A Note About the Whole Gilgamesh Thing and a Translation of Tablet VI

Series 3 No.7 - Love and War

King Gilgamesh first appears in Old Sumerian narratives from ancient Mesopotamia: a scattering of songs and folk tales from the Early Dynastic period (mid-third millenium BC). The stories about his encounters with Ishtar are among the oldest extant texts.

Gilgamesh concerns the exploits of the warrior king Gilgamesh. His name means ‘Our Ancestors were Heroes’ and he protected his people by killing monsters such as Humbaba. That is, he protected his people when he wasn’t raping or killing them: Gilgamesh has a claim to being the first tyrant, the first war criminal. Ishtar, goddess of love and war, was so impressed she tried to seduce our hero, who rejected her with this speech. In his efficiency as a slayer of monsters, Gilgamesh can be compared to later figures such as St George and Beowulf. His arrogant rejection of the Female throws an interesting light on the subtext of such myths; a Hughesian reading would be that this rejection creates the monsters with which he fights. The oldest story in the world readily finds contemporary resonances: Gilgamesh is king of Uruk, in what is present-day Iraq.

Finding an exact date for Gilgamesh is difficult because the poem is a composite of various tales from various periods. King Gilgamesh first appears in Old Sumerian narratives from ancient Mesopotamia: a scattering of songs and folk tales from the Early Dynastic period (mid-third millenium BC). The stories about his encounters with Ishtar are among the oldest extant texts. The creation of the more unified story we have today was a later, Babylonian achievement. My translation is from Tablet VI, which consists of manuscripts discovered in 1849 by Layard, in the South West Palace at Kuyunjik. These manuscripts are not Babylonian but Assyrian: three from Nineveh and two from Assur. Current thinking dates these manuscripts at mid-7th Century BC, though the story itself is much older. Discrepancies between different versions have given rise to many ambiguities over the precise meaning of certain words: did Ishtar turn Ishullanu into a toad, a spider or a scarecrow? We’ll never know. Translators of Gilgamesh therefore rely on idealised, subjective, composite, variorum editions. They then make their own choices. 

I became interested in Gilgamesh having read Stephen Mitchell’s translation. This passage particularly appealed to me, so I compared Mitchell’s with other versions and, as I became more interested, looked up a transcription of the original stone tablet at the British Library. As I am not familiar with the cuneiform alphabet, I relied on A. R. George’s critical edition (OUP, 2003). This provides a transliteration, exegesis, commentary, a literal crib and a list of variations. I even found a phonetic approximation of what the thing would sound like. When I started work on my version, I tried to translate it into conventional English, but the longer I worked on it, the weaker it seemed. It took me about 18 months to realise the mess I was making. After that, I worked backwards, pushing the poem back towards the original and letting it keep its difficulties.

Gilgamesh Rebukes Ishtar

Tablet VI, lines 42-79

tell me one.         counting your lovers.         one you serve truly.

what of Tamuzzi.         how you love him.         dragging him down.

already bored.         calling nine demons.         nine women in Uruk.

beating their brows.         pet [lorikeet].         keening yet.

wings torn out.         how you love him.         hearing him grieve.

fourteen finding.         mountain lion.         cedar grove.

misused strength.         fluent weaponry.         digging a grave.

what of your lust.         battle-scarred stallion.         cursing the beast.

tasting the bit.         whip and spur.         galloping always.

bereft of sense.         how you love him.         queenly bequest.

piss in his waterhole.         goddess Silili.         endless disgrace.

what of your shepherd.         tender hand.         baking biscuits.

newborn lamb.         [buckling/bending].         making him butcher.

knuckled wolf.         how you love him.         dutiful son.

digging a trench.         dogs he trained.         trailing his scent.

last Ishullanu.         hungry eye.         figs and dates.

farmer’s gifts.         [tilth/mulch].         gracing your table.

licked teeth.         breath in his ear.         ‘husbandman Ishullanu.

hold out your hand.         test how wet.         give me your cock.’

and he fearful.         ‘shall I fare.         scraps and slop.

shame and dishonour.         Ishtar’s fare.         sow on her litter.

me with a home.         out in the wind.’         quickly broken.

trusted lovetricks.         so you serve him.         making him a toad.

poisoning his garden.         nothing grows.         were I your man.

will you deny it.         act in kind.         tell me the reason.

were I your sweet man.         counting your lovers.         my fate will be different.

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