About the project

The Epic of Gilgamesh is a famous relic of Sumerian literature depicting the fate of King Uruk, who decides to go on a journey in search of immortality after losing his friend. Although his mission ends unsuccessfully, the pursuit of the mystery of eternal life turns out to be an aim in itself. The essence of the myth is the metamorphosis that takes place in Gilgamesh after the death of Enkidu and as a result of the ruler’s later adventures. This epic is a captivating story about love, friendship, betrayal, anger, the conflict between nature and culture, the struggle with passing away, as well as about a way to find inner peace and sense.

The Road That Never Was is not a translation of the original. It is a contemporary interpretation by Marcin Mleczak, accompanied by illustrations by Maja Starakiewicz. Importantly, the graphics were created earlier and are an equivalent part of the digital picture book – word and image complement each other, co-creating a unique literary and visual work. A multimedia story based on the Epic of Gilgamesh is told by a couple of human-scorpions. It is because of their conversation that we learn about the course of events. The title of the text is a paraphrase of the Scorpio husband’s statement to the protagonist when he travels in search of treasure.

Change of the narrator is an extremely important aspect of the project – it allows us to look at ancient history from a new point of view. The dialogues of a couple of scorpions refer to the oral epic tradition and introduce dynamics as well as elements of humor to the text. However, perhaps the most important words of this fascinating story come from the alewife Siduri, who serves beer to Gilgamesh and explains how to find happiness in everyday life. This surprising reversal of perspective is not accidental and emphasises the contradictory nature of the whole story, in which animals, people and gods constantly try to cross borders, playing with the existing world order.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is an undying source of inspiration for 20th and 21st century writers, poets and artists, while the figure of the ruler of Uruk even appears in games and music. Illustrating the myth was undertaken, among others, by Roman Opałka, who made gouaches for Robert Stiller’s translation in the 1960s. An interesting modern reinterpretation of the history of the goddess Ishtar is the novel by Olga Tokarczuk Anna In in the Catacombs of World (Anna In w grobowcach świata; 2006) freely based on the motives of Sumerian traditions. Gilgamesh is mentioned by Zbigniew Herbert in the poem The Message of Mr Cogito (1974) – the words repeat old incantations of humanity fables and legends / because this is how you will attain the good you will not attain seem to perfectly reflect the idea of the epic.

An additional value of the interactive project of Maja Starakiewicz is the possibility to take a part of the story in the form of downloadable graphics that can be printed, framed and hung on the wall, as well as the chance to own the ebook itself with a story of a half-historical, half-mythological figure of the ruler of the Sumerian city of Uruk.

Agnieszka Cieślak

Why Gilgamesh?

The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the oldest-known works of literature – it allows us to understand to some extent the dilemmas of a man who feels separate from the natural world, a man who begins to accumulate into societies larger than the tribe and, having mastered the use of tools on a large scale, turns the creation of individual artifacts into city-building, diplomacy and warfare.

As we go back to the point where prehistory becomes history, we also get the tools to think about ourselves and our problems. Carefully reading the stories written on clay tablets, we deal with the issues of relationship between an individual and society, between man, nature and supernatural forces, finally, with the role of gender. We are carrying out some kind of reverse engineering of the spirit.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is a striking example of the long duration of culture – in 2020 we can read a text whose earliest versions date back to the third millennium BCE, which is quite remarkable in itself. However, dealing with this text is not only a “historical” experience – this work in many aspects is extremely up-to-date and universal, although the archaic linguistic form may obscure these features. For this reason, a paraphrase of the original story appears in This Road Never Existed. It was written especially for the needs of the project.

The themes that sound very clearly in the story of Gilgamesh, also for the contemporary reader, are, among others, the conflict of man being torn apart between culture (symbolised by the city) with its order, but also oppression, and nature (represented by the Cedar Forest), which is the space of freedom but also chaos that is dangerous to humans.

The fight fought by Gilgamesh ultimately turns out to be a fight with himself – it is shown both as a tragic situation, but also as a grotesque – after all, the king of a mighty city (incidentally a historical figure) sets out on a journey to the ends of the world to finally hear the greatest wisdom from the old alewife and to loose the treasure gained with great effort...by accident.

On the one hand, it is a story filled with pathos – one of the main themes is the fear of death and an attempt to overcome it, on the other hand, this solemnity is many times distorted, which means that this story can, with a little interpretive effort, become something not only up-to-date but also a real pleasure to read.

For me, the Epic has become an inspiration to create my own visual story about a harsh, inhospitable world where love and inner peace are something gained and very valuable. In the circumstances of the pandemic and the accompanying constant incertainty, it seems to be
very accurate.

Maja Starakiewicz