The Lament of Gilgamesh

September 18, 2006 at 2:54 am 1 comment

Sin-liqe-unninni

Listen

Shouldn’t my cheeks
be hollow, shouldn’t my face be ravaged,
frost-chilled, and burnt by the desert sun?
Shouldn’t my heart be filled with grief?
Shouldn’t I be worn out and ready to collapse?
My friend, my brother, whom I loved so dearly,
who accompanied me through every danger –
Enkidu, my brother, whom I loved so dearly,
who accompanied me through every danger –
the fate of mankind has overwhelmed him.
For six days I would not let him be buried,
thinking, “If my grief is violent enough,
perhaps he will come back to life again.”
For six days and seven nights I mourned him,
until a maggot fell out of his nose.
Then I was frightened, I was terrified by death,
and I set out to roam the wilderness.
I cannot bear what happened to my friend –
I cannot bear what happened to Enkidu –
so I roam the wilderness in my grief.
How can my mind have any rest?
My beloved friend has turned into clay –
my beloved Enkidu has turned into clay.
And won’t I too lie down in the dirt
like him, and never arise again?
That is why I must find Utnapishtim,
whom men call ‘The Distant One’. I must ask him
how he managed to overcome death.
I have wandered the world, climbed the most treacherous
mountains, crossed deserts, sailed the vast ocean,
and sweet sleep has rarely softened my face.
I have worn myself out through ceaseless striving,
I have filled my muscles with pain and anguish.
I have killed bear, lion, hyena, leopard,
tiger, deer, antelope, ibex, I have eaten
their meat and have wrapped their rough skins around me.
And what in the end have I achieved?
When I reached Shiduri the tavern keeper,
I was filthy, exhausted, heartsick. Now let
the gate of sorrow be closed behind me,
and let it be sealed with tar and pitch.

(translation by Stephen Mitchell)

It doesn’t get older than this. The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the oldest works of literature – a set of legends dating back as far as 2000 BC, eventually formalized in an Akkadian version, believed to be the work of Sin-liqe-unninni sometime around 1000 BC. (for more on the Epic see Wikipedia)

This extract is the longest monologue in the epic – a grand lament by Gilgamesh for the death of his friend and comrade Enkidu. It’s a marvellous study of the pathology of mourning as well as its eventual futility. Gilgamesh is a man torn between grief and horror, and his words betray a strangely authentic mish-mash of conflicting emotion. There is a great deal of tenderness for the dead Enkidu here, but there is also Gilgamesh’s concern with his own mortality, the fact of which his companion’s death has so forcefully brought home to him.

What I love about this lament is the way it combines the epic with the realistic – the overall tone is grandoise, almost prophetic, but what other great lament would include the line “a maggot fell out of his nose”? Certainly you won’t find anything like that in Lycidas or In Memoriam. This is a powerful and savage poem, a startlingly real, startlingly human voice from a distant civilisation whose moral and aesthetic values may have been somewhat different from ours, but whose concern with mortality we can easily share.

[falstaff]

Entry filed under: Akkadian, Falstaff, Sin-liqe-unninni, Stephen Mitchell. Tags: .

This World To Edward Williams

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Space Bar  |  September 20, 2006 at 7:32 am

    I like Stephen Mitchell’s translations. He is not afraid to echo the long, looping resonances that I imagine must be in the original. Too many translators bringing older works to the present day prefer ‘renditions’ to translations. Look at Coleman barks, or Daniel Ladinsky, for instance. I like the sound of this (though, as ever, my speakers are dysfunctional and I can only hear thisin my own head).

    Reply

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