Gilgamesh: An Epic Obsession

Gilgamesh1I have had this fascination with the Epic of Gilgamesh for a long time. I love the fact that perhaps the oldest story known to mankind is about friendship. Theodore Ziolkowski in Berfrois:

I have long been interested in the reasons for the fascination with figures and works from antiquity among twentieth-century writers, artists, musicians, and their publics. By this I do not mean the scholarly interest in antiquity that motivates classicists, archaeologists, art historians and others moved by a professional commitment to gain further understanding of past cultures. What intrigues me, rather, are the insights into our own contemporary culture that the popular reception of antiquity provides: a topic that I have pursued in several earlier books. In Virgil and the Moderns (1993), for instance, I found that it was the sense of crisis produced by World War I and intensified by the chaotic social and political upheavals of the 1920s and 1930s that sent many writers and their readers back to the past in search of patterns of order and stability, as well as models of personal ethics — precisely the qualities that they thought to find in Virgil’s life and works.

During those same years other writers, in search of transformative experiences through which to reconstruct their lives, turned to Ovid’s Metamorphoses; still others, during and after the Second World War, looked to the poet’s life for consolation in their own destiny as exiles (Ovid and the Moderns, 2005). During the 1930s, in turn, it was the horrors of fascism and the sense of defenseless oppression that attracted writers and many painters to the Cretan legend of the Minotaur, recently publicized by the excavations of Sir Arthur Evans in Knossos (Minos and the Moderns, 2008), for example, in the Paris cultural journal Minotaure (1933-1939).

It was a similar curiosity that moved me to seek an understanding of the reasons underlying the conspicuous recent obsession with Gilgamesh, which differed from the classical legends in several important senses.