Gilgamesh, Smaug and Krishna

In a previous post I shared what it was like to read David Ferry’s version of the Epic of Gilgamesh twenty years ago. I’ve just read Stephen Mitchell’s version, from 2004. Both versions render the Epic as English free verse. They’re similar in that sense: they’re English poems that read like complete stories, meaning they have filled the many gaps in the surviving ancient tablets. Strict translations of Gilgamesh typically tell the story in English prose, with brackets indicating [several lines are missing here]. Reading the story like this is a broken flow. But that’s what we have to work with; the tale is fragmented, and we’re fortunate to have what we do. Our only choice is either to bracket off what’s missing, or to take a somewhat freer approach and attempt an unbroken, English-poem equivalent of the Akkadian verse, filling in the missing material with supplementary tales about Gilgamesh that have also survived (the Epic of Gilgamesh is not the only ancient story about him), and making best guesses where necessary. All of which is what Ferry and Mitchell do.

Ferry’s version is more condensed; and his choices in certain places readily differ from Mitchell’s; so for me, especially with twenty years having passed since I read Ferry, it was almost like reading a new story.

As poetry, I like both versions equally. I’ve enjoyed reading both of them out loud.

What struck me the most in this second embrace of everyone’s favorite Sumerian king is the echoes of other stories.

Below, I compare some passages in “Gilgamesh” to Tolkien and, especially, to the Bhagavad Gita.

I won’t analyze; I’ll just list these connections for now.

I’ll leave out connections that I’ve already seen elsewhere, such as the links commonly made between the Epic of Gilgamesh, Homer, and the Bible (Genesis/Ecclesiastes).

Compare the description of the goddess Ishtar as fatally flawed –

You are the door through which the cold gets in.

You are the fire that goes out.  You are the pitch
that sticks to the hands of the one who carries the bucket.

You are the house that falls down.  You are the shoe
that pinches the foot of the wearer.  The ill-made wall

that buckles when time has gone by.  The leaky
waterskin soaking the waterskin carrier.

[David Ferry, Tablet VI]

– to this description of Lord Krishna in the “Bhagavad Gita”:

I am the taste in water, Arjuna,
the light in the moon and sun,
OM resonant in all sacred lore,
the sound in space, valor in men.

I am the pure fragrance
in earth, the brilliance in fire,
the life in all living creatures,
the penance in ascetics.

Know me, Arjuna,
as every creature’s timeless seed,
the understanding of intelligent men,
the brilliance of fiery heroes.

[Barbara Stoler Miller, VII, 8-10]

Compare this description of Humbaba/Huwawa –

Gilgamesh backed away. He said,
“How dreadful Humbaba’s face has become!
It is changing into a thousand nightmare
faces, more horrible than I can bear.
I feel haunted. I am too afraid to go on.”

[Stephen Mitchell, Tablet V]

– to this description of Krishna’s terrible, hidden form in the “Bhagavad Gita”:

I see your boundless form
the countless arms,
bellies, mouths, and eyes;
Lord of All,
I see no end,
or middle or beginning
to your totality….

Seeing the many mouths
and eyes
of your great form,
its many arms,
thighs, feet,
bellies, and fangs,
the worlds tremble
and so do I.

[Barbara Stoler Miller, XI, 16, 23]

Compare this passage –

We must not go on this journey, we must not
fight this creature. His breath spews fire,
his voice booms like thunder, his jaws are death.

[Stephen Mitchell, Tablet III]

– to this passage, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”:

My armour is like tenfold shields, my teeth are swords, my claws spears, the shock of my tail a thunderbolt, my wings a hurricane, and my breath death!

Compare this –

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

[Stephen Mitchell, Tablet V]

– to this passage, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Two Towers”:

Gimli gazed with wide eyes for a while, as step by step the figure drew nearer. Then suddenly, unable to contain himself longer, he burst out: ‘Your bow, Legolas! Bend it! Get ready! It is Saruman. Do not let him speak, or put a spell upon us! Shoot first!’

Legolas took his bow and bent it, slowly and as if some other will resisted him. He held an arrow loosely in his hand but did not fit it to the string. Aragorn stood silent, his face was watchful and intent.

‘Why are you waiting? What is the matter with you?’ said Gimli in a hissing whisper.

– and to this passage in “The Hobbit”:

Bilbo was now beginning to feel really uncomfortable. Whenever Smaug’s roving eye, seeking for him in the shadows, flashed across him, he trembled, and an unaccountable desire seized hold of him to rush out and reveal himself and tell all the truth to Smaug. In fact he was in grievous danger of coming under the dragon-spell. But plucking up courage he spoke again…..

Now a nasty suspicion began to grow in his mind—had the dwarves forgotten this important point too, or were they laughing in their sleeves at him all the time? That is the effect that dragon-talk has on the inexperienced. Bilbo of course ought to have been on his guard; but Smaug had rather an overwhelming personality.

Another modern novel comes to mind.

S.R. Hadden, the billionaire entrepreneur from Carl Sagan’s novel “Contact,” is obviously named after Esarhaddon, a king of the Assyrian Empire.  At his death in 669 BC, he was succeeded by his son Ashurbanipal, famous for creating a library that collected texts from all over the world, including the tablets on which were inscribed the Epic of Gilgamesh. It was in the ruins of this library that these tablets were found in the 1850s, thus reintroducing to the world a story that had been long forgotten. 

S.R. Hadden is obsessed with achieving immortality, and he eventually launches himself toward the stars on a rocket, named “Gilgamesh,” that is equipped with the tools to freeze his body; he hopes someday to be picked up by an advanced spacefaring civilization that can reanimate him.  On Earth, he had built an adult-entertainment theme park called “Babylon”, featuring sites such as the “Temple of Ishtar” – all of this painstakingly built to resemble the Mesopotamia ruled by Esarhaddon. 

All of this is more interesting on the page than it sounds in my recap, though I have to admit it was never the strongest point of the novel (none of it appears in the Robert Zemeckis movie of “Contact”). 

One nice connection with Gilgamesh, I thought, is one that Sagan does not press.  When the extraterrestrial signal is picked up on Earth, the message must be deciphered; a primer must be found to decode it.  S.R. Haddon is instrumental in accomplishing this, which I think nicely evokes the situation we faced in the 1850s when the Epic of Gilgamesh was rediscovered but no one could yet read it until they found a way to decipher the Sumerian cuneiform script engraved on the tablets.

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