Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Epic of Gilgamesh

I didn't have a chance to report on Andrew George's brilliant guest lecture on the Epic of Gilgamesh at UC Berkeley last month. Gilgamesh is not only the world's first book, but it also has everything you could want from an ancient epic tale -- battles with monsters, catastrophic floods, a vision quest, dream journeys, undersea travel, the search for immortality, gay romance -- and all this a thousand years before Homer.

The narrative ends upon the walls of Uruk (> "Iraq"): Gilgamesh, its legendary founder, has renounced his quest for immortality; enlightened, he looks out upon the city and finds that it is good. Like Pierre at the end of War and Peace, or Faust at the end of Goethe's poem, he has learned after extraordinary effort to accept the human state, and resolves to work for the common good.

George explained the complexities involved with assembling all the red clay tablet fragments written in cuneiform  in three different ancient languages, and constructing a coherent text from the composite. His recent Gilgamesh translation in Penguin Books is quite simply the only authoritative version. It is available online for free right here, (keep scrolling down), though you can't download your own copy.

George mentioned also that there remain a quarter-million cuneiform tablets in the British Museum yet to be translated. Evidently there are no government funds available to finance the work of trained Assyriologists--which is clearly not going to happen under the Cameron government, who have recently savaged medieval manuscript studies at the University of London.