Below is a “Preview Review” – my complete review will be posted here in late March 2022.
Gilgamesh is one of my lifelong favorite books. It’s a profound same-sex love story that also speaks to love as a universal force. It’s a thrilling adventure, filled with gods and monsters and flawed human beings, that also charts the course of how one man, King Gilgamesh of Uruk (today, southern Iraq), evolves – through his love for the warrior Enkidu – from the poster boy for extreme toxic masculinity into a deeply caring man and, ultimately, a wise and just ruler.
And a thousand years before the Hebrew Bible, we meet the precursors to Adam, Eve, the tempting Serpent, the Great Flood and Noah (under different names). Some scholars also believe that Homer, in his epics The Iliad and The Odyssey, was influenced by Gilgamesh.
Yet this ancient poem continues to speak to us today. And not just because Gilgamesh is a character in Marvel’s 2021 film, Eternals, and a staple of pop culture from art to music. You can almost hear a Hollywood pitch: “Eight words. Dwayne Johnson as Gilgamesh, Jason Momoa as Enkidu!”
Gilgamesh is about the deepest emotions, from jealousy to rage to folly, to boundless courage and love. In a way, it’s about how one man, and by extension each of us, can find our best self. I’m eager to read and review this acclaimed new translation, from Sophus Helle; the extended excerpt is extraordinary. I’ve read four other translations of Gilgamesh, and even written a version myself, for an educational software program about astronomy and world mythology.
Thank you, Yale University Press, for sending a reviewer copy. Until I post my review, later in March, here is some information about this new translation, the translator, and the ancient cuneiform tablets at Yale University. This year, 2022, marks the 150th anniversary of the rediscovery of Gilgamesh, in which Yale played a major role.
From the Publisher
A poem for the ages, freshly and accessibly translated by an international rising star, bringing together scholarly precision and poetic grace
“Sophus Helle’s new translation . . . [is] a thrilling, enchanting, desperate thing to read.”—Nina MacLaughlin, Boston Globe
“Looks to be the last word on this Babylonian masterpiece.”—Michael Dirda, Washington Post
Gilgamesh is a Babylonian epic from three thousand years ago*, which tells of King Gilgamesh’s deep love for the wild man Enkidu and his pursuit of immortality when Enkidu dies. It is a story about love between men, loss and grief, the confrontation with death, the destruction of nature, insomnia and restlessness, finding peace in one’s community, the voice of women, the folly of gods, heroes, and monsters—and more. Millennia after its composition, Gilgamesh continues to speak to us in myriad ways. [*NOTE: Some scholars believe the epic is closer to four thousand years old, and that the foundational oral versions date from perhaps five thousand years ago; but in any event it is the oldest surviving long-form work in world literature. And Gilgamesh is very much alive today.]
Translating directly from the Akkadian, Sophus Helle offers a literary translation that reproduces the original epic’s poetic effects, including its succinct clarity and enchanting cadence. An introduction and five accompanying essays unpack the history and main themes of the epic, guiding readers to a deeper appreciation of this ancient masterpiece.
Sophus Helle has previously translated Gilgamesh into Danish with his father, the poet Morten Søndergaard.
About Sophus Helle, the Translator
At Sophus Helle’s website, he introduces himself:
I’m a writer, translator and cultural historian.
I work on ancient literature, especially the Babylonian epics. But my interests range widely, from the oldest known poems to the latest pop culture.
I have a PhD in Comparative Literature from Aarhus University, 2020; MA in Assyriology from the University of Copenhagen, 2017; winner of the European Young Researcher Award 2020 Popular Prize and the Aarhus University Research Foundation 2021 PhD Prize. Since September 2021, I have been a postdoctoral fellow at Freie Universität Berlin and Oxford University, with a stipend from the Carlsberg Foundation. I am also a regular contributor to the Danish newspaper Weekendavisen.
I am a writer with a passion for taking seemingly obscure topics and making them ardently relevant to my readers. I have written on subjects as diverse as Babylonian epics, climate change, medieval philosophy, love in Disney, and the art of falling, but I am always driven by the same desire: to share the facts that fascinate me, and to make them as compelling as I can. All my writing is infused by this urge – I call it “Advanced Show & Tell.”
My non-academic interests include running, fine dining, and the NYT crossword. Learn more about the scope of Sophus Helle’s work.
I agree fully with Sophus Helle, who writes:
What fascinates me most about Gilgamesh is that every reader seems to find in it something that resonates with them, personally. It is a story about love between men. About loss and grief. About the confrontation with death. The destruction of nature. Insomnia and restlessness. Finding peace in one’s community. The voice of women. The folly of gods. Heroes and monsters – and so on, seemingly without end. Every reader relates to it in their own way.From Sophus Helle on Gilgamesh (link).
Gilgamesh Tablets at Yale University’s Peabody Museum
Original Gilgamesh cuneiform tablets are among the highlights of Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History. The museum is closed until 2024 for major renovations and expansion; upon reopening, free admission forever, for everyone.
Among the collection’s particular treasures are tablets of the Epic of Gilgamesh and other epic narratives, a group of the world’s oldest recipes, a large corpus of magic spells and mathematical texts, royal correspondence in Sumerian and Akkadian, and a Sumerian agricultural manual. Of special interest is the oeuvre of the first author in history whose work can be identified: a princess called Enheduanna, whose passionate poetry, composed over 4,200 years ago, was first discovered and edited in the Collection. [Sophus Helle is currently, in 2022, working on a new book about Enheduanna, including an English translation of her collected poems and an introduction to the world in which she lived. I’m eager to read this.]
Reviewed (Preview) February 25, 2022 / Updated March 28, 2022