Scholia Reviews 3 (1994): 7

Danny P. Jackson (tr.), The Epic of Gilgamesh. Wauconda: Bolchazy-Carducci, 1992. Pp. xlvi + 96 with twelve illustrations. ISBN 0-86516-252-2. US$4.95.

Bernard Paul Sypniewski
Atlantic Community College, Mays Landing

The Epic of Gilgamesh survives in several parts from several places and in several languages. The most complete version, {which is itself incomplete and damaged}, comes from Assurbanipal’s library. Important gaps are filled by texts in Old Babylonian, Sumerian, Akkadian, Hittite, Hurrian, and Assyrian. Some versions conflict; others do not.

Scholars have taken several approaches to ‘translating’ the epic in the time since its discovery. Some, like Speiser (1), translate a single source text literally; others, like Sandars (2), attempt to merge the texts into a continuous version. Because of the nature of the originals, neither approach is entirely satisfactory.

From his introduction, it is clear that Jackson aims his version at the needs of the undergraduate classroom. Much material, especially the photographs, included in the edition make it attractive for that purpose. Jackson has clearly seen that King James did not write the Epic of Gilgamesh. Serious questions remain, however. I have refrained from using the word ‘translation’ for Jackson’s version because it is not clear whether this is a translation or a retelling of the epic. Jackson correctly says that one problem which the epic poses for the modern student is the student’s lack of familiarity with Mesopotamian culture. Other than raising this legitimate concern, Jackson ignores it–there are no notes on the text at all. This is particularly troubling because there are questions about the source of some parts of the Jackson’s text. Jackson organizes his work by column according, we are led to believe, to the original text. Yet comparing Jackson’s work with Speiser’s similarly organized text shows that Jackson includes material which Speiser does not. Are they new finds? Jackson doesn’t say.

Some of Jackson’s concerns are curious. He dwells on the word ‘harlot’ in his introduction but does not explain why he thinks substituting the word ‘girl’ for ‘harlot’ is more sensitive. He wishes to make the epic more accessible to the modern reader but does not explain why allusions to television shows (Jackson calls an unnamed goddess ‘She-who-must-be- -obeyed’, the name that Rumpole of the Bailey calls his wife) or nursery rhymes (‘One, two, three, alarie,/ he slept with death-the-fairy’) or translations of phrases into Latin, Bengali, Amharic, Gaelic, or Hebrew do the trick.

Jackson is correct in sensing that a new readable version of Gilgamesh is needed. We need one that is authoritative as well. The two needs do not conflict. Merely pointing to the Biblical parallels in Gilgamesh does not explain its value. Gilgamesh is more than a curiosity; it is the oldest ethical work we have. Scholars have paid much attention to the relation between Utnapishtim and Noah. The similarity between Gilgamesh’s futile search for immortality and Job goes unnoticed. The hubbub surrounding the parallels with Genesis need to be de-emphasized for the real Gilgamesh to emerge. Jackson’s approach misses the worth of the epic while searching for the illusion of modernity.


(1) Speiser’s translation may be found in James B. Pritchard (edd.), The Ancient Near East – an Anthology of Texts and Pictures (New Jersey 1958).

(2) N. K. Sandars (tr.), The Epic of Gilgamesh: An English Version with an Introduction (Harmondsworth 1972).