The Age - Ever since Jackson Bate's book on the burden of the past, scholars and poets have let themselves be cast down or invigorated by their belatedness. Someone has always done the stuff before us. There are hoofprints leading to even the purest spring and we can only dither in their wake.
In relation to Gilgamesh, we are all belated, even blind Homer, even the authors of the Pentateuch. It is the story, the myth, the epic that goes before all others, having crystallised out of several earlier tales in the vicinity of 1600 BCE.
And it contains, we are not surprised to find, the ur-narratives of so many familiar myths.
The epic of Gilgamesh was revised or edited into a standard text, as far as we can see, by a fellow called Sin-leqi-inninni. Earlier fragments discovered by archaeologists had been written in Sumerian but the classic version was in Akkadian, the classical language of Mesopotamia at that time. The rediscovered clay tablets were shuffled together into some kind of story by a young British curator called George Smith in the 1870s.
Since then there have been a dozen or so translations but Stephen Mitchell's new version is particularly felicitous. Felicity and flow are surely what you need when retelling a foundation myth from a world that now seems so far away, despite all the new kinds of barbarity in Iraq.
In this text we are plunged back into the super-heroic world of unbounded derring-do.
Gilgamesh is introduced as "violent, splendid/ a wild bull of a man/ unvanquished leader,/hero in the front lines, beloved of his soldiers". Son of a king and a goddess, he has been everywhere, done everything, even encountered the prototype of Noah.
Admire him as they do, his people are none too happy about his exercising droit de seigneur on their brides and daughters. Accordingly, the creation-goddess creates his opposite number out in the wilderness.
This is Enkidu, the fierce, hairy hunter. Hearing reports of this prodigy, Gilgamesh sends one of the temple prostitutes out to entrap him with her female wiles. She does so, shags him for days and lures him, exhausted, back to great-walled Uruk.
The two heroes fight at the door of a bedroom and become friends. The first task of these twinned heroes is to head out into the Cedar Forest and kill the terrible monster Humbaba, who curses them as he dies.
The two supermen then heighten their offence against the gods, which leads to Enkidu's death: "Yes: the gods took Enkidu's life./ But man's life is short, at any moment/ It can be snapped, like a reed in a canebrake./ The handsome young man, the lovely young woman -/ In their prime, death comes and drags them away."
The king now grieving, the flood story is repeated in full detail. He goes on board the new-built Ark with all the animals, seeking immortality and passing through successive tests. But the herb that would have granted eternal life is eaten by the serpent.
Gilgamesh returns on foot to the gleaming walled city of Uruk, instructed by the ironical gods and seemingly cured of his arrogance. The circle - or, as Mitchell puts it, the spiral - is now complete.
So many aspects of this myth chime with more familiar ones from the Judaeo-Christian scriptures or other mythologies: the great flood, the brothers, the hero's labours, a sexual Fall, and the gods' ambiguous tricks. But Mitchell brings it all to life anew, in fluid verse that somewhat resembles Anglo-Saxon measures but without the heavy alliteration. You can run with his poetry.
I should add that the story, as we have it here, is far sexier than the Pentateuch, its priest-editor apparently quite uninhibited. There have been various translations and adaptations of this primal myth. My brother Robin has even published a novel, Goanna, which is a modern version, set in woodchipping Gippsland. (Joan London's novel Gilgamesh won the Age Fiction Book of the Year in 2002.)
But Mitchell, travelling into this Middle-Eastern wildness from the febrile European modernity of Rilke, has brought the story throbbing into barbaric life. We ride through its oral patterns of repetition because of the clear, live jouissance of his telling: we come to know the Mesopotamian gods in all their quirky power. Moreover, his introduction and extensive notes are a great read in themselves.
Chris Wallace-Crabbe's is co-editor with Judith Ryan of Imagining Australia (Harvard University Press).
Allen & Unwin, $39.95