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Operation Babylonian Freedom

A Tale Of Power, Arrogance, And Destruction From Iraq—But One You’ll Actually Want To Read

By Scott Carlson | Posted 12/15/2004

Edited by Stephen Mitchell

Free Press, clothbound

It’s a fitting time to read Gilgamesh. The world’s oldest work of literature (written circa 1700 BCE), an epic poem found in 1853 in ruins beneath the city of Mosul, in what is now Iraq, tells of a tyrant king who ventures out to destroy a beast for the sake of “driving out evil,” and very nearly destroys himself. The poem features early versions of myths that wind up in the Bible more than 1,000 years later: a myth of creation, one of a great flood, and a couple of stories about innocence lost. Anyone who has read the Book of Genesis would recognize them. And this classic of classics features the sort of eroticism that would make a modern-day Bible reader—maybe even a presidential crusader—blush.

At its heart, Gilgamesh is about the arrogance of undeserved power (Gilgamesh, the son of a goddess, was born with a bronze spoon in his mouth) and lessons learned when hardships finally come. It’s worth drawing comparisons between this ancient work and modern times, and the task is not beyond Stephen Mitchell, the editor of a new version of the poem who writes an engaging and accessible introduction to the work. “In Iraq, when the dust blows, stopping men and tanks, it brings with it memories of an ancient world, much older than Islam or Christianity,” he writes.

In other words, Gilgamesh has walked across this ground before, with his nine-foot strides, and we might want to give some thought to his mistakes.

Mitchell’s version of Gilgamesh, composed primarily for the lay reader, clips along like an action novel. With its contemporary language and modernized narrative, it would find enthusiastic readers even among those who have no interest in classic literature. This is a “version” and not a “translation”; Mitchell does not read cuneiform or understand Akkadian, the ancient Semitic language that Gilgamesh was written in. Instead, Mitchell’s version is pieced together from various translations of the stone tablets that were discovered in 1853. Mitchell says in a note on the text that he tried to stay faithful to the spirit of the work, but he cut out various repetitions that were a poetic style of the time, added lines where he thought transitions were needed for clarity, and eliminated muddled fragmentary passages. (The stone tablets did not survive whole.)

If he was unfaithful to the letter of the work, he can be forgiven. A passage describing the slaying of the monster Humbaba, the guardian of the Cedar Forest, is rife with missing pieces in a previous translation:

Begging for his life, Humbaba said to Gilgamesh, “You are so young, Gilgamesh, your mother gave birth to you and indeed you are the son of [Ninsun, the Lady of the Wild Cows]. [. . .] the command of Shamash, lord of the mountain: “Gilgamesh, the heir of Uruk, will be king.” [. . .] Gilgamesh, a dead man can’t [. . .] a living [. . .] his master. Spare my life, Gilgamesh [. . .] let me dwell here for you in [ . . . ] as many trees as you wish [. . .], I will guard the myrtle for you, the [. . .], timber, the pride of the palace.”

In Mitchell’s hand, the passage is direct and elegant:

Humbaba said, “Gilgamesh, have mercy.
Let me live here in the Cedar Forest.
If you spare my life, I will be your slave,
I will give you as many cedars as you wish.
You are the king of Uruk by the grace of Shamash,
honor him with a cedar temple
and a glorious cedar palace for yourself.
All this is yours, if only you spare me.”

Of course, Gilgamesh does not spare Humbaba. With the help of his buddy, Enkidu, Gilgamesh kills the monster, revels in his victory, and insults a goddess, which leads to the death of Enkidu, mourning, and a failed quest for immortality, as well as a bit of soul-searching on the part of the fallen hero.

In his introduction, Mitchell is not shy about tying the epic to contemporary events. Some might read Gilgamesh and recognize the tale of an arrogant leader who ventures out to crush an “evil” monster, only to find himself in a bit of a mess after declaring victory. (Let’s not stretch the comparison too far: What modern poet would describe George W. Bush as “powerful and tall beyond all others” and an “unvanquished leader, hero in the front lines”? Gilgamesh got his kicks from deflowering maidens, not landing fighter jets for photo ops—but you get the point.)

According to Mitchell, Gilgamesh’s killing of Humbaba “is the original preemptive attack.” Humbaba is a monster, but he’s a monster that maintains some balance in the world, as a guardian of the cedars. In this way, after more than 4,000 years, the poem retains its power as a lesson for the powerful—a lesson that Mitchell is willing to highlight. “The problem with believing in evil monsters and an evil-hating god (or God) is that it splits the universe down the middle,” Mitchell writes. “It is all too easy to see ourselves as fighting on God’s side, to identify our ideology with what is best for the world and use it to justify crusades, pogroms, or preemptive attacks.”

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