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Conversations: Return of Gilgamesh Volume 58 Number 3, May/June 2005

A new adaptation of the world's oldest epic

(Photo by John D. Fellers)

Gilgamesh is the story of an arrogant Mesopotamian king's exploits with his friend Enkidu, the civilized savage. Discovered in Nineveh in 1853 on 11 cuneiform-inscribed clay tablets, the tale was finally translated in 1872 by the British Museum's George Smith. Now Stephen Mitchell, the acclaimed translator and adapter of The Book of Job, A Book of Psalms, Tao Te Ching, Bhagavad Gita, Genesis, and other ancient texts, has created a new literary version based on English, French, and German literal translations. He spoke with ARCHAEOLOGY about the tale's moral sophistication, 16-foot-tall winged bulls, and how it compares to Beowulf.

The prologue to Gilgamesh is almost archaeological. The poet urges his audience to look around ancient Uruk and contemplate the passing of time--an impulse that on a personal level often drives archaeology. Then he pulls from a copper box beneath a building cornerstone the tablets on which Gilgamesh is supposed to have inscribed his story around 2750 B.C.
Isn't is fascinating? Here's this ancient poet writing for his audience in 1200 B.C., and he's writing about a time which to him was ancient. I was so tickled when some of the reviews of my translation said this was a real "page turner." I thought the old Babylonian poet would have appreciated that--especially since there was no such thing as pages in his day.

Most of the tablets are in the British Museum. Have you been to see them?
I saw a few at the Oriental Institute. I was still translating and happened to be in Chicago, so I dropped by. But I had a stronger experience with these two human-headed winged bulls [from the palace of the eighth-century B.C. Neo-Assyrian king Sargon II]. I stood in front of them for quite a while. They were about 16 feet tall, and that struck me very powerfully, because in one of the fragments that's the height Gilgamesh is described as being. That was extremely moving. And I found myself looking from the eyes of those statues down at a world of six-feet-tall human beings. It's easy to be arrogant if you're 16 feet tall!

You've mostly translated spiritual works. So why Gilgamesh?
I'd loved Gilgamesh for more than 20 years, but I've had the experience that the lure of the story wasn't being matched by the power of the language. I read four or five translations and oftentimes gave up because the language was so dull. I had the feeling I could do a really wonderful translation. In terms of's certainly not obvious that this is what anyone might call a spiritual book. It's a story about giants, and power, and abuse, and killing monsters. But it's also a world where the heroes are not seen as right and the monsters as wrong. The world is presented not in terms of moral absolutes. It's a wonderfully mature view of things.

Though a monster, Humbaba is portrayed sympathetically. It reminded me of John Gardner's Grendel [the Beowulf story told from the monster's perspective].
Gilgamesh has much in common with Beowulf in all sorts of ways. It's a primal quest story. But in Beowulf, we're on the side of good and we're right, and the monster is God's enemy. Compassion is inconceivable. In Gilgamesh, your heart goes out to Humbaba--he's comic and pathetic and scary as well, but not any one of these to the exclusion of the others.

The explicit sex in Gilgamesh offended George Smith's Victorian sensibilities, so he omitted it. Do you need to be alert to how your own biases may influence your work?
I don't think you can step out of your time into some ideal, biasless state of perception. I try to find a language that's genuine, that rings true to my inner ear.

What about being true to the text?
Judging from my experiences translating languages I know really well, like German or French, the process of finding an English that is genuine to my ear is the same process as being faithful to the real text. But it's faithfulness to the "music" of the verse that's paramount. With a culture this distant from ours, re-creating the same formal meter is just not possible. It's a question [for me] of creating something that's perceptible to someone living in the twenty-first century.

Has this experience inspired you to take on other texts outside of your purview, like the Egyptian Book of the Dead?
I looked at the Egyptian Book of the Dead about 30 years ago and I didn't feel it was that interesting--certainly not as interesting as the Tibetan Book of the Dead, or at all as insightful. I would need to find something on the level of Gilgamesh. I just don't know of anything else of that quality.

Would it have to be aesthetically compelling?
It would. But if someone were to suggest something that I found really compelling, I'd do it in a heartbeat.

© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America