Jenny Lewis / Photo by Ben Prestney

Gilgamesh Retold

in Authors & Books/Historic artefacts/History/Interview

Jenny Lewis is an Arts Council-funded poet, playwright, children’s author, translator and songwriter who teaches poetry at Oxford University. Her first poetry sequence, When I Became an Amazon (Iron Press, 1996/ Biligua, Russia, 2002) was broadcast on BBC Woman’s Hour and made into an award-winning opera, performed by the Tchaikovsky Opera and Ballet Company in November 2017. Jenny has published four collections of poetry and had seven plays and poetry cycles performed at major UK theatres including the Polka Theatre (for children), the Leicester Haymarket and the Royal Festival Hall. Her recent work includes After Gilgamesh (Pegasus Theatre, 2011; Mulfran Press, 2012), Stories for Survival, a Retelling of the 1001 Arabian Nights (Pegasus Theatre, 2015), Singing for Inanna, a chapbook of poems in English and Arabic with the Iraqi poet, Adnan al-Sayegh (Mulfran Press 2014) and Taking Mesopotamia (Oxford Poets/ Carcanet 2014). Her latest work, Gilgamesh Retold (Carcanet Press, 2018), won the Warden’s Prize for Innovation at Goldsmiths, was a New Statesman Book of the Year, a Carcanet Book of the Year and a London Review of Books Book of the Week. It was described in the Times Literary Supplement as ‘a more nuanced presentation of gender dynamics’ that allows women to tell their own stories ‘of desire and longing’ which ‘disrupt male narratives’. Her work has been translated into several languages including Russian, Farsi and Arabic. She is currently completing a PhD on Gilgamesh at Goldsmiths, London University.

TST How would you describe Gilgamesh Retold?

​JL My version is a modern, fast paced narrative that relocates the 2,500 BC Epic of Gilgamesh to its earlier, oral roots in a Sumerian society where men and women were more equal, the reigning deity of Gilgamesh’s city, Uruk, was female (Inanna), only women were allowed to brew beer and keep taverns and women had their own language – emesal. I wanted my retelling to have momentum and be a gripping page turner.

TST Why Gilgamesh? When did you first encounter the Gilgamesh story. At what point did it draw you in and why?

JL I was researching a book about my father’s time as a young soldier in Mesopotamia/ Iraq in the First World War (Taking Mesopotamia, Oxford Poets/ Carcanet 2014)and stumbled across the Epic of Gilgamesh while reading about ancient Mesopotamian culture. I was immediately drawn in to the story, partly because its tale of hubris, abuse of power by leaders, friendship, passionate love and fear of death resonates so much with our world today and partly because I feel it gets beneath the shallowness of our lives in the 21st century and speaks to the visceral power of the unconscious and dreams. That’s why people respond to it so strongly.

TST Why retell it and not simply translate?

JL I describe Gilgamesh Retold as a response to the ancient epic rather than a translation as I am unable to decipher cuneiform, the 2,500 BC sign system made with the ends of cut reeds (cuneiform means ‘wedge-shaped’) on clay tablets that were then baked hard in the sun. Because of this I had to rely on Assyriologists who could turn the cuneiform sign system into Akkadian and translate from that. My version is based loosely on the magnificent, authoritative version by Professor Andrew George at SOAS (The Epic of Gilgamesh, Penguin Classics, 2003, revised with notes)and by research and reading of books about early Sumerian society, mainly Samuel Noah Kramer’s History Begins at Sumer (1956) and, for mythology and poetry, Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth (1983) which contains the poetry of Enheduanna, the world’s first known poet.

TST Can you tell me of the goddesses and women characters who appear in the Gilgamesh Tale. Do you feel any empathy for any of the female characters, divine or human, or any anger on their behalf.

JL The female characters in the Epic of Gilgamesh all play key roles in the story. The goddess Ninsun, Gilgamesh’s mother, prays to the sun god Shamash to help her son and his friend Enkidu in the battle with the ogre, Humbaba. Shamhat the ‘sacred prostitute’ persuades Enkidu to come to Uruk to meet Gilgamesh. Siduri, the wise woman, leads Gilgamesh to Ur-shanabi the Boatman who ferries him across the Sea of Death. Uta-napishtim’s wife shows Gilgamesh where the Plant of Youth lies buried under the sea; and the scorpion woman tells Gilgamesh how to run through Machu Mountain to reach the Edge of the World. While all these women help Gilgamesh, Inanna, on the other hand, is punitive towards him because, when she invites him to be her consort he replies with an insulting rant which is thought to have been added to the early versions of the story in later, more patriarchal interpretations. I feel great empathy for Inanna and also that the later version (the first full written version) by the priest-scribe Sin-lique-uninni in 1200 BC, skews the original story towards an unacceptable degree of misogyny which wouldn’t have been tolerated in the earlier, matriarchal societies of Mesopotamia. How dare a mere demi-god (Gilgamesh is only two thirds god) treat the reigning deity of his city in this way!

TST Are there other retellings of ancient literature that have influenced your work? If so, what was it about those works that inspired you (or made you think – I won’t do it like that). 

JL I read many different versions of the Epic of Gilgamesh, but I found I connected most strongly to the versions by Andrew George (poetry) and Nancy Sandars (prose). I’ve used cinematic techniques such as perspective, flash backs and forwards and used different poetic forms to speed up the pace or slow it down. I’ve also added a redemptive episode where Gilgamesh reflects on his life and its shortcomings to indicate a ‘rite of passage’ through to the mature man he becomes at the end. This is my own invention, as is the extended passage where Inanna ascends to heaven to ask her father, Anu, for the Sky Bull with which to destroy Gilgamesh.

TST We have seen many threats of different kinds on ancient culture including the recent unrest and attacks on what remains of prehistoric palaces, statues, temples and buildings. What do you feel about the challenge to the world today? 

JL I feel thankful that at least literature can remain to speak to us from the ancient world. Those who destroy the past are, in effect, destroying the foundations from which they and their own ancestors have sprung – acts of destruction that must surely be forbidden by all cultures and religions.

TST How do you think the Gilgamesh epic should be treated today. Should we make sure we learn about it in school history and art history? Is it still suffering from a culture clash with the dominant texts of Christianity and the post-Roman empire. Would there be something we could gain by looking more closely at Gilgamesh today?

JL Gilgamesh and the stories and culture that surround him come from a place of honesty. We all recognise the emotions in the story – the young man’s hubris and determination to make a name for himself (Gilgamesh), the mother’s fear for her child (Ninsun), the love between friends (Gilgamesh and Enkidu) and the devastating grief at the death of that friend which leads to Gilgamesh’s terrible, overpowering fear of his own death. Because of its strangeness it’s a difficult one for young children but other than that, I think it should be on the school curriculum because it provokes debate and brings with it such a hugely emotive and inspiring culture of art, architecture and sculpture – as well as the first written literature in the world.

TST Sometimes I look at the media and think that we have become a culture obsessed by food and drink. Are there any aspects of this in Gilgamesh Retold? A LIGHT HEARTED END TO THE QUESTIONS – I KNOW THERE’S BEER AND CORPSES AS WORMFOOD!

JL Well, women were the only people allowed to brew beer and keep taverns and there are two episodes where women give men ‘beer and bread’ – once when Shamhat gives them to Enkidu at the shepherd’s camp and once when Siduri gives them to Gilgamesh. In the first case it is to ‘civilise’ Enkidu and in the second it is to console Gilgamesh. What could be nicer than a glass of cold beer and some fresh baked bread (probably with cheese and olives) to make you feel at home. And, as usual, it’s women at the heart of things, making the world go round!

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