Gilgamesh and the Ass

Gilgamesh and the Ass

for Voice and Piano

(2008) (c.10′)


This set of two intertwining texts was inspired by being given a Stephen Crane poem to set and to find a companion text for it.  I was struck by how similar the dramatic kernel of narrative in this poem was to the essence of the final tablets of Gilgamesh.  In these tablets, Gilgamesh is seeking out Utnapishtim (the Babylonian equivalent of Noah) in search of immortality after the death of his friend and double Enkidu.  On his journey he is repeatedly told to turn back, to return to his life and enjoy what he has while he can.  He spurns this advice each time only to finally reach Utnapishtim and be given the same advice followed by an extensive recounting of the story of the Flood and how the gods convened afterward to bestow immortality on Utnapishtim.  During this journey there is a striking passage where Gilgamesh travels through a long tunnel beneath the mountains, a tunnel that is believed to be the passage of the sun after it sets and before it rises.  This passage is pitch black and the journey is recounted by repeating the same phrase over and over again, a phrase which merely marks the time travelled and the impossibility of seeing anything in any direction.  This relentlessness only gives up near the end, first as the wind bites into Gilgamesh’s face, and then more quickly near the end where the last two repetitions are quickly cut short as the light bursts into the end of the tunnel.  In the middle of this passage there is a small section where the text has not been recovered; pieces are missing from the tablets.  If we supply the single missing repetition, there are still over a dozen lines that are missing in order to conform to the length of the surrounding columns.  It is extremely difficult to surmise what could have been recounted in these lines as anything would destroy the careful sequence of repetitions that have been setup, though a few sources I found hinted that Gilgamesh could have had some kind of short encounter within the tunnel.  I jumped on this suggestion to insert the Crane poem within this space to take the place of this imaginary encounter.  The translation Gilgamesh that I settled on is an amalgamation of what I feel are the best elements of several scholarly and a few artistic translations.

Gilgamesh took the road of Shamash, the sun.

When he had gone one double-hour,
dense is the darkness, there is no light;
It was impossible to see ahead of and behind him.

When he had gone two double-hours,
dense is the darkness, there is no light;
It was impossible to see ahead of and behind him.

When he had gone three double-hours,
dense is the darkness, there is no light;
It was impossible to see ahead of and behind him.

            A man toiled on a burning road,
            Never resting.
            Once he saw a fat, stupid ass
            Grinning at him from a green place.
            The man cried out in rage,
            "Ah! Do not deride me, fool!
            I know you --
            All day stuffing your belly,
            Burying your heart
            In grass and tender sprouts:
            It will not suffice you."
            But the ass only grinned at him from the green place.

        - Stephen Crane (1871-1900), Black Riders and Other Lines (1895)

When he had gone four double-hours,
dense is the darkness, there is no light;
It was impossible to see ahead of and behind him.

When he had gone five double-hours,
dense is the darkness, there is no light;
It was impossible to see ahead of and behind him.

When he had gone six double-hours,
dense is the darkness, there is no light;
It was impossible to see ahead of and behind him.

When he had gone seven double-hours,
dense is the darkness, there is no light;
It was impossible to see ahead of and behind him.

When he had gone eight double-hours, a fever flares up in him;
dense is the darkness, there is no light;
It was impossible to see ahead of and behind him.

When he had gone nine double-hours, the north wind bit into his face;
dense is the darkness, there is no light;
It was impossible to see ahead of and behind him.

When he had gone ten double-hours,
He could feel the end draw nigh.

At the nearing of eleven double-hours, light breaks out.
At the nearing of twelve double-hours, the light is steady.

Before him the garden of the gods appeared.

-The Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet 9, Column 5



Sarah Rodewald, Soprano; Nicholas Place, Piano