Monday, August 19, 2013

Gilgamesh: Myth and Modernity

We begin the year with Herbert Mason's version of the Epic of Gilgamesh mainly for two reasons.  First, you will find it reads well and requires little in the way of footnotes, even if the gods and goddesses are new to you (you should look at the short list of names on pp. 95-96 for help).  But more importantly, it is a modern poetic retelling of the story of Gilgamesh.  The genesis of this work is explained in a postscript on pp. 107-115, where Mason relates the personal journey that led to this version. He is quite honest about how it should be seen:
The present verse narrative, made only after years of inward companionship and meditation, of trying to forget and of being unable to forget, and based on literal scholarly translations, is intended as a subjective evocation that may bring the story and its principal characters more intimately to others than literal translations do. (Mason, 114)
Indeed, if you consult other translations, you will note immediately that many ancient features of the text are not in Mason's version.  To begin with, the story is not divided into "tablets" to reflect the actual cuneiform tablets upon which the original Akkadian was written.  Nor does Mason recreate the repetitive or parallel poetic style typical of ancient Akkadian poetry.

So are we dumbing the class down?

The answer is of course, NO!  By choosing this version, we want to foreground the idea that unlike other texts we will read (such as Plato's Phaedrus or Xenophon's Anabasis), mythic texts have versions but no "original" text that controls or authenticates the story.  Myths thrive in the retelling, and we often associate particular myths strongly with certain versions. A case in point is Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus, which was only one of various versions made for the stage in the fifth century BCE, the heyday of Greek tragedy.  Even before that time, the myth already existed in other forms; in some versions, Oedipus blinds himself, in others, he is blinded by servants of Laius or apparently not blinded at all. Sometimes he leaves Thebes in exile, and other times he remains to rule or at least hang around the palace.  There were also versions of the Medea story in which that sorceress did not kill her children, even though we think of her primarily as the horrendous child-killer from Euripides' tragedy.

So myth is more of a narrative matrix from which one draws material than a fixed gospel one is compelled to repeat verbatim. There are options as to how one can shape the story and to what end it is told.

Where you will find Mason's own reshaping most present is in the segment on Utnapishtim. This story should strike you as quite familiar; it is retold and refocused in the course of Genesis (6-8), and set within the narrative frame of the pre-history of Israel.  Mason has made the choice to introduce monotheism in a passage where Utnapishtim speaks of "the pure loneliness of the Holy One" (pp. 74-75). In his postscript, he simply says this monotheism "will have to be accepted by these scholars [i.e. of the ancient Near East] as part of any modern retelling, though some may even argue that it had its roots in the original" (114-115).
Tablet XI, The Flood Narrative
(source: Wikimedia Commons)

So why is this anachronistic introduction of monotheism not an outrage?  As myths are refocused and retold in the ancient world, the names of the gods (as well as the cities, the rivers, the mountains, and even the heroes themselves sometimes) shift in accordance with local cults and values.  So in a way, though Mason's monotheism here is anachronistic,  his shift is quite understandable.  He has plugged in the relevant god to make the story connect with his target audience, which is part of the "subjective evocation" he admits as his mode of retelling. It's up to you to see if this change helps to explain the wisdom Utnapishtim can impart to Gilgamesh--and to us.

--Richard Armstrong