“The Epic of Gilgamesh” translated and edited by Benjamin Foster

EpicFoster, Benjamin (translator and editor). The Epic of Gilgamesh. 2nd Edition. New York: 2019, W. W. Norton & Company.  256 pp, $18.12 (paperback).

Originally published in 2001, the 2nd edition of the Norton Critical Edition of The Epic of Gilgamesh offers a revised and expanded translation of text. Drawing especially from the critical edition of The Epic of Gilgamesh published by Andrew George (2003), a translation by Stefan Maul (2005), new manuscripts, and philological developments, Benjamin Foster’s translation is, by far, the most accessible, accurate, and precise translation of the ancient text, especially inasmuch as he retains the poetic rhythm of the Akkadian original.

In terms of specific additions to this volume, he includes a variety of updated translations, both for the Sumerian and Akkadian texts, as well as a helpful glossary. Now absent from the volume are articles by Rivkah Harris (“Images of Women int he Gilgamesh Epic”) and Hillary Major (“Gilgamesh Remembers a Dream”). Instead, he includes two additionally critical essays, beyond essays by William Moran and Thorkild Jacobsen which were in the 1st edition and are in the 2nd edition. The first, by Susan Ackerman, explores the liminal role of woman throughout the narrative of the epic. She shows how they “function simultaneously as mirrors of the liminal imagery that predominates in the Epic’s text and as crucial linchpins that facilitate the narrative’s movement through the phases of the rites-of-passage model” (225). The second essay, by Andrew George, navigates the tension between individual fate and collective destiny in the narrative of the epic. He takes various examples from world literature as points of comparison, making it very suitable and helpful in a course about world literature.

Only one discussion is absent in the volume, which should be included: the relationship between iconography and literature. Throughout the volume, Foster includes multiple examples of artifacts and iconography from the ancient Near East. For example, in Tablet I, wherein the wall of Uruk is described, Foster includes a seal impression of people atop the walls of Uruk (4). As an individual relatively well-versed in the relationship between iconography and text, I am not inclined to claim or to think that the seal impression is directly related to the text; however, non-specialists, the vast majority of whom will read this volume, may assume that the iconography is directly related to the text. This, in my view, is problematic. As such, Foster should have provided an explanation concerning the relationship between the ancient images and the ancient text, either in the introduction or a footnote.

Overall, I highly recommend The Epic of Gilgamesh edited and translated by Benjamin Foster. It is particularly valuable for reading by general audiences or use in introductory courses about the Hebrew Bible, ancient Near Eastern history and literature, or world literature. Moreover, at a price of $18.12, it is a great addition to a public and Middle School/High School libraries, classrooms, and personal book collections.



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