Gilgamesh is stupendous!" wrote Rainer Maria Rilke in 1916, when he read the first German translation of this prodigious work of Babylonian literature. Gilgamesh - the hero daunted by nothing; the ruler who abuses his people; the warrior who fights ogres; the being in desperate need of friendship - has secrets to reveal to every reader. Human life has its limitations and inevitably comes to an end. Many fear death. Perhaps all that can be left behind is the enduring fame of some long-lasting achievement. And is this not so?
A little over a century ago, the Gilgamesh story entered modern western culture after a 2,000-year delay, following the 19th-century decipherments of the languages of ancient Mesopotamia. The epic, although serious, is full of dramatic and literary delights. It has been called "a document of ancient humanism", tracing the long journey through failure and success towards self-knowledge. The nature of male friendship and the conflicting claims of friendship and sexual desire, are explored, while women are consistently portrayed in a range of significant roles as interpreters of life, mothers and sexual partners.
This is not only a new translation of the great work, but the most authoritative, complete and up-to-date available. Andrew George has been working for years on Gilgamesh and will soon publish a new scholarly text. The vivid translation also attempts to mirror the Akkadian verse structure; such a "foreignising" strategy maintains a special atmosphere, only occasionally at some expense to natural English fluency. George's excellent introduction addresses the difficulties many readers will have coping with a work of which about a quarter is lost or fragmentary, and that evolved through a literary history of two millennia.
Susan Pollock's Ancient Mesopotamia is a new textbook containing much to make scholars, too, take a long look at some of the evidence in context. Its coverage is restricted to the period approximately 5000-2100 BC, during which irrigation agriculture, complex societal organisation, writing and monumental architecture first developed and flourished in what is now southern Iraq. As her sub-title "the Eden that never was" suggests (it appears on the title page but is suppressed from the cover, presumably for marketing reasons), this is an attempt to construct an unromanticised interpretation drawing on contemporary anthropological perspectives - not exactly a beginner's guide for the unprepared reader.
In this avowedly theoretical approach, there are stimulating discussions of ideology and the images of power. Monumental buildings, such as the ziggurats or the great defensive walls of Sumerian cities, are often elaborate beyond any functional or practical requirements. As an attempt to commemorate persons, deities or events, such structures are ideological statements about relations of power within the "total society", which included the gods and future humanity. It is all too easy for us moderns to participate in elite ideologies that work to make invisible the majority of the populations who laboured to create great wealth for the few. Death and the rites accompanying it also contributed to the establishment and maintenance of idealised social identities and relationships, rather than mirroring actual social relations.
Inevitably, the application of statistical methods to the results of survey and excavation - regional settlement patterns, faunal remains and artefact distributions - is at the mercy of adequately collected data. The two areas Pollock rightly identifies as further directions for research, the lives of "ordinary" people and the subject of gender, are also the two areas for which there is perhaps least evidence in the archaeological record, and where interpretations can founder on the imbalance inherent in the information available.
Jeremy Black is lecturer in Akkadian, University of Oxford.
The Epic of Gilgamesh: A New Translation
Author - Andrew George
ISBN - 0 14 04 4721 0
Publisher - Penguin
Price - £7.99
Pages - 225