The Epic of Gilgamesh

November 26, 2011
Would an infinite life be better than a finite life? Many people throughout history have pondered such thoughts and, The Epic of Gilgamesh, by an anonymous author from ancient Mesopotamia, is a story that focuses on this idea of eternal life. Gilgamesh who is a powerful king in the city of Uruk is two thirds god and one third man and therefore mortal. The idea of death does not fully penetrate him until his best friend, Enkidu, dies. Enkidu is much like Gilgamesh in being both part god and part human. Enkidu’s death is what sparks Gilgamesh’s motivation to set out on a journey to find eternal life. At first Gilgamesh fears death because Enkidu died; his feelings change after his quest when Gilgamesh accepts death, and he realizes mortals are not meant to live forever.

Initially, the death of Enkidu causes Gilgamesh to spiral out of control and he is taken over by his fear of death. Just after Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh roams the wilderness in panic. He says to himself, “I am going to die! Am I not like Enkidu?! Deep sadness penetrates my core, I fear death…” This shows that he had never really comprehended the idea of himself dying as a reality. If he had, he would not be as surprised and scared by this news. Furthermore, his fear is strong that it impacts him in setting off on a quest for eternal life. After a journey of many days and nights Gilgamesh reaches his destination and pleads with the gate keepers to let him in, “I have come on account of my ancestor Utanapishtim, who joined the Assembly of the Gods, and was granted eternal life. About death and life I must ask him!” He was seeking the advice of a god who was once a mortal like himself. This journey displays his fear of death precipitated by Enkidu’s death, and his initial desire for eternal life.

Eventually, Gilgamesh’s quest for eternal life did not result in him being granted eternal life but rather a realization and acceptance of the fact that he would die. Utanapishtim tells Gilgamesh to stay awake for seven days as a test for his worthiness of eternal life. In order for Gilgamesh not to manipulate him, Utanapishtim tells his wife, “Mankind is deceptive, and will deceive you. Come, bake loaves for him and keep setting them by his head and draw on the wall each day that he lay down.” “ The first loaf was desiccated, the second stale, the third moist, the fourth turned white…” The slow disintegration of the loaves shows that Gilgamesh fell to sleep and was not able to fulfill the task. Since the tasks purpose was to determine if he could be granted eternal life, Gilgamesh had to accept that he would not get eternal life. Additionally, towards the end of his journey, Gilgamesh recognizes the good he had done which will never let him be forgotten: “Go up, onto the wall of Uruk and walk around. Examine its foundation, inspect its brickwork thoroughly, is not (even the core of) the brick structure of kiln fired brick, and did not the Seven sages themselves lay out its plan!” This quote expresses his satisfaction in doing something good for his city. He boasts of its greatness and how the wall will always be there to remind the people of his rule, even when he is no longer alive. Although Gilgamesh did not live forever, he discovered that he would never be forgotten.

Gilgamesh’s changing views on death were directly related to the events going on in his life. The death of his close friend, Enkidu, results in his fear of death and Gilgamesh wants to escape from it. Because of his journey for eternal life, Gilgamesh discovers the purpose and meaning of his life. Through The Epic of Gilgamesh, we see that eternal life is not all it is made out to be, and life may only be worth living with death looming overhead.





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