This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, June 1, 2005

June 1, 2005 - Gilgamesh

It is the oldest story in the world, a thousand years older than either the Iliad or the Bible. Its birthplace was the land we now call Iraq.

Its hero was the king of the Mesopotamian city of Uruk, back in 2750 B.C. The name of the king was Gilgamesh.

The discovery of this classic of world literature is almost as good as the story of Gilgamesh itself.

Let's start with the sheer passage of time. The "book" of Gilgamesh was missing for over 2000 years.

It was rediscovered in 1853 in the ruins of Nineveh, ancient capital of Assyria. There, an antique-hunting Englishman unearthed the remains of the library of the last great Assyrian king -- thousands of baked clay tablets, filled with cuneiform characters.

But it was decades before this ancient writing was deciphered and translated.

In 1872 another Englishman translated one of the fragments to world-wide excitement. The story may sound familiar.

A god informs a favored human that the world, overrun with human wickedness, is about to be destroyed. The god instructs the man to build a boat of specific dimensions, and fill it with "examples of every living creature." After six days and seven nights of rain, water overwhelms the earth.

At last the sky clears. The man sends out a dove, which returns, unable to find any land. Then he sends a swallow, which also returns. Finally, he sends a raven, which alights on a tree.

The favored human was not named Noah, but Utnapishtim, king of Suruppak, "that ancient city on the Euphrates." The mountain where the ship ran aground was not Mount Ararat, but Mount Nimush. And the god who issued the warning was not Yahweh, or Jehovah. It was Ea, one of many gods.

The story of Noah, it appears, was plagiarised.

"Gilgamesh: A New English Version," is the work of Stephen Mitchell, best known for his translations of the Book of Job, the Tao te Ching, and the German poet Rilke (who was, coincidentally, one of the first writers to hail Gilgamesh as a world classic).

Mitchell freely admits that he can read neither Akkadian (the Babylonian dialect) nor cuneiform. But the boy can write.

Using line-by-line translations of experts, Mitchell weaves together in "lithe, muscular prose" (as it says on the blurb, and I whole-heartedly agree) this ancient poetry, this marvelous epic.

In truth, the book is incomplete. Not all of the tablets survived, or have been located. But "Gilgamesh" feels whole.

At the beginning of the tale, Gilgamesh is a giant of a man, two thirds divine and one third human. He is also a king grown arrogant and cruel.

So the gods create an opposite number for him, Enkidu, two thirds animal, and one third divine. Enkidu is a wild thing, a creature who runs with the beasts.

First, he is tamed by Shamhat, the temple prostitute. Then he grapples with Gilgamesh. Finally, Enkidu and Gilgamesh become deep friends, soul-mates.

The next part of the saga involves the quest to kill a monster. But Gilgamesh goes too far, upsetting the balance of things, and Enkidu dies, cursed by the gods.

The deep story of Gilgamesh now begins: his own quest, ultimately denied, to become immortal, to find an answer to the death that has broken his heart.

"Gilgamesh" captured me, from its turns of phrase (Gilgamesh had muscles "of stone" -- a phrase that resonates oddly because it is so long before muscles "of steel") to its modern day parallels.

Kings still grow arrogant. We still lose those we love. And we still seek to resolve ourselves to the fact of our mortality.

Of course, in one sense, Gilgamesh did triumph over death. His story, almost 5,000 years later, still lives, as close as your local library.

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