- Gilgamesh Among Us: Modern Encounters with the Ancient Epic by Theodore Ziolkowski
Theodore Ziolkowski’s Gilgamesh Among Us: Modern Encounters with the Ancient Epic is a meticulous accounting of the various incarnations of the Gilgamesh epic, from the “rediscovery” of the Mesopotamian clay tablets in 1872 to the present day.
The introductory chapter recaps the “discovery” of pieces of the ancient text in a “dark room” of the British Museum by George Smith, which coincidentally closely follows the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859. The assembly of the clay tablet fragments and the translations of the cuneiform text, the first of which were in German and English, often had to address the controversial issue of the biblical antecedent that the epic establishes in the story of Utnapishtim, which predates the Genesis account of the flood by one thousand years. Thus the birth of the Western fascination with Gilgamesh is fraught with uncertainty and scholarly disagreement.
The time line in the appendix of the text, which runs seven pages, is an indication of the scope and detail of this compendium. Ziolkowski describes eighty different translations/adaptations/uses of the Gilgamesh epic, beginning with chapter 1 (“The Initial Reception, 1884–1935”). Among the first modern writers to be inspired by Gilgamesh are Freud, Jung, Hess, Mann, and Rilke. A number of original artworks, etchings, and poems are also Gilgamesh offspring. This nascent interest in Gilgamesh is focused on the epic’s relationship to the biblical flood, as well as a measure of false exoticism (poet Leonidas Hamilton describes Gilgamesh with “a turban . . . upon his brow”) (22). By the 1940s, Gilgamesh has taken his historical/mythical place in history for Will Durant and Joseph Campbell.
The many interpretations and uses of Gilgamesh are often dependent on the times. In chapter 2 (“The Representative Beginnings, 1941–1958”), [End Page 184] Ziolkowski discusses the many forms of the Gilgamesh influence, including fiction, poetry, drama, film, and painting, among others. Many of these adaptations are not only informative but also amusing. For example, a dramatic poem by a cultural editor for the BBC, Douglas Bridson, first broadcast in 1954, depicts a literal interpretation of the epic based on modern characters and colloquial language. The Bull of Heaven (sent by the goddess Ishtar to punish Gilgamesh and Enkidu) becomes an adversary killed by Enkidu in a bullfight, and the Great Flood is a tidal wave resulting from an atomic explosion. This clearly reflects early cold war concerns, although both Ziolkowski and Bridson claim that the latter’s version is transformed into “a positive statement consistent with the postwar optimism of a generation confident in its ability . . . to tame the gods and nature to its own useful purposes” (51). The “giant mushroom” that results in the “downpouring of death” (51) brings to mind for this reader not the call to “useful action,” but the childhood atomic air raid drills in elementary school, when we would all hide under our desks to shield us from the nuclear fallout of an inevitable Soviet attack. The themes of friendship (Gilgamesh and Enkidu) and human mortality figure prominently in this period. Curiously, the embedded story of Utnapishtim and the Flood is mostly absent from the Gilgamesh reworkings. Ziolkowski does not reflect on this apparent neglect. Is this part of the epic not relevant to the reworkings? Or does this suggest some lingering discomfort with the displacement of Noah as the original survivor of the Great Flood?
One rare exception to this omission is described in chapter 3 (“The Popularization of Gilgamesh, 1959–1978”). The first “fictionalization” of Gilgamesh is a curious novel by Gian Franco Gianfilippi, published in 1959. In a detailed retelling of the plot, Ziolkowski notes the transformation of Gilgamesh into a “Judeo-Christian paean to the monotheistic God” (91), as Gilgamesh’s invented son, Gilghi, is reunited with his Hebrew girlfriend, Miriam, on a great “water journey.” They sail off into the sunset, and the controversial issue of the biblical antecedent is resolved by changing...