Gilgamesh: A New English Version

Written by Stephen Mitchell
Review by Gerald T. Burke

As the epic poem opens, in about 2750 BC, Gilgamesh is the tyrannical king of the city of Uruk. The gods decide to curb his excesses by finding him a peer. They arrange for Shamat, a temple priestess, to seduce Enkidu, a superhuman wild man. Once humanized, he returns with her to Uruk and becomes Gilgamesh’s inseparable companion. As both a defense of Uruk and a test of will, the two vanquish Humbaba, the monster of Cedar Forest. Next, after Gilgamesh insults the goddess Ishtar for unexplained reasons, they fight and defeat the Bull of Heaven. Suddenly, Enkidu has dreams of dying, and does so. Gilgamesh is inconsolable. Now that he is aware of death, he journeys in search of Utnapishtim, a man made immortal by the gods. Although he finds him, Gilgamesh is denied immortality. Instead, he is awarded a plant to restore his youth; unfortunately, it is stolen by a snake as he sleeps. Finally, he returns to Uruk accepting his mortality and truly sees life’s beauty for the first time.

Stephen Mitchell’s “version” renders this timeless classic accessible in a vivid prose style. The book also contains a lengthy informative introduction and extended endnotes. This indispensable book is historical myth at its absolute best.