Death and The Epic of Gilgamesh

I had intended to return to this blog with an article about Yuri Herrera’s brilliant novel of the American border, Signs Preceding the End of the World. I still hope to review that work in an upcoming post. But death, that so kindly stopped for Emily Dickinson, has visited me, and I find my thoughts turning instead to a myth from an earlier age and its more universal themes.

We take much for granted. Yet all the bright beauty of our works and days have for their common background, this inevitable blank night: that one day, each of us shall cease to exist, pass from among our friends and family, and become as the stones and the mute earth. As an Orthodox Christian, I believe this is not the end, but death still remains a mystery for us, and the parting it brings is a bitter anguish. So in what follows, we’ll take the last exit to Babylon and meditate on what the ancient poets have to tell us of this subject.

The Epic of Gilgamesh, dating from some 4000 years ago, is one of the oldest narrative poems that has come down to us. Originally Sumerian, it became part of the common cultural heritage of the Mesopotamian world in the Bronze Age. When the Old Testament speaks of the prophet Daniel learning the lore and literature of the Babylonians, this work was undoubtedly one the writer had in mind.

Although the meaning of specific parts of the poem is sometimes obscure, its overarching story is straightforward and speaks to us as poignantly today as it did four millennia ago. It is a story about death and our efforts to reconcile our existence with the brute fact of our mortality.

When the poem opens, Gilgamesh is a great king in the city of Uruk. His fame and glory have spread far and wide, but he is arrogant and oppresses his nation. The people cry out to the gods for deliverance, and the gods answer by sending a fierce wild man of the forest named Enkidu. A woman comes to Enkidu and tames him. He learns human ways and speech, but when he hears of the injustice of Gilgamesh, he goes to Uruk to challenge the king.

In the earliest known instance of male bonding in literature, Gilgamesh and Enkidu throw each other through two or three walls and then become fast friends. From then on, they are inseparable, and this heroic comradeship seems to mellow Gilgamesh and give him a healthier outlet for his aggressions.

The two companions have many adventures together. In the only one recorded in the story, they travel to a vast cypress forest to fight against the monster, Humbaba. It is hard to know how to picture Humbaba, but perhaps he had much in common with that giant who stood “so horrible and hye, that with his tallness seemed to the threat the skye.” 1 Finally, after a fearsome struggle, the two friends are victorious over the terrifying brute and return to Uruk to the adulation of all the people.

But when Enkidu defies the gods, he is stricken with a fatal illness. He languishes for many days recounting fearful Dantesque visions of what awaits him in the afterlife. Then, like all of us, Enkidu dies.

And like all of us, Gilgamesh is overwhelmed with sorrow at his friend’s death. “He began to rage like a lion, like a lioness robbed of her whelps. This way and that he paced around the bed, he tore out his hair and strewed it around. He dragged off his splendid robes and flung them down as though they were abominations.” 2 And here, the narrative rises above a simple adventure story to become something more profound.

Gilgamesh cannot accept what has happened. His grief knows no bounds. At first, he refuses even to give up his friend’s body for burial, believing he may come back. And even after he commissions a funerary statue for Enkidu, the king’s decline continues. He neglects his office and, perhaps in imitation of his lost friend, becomes a hunter in the wilderness.

Soon his thoughts turn to his own fragility. “In his bitterness, he cried, ‘How can I rest, how can I be at peace? Despair is in my heart. What my brother is now, that shall I be when I am dead.'” 3 And eventually, he begins to think of “the common lot” of the people he governs.

However, he has heard of one man who lives on an island beyond the world who has achieved immortality. So Gilgamesh vows to visit this man, Utnapishtim, and learn from him, if he can, the secret of everlasting life.

After an arduous journey, the king comes to the mountains at the end of the world. He is haggard and unkempt, and the terrifying scorpion men who guard the passage through these peaks, though recognizing his greatness, at first refuse to admit him. At length, though, he persuades them and enters into a cavernous tunnel that will take him beyond the world of human reality.

Gilgamesh travels twelve leagues through a lightless void. When he finally comes out into the sun, he finds himself in the Garden of the Gods, where the fruit trees bear beautiful gems and the plants have leaves of lapis lazuli and crystal. The god Shamash reproves him for entering this divine realm, but Gilgamesh ignores him and continues his quest. Shamash, for reasons known only to the gods, allows him to go on his way.

Gilgamesh then encounters the mysterious veiled figure of the Ale-Wife Siduri. On hearing that he is seeking immortality, she offers him the ancient Mesopotamian version of “gather ye rosebuds while you may.” She asks him, “Gilgamesh, where are you hurrying to?” She then continues, “You will never find that life for which you are looking. When the gods created man, they allotted him death, but life they retained in their own keeping. As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day feast and rejoice, for this too is the lot of man.” 4

But the hero-king is not so easily dissuaded. And seeing his persistence, Siduri tells him how to cross the ocean beyond the Garden of the Gods to the Island of Dilmun, where Utnapishtim lives.

Gilgamesh bullies a divine ferryman, Urshanabi, into giving him a ride. However, when he reaches the island, Utnapishtim tells him that his quest has been in vain. He does not possess any secrets. His immortality was a gift from the gods who regretted destroying the human race in the flood. “Utnapishtim said, ‘There is no permanence. Do we build a house to stand forever? Do we seal a contract to hold for all time? From the days of old, there is no permanence.” 5

Gilgamesh remains for some days with Utnapishtim and his wife. When he is ready to depart, prompted by his spouse, Utnapishtim relents and reveals that he does know one secret of the gods that may aid Gilgamesh. A certain spiky plant grows on the seabed. If Gilgamesh can manage to retrieve this plant and eat it, his youth will be renewed.

Gilgamesh launches out into the deep and, weighting himself with stones, dives down and harvests the plant. He returns confident that he is carrying the secret of immortality back to his people. “I will take it to Uruk of the strong walls; there, I will give it to the old men to eat. Its name shall be ‘The Old Men are Young Again.’ and at last, I shall eat it myself and have back my lost youth.” 6

Tragically, when Gilgamesh stops to drink from a spring, a serpent snatches the fruit and eats it. It sloughs off its skin and, thus renewed, vanishes into the underbrush. “Then Gilgamesh sat down and wept. The tears ran down his face, and he took the hand of Urshanabi; ‘Oh, Urshanabi, was it for this that I toiled with my hands? Was it for this that I have wrung out my heart’s blood?'” 7

Sorrowing, Gilgamesh returns to Uruk, where, in the course of time, he, too, will die. In a coda, the god Enlil speaks to Gilgamesh, “Oh Gilgamesh, this was the meaning of your dream. You were given the kingship. Such was your destiny. Everlasting life was not your destiny. But do not abuse this power. Deal justly before the face of the sun.” 8

Forty centuries have passed since the poets pressed these words into the soft clay by the Euphrates River. And perhaps our perception of the meaning of their work is not what they themselves intended. But their epic remains a poignant reminder of the universal experience of death.

And though Gilgamesh failed to bring immortality to his people, perhaps his tale brought something more precious. We see a development in his character throughout the epic. By the end of the story, the tyrant king we met in the first stanzas has become a leader who desires to serve his people.

The experience of death humbles us. We stand before its incomprehensible nature that brings such pain to our hearts and can do nothing. And in this state of humble grief, we can cherish each other as we could not otherwise. It is only against the dark background of death that we can glimpse the true brightness of our lives. And it is only in the night our suffering that we can deal justly before the face of the sun.

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  1. Spenser, Edmund, The Faerie Queene, Selected Poetry of Edmund Spenser ed. William Nelson, Modern Library, New York, p. 82

2. Anonymous, The Epic of Gilgamesh, N. K. Sandars trans. Penguin Classics, p. 32

3. ibid. p.33

4. ibid. p. 37

5. ibid. p.42

6. ibid. p.50

7. ibid. p.50

8. ibid. p.51

Death and the Epic of Gilgamesh: Copyright Jonathan Golding 2021. All Rights Reserved.

Artwork: Photo of the Gilgamesh Tablet. Public Domain

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