- Gilgamesh among Us: Modern Encounters with the Ancient Epic by Theodore Ziolowski
With Gilgamesh among Us, Theodore Ziolowski provides the public with an engaging tour de force about the past century’s modernization of the ancient stories about the Mesopotamian hero Gilgamesh. The main argument of the work is that “Gilgamesh constitutes a finely tuned seismographer whose reception registers to a significant degree many of the major intellectual upheavals of the past century” (p. 197). In his review of Gilgamesh’s reception history, he certainly builds a compelling case. In addition, he provides the reader with an extensive bibliography about the many lives Gilgamesh enjoyed after the discovery of the Epic of Gilgamesh in the last part of the nineteenth century. [End Page 726]
Gilgamesh among Us is divided into five information-packed chapters organized in chronological order and bookended by an introduction (pp. 1–19) and a conclusion (pp. 189–198). “The Initial Reception” (pp. 20–46) details the reactions to the discovery of the Epic of Gilgamesh up to World War II. The focus is on the German authors and artists, since, as Ziolowski nicely illustrates, the popularization of the epic occurred in the aftermath of the Babel-Bible controversy and through German translations.
In “Representative Beginnings” (pp. 47–78), Ziolowski focuses on four “modes of modernization” that characterized the 1940s and 1950s. These are translations; “fictionalizing and dramatic revisions of the themes;” a “postfigurative” mode, which enables modern authors to use an old mythologeme; and the thematic analogues (pp. 47–48). This is also the first time that Gilgamesh reaches and inspires composers, as the brief survey Ziolowski offers (pp. 74–78) demonstrates.
“The Popularization of Gilgamesh” (pp. 79–108) considers the thriving period between 1959 and 1978, and investigates the growing fame of the Epic of Gilgamesh among the English and German speaking worlds via new translations (noteworthy is Nancy Sanders’s 1960 version, which introduced the story to generations of students). This is an extremely rich period in reception history, as Gilgamesh is for the first time the protagonist of historical novels and becomes an icon for the gay rights movement.
“The Contemporization of Gilgamesh” (pp. 109–154) looks at Gilgamesh in the last quarter of the twentieth century, and the final chapter, “Gilgamesh in the Twenty-first Century” (pp. 54–188) reviews the latest re-elaboration of Gilgamesh in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks and in light of the most recent American and European engagements in the Middle East.
For this reviewer, Gilgamesh among Us is a mine of information about how the Western cultural milieu, in particular in Germany, England, and the United States, has dealt with, interiorized, and remodeled the figure of Gilgamesh over the course of the past century. Ziolowski’s enthusiasm and knowledge about the topic, as well as the breath of his research, are outstanding.
This is not an Assyrological book, nor does the author pretend to be anything that he is not. Because of this, I approached Gilgamesh among Us exactly for what this book is, namely a study in reception history and literary criticism. Nevertheless, I find that I cannot overlook certain content errors present in the introduction. Although these mistakes do not detract from the book as a whole, they are still irritating, as they propagate among the general public common misconceptions [End Page 727] not only about the historical Gilgamesh but also about the Gilgamesh stories.
First, I would hesitate to go as far as to claim that “It is widely accepted that the original Gilgamesh was a historical figure” (p. 6). Rather, I would argue that Gilgamesh’s historicity is by now irrelevant. This is because, on the one hand, there is at present no evidence that Gilgamesh ever existed. The earliest epigraphic evidence, which mentions his name, consists of a god list from Abu Salabikh. It mentions Gilgamesh among other gods, thus attesting to the fact already in the twenty-sixth century B.C.E. Gilgamesh had been deified (as Ziolowski...