The demigod Gilgamesh comes to life for young readers
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The demigod Gilgamesh comes to life for young readers

Cuneiform expert Shirley Graetz put her academic skills to work in a Hebrew-language chapter book for kids

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

The cover of Shirley Graetz's 'Gilgamesh' series, about the Mesopotamian demigod, with artwork by Uriel Zohar (Courtesy Shirley Graetz)
The cover of Shirley Graetz's 'Gilgamesh' series, about the Mesopotamian demigod, with artwork by Uriel Zohar (Courtesy Shirley Graetz)

In the ancient land of Mesopotamia, Gilgamesh was a demigod of superhuman strength who built cities and defeated enemies.

In writer Shirley Graetz’s mind, the Akkadian figure who stars in the ancient poem “Epic of Gilgamesh” sounded a lot like her eldest son. Big, strong, and not always able to delicately avoid things in his path.

“I got to thinking about Gilgamesh,” said Graetz, who at the time was finishing up her PhD on cuneiform, an ancient form of writing from the Mesopotamian region. “He was half human, half god and he was a tyrant. Until he found his match, and then he calmed down and went on adventures.”

Ever practical, the academic turned popular fiction writer also considered the fact that neither Disney nor Pixar had ever touched the story of the Mesopotamian figure.

It wasn’t unusual for Graetz to be fictionalizing the tales of the ancient land that she had studied so closely. A few years earlier, she wrote her first novel, “She Wrote on Clay,” a coming-of-age work about a girl who becomes a scribe in Assyrian times. That was done while she was on maternity leave for the third of her three children.

The ancient city of Uruk, where Gilgamesh was born (Courtesy Uriel Zohar)
The ancient city of Uruk, where Gilgamesh was born (Courtesy Uriel Zohar)

Her debut novel was a complete work of fiction, while this one started out as a story about Graetz’s son, but became something else, she said.

With the Hebrew-language “Young Gilgamesh and the Enchanted Garden” now in print — Graetz self-published the young reader novel for 8- to 11-year-olds — the chapter book is the first in what will probably be a series of six books about the young king and his many adventures.

It introduces the character and the details of his world, from the foods he eats (beer and beef stews) and clothes he wears to his family, friends and kingdom.

“I thought it would be great for kids to get to know this character, and maybe they’d be more open to read the real epic,” said Graetz. “I wanted to make it as parallel as possible to the real epic, with the atmosphere and the fact that Gilgamesh is kind of a loner because he’s different.”

It helped that Graetz was more than a little familiar with Gilgamesh’s background, for her historical research formed the background for the youth fantasy novel. This followed a similar process to that of her first book, which was based on her studies of ancient clay tablets and the role they played in the development of the ancient Akkadian language.

Shirley Graetz, whose academic research led her to fiction works for kids and young adults (Courtesy Eitan Herman)
Shirley Graetz, whose academic research led her to fiction works for kids and young adults (Courtesy Eitan Herman)

In working with illustrator Uriel Zohar on “Gilgamesh,” Graetz came up with the idea of writing a message in ancient cuneiform at the start of each chapter, and she inserted a key of some cuneiform letters and their modern Hebrew equivalent on the foldover flap of the softcover book. Readers have the added challenge of figuring out the hidden messages throughout the book.

“The kids love the cuneiform,” said Graetz. “I got a note from one teacher in Emek Hefer who told me her students wrote their end-of-year thank-you notes in cuneiform.”

The historical elements of the book lend themselves to all kinds of tie-ins and related activities for Graetz and her young readers. She held an event at Jerusalem’s Bible Lands Museum several weeks ago, taking readers through the archaeological exhibits to see original clay tablets (about the size of an iPhone 5), horned crowns (like those worn by characters in the book) and a statue of Pazuzu, a demon who will show up in future books.

“Seeing it like this allows the kids to visualize where it happened and what it all looked like,” said Shani Kimchi, the museum spokesperson. “They can see that these people and places actually existed.”

An original horned headdress for a cult statue, much like the one that a character wears in "Gilgamesh" (Courtesy Bible Lands Museum)
An original horned headdress for a cult statue, much like the one that a character wears in ‘Gilgamesh’ (Courtesy Bible Lands Museum)

Graetz will be holding other readings throughout the summer. There is one scheduled on July 10, 5 p.m. at HaMigdalor, 1 Levontin, corner of Allenby, Tel Aviv, with reading and writing on clay, free entry.

On July 14, the Steimatzky at 43 Emek Refaim in Jerusalem will host Graetz for a 5 p.m. reading.

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