The Epic of Gilgamesh is considered by many to be the earliest surviving work of ‘great’ literature. Even if the very readable tale of the King of Uruk’s search to the ends of the earth for greatness and eternal life is not quite your bag, the survival, discovery, and translation of the four-thousand-year-old clay tablets that preserved this epic poem from ancient Mesopotamia*, and the fact so many of its tales anticipate those found in the Bible and Homer, is itself a phenomenal story. Refrains of ‘this is older than Jesus! Jesus, this is older than Jesus!’ or ‘ooh Jesus’s crew sort of copied stuff!! Naughty’ greeted me each time I turned a page. I am a simple soul.
Andrew George’s introduction to his translation provides the perfect primer to a tale that can be enjoyed for its mix of both the unearthly, and the starkest realities: despite its age, there are nuggets of ancient text on those age-old preoccupations of love, death, family, friendship, and duty that echo across the millennia. Consider the following, which will resonate with anyone who, like me, has read the dates on a tombstone and mused ‘Mr So and So never knew that X date was going to be his last day on earth, did he? And I don’t know when the bells will toll pour moi, either! Oh it’s some heavy shizzle…’:
Anunnaki, the great gods, held an assembly,
Mammitum, maker of destiny, fixed fates with them:
both Death and life they have established,
but the day of Death they do not disclose.
My favourite part, though, was our hero’s interlude with an ancient female tavern keeper. Siduri’s efforts to dissuade Gilgamesh from his pursuit for immortality, before at least pointing him in the right direction so he doesn’t totally cxck it up, sound like the familiar barside wisdom of EastEnders’ Peggy Mitchell or Corrie’s Bet Lynch, and prove that the wise landlady is an enigma that translates across the ages. If your own quest for greatness and immortality throws up a few clangers, find yourself a Peggy or a Bet. They’ll sort you ahhht/ooot.
*Iraq/Kuwait/eastern Syria/Southeastern Turkey. Yeah I didn’t know that either.