Canto Ten: Gilgamesh at the Edge of the World*
Crazed with grief after the death of his friend, Enkidu, Gilgamesh wanders in the wilderness until he reaches the Edge of the World where he comes across a tavern kept by the demi-goddess, Siduri.
Shrouded in hoods and veils she lived alone
At the sea’s edge, subjected to the spray
And she was tough as wind-blown marram grass
Whose roots creep craftily beneath the dunes
And bind themselves to knot the flying sand.
Her dishes, racks and cups were solid gold
Her wine and beer was casked and kept in gold
Her tavern only visited by gods.
She saw him coming from a long way off,
At first a speck, a spot, a moving dot
But closer up she saw he was a man
So trouble-scarred, a leather sheath of bones
His face a shield of pitted dents and hacks
That life had dealt him, or the stony world.
As he drew near she ran to bolt her gate
With shackled breath, her chest a tightened strap
Of terror as she climbed up on her roof.
“You! Woman! Open up!” his shout was rough
She gave back words to him in eme-sal
“First tell me who you are and why you’re here
And why you batter rudely at my door?”
With this soft speech she tamed his seething wrath
He dragged his fingers through his matted hair
And writhing in his woe he told his tale.
When she had heard it, she held out her hand
And led him to her table straight away
And sat him down and gave him beer and bread
And spoke to him as she would any king.
‘The path you’ve come is far yet it must stop
As every other’s must, except the gods’,
Deep in the earth’s loamed bed where you will sleep
And tread the dream-road to its bitter end.’
At this the listener’s tears began to stream
Like hares across a field in wintry sun.
And with a frown Siduri took his hand
“Your wife and children wait for you at home
Be wise! Go back again to Uruk’s fold –
Among your kindred you’ll find wealth of heart
It’s worth more than a thousand precious rings
And love, not battle glory, life’s great gift.”
*The Epic of Gilgamesh, from ancient Mesopotamia, dates from the Third Dynasty of Ur (circa 2100 BC). Written in cuneiform on hundreds of clay tablets found by Victorian archaeologists in the buried library of King Ashurbanipal II, it is often regarded as the first great work of literature. This extract, from a complete new version by Jenny Lewis, is currently being translated into Arabic for publication and performance.
Jenny Lewis is a poet, playwright and songwriter. Her recent work includes After Gilgamesh for Pegasus Theatre, Oxford (2011) Taking Mesopotamia (Oxford Poets/ Carcanet 2014) and Singing for Inanna, poems in English and Arabic with the Iraqi poet Adnan al-Sayegh (Mulfran Press, 2014). Jenny is currently working on a new version of The Epic of Gilgamesh for a PhD at Goldsmiths, London University. She teaches poetry at Oxford University.