This book is the story of insights gained by King Gilgamesh through lessons learned from two quest journeys and the death of his friend. Wisdom gained from his experiences metamorphoses him from an arrogant and self-promoting tyrant into a humble and charitable king.
Reading this book is a glimpse further back into the history of recorded human thought than any other book in existence. This book has the distinction of being a thousand years older than the Iliad
or the Hebrew Pentateuch
. Its hero was the historical King Gilgamesh who reigned in the Mesopotamian city of Uruk in about 2750 BCE.
Could people who lived that long ago be as human as we are? The answer is of course yes which leads to the next question. Is it possible to learn something about being human from noting the story themes that we continue to have in common with people who lived that long ago?
So what themes do we appear to have in common with people who lived that long ago? For one thing, this story gives voice to grief and fear of death. For another, the story of Gilgamesh portrays love and vulnerability and the quest for wisdom. The wisdom obtained by the hero Gilgamesh leads to his acceptance of his mortality and determination to live this life well.
Another observation from this story is that people that long ago knew what lustful sex was. In other words, they knew how to do it. Early in the story a temple prostitute is given credit for taming and civilizing the wild man Enkidu who then becomes a close friend of Gilgamesh’s. Therefore, the power of women in human affairs is recognized as being that of sexual attraction. I’ll let the reader decide if this is still true today.
I highly recommend Stephen Mitchell’s “A New English Version.” I tried some of the free on-line “word for word” translations, and I found them to be virtually unreadable. Mitchell’s version read much as an adventure thriller in verse form (loose, non-iambic, non-alliterative tetrameter, except for the Prologue and the end which have five beats to the line). Recorded Books’ audio recording of the Mitchell version read by George Guidall is very well done.