Authors: David Ferry
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I want to thank the editors at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, especially Elisheva Urbas, and the designer, Cynthia Krupat. I am grateful for the advice and encouragement I have received from many friends and colleagues. I especially thank my wife, Anne Ferry, and also Frank Bidart and Robert Pinsky, friends in the art, Dimitri Hadzi, and William L. Moran.
I wish also to express my gratitude to the Ingram Merrill Foundation for a grant and an award.
This book is dedicated to Suzie and Bill
According to Sumerian tradition, Gilgamesh was an early ruler of the city-state of Uruk, biblical Erech, and the evidence, admittedly meager and indirect, puts him there around the twenty-seventh century
. Of his actual achievements we know nothing except what is perhaps reflected in the later traditions of him as heroic warrior and builder of his city's mighty walls.
For the Sumerians, and later for the Assyrians and Babylonians, Gilgamesh was both god and hero. As the former, he appears in a god-list about a century after his death, and he continued to be worshipped for another two thousand years, until the end of the Assyro-Babylonian civilization. He was an underworld deity, a judge there and sometimes called its king. His statues or figurines appear in burial rites for the dead, and his cult was especially important in the month of Ab (JulyâAugust), when nature itself, as it were, expired.
As hero, Gilgamesh undoubtedly lived on in the oral traditions of the Sumerians, especially at the court of Uruk. When these traditions were first committed to writing is not known. The earliest compositions we have, five or six, probably do not go back further than the late third millennium
. Though they are sometimes poorly preserved, we can identify in them themes and tales that will later be integrated in the Babylonian epic. Thus, in one lay, we find Gilgamesh, along with Enkidu and other retainers, striving to achieve the immortality of fame by the slaying of the monster Huwawa (see below, Tablets IVâV). In another, we read of the royal oppression of Uruk (see below, Tablet I). In another, the goddess Inanna unleashes the Bull of Heaven upon Gilgamesh and Enkidu (see below, Tablet VI). In still others, Enkidu is trapped and must remain in the underworld (see below, Tablets VIIâVIII), and Gilgamesh resents his own mortality (see below, Tablets IXâXI).
These compositions in Sumerian, or similar ones, written or oral, in the Sumerian or the Babylonian languages, were the sources for the Babylonian composition that followed in the early second millennium
., what is known as the Old Babylonian period. This epic is not a translation of a Sumerian original. It is, rather, a highly selective and creative adaptation and transformation of what we find in the earlier works. It is still known only in fragments, but it was certainly a work of at least one thousand lines, perhaps much longer, focused on a central theme, man's mortality. It begins with Gilgamesh's exhausting his people with the labors of the corvÃ©e and introduces a very new Enkidu, not the retainer of the Sumerian tradition, but a hairy Wild Man, created by the gods to match Gilgamesh's enormous energies, eventually humanized, and Gilgamesh's beloved friend and companion in his adventures. He joins Gilgamesh in his quest for the immortality of fame, an old Sumerian theme, but then the text goes its own highly original way: Enkidu is punished for his part in the death of Huwawa and dies. Consumed with grief, Gilgamesh reacts by rejecting the heroic ideals of the past and, in effect, rejects his humanity. He will be content now only with the true immortality of the gods. He therefore journeys to the end of the world to find the one immortal man, the Babylonian Noah, Utnapishtim, and to learn from him the secret of his unending life.
In the centuries that followed, knowledge of the epic spread across the ancient Near East, not only in its Babylonian form but also in versions written in the Elamite, Hittite, and Hurrian languages. Recent discoveries indicate that the epic had assumed more or less its standard form by the thirteenth century
. The standard version of eleven tablets (with a twelfth as an appendix, a later and poorly integrated addition and, unlike the rest of the epic, a literal translation into Babylonian from a Sumerian original) is a work of about three thousand lines and is known mainly from the Nineveh recension on tablets of the seventh century
. Babylonian tradition credited it to a poet-editor by the name of Sin-leqe-unninni, “Sin (the moon god), accept my plea.”
It is this relatively late, standard text, with occasional assistance from the Old Babylonian version, that is the basis of the poem by David Ferry that follows. And let it be stated at once: it is David Ferry's poem. It is not Sin-leqe-unninni's or anyone else's, any more than
The Vanity of Human Wishes
is Juvenal's and not Johnson's. He has given us, not a translation, not at least as that term is ordinarily understood, but a transformation. He does not compete, therefore, with the earlier translators, whose contribution to his own work he generously acknowledges, nor should his work be compared with theirs. He has given us what they have not and what as authors of word-for-word translations they could not aspire to. He has given us a work of verbal art. He has thereby communicated to us some sense of the beauty of the original and some sense of the emotions that reading or hearing the original must have aroused. In this respect, however free his version on one level may be, on another and deeper one it seems remarkably faithful to the original. It is, therefore, a major contribution to our understanding and appreciation of this ancient and moving poem.
WILLIAM L. MORAN
the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the Humanities,
Emeritus, Harvard University
of him who knew the most of all men know;
who made the journey; heartbroken; reconciled;
who knew the way things were before the Flood,
the secret things, the mystery; who went
to the end of the earth, and over; who returned,
and wrote the story on a tablet of stone.
He built Uruk. He built the keeping place
of Anu and Ishtar. The outer wall
shines in the sun like brightest copper; the inner
wall is beyond the imagining of kings.
Study the brickwork, study the fortification;
climb the great ancient staircase to the terrace;
study how it is made; from the terrace see
the planted and fallow fields, the ponds and orchards.
This is Uruk, the city of Gilgamesh
the Wild Ox, son of Lugalbanda, son
of the Lady Wildcow Ninsun, Gilgamesh
the vanguard and the rear guard of the army,
Shadow of Darkness over the enemy field,
the Web, the Flood that rises to wash away
the walls of alien cities, Gilgamesh
the strongest one of all, the perfect, the terror.
It is he who opened passes through the mountains;
and he who dug deep wells on the mountainsides;
who measured the world; and sought out Utnapishtim
beyond the world; it is he who restored the shrines;
two-thirds a god, one-third a man, the king.
Go to the temple of Anu and Ishtar:
open the copper chest with the iron locks;
the tablet of lapis lazuli tells the story.
There was no withstanding the aura or power of the Wild
Ox Gilgamesh. Neither the father's son
nor the wife of the noble; neither the mother's daughter
nor the warrior's bride was safe. The old men said:
“Is this the shepherd of the people? Is this
the wise shepherd, protector of the people?”
The gods of heaven listened to their complaint.
“Aruru is the maker of this king.
Neither the father's son nor the wife of the noble
is safe in Uruk; neither the mother's daughter
nor the warrior's bride is safe. The old men say:
âIs this the shepherd of the people? Is this
the wise shepherd, protector of the people?
There is no withstanding the desire of the Wild Ox.'”
They called the goddess Aruru, saying to her:
“You made this man. Now create another.
Create his double and let the two contend.
Let stormy heart contend with stormy heart
that peace may come to Uruk once again.”
Aruru listened and heard and then created
out of earth clay and divine spittle the double,
the stormy-hearted other, Enkidu,
the hairy-bodied wild man of the grasslands,
powerful as Ninurta the god of war,
the hair of his head like the grain fields of the goddess,
naked as Sumuqan the god of cattle.
He feeds upon the grasslands with gazelles;
visits the watering places with the creatures
whose hearts delight, as his delights, in water.
One day a hunter came to a watering place
Enkidu; he stood expressionless,
astonished; then with his silent dogs he went
home to his father's house, fear in his belly.
His face was as one estranged from what he knows.
He opened his mouth and said to his father: “Father,
I saw a hairy-bodied man today
at the watering place, powerful as Ninurta
the god of war; he feeds upon the grasslands
with gazelles; he visits the watering places
with the beasts; he has unset my traps and filled
my hunting pits; the creatures of the grasslands
get away free. The wild man sets them free.
Because of him I am no longer a hunter.”
His father said: “Go to Uruk and there
present yourself to Gilgamesh the king,
who is the strongest of all, the perfect, the terror,
the wise shepherd, protector of the people.
Tell him about the power of the wild man.
Ask him to send a harlot back with you,
a temple prostitute, to conquer him
with her greater power. When he visits the watering place,
let her show him her breasts, her beauty, for his wonder.
He will lie with her in pleasure, and then the creatures,
the gazelles with whom he feeds upon the grasslands,
and the others with whom he visits the watering places,
will flee from him who ranged the hills with them.”
So the hunter went to Gilgamesh in Uruk
and told him about the power of the wild man,
and how he had unset the traps and filled
the pits, so that the creatures got away free.
The lord of Uruk said to the hunter then:
“When you return, a temple prostitute