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Gilgamesh among Us

Modern Encounters with the Ancient Epic

by Theodore Ziolkowski

Publication Year: 2011

The world's oldest work of literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh recounts the adventures of the semimythical Sumerian king of Uruk and his ultimately futile quest for immortality after the death of his friend and companion, Enkidu, a wildman sent by the gods. Gilgamesh was deified by the Sumerians around 2500 BCE, and his tale as we know it today was codified in cuneiform tablets around 1750 BCE and continued to influence ancient cultures-whether in specific incidents like a world-consuming flood or in its quest structure-into Roman times. The epic was, however, largely forgotten, until the cuneiform tablets were rediscovered in 1872 in the British Museum's collection of recently unearthed Mesopotamian artifacts. In the decades that followed its translation into modern languages, the Epic of Gilgamesh has become a point of reference throughout Western culture.

In Gilgamesh among Us, Theodore Ziolkowski explores the surprising legacy of the poem and its hero, as well as the epic's continuing influence in modern letters and arts. This influence extends from Carl Gustav Jung and Rainer Maria Rilke's early embrace of the epic's significance-"Gilgamesh is tremendous!" Rilke wrote to his publisher's wife after reading it-to its appropriation since World War II in contexts as disparate as operas and paintings, the poetry of Charles Olson and Louis Zukofsky, novels by John Gardner and Philip Roth, and episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Xena: Warrior Princess.

Ziolkowski sees fascination with Gilgamesh as a reflection of eternal spiritual values-love, friendship, courage, and the fear and acceptance of death. Noted writers, musicians, and artists from Sweden to Spain, from the United States to Australia, have adapted the story in ways that meet the social and artistic trends of the times. The spirit of this capacious hero has absorbed the losses felt in the immediate postwar period and been infused with the excitement and optimism of movements for gay rights, feminism, and environmental consciousness. Gilgamesh is at once a seismograph of shifts in Western history and culture and a testament to the verities and values of the ancient epic.

Published by: Cornell University Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xiv

Why is a scholar of modern European literature writing about Gilgamesh? This book began as chapter 2 of a work tentatively entitled “The Road to Hell,” in which I planned to explore modern literary variations of such mortuary journeys as those depicted in the myths and literatures of the ancient Near East, Greece, and Rome and in the Christian tradition. ...

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pp. xv-xvi

For their assistance in obtaining copies of the illustrations for this volume, and the authorization to use them, I would like to thank the following individuals and institutions: Melissa Acosta and Steven Ferguson of Special Collections, Princeton University Library; ...

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pp. 1-19

Can there still, in the early twenty-first century, be any educated person who has not been exposed, at least casually, to the tale of Gilgamesh? In the mid-twentieth century a Swiss scholar could lament that Gilgamesh was but a “remote topic” that had not become, like The Iliad and The Odyssey, part of the Western cultural tradition.1 ...

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1. The Initial Reception (1884–1935)

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pp. 20-46

In what follows we shall leave aside, for the most part, the steadily increasing and often fascinating scholarly studies of the Assyriologists and concentrate instead on the popular reception of the epic of Gilgamesh.1 Sometimes, of course, the scholarly conclusions of the Assyriologists have influenced popular conceptions. ...

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2. Representative Beginnings (1941–1958)

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pp. 47-78

Since the mid-twentieth century, the Gilgamesh story has been treated in a variety of aesthetic forms: fiction, poetry, drama, opera, film, painting, and beyond. These treatments, however varied they may be, use one of four basic modes of modernization. ...

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3. The Popularization of Gilgamesh (1959–1978)

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pp. 79-108

Whereas the immediate postwar reception of Gilgamesh from 1945 to the late 1950s was largely a consciously cultural affair involving cult poets, controversial novelists, experimental artists, and the opera-going public, the next fifteen years witnessed a significant popularization of the epic and a broadening of its thematic uses. ...

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4. The Contemporization of Gilgamesh (1979–1999)

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pp. 109-153

The Near East thrust itself upon world attention in 1979 when the Iranian Revolution overthrew the Shah. Other violent events that kept the region in the international headlines included the Iran-Iraq War, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Israeli incursion against the PLO in Lebanon, ...

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5. Gilgamesh in the Twenty-First Century (2000–2009)

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pp. 154-188

Gilgamesh, who was born and flourished in the mid-third millennium B.C.E., is alive and well almost five thousand years later at the beginning of the third millennium of the Common Era. The continuing vitality of the epic is suggested by its worldwide popularity reaching from England and France to Australia in books for children, ...

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pp. 189-198

Our representative survey of the reception of the Gilgamesh epic during the past century and a half has revealed an astonishing number and variety of works from many Western countries and in manifold media and genres. (See the chronological list of works in the appendix.) ...

Chronology [of works discussed]

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pp. 199-206


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pp. 207-220


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pp. 221-226

E-ISBN-13: 9780801463419
E-ISBN-10: 0801463416
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801450358
Print-ISBN-10: 0801450357

Page Count: 226
Publication Year: 2011

Edition: 1