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Virgin Brides and Prostitutes, Fighting and Gore, Gods and Monsters

By BWeaves | Books | July 27, 2010 |

By BWeaves | Books | July 27, 2010 |

I’m old, and I like it that way. I don’t know anybody who was more interesting when they were younger. Even when I was little I would go and sit with the old folks, because they told the best stories. I’m still drawn to the old stories, and my darling husband has just introduced me to Gilgamesh.

No, he’s not a Smurf. Gilgamesh is the greatest hero of the ancient world. He was a king, 2/3 god and 1/3 man. Stories of Gilgamesh were popular with the ancient Sumerians 5000 years ago. They were popular with the ancient Babylonians, too. Cuneiform tablets of the Gilgamesh stories were found in the ruins of Nineveh in the middle of the 19th century. Many scholarly translations have been made. This version by Herbert Mason is not a complete translation, but is a good introduction to the stories and is written in free verse.

I’m really surprised Hollywood hasn’t jumped on this story yet. It starts with Gilgamesh going to the Family House. As King of Uruk, he has the right to sleep with all the virgin brides before their husbands do. He’s a feared leader. He forces his people to build city walls and great buildings, and then just as often won’t do the needed repairs. He’s rich and bored and has no friends.

The story then introduces Enkidu, a man from the Steppes. He’s covered in hair and can communicate with animals. Trappers watch him freeing animals from their traps, and they go to complain to the king. The trappers are convinced that Enkidu’s powers are due to the fact that he’s a virgin. They ask Gilgamesh to send a prostitute to Enkidu. Gilgamesh gives them the prostitute and then forgets about it. The prostitute seduces Enkidu and the animals no longer communicate with him and flee from him. The prostitute takes Enkidu to a farmer, and they teach him to eat bread, and wear clothing. She also shaves his entire body, so he now looks human.

Enkidu goes to Uruk and all the people marvel at his physique, and claim that he may be better than Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh goes to the Family House and Enkidu is blocking his path. A wrestling match ensues. Hot man on man action. They are equally matched, and eventually call a tie, laugh and become BFF. Keep in mind that neither man has ever had a friend, and you can understand more easily how these two become the best of friends.

Gilgamesh decides that he will go and kill the Evil One, Humbaba who lives in a cedar forest. Enkidu thinks this is a bad idea, but goes along with his friend. They eventually succeed in killing Humbaba, but the gods are upset and decide that one of the pair must die. Since Gilgamesh is 2/3 god (his mother was a god, but his father was not, and yes I don’t know how this works out to 2/3 god and 1/3 man, but that’s what the book says, so there) it is decided that Enkidu must die. Gilgamesh is devastated.

Gilgamesh has never loved anyone before, and Enkidu’s death causes him great anguish. He decides that he is going to find the secret to immortality, so he can bring Enkidu back to life. The rest of the book deals with Gilgamesh’s adventures trying to find this secret, only to loose it in the end. He searches for Utnapishtim, who survived the Great Flood. This part of the story closely mirrors the Noah’s Ark story in the Bible, but predates by hundreds of years. Utnapishtim finally tells Gilgamesh that there is a plant that will give him immortality. Gilgamesh finds it, only to have it eaten by a snake when his back is turned.

Herbert Mason’s version of the story ends here. Other versions end with Gilgamesh going back to Uruk and discovering that the secret to immortality is to do good deeds for his people so that his name will live on forever. It’s not the sort of immortality that Gilgamesh was hoping for, but it’s the only kind there is.

This story has everything. Virgin brides and prostitutes, fighting and gore, gods and monsters, and a very modern take on love, death and mourning. This particular version is a very quick read. The story will take you about an hour, and the afterwords and postscripts about another hour. It just wet my appetite to read the more scholarly versions of the work.

This review is part not part of the Cannonball Read series, but BWeaves is old and awesome, and when she asks me to run a book review of her, I have enough sense to listen to my elders.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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