Gilgamesh: An Epic Obsession


The Slaying of the Bull of Ishtar, from Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, illustrated by Ernest Wallcousins, 1915

by Theodore Ziolkowski

Any ten minute search on the internet turns up hundreds of hits for Gilgamesh in recent years. Apart from novels, plays, poems, operas, and paintings, the ancient Babylonian hero shows up in children’s books, animes, comic books, and video games. Within the past decade the epic has won its place in the standard anthologies of world literature and has become a staple in college courses in literature and religion. So what accounts for this obsession?

I have long been interested in the reasons for the fascination with figures and works from antiquity among twentieth-century writers, artists, musicians, and their publics. By this I do not mean the scholarly interest in antiquity that motivates classicists, archaeologists, art historians and others moved by a professional commitment to gain further understanding of past cultures. What intrigues me, rather, are the insights into our own contemporary culture that the popular reception of antiquity provides: a topic that I have pursued in several earlier books. In Virgil and the Moderns (1993), for instance, I found that it was the sense of crisis produced by World War I and intensified by the chaotic social and political upheavals of the 1920s and 1930s that sent many writers and their readers back to the past in search of patterns of order and stability, as well as models of personal ethics — precisely the qualities that they thought to find in Virgil’s life and works.

During those same years other writers, in search of transformative experiences through which to reconstruct their lives, turned to Ovid’s Metamorphoses; still others, during and after the Second World War, looked to the poet’s life for consolation in their own destiny as exiles (Ovid and the Moderns, 2005). During the 1930s, in turn, it was the horrors of fascism and the sense of defenseless oppression that attracted writers and many painters to the Cretan legend of the Minotaur, recently publicized by the excavations of Sir Arthur Evans in Knossos (Minos and the Moderns, 2008), for example, in the Paris cultural journal Minotaure (1933-1939).

It was a similar curiosity that moved me to seek an understanding of the reasons underlying the conspicuous recent obsession with Gilgamesh, which differed from the classical legends in several important senses. First, the writers who turned to Virgil, Ovid, and the Greek myths were, for the most part, classically educated: they had read the Aeneid and the Metamorphoses in the original Latin and were familiar with Greco-Roman culture from their schooldays as part of the Western heritage. The epic of Gilgamesh, in contrast, was written in an obscure Assyrian that, almost without exception, none of its admirers could read: their acquaintance was almost wholly second hand and based on translations and adaptations. Second, while the Greek and Roman classics belonged to an unbroken cultural tradition extending back for centuries, the epic of Gilgamesh was utterly unknown until 1872, when the twelve cuneiform tablets containing the story were initially assembled, deciphered, and publicized by the self-taught British Assyriologist George Smith. Moreover, for the first forty years the work was regarded not principally as a literary epic of heroic adventure but, in the fiery “Bible/Babel” controversy that inflamed the first decade of the twentieth century, scrutinized for its parallels to and implications for the Hebrew Bible (notably the flood story).

Finally, it was only during and after the First World War that the first reliable translations appeared, making the epic available to a few early enthusiasts, mainly in German, such as C. G. Jung, Rainer Maria Rilke, Hermann Hesse, and Thomas Mann, who commented on it in letters and reviews and indirectly in their works. But with few exceptions it was only after the Second World War that the epic of Gilgamesh began to make itself felt more broadly in a variety of genres; and in works by writers, painters, and musicians who succeeded the generation known as the classic “moderns”. (Accordingly I changed the title of my work from the initially planned “Gilgamesh and the Moderns” to “Gilgamesh among Us.”)

In an amazing burst of cultural creativity Gilgamesh began to appear in an astonishing variety of forms. In Germany, writers in the immediate postwar period, confronted with the harsh reality of death in war, with the disintegration of the world as they had known it, and with problems of exile and the homecoming wanderer, were attracted by the epic of Gilgamesh, which had already established itself among prewar German writers and thinkers, because it reflects precisely those concerns. Hermann Kasack’s striking novel The City beyond the River (1947) features a scholar specializing in Akkadian studies who, returning to the postwar “city beyond the river” (bombed-out Hamburg) enters a ghostly world that closely resembles Enkidu’s nightmare of descent into the nether world. Joachim Maass’s successful detective story The Gouffé Case (1952) opens with an epigraph from the epic, with which the hero is so totally obsessed that he is known to his friends as “Gilgamesh-Edmond.” Gilgamesh’s search for understanding regarding the death of Enkidu provides the pattern for the hero’s quest to determine the murderer of his friend, which leads him from Europe across the United States to the Pacific coast and to the guilt of the wicked seductress who resembles a modern Ishtar. The most splendid postwar German thematization of the epic is evident in Hans Henny Jahnn’s masterpiece, River without Shores (1949-50), one of the great novels of the twentieth century. The long middle section of the vast trilogy depicts the life of a composer who, in analogy to Gilgamesh and Enkidu, is involved in a twenty-year homoerotic relationship with a friend and whose major composition turns out to be none other than a Gilgamesh symphony, which enjoys an international success.

In England, a radio play by Douglas Geoffrey Bridson, The Quest of Gilgamesh (1954) brought the epic to thousands of BBC listeners in a striking poetic revision that transformed it into a positive statement consistent with the postwar optimism of a generation confident of its ability to tame the gods and nature to its own useful purposes. In the United States, the epic found articulate advocates in such poets as Charles Olson (in his essay “The Gate and the Center” and in such poems as “La Chute” and “Bigmans”) and Gregory Corso, who thought to detect in Sumerian culture primal values that could revitalize a degenerate modern society.

Gilgamesh II/II, Willi Baumeister, 1943

Meanwhile, the musicians and painters were not idle. In 1952 the opera Gilgamesj by the Swedish composer Ture Rangström had its premiere, and in 1956 an oratorio by the Austrian Alfred Uhl. Leaving aside such works as Nicolai Berezowsky’s cantata Gilgamesh (1947), which was received with mixed reviews by its New York audience, the work that subsequently made its way into the international repertoire was Bohuslaw Martinu’s ambitious oratorio The Epic of Gilgamesh (1954-55), commonly regarded as his greatest achievement. At the same time such artists as Willi Baumeister, Walter Jonas, Emil Schumacher, and Hans-Joachim Walch were producing series of vivid reliefs, aquatints, and woodcuts to illustrate new editions to satisfy popular demands for the epic.

Whereas the immediate postwar reception of Gilgamesh from 1945 to the late 1950s was largely a consciously cultural affair involving cult poets, controversial novelists, experimental artists, and the opera-going public, the next fifteen years witnessed a significant popularization of the epic and a broadening of its thematic uses. Poets from Germany to Quebec recreated the epic with conspicuously subjective meanings to reflect personal friendships or losses. In canto 23 of his vast poetic cycle “A”, Louis Zukofsky adapted the epic in a 136-line compressed recapitulation emphasizing the values of friendship, love, and simple order and beauty. The first in what would become a wave of historical novels based on the epic was published in 1959: Gilgamesh: Romanzo by Gian Franco Gianfilippi — a wave including works in Italian (Paola Capriola), English (Robert Silverberg, Stephen Grundy), German (Harold Braem, Thomas Mielke), French (Jacques Cassabois), and Spanish (José Ortega). Many of these works are based on careful historical background study and, in particular, fictionalize with plausible inventiveness the phases of Gilgamesh’s life that are not treated in the epic.

The year 1966 witnessed in Germany the publication of a novel that, following the early hints in Jahnn’s masterpiece, has established itself as an early classic of a genre the Germans call queer literature: Guido Bachmann’s postfigurative Gilgamesch, which takes from the epic the pattern determining the life of his contemporary hero. Bachmann’s work was succeeded in the following decades by a series of plays and novels in which the homosexual love of Gilgamesh and Enkidu was treated openly by writers in different countries: in Denmark (Henrik Bjelke), Germany (Thomas Mielke, Christian Kracht), France (Jacques Cassabois), and England (Edwin Morgan). As a result the epic has been enshrined in The Columbia Anthology of Gay Literature (1998) as an early example of that genre.

Meanwhile, other social agendas were advanced in adaptations of the epic. Feminist writers and critics, scrutinizing the work as ancient evidence for the shift from matriarchy to patriarchy, cast a critical eye on the Sumerian attitudes toward women: from Rhoda Lerman’s novel Call Me Ishtar (1973) and Michel Garneau’s poetic drama (1974) to Thomas Mielke’s historical novel (1988). In response to the growing Green Movement environmentalism emerged as a theme, as writers saw in Enkidu’s private tragedy a symbol of man’s alienation from nature: in dramatic photomontages by Anselm Kiefer (1981) and in literary adaptations by writers in many countries. At the same time, the power of music, evident in the magical power of Gilgamesh’s drum, contributed to the frequent adaptation of the epic in a variety of musical works — operas, cantatas, songs — and accounts for the powerful theme of music evident in the composer-heroes in the novels of Jahnn and Bachmann as well as the drum motif (influenced by Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum) in the historical novels of the German writers Mielke and Braem.

In the works written since 1950 Gilgamesh has not only been psychoanalyzed, deconstructed, historicized, musicalized, personalized, postfigured, and Hispanicized (in Ortega’s Spanish TV film turning him into an originally Iberian figure). The work has most recently been restored to what some writers believe to have been its original ritual function (in Patrice Cambronne’s festival drama Gilga.Mesh [2000] and Raoul Schrott’s free adaptation, Gilgamesh. Epos [2001]).

Inevitably, in the era succeeding Edward Said’s Orientalism and Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, it has been politicized in such novels as Joan London’s Gilgamesh (2001), a postfiguration in which the epic becomes the structural key for a world torn by politics and betrayal (modern Armenia); or Christian Kracht’s 1979 (2001), in which the epic provides the pattern for the homoerotic theme set against the background of the Iranian Revolution.

In sum, in almost a hundred manifestations of literature, art, music, and popular culture, the epic of Gilgamesh constitutes a finely tuned seismograph that registers many of the major intellectual, social, and moral upheavals of the past hundred years: from the religious controversies of the early twentieth century, by way of the search for eternal spiritual values transcending the decline of Western civilization following two world wars, to the struggle for recognition among previously marginalized groups, notably gays and feminists, and eventually to environmental concerns for planet Earth. This fascinating history of reception culminated most recently in a revival of what is believed to be the epic’s original religious impetus and its radical politicization by other writers. In any case, wherever one looks today, and in the most varied manifestations, Gilgamesh is very much among us.

About the Author:

Theodore Ziolkowski is Professor Emeritus of German and Comparative Literature at Princeton University and the author of some thirty books in English and German, including most recently Scandal on Stage (2009) and Dresdner Romantik (2010). He is also the author of Gilgamesh Among Us: Modern Encounters With the Ancient Epic.