I teach Gilgamesh every year and constantly find it a delight. No longer do I have to struggle through reading the cuneiform as I did at Oxford in 2001 — rewarding though it was! — but I still look for ways to rediscover the text. Ziolkowski’s Gilgamesh Among Us is a brilliant way to find out how Gilgamesh has been encountered since the epic’s discovery in 1872. Coupled with the Wikipedia page on “Gilgamesh in popular culture,” I will use Ziolkowski to find and then review works that have been influenced by this remarkable ancient story.
Oxford poet and playwright Jenny Lewis has written a number of works about Gilgamesh. Taking Mesopotamia weaves poems about the epic into a narrative about the Mesopotamian campaign of the First World War (in which her father fought) and the modern Iraq war. She has a real sensitivity for the voice of ancient Iraq — read her account of Uta-napishtim’s rueful memory of the old world, drowned by Enlil (“How the one wise man, Uta-napishtim, survived the Flood”):
. . . he sits
with his wives, carving stories
onto clay tablets, remembering how the living were,
the sounds they made, how they crushed mint and lavender
between forefinger and thumb to release the scent:
the tang of honey on the tongue
Less assured is After Gilgamesh, perhaps because it is a play written for a youth theatre and therefore, at least in my view, tends toward easy caricature of the Iraq war. Still, the way that the Gilgamesh story is used to frame the modern conflict is interesting.