Episode 28. Sophus Helle: 150 years of Gilgamesh: Transcript

0:14  JT

Welcome to the Thin End of the Wedge, the podcast where experts from around the world share new and interesting stories about life in the ancient Middle East. My name is Jon. Each episode I talk to friends and colleagues, and get them to explain their work in a way we can all understand.

0:32  JT

Today, Gilgamesh is the most famous story from the ancient Middle East. He would have been a household name in antiquity too. We’ve known about Gilgamesh for 150 years now. It’s a story about life and death; love and loss; fame and friendship.

0:53  JT

Gilgamesh is a remarkable story. It’s a timeless classic that spans the ages unlike any other Mesopotamian text. And it seems to have almost as many meanings as readers. Why is it so irresistible?

1:10  JT

Our guest is a writer and translator, as well as an Assyriologist. His Danish translation of Gilgamesh has been hailed as “one of those miracles that makes life worth living.” He guides us through what the story has meant to different audiences, and what it has to offer us today. 

1:31  JT

So get yourself a cup of tea, make yourself comfortable, and let’s meet today’s guest.

1:45  JT

Hello, and welcome to Thin End of the Wedge. Thank you for joining us.

1:50  SH

Thank you for having me.

1:52  JT

Can you tell us please: who are you and what do you do?

1:56  SH

Yeah, my name is Sophus Helle. I am a writer, translator and cultural historian. And I have a special love for the Babylonian epics and Gilgamesh in particular. I’m currently a postdoctoral student at Freie Universität. And I have a new translation of Gilgamesh coming out with Yale University Press in October. And I am, I should add, a fan of the show.

2:21  JT

That’s very kind. Thank you. Could you give us an introduction to the Epic of Gilgamesh please? What’s it about and where does it come from?

2:31  SH

So Gilgamesh is the story of the legendary king of the city of Uruk in what is now southern Iraq. And the story is divided into two parts. The first is about Gilgamesh’s friendship with the wild man, Enkidu. They form a powerful emotional bond and together they go off to do battle with the monster, Humbaba, and then with the Bull of Heaven. And then midway through the story Enkidu tragically dies. This is a turning point for the epic. And in the second part, Gilgamesh goes in search of immortality. Having seen his friend die, Gilgamesh wishes to avoid sharing his fate, so he wants to become immortal. He finds the immortal sage Utnapishtim, and asks him to reveal the secret to eternal life. But Utnapishtim disappoints him. He tells the story of the catastrophic deluge that almost wiped out all of humanity. And not even the desperate Gilgamesh would want to recreate that to become immortal. So Gilgamesh comes home empty handed, but with a new understanding of the history of humanity and perhaps a wiser and calmer king. That is, in brief outline, the story of the epic.

3:51  SH

Now this epic has had an extraordinarily long literary history stretching all the way from the 21st to the second century BCE. And that’s without counting its modern rediscovery and afterlife. In the ancient world alone, it spanned four languages and several dialects and existed in many versions and editions. Today, the best known of these versions is what we call the Standard Babylonian version, after the Standard Babylonian dialect in which it was written. The Standard Babylonian version was composed, perhaps in Uruk, we’re not sure but either way in southern Iraq. Probably, not certainly, but probably around the 11th century BCE.

4:36  JT

How do we know about the epic?

4:38  SH

Well, Gilgamesh has been at the centre of assyriological research pretty much as long as there has been assyriological research to be at the centre of. Its discovery was dramatically announced by the assyriologist George Smith in 1872. And that’s almost 150 years ago. So our knowledge of the epic has been steadily growing ever since. We now know of a few hundred clay tablets that bear Gilgamesh’s story in one or the other version. And these clay tablets mainly come from two partially overlapping contexts.

5:14  SH

The first of these is the system of education. So as far as we can tell in the first millennium, Gilgamesh was studied at the beginning and then again towards the end of scribal education. It was studied at the beginning to whet the student’s appetite for learning, and then again, later by the more advanced students who delved into the text. These would-be scribes were made to copy out the text that they studied. And that is one of the ways in which we now have the story of Gilgamesh.

5:43  SH

The other is from ancient archives and libraries, especially the famous collection of tablets in the royal city of Nineveh, the Assyrian capital in the first millennium BCE. And this is where some of the best exemplars of the Standard Babylonian Gilgamesh come from. All of these tablets were collected and collated and edited in the masterful text edition by Andrew George from 2003. And George’s edition is really a paragon of philological text editions, not just for assyriology, but for philology in general.

6:23  SH

Another way in which we know the Epic of Gilgamesh is from iconography, such as cylinder seals that depict Gilgamesh slaying the Bull of Heaven. And these also add to our understanding of the epic in general.

6:38  JT

What do we think Gilgamesh meant in the ancient world?

6:42  SH

That’s difficult to say. Ancient readers were as different from one another as modern readers are. And their understanding of the text would have differed accordingly, especially because, as I said, the epic has had such an extraordinarily long literary history. And also cuneiform scholars didn’t write down their interpretations of the texts in the same way that classical or mediaeval scholars did. They did write commentaries, but those are different from the ones we know from later traditions. And that means that we really have to glimpse ancient scholars’ understanding of the text through the cracks, as it were. One theme that seems to be prevalent is that of wisdom and learning. So the importance of acquiring wisdom and using it to take good decisions, or just as often to prevent kings and other leaders from taking bad decisions. So, for example, after the catastrophic flood, the wise god Ea berates Enlil, king of the gods, for having unleashed the flood without seeking what is known as milku, the wise advice of his counsellors, such as Ea himself. And that theme … the prevalence of that theme … of the epic makes good sense, given the context I was just talking about, of the schools and the courts of the king. Since the epic was studied by schools and scholars, they would go on to seek employment at the king’s court. So the theme of using one’s wisdom to guide those in power must have appealed to them. But as I said, there are other topics and themes as well. But these can be difficult to divine in the evidence as it is.

8:23  JT

What about people other than the king and the scribes?

8:27  SH

So one of the things that is difficult about oral literature is that it’s much trickier to excavate an oral story than a written tablet. That being said, I think we have every reason to believe that Gilgamesh had an oral existence besides, and intertwined with, its written existence. And one of the ways in which, let’s say, lay people–people not at the court, not in the scribal system–one of the ways in which they would have related to Gilgamesh is as a figure of the underworld. Gilgamesh was widely believed to be a judge in the underworld, and it is likely that your average Babylonian would have expected to meet him in the afterlife in one form or the other. And that knowledge is one that shapes how ancient readers must have approached the tale of Gilgamesh’s search for immortality. They knew, in a way that modern readers do not quite, that the search for eternal life was doomed from the start, because in the end, Gilgamesh would end up going to the underworld. And given a special position in the underworld as judge and ruler, but in the underworld, all the same.

9:39  JT

What meanings have modern readers found in the text?

9:43  SH

So one of the things that makes Gilgamesh, at least to me, such a fascinating text to work with, is that there is as yet no broad cultural consensus about what the text really means. Gilgamesh still feels fresh. It still feels somehow unsettled in our cultural imaginary, as if people have not quite made up their minds about it. So, for example, comparing the epic to the classics of Rome and Greece, the poet Michael Schmidt said about Gilgamesh that “It has not had time to sink in”. I really think that’s such an apt sentence to describe the reception of the epic. And as a result, readers see in the epic, all sorts of different meanings and different themes.

13:26  JT

How do people identify with Gilgamesh?

13:30  SH

One of the things that really interests me about the modern perception of Gilgamesh is how people tend to identify with the main character. So one very early proponent of Gilgamesh, if that’s the right word, was the Austrian poet Rainer Marie Rilke, who wrote some very enthusiastic letters to his editor, having read the translation by Arthur Unger. And Rilke wrote that Gilgamesh was, “one of the greatest things a person can experience”. But another thing that he wrote, and which I really think is key to the modern reception is, again, “it concerns me”. And I really think that’s a fascinating sentiment, that this epic that by that time would have been thousands of years old from a very different culture and language, that that concerned Rilke. And the point of connection that he felt with Gilgamesh, both the epic and the character, was the theme of the longing for immortality and the fear of death.

14:28  SH

But once more different readers identify with the main character in different ways. And I think that’s really quite peculiar, because in a very real sense, Gilgamesh is not at all like us. He is five and a half meters tall. He is two thirds god, one third human. He is this ancient, despotic tyrant. He tries to become immortal. So in a very real sense, he is not your average human being. He is very different from all of us. And yet reader after reader shares in that sentiment that Rilke expressed, that Gilgamesh the character and Gilgamesh the story concern us. And they do so in different ways.

15:10  SH

Again, some people identify with Gilgamesh’s loss. Some identify with his love for another man. But other people see more surprising things in him. For example, the classicist Andrea Deagon identified with Gilgamesh as a fellow insomniac, which I think is beautiful. I always, you know, having worked so long on the epic, I’m very careful of identifying with Gilgamesh, because I know what tragedy it leads to in the epic. But you know, as a person who is always constantly restless, I can’t deny that I do kind of feel a connection with him. But I think so does everybody in … in their own weird way.

15:51  JT

What has Gilgamesh meant for modern Iraqis specifically?

15:55  SH

That’s a very good question. And I am at a disadvantage here, because I do not speak Arabic. I’m trying to learn it, but it takes time. There’s a lot of other nuances of Gilgamesh’s Iraqi reception, especially in written literature, that I cannot access. But with the help of art historian Zainab Bahrani, I’ve been looking into its reception in the visual arts in Iraq. And one of the interesting things here is that Gilgamesh came onto the Iraqi stage, as it were, in the 1960s, at the same time as the modernist movement was flourishing in Iraq. And for the Iraqi modernists, the country’s ancient past and this like artistic innovation that they were cultivating, those weren’t opposite forces. There was the sentiment that the modernist movement was to be, “an explosive continuation of the past”, which I really think is a lovely sentence.

16:49  SH

And great figures of Iraqi modernism, like Dia Azzawi, who I really deeply recommend–an amazing painter. Azzawi took a deep interest in Gilgamesh, which had just been translated into Arabic. And Azzawi illustrated the second edition of Taha Baqir’s translation when it came out in 1965. And that confluence of modernism and the rediscovery of the epic that really set the tone for Gilgamesh’s place in Iraqi culture. And later, of course, came the Baathist regime and their appropriation of ancient Iraqi art for … well … often oppressive, political purposes. And many scholars have pointed to Saddam Hussein’s comparison of himself with Gilgamesh, and with other figures from the ancient Near East.

17:38  SH

But I think it’s important to note that at the same time, the epic could also be used to criticise dictatorship. Just to take a very early example, two years after Taha Baqir’s translation came out, the playwright Adel Kazem published a play called The Flood, where the tyrannical Gilgamesh appears as a very thinly veiled image of the then President Abdul Salam Arif. And in that play Kazem quite explicitly calls for revolt against dictatorship. So again, different and even contradictory meanings and readings of the epic existed at any one time.

18:18  SH

I think another interesting resonance of the epic in Iraq is for writers and artists who have been forced to leave Iraq. So another aspect of the text in the original version is that Gilgamesh is this constant traveller. He is always moving. He is constantly, restlessly journeying through alien landscapes. And migrant artists can bring out that aspect of the text with particular power. So, for example, in the poetry collection, Gilgamesh’s Snake, the Baghdad-born, but now London-based poet, Ghareeb Iskander, engages with the epic to reflect on the sense of nostalgia and loss. Another example is the also London-based Kurdish painter, Walid Siti, and his graphic series Rites of Passage turns Gilgamesh’s journey into this graphic line that is always twisting and turning in a constant motion with no beginning and no end, which is a way for Siti to graphically convey the painful experience of diaspora in the 21st century. But again, once more, there are many more meanings, but these are some of the ones that I’ve been looking at, in my research.

19:38  JT

Gilgamesh is the best known text from the ancient Middle East. What can assyriologists learn from its success when seeking to bring other topics to a popular audience?

19:49  SH

Well, Gilgamesh is exceptional. Absolutely. It is one of the best known texts from the ancient Near East. It’s up there with the law of Hammurabi. But I think that assyriologists underestimate the appeal that their material has for non-specialist readers. I really think that there is much greater interest in ancient Eastern matters than assyriologists often realise. But in order to bring them to a popular audience, one has to, at least to an extent, surrender this material–these texts and these objects–to new eyes, who may see them in totally different ways from specialised professional scholars. And that … that moment of surrender can feel like a bit of a loss of control, because people will read these texts and will look at these objects in ways that are very different from professional scholars. But I think it’s very important to remember that ancient texts and artefacts are not harmed by these readings.

20:47  SH

On the contrary, they can be really very enriching for us. They can open our eyes to new ways of seeing what we’ve been looking at for so long. And I very much had that experience with Gilgamesh. In 2019, I published a Danish translation of the epic together with my father, the poet, Morten Søndergaard. And we went on a book tour. This was, you know, before COVID, when book tours were still possible. And it was so delightful to see how people reacted to the epic. They said so many things that I’ve never thought of. You know, people would compare Gilgamesh to a musical, or they would compare these melammus, which are the cloaks of dread that the master Humbaba wears to magical cloaks in Harry Potter. And that I think, opened my understanding of the text up to new perspectives. In this and in many other ways. I think if one thinks as a researcher that we first have to get to know the ancient material, and then be completely sure of what we know, and then bring it out to a popular audience, I think that’s missing the point, because popular audiences can help us know these texts better by looking at them in other ways.

22:00  JT

How can we follow your work?

22:02  SH

So my new translation of Gilgamesh is coming out just before Halloween in 2021. And it will soon be available for pre-order. You can visit my website, sophushelle.com, which has all the links you need to find it as well as all my previous publications and my contact details.

22:21  JT

Could you tell us about your book?

22:23  SH

Absolutely. So the book is a new translation accompanied by five essays on the epic, which go through its literary history, its literary structure, and then examines the emotional aspects of the epic. And especially the … first the bond and then the tragic loss between Gilgamesh and Enkidu. It then looks at the theme of death, various ways in which the characters try to achieve immortality, whether physically or figuratively. And finally, I look at the social perspectives of the epic: the outlook on kingship, the role that women play in the epic, and the relation between the natural and the cultural world. This is an introduction. So it sets out some of what I see as the main themes and the most important aspects of the epic to readers who may be completely unfamiliar with Gilgamesh and with the ancient Near East.

23:20  JT

Could you give us a sample of your translation, please?

23:24  SH

Yes, I would love that. I’m going to read a rather special section of the epic–one that was discovered relatively recently. It was published by Andrew George and Farouk Al-Rawi in 2015. And this is the beginning of tablet five. And it’s quite an unusual passage in Gilgamesh and in Babylonian literature in general, because we rarely find descriptions of landscape in this literature. There generally seems to be in Mesopotamian cultures a rather negative view of the natural environment. These cultures were very much focused on the city as a place of culture and the good life very much took place in the city, whereas the surrounding environment was viewed as a place primarily of danger.

24:16  SH

And Gilgamesh complicates that picture. And it does so especially well in this passage, where the two heroes, Gilgamesh and Enkidu, have just arrived at the sumptuous Cedar Forest where they will do battle with the monster, Humbaba. This passage gives us a very interesting account of the natural landscape, which isn’t just positive, but it draws out a lot of similarities between this natural environment and Uruk itself by comparing the animals that live there with musicians and coaches serving a king, while at the same time also emphasising some of its more dark and dangerous aspects. And I would like you to pay attention to what I think is quite a brilliant feature of this passage, which is the way it uses shadows to frame the description of the Forest, but also to bring out its ambivalent character.

25:12  SH

{READS TRANSLATION} There they stood, staring at the forest. They saw how tall the cedars were. They saw a way into the woods, where Humbaba walked, there was a track. The trail was clear and the path well worn. They gazed on the cedar mountain, home of gods, throne of goddesses. Sumptuous cedars grew along the mountainside, and cast their pleasant, joyful shades. The forest was snarled up in branches, tangled with thorns. They blocked the path through the cedars and baluhhu trees. For six miles around the Forest grew new shoots of cedar. For four miles around it grew new shoots of cypress. The trees were webbed with creepers a hundred feet tall and the resin that oozed from them fell like raindrops to be swallowed by the ravines. The song of a bird went through the forest. Calls came back and song became clamour. A single cicada set off a chorus, sang, chirped, pigeons sobbed, doves answered, the stork clattered, filling the forest with joy. The rooster crowed, filling the forest with resounding joy. Monkey mother sang; baby monkeys cried. This was the concert of songs and drums that always thundered for Humbaba. Then the cedar cast its shadow and terror fell on Gilgamesh.{END OF TRANSLATION}

26:39  SH

I would just add two things to that. First of all, I didn’t plan for a bird to start chirping outside my window just when I began reading this passage, but as it turned out, that was quite perfect. And the second thing I would note is that you heard me pause in the line, “a single cicada set off a chorus {PAUSE} sang, {PAUSE} chirped”, and that is because there are many fragmentary passages in Gilgamesh–“lacunae” as they’re called, where words are missing. And this is one of those passages where we don’t know what the text originally said. Now, you know, in the printed book, I use this way of representing the fragments which was developed in conjunction with the Danish translation we made by the designers at a design studio called Wrong Studio, and the designer Åse Eg. And they came up with a solution instead of the traditional square brackets, which can be a little bulky, and they can get in the way for some, especially non-specialist, readers to engage with the text. So instead, what they came up with was to use a raised dot to mark the beginning and the end of a fragmentary passage.

27:52  SH

And I think that works really beautifully on the page. But I still don’t quite know what to do when reading it out loud. When my father recorded the audio book for the Danish translation, he used like a knocking of the finger, {KNOCKS} like so. So would be, “a single cicada set off a chorus, {KNOCKS}, sang, {KNOCKS}, chirped”, but I would be really eager to hear both from other assyriologists and from all sorts of people, what they think about would be a good solution for representing, you know, for how to read out loud, that which isn’t there, which I feel like is a really interesting challenge.

28:32  JT

What’s next for you?

28:34  SH

I am now embarking on postdoctoral project, which will look at the overlap between the practices of philology and translation theory. And I think this is really important, because philologists often produce translations. They think about translations. Translation is really a central aspect of the field of philology. But this has gone almost completely unnoticed in translation studies, where philological translation appears often in a semi-derogatory meaning to put down translations that are all too literal, which I think does a gross injustice to what philological translation is and can be. So if you look at these big collections of articles and encyclopedias of translation studies, the word philology just does not show up in the index. I think there are promising signs. Karen Emmerich’s Literary Translation and the Making of Originals is an attempt to engage with philology, including Gilgamesh. So I think some progress is being made, but I find that this is an overlap with a lot of potential. And I’ll be working on the Babylonian epic Enuma Elish as my case study.

29:50  JT

Thank you very much.

29:51  SH

Thank you.

29:54  JT

I’d also like to thank our patrons: Tyler Russell, Enrique Jimenez, Jana Matuszak, Nancy Highcock, Jay C, Rune Rattenborg, Woodthrush, Elisa Rossberger, Mark Weeden, Jordi Mon Companys, Thomas Bolin, Joan Porter MacIver, John MacGinnis, Andrew George, Yelena Rakic, Michael Katsevman, Mend Mariwany, Kathryn Topper, Zach Rubin, Sabina Franke, Sophus Helle, Shai Gordin, Aaron Macks, Jonathan Stökl, Maarja Seire, Jaafar Jotheri, Morgan Hite, Chikako Watanabe, Mark McElwaine, Heather Baker, Sukanya Ramanujan, as well as those who prefer to remain anonymous.

30:36  JT

I really appreciate your support. It makes a big difference. Every penny received has contributed towards translations. Thanks of course to the lovely people who have worked on the translations on a voluntary basis or for well below the market rate. For Arabic, thanks in particular to Zainab Mizyidawi, as well as Lina Meerchyad and May Al-Aseel. For Turkish, thank you to Pinar Durgun and Nesrin Akan. TEW is still young, but I want to reach a sustainable level, where translators are given proper compensation for their hard work.

30:49  JT

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