I listen to half a dozen podcasts every week. One of these is from BBC Radio 4 In Our Time, which is hosted by Melvyn Bragg, takes a scholarly subject (from the sciences and arts) every week and discusses it with experts. I learn lots from these podcasts. The recent episode about The Epic of Gilgamesh particularly inspired me. It featured the translator of the most recent Penguin Classic Version, Andrew George, plus fellow Assyriology boffins Frances Reynolds, and Martin Worthington.
I’d read this epic (in the N.K. Sandars translation) while studying ‘The Epic Tradition’ course as a student at Warwick University. Andrew George’s translation is terrific, and does not gloss over the missing words and lacunae in the text, while the deliberate, and oddly hypnotic, repetitions in the verse are more evident.
The myth itself is rich, and I’m not going to retell it here. But it is arguably the oldest piece of literature in the world. (Other earlier writings exist, including the magical spells inside Ancient Egyptian coffin texts but they are nowhere near as sustained.)
If you think long enough about the fact that you are about to read the world’s oldest extant piece of literature, it will make your hair stand on end. Intriguingly, the story features a flood, predating the Old Testament account, and the stories are remarkably similar. The Noah figure here is called Uta-Napishti, a man who was made immortal by the Gods having survived the flood. Gilgamesh goes to him to discuss immortality, and returns sadder and wiser.
So let’s look at George’s translation of the opening lines of the oldest piece of literature we have. They are fragmentary. The triple dots are missing bits, and the words in brackets have been inferred:
He who saw the Deep, the country’s foundation,
[who] knew …, was wise in all matters!
[Gilgamesh, who] saw the Deep, the country’s foundation,
[who] knew…., was wise in all matters!
[He] … everywhere…
and [learnt] of everything the sum of wisdom.
He who saw what was secret, discovered what was hidden,
he brought back a tale of before the Deluge.
He came a far road, was weary, found peace,
and set all his labours on a tablet of stone.
He built the rampart of Uruk-the-Sheephold,
of holy Eanna, the secret storehouse.
The opening idea of seeing the Deep fascinates me. Towards the end of the epic, Gilgamesh dives into water to retrieve a piece of coral which will rejuvenate him, but this is stolen by a snake. But I don’t think ‘the Deep’ necessarily refers to this event. Rather it seems we are dealing with a resonant and ambiguous metaphor. By the end of the story Gilgamesh has considered the passing of time, immortality and death, he has had dealings with Gods, and has known great personal sadness in the loss of his companion Enkidu. Gilgamesh returns to strengthen the foundations of his city Uruk and its people, for in this legacy lies a kind of immortality.
I love the fact that this opening to the poem is so ambiguous. So much of the pleasure of reading is about what is left out, what allows us as readers to puzzle and engage. He who saw the Deep is marvellous opening.
I’ve just started looking into the deep of Gilgamesh again, and I’m loving it.