Monday, August 5, 2013

Ancient Sumerian Epic Makes a Great Children's Book

You laugh. ... They love it.
Imagine my delight to find this illustrated version of the Epic of Gilgamesh, which as you can see was retold and illustrated by Ludmila Zeman.
Gilgamesh, like most ancient rulers, is a god sent to rule a people. Unable to relate to humans, he rich, powerful, lonely, and cruel. He makes the people build a wall around the city of Uruk (a historical city), just to show his power. After a while, the people realize that the building on the wall is never going to stop. (Could this myth be a memory of the Tower of Babel, which was meant to reach to the heavens?) They cry out to the Sun god for help.
In reply, the Sun god sends Enkidu, who is also a god-man. But instead of being a Ken doll like Gilgamesh, Enkidu is a hairy wild man who lives among the animals of the forest. (This wild man aspect is perhaps why my three-year-old was fascinated with Enkidu ... is he a picture of the hairy, but soft-hearted, wild man within every three-year-old?) When no one can capture Enkidu, the beautiful Shamhat is sent to lure him to his death at Gilgamesh's hand.
Instead, she falls in love with him. And here comes the only part of the book that I censored for my kids. I simply skip the sentence, "They explored the ways of love together."
Enkidu rises to Gilgamesh's challenge and they have a long, terrifying battle on the city wall. My son wanted to take a picture of this page, where Gilgamesh slips and falls. This super ancient myth has enduring appeal because it is, basically, a superhero story. The DC comics of the Fertile Crescent.
Enkidu chooses to rescue Gilgamesh rather than let him fall.
Gilgamesh has found a peer and a friend. He has experienced mercy. Humanized, he orders work on the wall stopped forever.
How wonderful it is to have a god/king who understands us, who understands what it is to be weak and need mercy ... and to receive it. Look, even the Babylonian sphinxes are happy.
I love the illustrations in this book. They were clearly well researched. For any child who sees them, they will form his first impression of the world of ancient Sumeria. For adults, they capture well our feeling of that ancient world being always sunny, yet somehow always bathed in a golden sunset. The grandeur is there.
The people are celebrating Gilgamesh's change of heart. As you look at these pictures, what do they remind you of? I think they capture ancient Sumeria well, but they also reminded me of Mesoamerica, and, believe it or not, Bali. India is also in view. All complex, centralized civilizations with a lot of idolatry. ... Great book.