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The Epic of Gilgamesh, Three Ways

“More familiarity with our own mythology might help us to relate to theirs.” – Jean-Luc Picard, from last week’s piece on Darmok

With this quote and the tale of Gilgamesh and Enkidu still fresh in my mind, I came across a piece titled A Wild Man, Tarzan of the Highlands over at The AnthropoEccentric. In his thought-provoking essay, N.S. Anderson explores modern re-imaginings of the tale of Gilgamesh in music, translations, and art while highlighting the connections between nature and culture that lies at the heart of this Mesopotamian epic.

A Wild Man, Tarzan of the Highlands 

Anderson begins by featuring a contemporary take on the ancient poem performed by Baba Brinkman, a Canadian rap artist and scholar who has built a career connecting hip-hop with literary poetry. Have a listen this rendering of Gilgamesh, performed by a modern-day troubadour:

Gilgamesh, by Baba Brinkman

Brinkman’s modern twist on this oldest of tales exemplifies the enduring power of story and storyteller to entertain, captivate, and resonate.

 The Lament of Gilgamesh

Next, Anderson takes a look at translations of the epic poem, in particular passages that speak of Gilgamesh mourning Enkidu’s death. Out of the two version he quotes, I prefer the Hines version, taken from Gilgamesh: A Powerful New Version of the World’s First Epic:

“How long did I slap your corpse-face
to drive a summer into its ice?
Forgive me.
But, O, Enkidu,
how am I to know myself without you.” (p. 46)

Anderson perceptively points out that this rendition reinforces the notion that Enkidu served as a mirror for Gilgamesh, and it is through their companionship that the God King came to know himself and mature as an individual. (More on this later)

The Artwork of Ludmila Zeman

Gilgamesh and Enkidu by Ludmila ZemanGilgamesh and Enkidu: The original bromance.

Finally, Anderson features the stunning artwork of Ludmila Zeman, a Czech-Canadian artist who won a Governor General Award for her Gilgamesh illustrations in a trilogy of children picture books.  They represent another path in which the Mesopotamian legend has been revitalized for modern times and made enjoyable for audiences of all ages.

I don’t generally succumb to impulse purchases, but I knew from the first moment I saw them that I needed to get my hands on this series. Thumbing through pages containing these beautiful images, my favourite remains the one of Gilgamesh’s mourning Enkidu’s passing.

The Civilized and the Wild: Co-creation and Interdependence

Towards the end, Anderson points out that one of the more fascinating things about the epic of Gilgamesh is that it depicts the agents of nature and culture as partners who actively shape each other. Unlike many mytho-poetic manifestations of nature in Western civilization, the divisions between nature and culture are not absolute. Enkidu’s wildness is not associated with danger or evil; civilization does not shun him, nor does he rejects its lures. Similarly, Gilgamesh has no qualms connecting with the embodiment of a force older than that of his civilized realm. In fact, his connection to nature through Enkidu helps him grow:

“Only once he embraces the creature who is as much ass, donkey, and panther as man, the creature with a connection to a world that is older than humankind, that precedes the world of civilization and lies at its foundation, only then is Gilgamesh able to mature, to elevate himself as a man.” – N.S. Anderson

They come into partnership as equals, one part god, one part wild. Together they learn from and rely on one another, serving as the ying for the other’s yang before there existed such a concept. Their bond changes them both, making them, as Anderson puts it succinctly, more human and humane. The reciprocal nature of this relationship, in my opinion, makes the Enkidu’s death all the more tragic, and Gilgamesh’s grief more heartfelt.

I’ll stop there for now: There’s a lot more to read at the link. I recommend that you to take read, view, or listen to the various versions of Gilgamesh over at The AnthropoEccentric, and I would love to hear your thoughts.

Questions:

  • Which version of Gilgamesh featured here, art, music, or poetry, appeals to you most? Why?
  • Can you think of any myths or tales that incorporate nature and culture together with the theme of balance?

Reference

Hines, Derrik.  Gilgamesh: A Powerful New Version of the World’s First Epic.  New York: Anchor Books, 2002.

Zeman, Ludmilla. Gilgamesh the King. Toronto: Tundra Books, 1992.

Zeman, Ludmilla. The Revenge of Ishtar.  Toronto: Tundra Books, 1993.

Images © Ludmilla Zeman and are utilized under the the guidelines of Fair Use; no copyright infringement is intended.

7 Comments

  1. The illustrated children’s edition looks lovely, and since I’m not familiar with the story I would try that first, though I love the Hines translation example that you quoted.

    The whole nature/culture thing makes me think of Michael Pollan’s Second Nature, about how gardens are ideally that kind of balance, but I can’t think of any fiction that addresses it. I guess farming is ideally that kind of balance, too, and Wendel Berry’s poetry is eloquent on both farming and love of nature.

    Thanks again for a very stimulating post!

    • Hi Nancy, yes, I highly recommend Zeman’s trilogy as a way to get into the epic. The art manages to capture that mythic aura, while the text is written in a very accessible way. Being for children, I found that it handles the risque aspects of the story rather skillfully as well.

  2. You know you are asking a fairly literary question. Gosh, I have to shore up my memory of English literature studies (from university)….

    But certainly there’s sufficient evidence of metaphors starting from medieval literature onward, of controlling Nature by man..through man’s imposition of scientific progress, urbanization vs. images of bucolic rural country side (so called more innocent peasant. Yea, sure.) or simply forcing Nature to meet man’s artistic needs (culture): ie. bonsai.

    This dichotomy in literature translates more negatively in past colonlal attitudes of taming the “savages” living in the woods (native Indians) or jungles vs. so-called more cultured conquers from urban, “developed” countries/societies.

    I’m getting way off from mythology and fairy tales. Just a take-off (rant). 🙂

    • Hi Jean,

      I love asking things that I am not qualified to answer haha. You bring up an interesting point in that Western literature is filled with tales that do the whole dichotomy of good/bad nature/culture. (and vice versa)

      I would be interested in exploring alternative myths from other societies that tackle these ideas from a different angle, but I’m not sure how to tackle that.

      As an aside, tangents are always welcome. Appreciate your comment!

  3. Yes, we need more reminders and stories about how nature and culture shape who we are. Are people beginning to connect how our treatment of the environment reflects upon us and how it might be shaping and changing us in the process?

    • When I was younger, I think it was easier to see the effects of my actions on the environment than the other way around. But growing up and gaining a bit of introspection, it is very obvious that we are definitely shaped by the world we inhabit. It is a reciprocal process for sure.

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