How can a poem 5,000 years old speak to us so attractively, and with such contemporary relevance? The Notes that Doug Nicholls has written to accompany his striking new version of Lugalbanda give clear and detailed explanations of the history of the poem, the literary skill underpinning its lyrical beauty, and its political relevance today. But before you read the Notes, read the poem, and appreciate the world it comes from. Let it charm you with its vividness, lyricism and profound humanism.
Doug suggests that we approach this and all ancient poetry not as mysteries or myths lost in the distance of time, but as examples of poetic engagements with realities that we still encounter. So when reading the poem, think about the similarities as well as the differences between the world of the poem and our world. What is like you and us in the poem, what qualities do we share with Lugalbanda?
He is an heroic figure from the first civilisation to invent writing, the wheel, law, architecture, agriculture, irrigation, and many other human firsts, which developed in the lands between the Tigris and Euphrates that are now occupied by the troubled regions of Iraq and Syria. Lugalbanda survives abandonment in the wilderness, where he is left to die after falling sick whilst out with a war party, out marching to invade a neighbouring city and steal its property and its land.
In his desolation he finds the chick of a great monster bird living in the mountains. He decides to pamper and nurture the chick as its parents hunt bulls and other creatures of the mountains. As a reward for nurturing the chick he is offered great powers and riches by the chick’s father, Anzu. Yet nothing Anzu offers will please Lugalbanda, so he requests something even more powerful. He is granted his request of an amazing, creative force and power.
This request and what it symbolises is at the heart of the poem’s insight. It is an incredible choice and in making it and in exercising his new found powers, Lugalbanda changes to embody the most complex and distinctive of human essences. As you read the poem consider what you think this power is, and then whether the Notes expresses its true meaning.
At one level the poem recounts an episode within a wider epic of adventures about the first city states and their culture. Its diction is delightful, sparkling with images of the natural world as experienced at that time, with its fish, flowers, animals and imagined gods. It is about the first wars and the first longings for peace in the region. It expresses – and embodies – the stupendous power of human beings, both creative and destructive. It speaks to us of the joys of communication and social interaction. It recalls the pre-civilised existence of human beings and the creation of the first agricultural and urban centres.
Above all it identifies something about the nature of human beings that has exceptional importance to us today. Making this discovery anew is one of the great pleasures of the poem, and makes re-reading it today a brilliant experience. You will ask yourself, how can such an ancient poem be so timely?
Read on, study the Notes and see how the voice of an unknown poet or poetess, most likely building on a still older collective oral culture from the dawn of human society, sings with a voice like ours.
This new version by Doug Nicholls of Lugalbanda is attractive, topical and extraordinarily relevant today. It is exactly the kind of cultural project that Culture Matters was set up to publish and promote, and we are proud and privileged to do so.
Lugalbanda is available here.
Mike Quille is a writer, reviewer and arts editor, and co-managing editor of Culture Matters.