods

Belet-seri: an underworld goddess responsible for recording the dead entering the underworld. Known as the scribe of the Earth

Ninshuluhha (also known as Ninshuluhhatumma): the divine cleaner of the underworld

The Seven Sages (also known as Apkallu): legendary half-fish, half-men who founded civilisation at the beginning of time and taught humans to read, count, build cities and to adopt laws.

Humbaba: guardian of the Cedar Forest of Lebanon. Humbaba is protected from attack by seven beings: the Cicada, the Demon, Kappah, the One who Roars, the One Who Blows, the One Who Yells and the Sage. Sometimes they are referred to as his sons, sometimes as supernatural auras.

Apsu (or Abzu): a primeval underground sea that was home to the goddess Ea

»We totally didn’t see that coming,« Helle says. »We expected that it would appeal to people who subscribe to Weekendavisen (a highbrow Danish weekly, ed), but a lot of different types of people have picked it up. I think people enjoy being surprised by it. A lot of people dive into it without really knowing what it’s about, and by the time they are done they are confused and excited all at once. I find that enormously gratifying.«

At one point in the story, Enkidu lays into Shamhat, a temple harlot who tamed him through repeated sexual intercourse.

You shall never have a happy home,
you shall never dwell in the young girls’ room.
May the earth soil your best outfit,
and the drunk drag your gown through the dust.
You shall never have a comfortable home,
… Let your home be devoid of merrymaking, that which is a source the people’s mirth.
May the bed where you find your pleasure be a bench,
may your home be a crossroads,
may you sleep amongst ruins,
may you shelter in the shadow of the city ramparts.
May thicket and thorn tear at your feet,
may drunk and sober alike slap at your face,
may filthy mobs crowd your public house,
may there be fisticuffs in your inn.
… May the thatcher refuse to repair your roof.*

So much for being subtle; when Babylonians wanted to insult someone, they didn’t pull their punches.

Biblical, but different

Gilgamesh also tells the story of a great flood that swept all of Babylon away. And when, in 1839, 12 clay tablets inscribed with the Gilgamesh epic were discovered in Iraq, the fact that it told a flood story similar to the one in the Bible was seen as evidence that such an event had actually taken place.

Helle, though, has a different read.

I’m something of a climate activist, and I find it fascinating to look at the story of the flood

Sophus Helle

»I think the most likely explanation isn’t that Gilgamesh influenced the Bible, even though Gilgamesh is the older story. No, I think that the flood is a myth that was widespread in the region, and that both Gilgamesh and the Bible have co-opted it.«

And, he points out, each uses the flood to convey a different message.

»In the Bible, the flood was a way to punish people for their sins, but that’s not the case in Gilgamesh,” Helle says. “And, in the Bible, God has control over the flood, but that’s totally not what’s going on in Gilgamesh. There, you typically see the gods taking a while to get the things they create under control.«

History reborn

But if the flood in Gilgamesh isn’t a form of punishment, how then should we understand it? Helle offers an interpretation.

»It represents the rebirth of history and the start of a new culture. The Babylonians refer to the time before the flood and the time after the flood the same way we refer to history and pre-history. For the Babylonians, the city was at the centre of their understanding of what culture was; they equated cities with culture, so there was no before and after when it came to cities. It was culture that began anew.«

The myth of the flood was also a way for Babylonians to understand their culture in terms of the frequent political changes in the region.

Gilgamesh’ historie på Tavle V, møder Humbaba sammen med Enkidu, Sulaymaniyah MuseumThe fifth of the 12 cuneiform tablets bearing the story of Gilgamesh. Discovered in 1839, the tablets are estimated to be 4,000 years old.

»Babylonian culture went through a number of big political upheavals, and the flood story may be an expression of their understanding of history as not only a linear phenomenon, but also as something that falls into place each time something changes, or a political system topples.«

Another explanation is that floods, at that time, would have wiped out historical records, which were written on clay tablets. Add water, and they, along with the history they bear witness to, disappear.

It’s a complicated and complex aspect of Gilgamesh, and it’s one that Helle finds also can be applied to current events.

»I’m something of a climate activist, and I find it fascinating to look at the story of the flood in the context of the challenges we face today. It’s a reminder of just how serious the situation is. It’s a reminder of what the consequences are, and maybe it’s also a reminder that humans have a knack for surviving. Gilgamesh offers us optimism,« Helle says.

*The passages from Helle’s book are freely translated here to give the reader a sense of the language used in the retelling. The passages can be found in Danish in the original version of this article. For comparison, a standard English translation of the original 12 tablets, can be found here.

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