Monday, September 19, 2022

Gilgamesh by Bernarda Bryson

Source of book: I own this.


My wife picked up an old library discard at one of the sales - I’m not sure when, but it is definitely another of her excellent finds for our collection. 


First, about the author. Bernarda Bryson Shahn was an interesting character. She was most famous for her paintings and lithographs, then for her work for the Resettlement Administration during the Depression - what eventually became The Vanishing American Frontier. Always fascinated by ancient literature, she turned her talent for writing (honed writing magazine articles) to children’s books, including this retelling of the 5000 year old epic of Gilgamesh. 


Bryson was also highly unorthodox in her personal life. She became what she called the “life companion” of artist Ben Shahn, but they chose not to marry, at least for a long time. In the meantime, they had and raised three children together, marrying only shortly before his death. 

The epic of Gilgamesh is perhaps the oldest surviving story ever written. The five poems were likely written over 4000 years ago, although the story is believed to be even older than the surviving versions of it, and were preserved in that relatively “original” form in clay tablets. These are incomplete, and were not discovered and translated until relatively recently. (A cursory search didn’t turn up definitive information, but it looks like sometime in the 19th Century, when archeologists explored (and often looted) the Middle East. 


The story itself never disappeared, however. The poems, which were separate but related works, were combined into a more harmonized narrative in ancient Babylon around 3200 years ago, and this version survived into modern times. And, as I will discuss later in this post, the stories found in the Gilgamesh tales were borrowed and repurposed by later authors for their own stories. 


This particular tell of the story is considered a classic, and I believe with good reason. As for the writing, it strikes that perfect balance - elegant but not archaic, understandable for kids, but never condescending. Also, Bryson’s illustrations are wonderful, so I am glad to see that the book is back in print again


Like most kids, I read a bit of Gilgamesh in high school - because it was a religious school (I was homeschooled, taking video courses), the scene was the one with the snake, naturally. I recall the translation being a bit stilted and archaic. There was that whole era when translators thought readers wanted translations of ancient works, not in the vernacular, but in the grand old English of Shakespeare and the King James Bible. 


I ended up reading this with my youngest, because she is studying early human history at school (with a shocking lot of classmates from Fundie families who don’t believe the stone age existed - so, Adam and Eve used stainless steel non-stick pans in the Garden? I have no idea…) My wife picked out a bunch of books we have that might be relevant, and she decided we should read Gilgamesh. 


The story - or stories - are rather compelling. Gilgamesh, the greatest man alive, and two-thirds god and one-third man - take that, Greek heroes! - builds his great walled city, and incites the wrath of the gods. They decide to send him a nemesis: a wild man formed from the dirt. Named Enkidu, this wild man lives blissfully in nature, makes friends with the animals, and becomes their protector. However, he is furious at humans who kill and exploit his animal friends. The humans hear of him, and are unsure what to do. Until Shamhat, the temple priestess (and in the original, prostitute) volunteers to go seduce him. She also tames him, and brings him back to the city. 


Here, things do not work out as the gods had hoped, because instead of killing Gilgamesh, Enkidu becomes his best buddy, and the two of them have a pretty epic bromance from then on. 


Things get worse for the gods. The two friends start killing the monsters that plague humans, fearlessly defying the wishes of the gods. After several losses, they respond the only way man cannot foil: they kill Enkidu. Oh, and not helping matters is that Gilgamesh refuses marriage to the goddess Ishtar, pointing out that every human lover she has taken in the past eventually bored her - and then she killed him. 


Gilgamesh is heartbroken by the loss of Enkidu, and vows to spend his life seeking a way to return Enkidu from the underworld and thus back to life. 


He travels far and abroad, eventually managing to find Utnapishtim, his ancestor, who was granted immortality - the only mortal to have done so. He hears the tale of how Utnapishtim escaped the great flood, building an ark and…well, this is pretty much point for point aligned with the Noah tale. Eventually, Gilgamesh pulls a magic plant from the bottom of the sea - a plant that gives immortality (stop me if you have heard of it before…), but has it stolen by a sneaky snake before he can return home with it. 


After another failed attempt to gain access to the underworld and reunite with Enkidu, Gilgamesh realizes that the two of them will only be reunited in death. 


As you can tell just from my way oversimplified summary, this poem was profoundly influential on later literary works. And that very much includes the Bible, which Gilgamesh pre-dates by at least a thousand years. Just to name a few, the creation of Enkidu is a lot like the creation of Adam, his sojourn in nature like the Garden of Eden, and his conversion to the ways of humans very much like the Fall. The stories are not exact by any means, and the theological meaning is quite different, but the similarities are striking. You can also see the influence that the underworld scene had on later writers, such as the Greeks in their tales of the underworld. Likewise for the battles with monsters, and the epic adventures that likely influenced Homer. 


But the most striking parallel is the Flood story. This isn’t in the category of “influenced” at all. Rather, the Bible wholesale borrowed either from Gilgamesh, or they both borrowed from an even earlier story. The exact parallel details are astonishing, from the listed dimensions of the boat, to the use of “gopher wood,” to the god secretly giving Noah/Utnapishtim the heads up well in advance, to the sending out of birds to find dry land. I mean, it is crazy similar. 


What is different is, of course, interesting too. In the Gilgamesh version, the reason the gods want to destroy humans is that they are too damn noisy - their constant drinking and carousing and their discovery of fire to party longer are keeping the gods awake at night. I mean, they are like that neighbor with the never-ending frat party, so I guess you can understand their frustration. The Bible version is different on this point, although I find that almost nobody actually remembers what it says. In fact, for the writers of the Torah, the reason the gods destroy humanity is because humans were constantly violent and unjust


There are other parallels to be drawn, some of them more obvious than others. What is clear is that Gilgamesh was in the culture of the ancient near east much like Shakespeare is in ours. A centuries-old work, its stories still fascinated the ancient world for two thousand years after it was written. The fact that our Bible recycled the old myths for its own purpose shows that its writers knew that readers (or listeners to the oral tradition) would already know the stories by heart, and would notice the subtle theologically-driven differences. 


I found the story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu to be particularly touching. What the gods intended for evil, they turned to good. Rather than acting out of toxic masculinity and trying to destroy each other, they chose instead to cooperate and be friends. Together, they were stronger than either separately. And the loss of Enkidu was so devastating to Gilgamesh that he literally traveled heaven, earth, and hell in his attempt to bring him back. That’s good stuff right there. 


My kid enjoyed the story too, and found the telling to be a good balance of serious and humorous, and a lot of fun. 


And the pictures. The pictures are worth the price of the book too. Inspired by the art of Gilgamesh’s era, they combine an ancient feel with a modern emotional range. A great option to add to any kid’s library, in my opinion. 


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