Defector Reads A Tablet: It’s Time To Discuss ‘The Epic Of Gilgamesh’
2:01 PM EDT on April 14, 2022
Welcome back to Defector Reads A Book! Our March DRAB selection was Sophus Helle's translation of The Epic of Gilgamesh, which the Defector book sickos have read and discussed. We’ll be down in the comments to chat with you as soon as you’re done reading.
Barry Petchesky: Welcome back to DRAB, two-thirds blog and one-third human. I am being forced to admit this under duress, but ever since I finished The Epic of Gilgamesh I have been absentmindedly calling my cat “Humbaba.”
Kelsey McKinney: I think that’s beautiful, Barry. Thank you for your honesty. I was personally watching the Jays game last night at a bar thinking about Enkidu every time Vlad Jr. batted, so The Epic of Gilgamesh has infiltrated my brain as well.
Giri Nathan: Enkidu definitely has a big baseball butt. It’s basically in the text. I want to go back to Humbaba for a second though: I feel bad for him. He seems like this majestic tusked guardian of trees but these two idiots decide they have to go kill him. We don’t even really get to understand what he looks like and what his deal is—and then suddenly they’re cutting him open.
Maitreyi Anantharaman: He’s basically like The Lorax, right? Just minding his business, looking out for the trees. Poor guy.
BP: The beeflads don’t even seem to know why they have to kill Humbaba. One day they’re just like bro, we gotta go kill him and then they get there and Gilgamesh is like bro, I’m scared, and Enkidu is like bro, you got this.
KM: I think they just wanted to do some BRO BONDING. It seemed to me like an excuse to go on a lil trip with your best buddy, which, OK. But you can just go on a trip with Enkidu if you like him so much. Me yelling at The Epic of Gilgamesh: JUST KISS!!!!
BP: I’m not sure how “meta” the cuneiform cultures got in their literature, but it almost felt like Gil and Enk set off on this quest because that’s what you have to do to be an epic hero. They more or less say that, too? When they talk about the importance of doing some deed that’ll have your name praised forever.
MA: I’m glad you both invoked the word “bro,” because reading this, I couldn’t help thinking of the first DRAB we ever did: a contemporary translation of Beowulf that leaned into the bro tropes to highlight exactly this sort of bombast. Epic poetry is fun! Things happen so quickly. Everyone’s a bit ridiculous and full of energy.
GN: Gilgamesh’s mother disses Enkidu—hairy guy with no family, things of that nature—and then Enkidu gets sad, and Gilgamesh almost instantly comes up with this scheme to kill Humbaba and “crush his mind.” So.
KM: I feel all amped up talking about this story. I really loved reading it. I think I expected it to be more like Beowulf with lots of fight scenes and like descriptions of war. But what surprised me most was how fucking funny it was! I was laughing reading this 4,000-year-old text! People are constantly owning each other.
BP: This is very dorky but I always am so delighted when a piece of really ancient culture makes so clear that human character has always been the same. These characters, gods or only 66.67 percent god, are so identifiably human. Gilgamesh is a damn idiot most of the time.
GN: I once asked my Twitter followers if they knew any good jokes over 1,000 years old and didn’t get many responses. I don’t use Twitter much anymore.
BP: Here’s one for ya:
GN: Yeah that’s a good joke. Gil would’ve told that to Enk and cracked up before even delivering the punchline.
KM: Damn. That is a good one. But Gilgamesh is such a dummy he would laugh at anything, I think. Gilgamesh is literally unable to interpret his own dreams at all. He’s constantly like, Listen the gods have given me a pretty clear omen, but it is a slight metaphor so I cannot understand it. Enkidu, what does it mean? And Enkidu is like, It means you rule. And Gilgamesh is like, Hell yeah.
BP: It’s very funny to me that Enkidu is supposed to represent the untamed wild, and Gilgamesh the fruits of civilization, and yet Gilgamesh is this big dummy who can’t really undertake any action or act logically with Enkidu setting him straight. He’s just a hyper-hormonal teen who can’t be trusted with anything.
MA: Yes! I was thinking he read a lot like a teen to me. Gilgamesh feels every emotion so deeply. As his mother puts it, he's burdened by "so restless a heart."
KM: They are both horny teens! The whole “trap” for Enkidu is just “show him one lady.”
GN: And like seven (very busy) days later he puts on cologne and clothes and is a frat guy. I loved the images of pre-civilized Enkidu though: very hairy and hanging out with the herd at the watering hole, teaching them to evade the hunter. He ends up transforming into something much lamer and more violent and more interested in beer.
BP: Something that felt significant was that after he spent that week with Shamhat, it wasn’t that he abandoned the animals. It was: “The gazelles saw him and ran, the herd of the wild fled from him.” To me this reads less like him actively deciding to embrace civilization and more like civilization representing a tainting of that natural state he was in.
GN: Definitely. There’s also a nice callback to Enkidu’s origins in the Humbaba scene, when he’s about to be killed and he’s like, I remember when you were a baby in the wilderness. I decided not to kill you and feed you to the animals, so I just let you run around—this is how you repay me? The translation there is great: “And you, Enkidu! Fish that never knew its father, / turtle spawn that never drank its mother’s milk!” I’m not sure turtles nurse their young. Got to consult Roth.
KM: In a lot of the tablets, I really liked the missing words and sections and found them very emotional, but in the Humbaba scene I was desperate for more information. I wanted to know what was happening? Besides just Gilgamesh being so scared, we didn’t get very much detail! It was one of the few spots I missed the unfound words.
BP: I would love to hear people’s reactions to the missing lines and sections. I was mostly frustrated. It always felt like there were big gaps just when things were getting good. And my imagination is not strong enough to fill them in properly.
MA: I liked the way the fragments were styled on the page in this copy we read—almost as if you’re reading a document with redactions.
GN: The effect it had on my reading was like a strobe light. It can be cool in brief bursts, especially when there’s action elided in this irregular way. You flash back in and something wildly different is happening. And it has this unintentional poetic effect, made intentional by how this translation represented the absences with those dots. But there were lots of frustrating stretches too. I did like the long description of how he lavished riches on dead Enkidu that just became a series of “He gave his friend,” with no answers.
BP: It’s so cool to me that new fragments are constantly being discovered. It’s wild to think that the Epic they read 50 years ago is different from this one, and this one is different from what they’ll be reading 50 years from now.
KM: I really loved the breaks. It made the text feel extremely contemporary to me! It actually reminded me a lot of Anne Carson and the way that she uses pause and emptiness to create emotion and tension. The missing phrases in the section where Enkidu is dying, for example, really made me emotional! We are missing an entire side of the tablet for the whole scene. When it says like, Enkidu lay ill for one day and a second - - In his bed, Enkidu - - A third day and a fourth, Enkid - - A fifth, sixth, and seventh day, an with ninth and tenth day, - - Enkidu’s illness - - An eleventh and a twelfth – In his bed, Enkidu - - He called out to Gilgamesh. This was so brutal! The descent of illness without context. The terror of not knowing how to help. The fear brewing.
MA: Anne Carson also came to mind; those gaps and pauses can be mined creatively, and the effect can be intense, even if, as Giri says, it’s unintentional. (To bring yet another previous DRAB selection into this, maybe it’s a bit like the way The Castle ends mid-sentence just because Kafka died and didn’t finish writing. It ends up kind of working as a literary choice!) And agreed, Barry: The text is so old, but the possibility of a different version existing down the road gives our translation the feeling of a draft, like we're reading something that's still bound to evolve.
GN: One of my favorite things the essays explained was the context for how this epic was consumed. The analogy Helle gives us is a TV series. Each tablet was meant to stand alone. Scholars might only possess a few of the tablets. And most people who came into contact with the story would’ve been hearing it aloud. To consume the text in a written, aggregated version is a totally modern pleasure. It also probably creates different, anachronistic expectations for a reader: that plot points might resolve themselves in certain timeframes, that certain questions might be answered. Helle observes that the constant repetitions in the text, sometimes tedious for a reader, might’ve felt different to a listener, who was picking up on different inflections, different puns in each go-around.
KM: Something I would like to say is that having read this epic one time and in one translation, I reject the 12th tablet. I consider it fan fiction and refuse to discuss it further. Thank you.
BP: I was right there with you on that, but I found the 12th tablet sticking with me, unexpectedly. It felt like after so much dwelling on death and its inevitability, it made sense to give at least a little glimpse of the underworld. But maybe that’s too much fan service? I loved the point made in one of the essays about how so many questions in the text go unanswered, and that’s a big part of what gives it this lasting grip on us. Gilgamesh is downright haunting because the questions it asks are The Big Questions, to which none of us have good answers.
KM: I didn’t say fan fiction is bad!
GN: The 12th tablet has some of the best imagery of the whole epic, when Enkidu’s rattling off all those fates of the dead, so I tried to appreciate it on its own terms instead of reconciling it with Enkidu’s death in the main text. I feel like scribes stuck in there because they knew it was really cool. And maybe because it offers somewhat concrete, practical advice about omens and death rites, which they seem to have been obsessed with?
BP: There’s also “lessons” there, or morals, which there really aren’t anywhere else in the text. Except for explaining why snakes shed their skin, I guess. Did you folks want Gilgamesh to obtain immortality? Were you disappointed when he failed, twice?
KM: I had absolutely no faith in Gilgamesh to obtain immortality. One of the biggest laughs of the text for me was when the snake ate his flower of immortality. I really did not see that coming and it felt so fitting to his character.
MA: I would not say I was “disappointed” so much as I was extremely cracking up at the snake.
GN: Yeah, by that point I was not terribly invested in Gilgamesh’s success and it was funny to me that the snake got him. I also liked that he called the snake an “underground lion.” For some reason the point at which my rooting interest changed was when Gilgamesh went up to the boat and smashed the Stone Ones. I wasn’t sure on first reading what Stone Ones were but they seemed important; the endnote says they’ve been variously interpreted as stone boat equipment or stone golems who crew the ship. I prefer the latter and I felt bad that this idiot came in there and smashed them, only to realize he wouldn’t be able to move the boat without carving a million poles and becoming a human mast.
KM: I was also laughing so hard at the Stone Ones despite not understanding what they are. This guy is just an absolute tornado. His friend is dead. He is a broken record of sorrow. He is smashing everything in sight. Just beautiful.
BP: But tragic. There’s the part where everyone he meets is like, Man, you really look like shit. And he responds, “How could my cheeks be full, my head held high, my heart not wrecked, my body not broken? … My friend Enkidu, whom I loved, has turned to clay. Am I not like him?” It’s beautiful language, and he’s basically saying How could I not look like shit? We’re all going to die someday.
KM: It really is so sad. But I found it very beautiful that the gods described making Enkidu as throwing a lump of clay at the earth and then he returns to clay in Gilgamesh’s mourning.
MA: Those moments of repetition—Gilgamesh glumly explaining his deal to everyone he meets—contributed to my read of him as a sad teen. He experiences this inner turmoil for the first time and can't fathom that the world around him moves on.
BP: A sad, angry, horny teen—but not always! Can we talk about his rejection of Ishtar?
MA: Oh, man. Some gasp-worthy burns. Gil's holding up an image of Ishtar’s former lover, the shepherd-turned-wolf and going This u?
KM: I shrieked when she proposes marriage and the first line after was, “AS IF I WOULD MARRY YOU!” Rude as hell!
MA: And then it also rocks when she goes straight to her father right after and was like, I'm being slandered. Can I please have the Bull of Heaven so I can kill him?
BP: “He keeps spouting slander about me, slander about me and insults against me!” Me, anytime someone leaves a mean comment on one of my blogs.
MA: Fine, Barry, you can kill the commenter. We’ll lend you the Bull of Heaven.
BP: What if he throws the bull’s penis at me though?
KM: Then you’ll lose. Consider that.
GN: It depends. If you’re the women of Uruk, you might mourn with the bull’s penis for days. If you’re the men of Uruk, you might party with the bull’s horns for days.
KM: Here is a question I have for all of you: Do you think that Gilgamesh and Enkidu bone?
BP: I feel like I’ve had this question three or four DRABs in a row now.
KM: It’s a very important question to ask of literature, in my opinion.
MA: Well, I think • •
BP: Maybe we’ll find those tablets in 50 years. I think, despite a potentially confusing line about penis-touching to pleasure one’s heart, that they do not bone. Or at least that physical sex is not an important factor in their relationship. They are bros. Bros wrestle. Bros spend all their time together. Bros tell bros that they love them. And I do think Gil and Enk love each other, and that Gilgamesh doesn’t connect love with sex. When Enkidu becomes civilized the first thing he does is stop Gilgamesh from having sex with a new bride. This is progress! To force him to give up empty sex for true love. That Enkidu forces him to make this progress by wrestling with him is just how bros do therapy.
KM: Wow. Barry, that is a really nice thought. I love thinking about the idea that Gilgamesh choses Enkidu as his true love and best bro even though he was technically sent to destroy him and also is much, much shorter. I think you’re probably right and that they don’t bone, but I think they are constantly doing a lot of little smooches on the mouth. They’re obsessed with each other! Overall, I had a great time reading this book. I’m glad we chose it, and I’m glad that the legend of Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s bro love and live on forever.
MA: A good DRAB! And Helle's essays gave me a lot to chew on.
BP: Yes, I was concerned that I was going to appreciate this only as history and not as literature, but it really knocks it out of the park on both. I can use a baseball metaphor here, until I drop my bat and ball into the underworld.
KM: Please watch for snakes.
DRAB will be in the comments for the next couple of days to hear your thoughts and chat with you. If you missed out on this month’s book, don’t worry! April is a new month and we’ll announce our next pick soon.