Gilgamesh among Us

Gilgamesh among Us: Modern Encounters with the Ancient Epic

Theodore Ziolkowski
Copyright Date: 2012
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 240
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    Gilgamesh among Us
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6341-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  5. Introduction
    (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 That same year, 1952, as though to exemplify his point, it did not occur to Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler to include the epic of Gilgamesh in the fifty-four volumes of their Great Books of the Western World nor, thirty-five years later, to...

  6. 1 The Initial Reception (1884–1935)
    (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. But other non-academic factors are often involved, as we shall see in the chapters to come.

    The first literary adaptation of the Gilgamesh legend for a modern—that is to say, Victorian—audience was undertaken by an unlikely author: a young American lawyer and businessman who later worked in Boston as an advertising...

  7. 2 Representative Beginnings (1941–1958)
    (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. First, and most straightforward, is translation, ranging from highly literal to free (as we have noted in the early examples already considered). In the following pages we shall not be concerned primarily with translations, except as sources; any detailed consideration would require an authoritative command of the original languages. However, the very frequency of translation is in itself an indication of...

  8. 3 The Popularization of Gilgamesh (1959–1978)
    (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. A host of translations made the work available for the first time to audiences in Czechoslovakia (1958 by Lubor Matouš), Japan (1965 by F. Yajima), and Romania (1966 by V. Servanescu), while French, Italian, Russian, and Arabic readers were presented with new translations (1958 by Paul Garelli; 1958 by Giuseppe Furlani; 1961...

  9. 4 The Contemporization of Gilgamesh (1979–1999)
    (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, the U.S. air strikes against Libya in retaliation for its support of terrorism, and the first Intifada in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

    One of the intellectual beneficiaries of that public turmoil was Edward Said and his book Orientalism (1978). The study, controversial at the time of its publication and now extensively qualified for...

  10. 5 Gilgamesh in the Twenty-First Century (2000–2009)
    (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, such as Damian Morgan’s Gil’s Quest, Geraldine McCaughrean’s Gilgamesh the Hero, Nicole Leurpendeur’s Das Gilgamesch-Epos, and Jacques Cassabois’s Le premier roi du monde — L’épopée de Gilgamesh, a toned-down adaptation based on his earlier novel.¹ The same years in Germany could boast of a musical for...

  11. Conclusion
    (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.) If we compare this phenomenon to the reception of other masterpieces of world literature, it is difficult, if not impossible, to find anything remotely analogous. While Homer’s Achilles and Odysseus, Virgil’s Aeneas, the figures of Minoan Crete, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and the biblical myths have all continued to leave their imprint on our time, nowhere have...

  12. Chronology [of works discussed]
    (pp. 199-206)
  13. Notes
    (pp. 207-220)
  14. Index
    (pp. 221-226)