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Gilgamesh

BOOK: Gilgamesh
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BY STEPHEN MITCHELL

P
OETRY

Parables and Portraits

F
ICTION

The Frog Prince

Meetings with the Archangel

N
ONFICTION

Loving What Is: Four Questions that Can Change Your Life
(with Byron Katie)

The Gospel According to Jesus

T
RANSLATIONS AND
A
DAPTATIONS

Gilgamesh

Bhagavad Gita

Real Power: Business Lessons from the Tao Te Ching
(with James A. Autry)

Full Woman, Fleshly Apple, Hot Moon: Selected Poems of Pablo Neruda

Genesis

Ahead of All Parting: The Selected Poetry and Prose of Rainer Maria Rilke

A Book of Psalms

The Selected Poetry of Dan Pagis

Tao Te Ching

The Book of Job

The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai
(with Chana Bloch)

The Sonnets to Orpheus

The Lay of the Love and Death of Cornet Christoph Rilke

Letters to a Young Poet

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge

The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke

E
DITED BY
S
TEPHEN
M
ITCHELL

The Essence of Wisdom: Words from the Masters to Illuminate the Spiritual Path

Bestiary: An Anthology of Poems about Animals

Song of Myself

Into the Garden: A Wedding Anthology
(with Robert Hass)

The Enlightened Mind: An Anthology of Sacred Prose

The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry

Dropping Ashes on the Buddha:

The Teaching of Zen Master Seung Sahn

F
OR
C
HILDREN

The Wishing Bone and Other Poems
(illustrated by Tom Pohrt)

The Nightingale, by Hans Christian Andersen
(illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline)

Jesus: What He Really Said and Did

The Creation
(illustrated by Ori Sherman)

B
OOKS ON
T
APE

Gilgamesh

Loving What Is

Bhagavad Gita

Full Woman, Fleshly Apple, Hot Moon

The Frog Prince

Meetings with the Archangel

Bestiary

Genesis

Duino Elegies and The Sonnets to Orpheus

The Gospel According to Jesus

The Enlightened Mind

The Enlightened Heart

Letters to a Young Poet

Parables and Portraits

Tao Te Ching

The Book of Job

Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke

GILGAMESH

STEPHEN MITCHELL

ATRIA BOOKS
New York London Toronto Sydney New Dehli

ATRIA PAPERBACK
A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
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www.SimonandSchuster.com

Copyright © 2004 by Stephen Mitchell

All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.

ATRIA PAPERBACK and colophon are trademarks of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

For information about special discounts for bulk purchases, please contact Simon & Schuster Special Sales: 1-800-456-6798 or [email protected]

Design by Joel Avirom and Jason Snyder

Illustrations by Jason Snyder

Manufactured in the United States of America

5 7 9 10 8 6

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Gilgamesh. English.

Gilgamesh / a new English version [by] Stephen Mitchell.

p. cm.

Includes bibliographical references.

1. Epic poetry, Assyro-Babylonian-Translations into English. I. Mitchell, Stephen, 1943-II. Title.

PJ3771.5.G5E5 2004

892′.1—dc22

2004050072

ISBN-13:978-0-7432-6164-7

ISBN-13:978-1-4391-047-4-3

ISBN-10:   0-7432-6164-X

CONTENTS

INTRODUCTION

ABOUT THIS VERSION

GILGAMESH

NOTES

BIBLIOGRAPHY

GLOSSARY

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

INTRODUCTION

THE OLDEST STORY IN THE WORLD

I
n Iraq, when the dust blows, stopping men and tanks, it brings with it memories of an ancient world, much older than Islam or Christianity. Western civilization originated from that place between the Tigris and the Euphrates, where Hammurabi created his legal code and where
Gilgamesh
was written-the oldest story in the world, a thousand years older than the
Iliad
or the Bible. Its hero was a historical king who reigned in the Mesopotamian city of Uruk in about 2750
BCE.
In the epic, he has an intimate friend, Enkidu, a naked wild man who has been civilized through the erotic arts of a temple priestess. With him Gilgamesh battles monsters, and when Enkidu dies, he is inconsolable. He sets out on a desperate journey to find the one man who can tell him how to escape death.

Part of the fascination of
Gilgamesh
is that, like any great work of literature, it has much to tell us about ourselves. In giving voice to grief and the fear of death, perhaps more powerfully than any book written after it, in portraying love and vulnerability and the quest for wisdom, it has become a personal testimony for millions of readers in dozens of languages. But it also has a particular relevance in today's world, with its polarized fundamentalisms, each side fervently believing in its own righteousness, each on a crusade, or jihad, against what it perceives as an evil enemy. The hero of this epic is an antihero, a superman (a superpower, one might say) who doesn't know the difference between strength and arrogance. By preemptively attacking a monster, he brings on himself a disaster that can only be overcome by an agonizing journey, a quest that results in wisdom by proving its own futility. The epic has an extraordinarily sophisticated moral intelligence. In its emphasis on balance and in its refusal to side with either hero or monster, it leads us to question our dangerous certainties about good and evil.

I began this version of
Gilgamesh
because I had never been convinced by the language of any translation of it that I'd read. I wanted to find a genuine voice for the poem: words that were lithe and muscular enough to match the power of the story. If I have succeeded, readers will discover that, rather than standing before an antiquity in a glass case, they have entered a literary masterpiece that is as startlingly alive today as it was three and a half millennia ago.

ORIGINS

G
ilgamesh
is a work that in the intensity of its imagination stands beside the great stories of Homer and the Bible. Yet for two thousand years, all traces of it were lost. The baked clay tablets on which it was inscribed in cuneiform characters lay buried
in the rubble of cities across the ancient Near East, waiting for people from another world to read them. It wasn't until 1850 that the first fragments were discovered among the ruins of Nineveh, and the text wasn't deciphered and translated for several decades afterward. The great poet Rainer Maria Rilke may have been the first reader discerning enough to recognize its true literary stature.
“Gilgamesh
is stupendous!” he wrote at the end of 1916. “I … consider it to be among the greatest things that can happen to a person.” “I have immersed myself in [it], and in these truly gigantic fragments I have experienced measures and forms that belong with the supreme works that the conjuring Word has ever produced.” In Rilke's consciousness,
Gilgamesh,
like a magnificent Aladdin's palace that has instantly materialized out of nowhere, makes its first appearance as a masterpiece of world literature.

BOOK: Gilgamesh
2.08Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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