Cheating Death from the Beginning: On “The Epic of Gilgamesh”
Every living thing on Earth dies. It might seem trivial to make such a remark, but individuals do not readily accept death as a part of life. For decades, many have struggled with the abstract idea that one day they too will die. As Leo Tolstoy wrote in “ The Death of Ivan Ilych,” “…Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal — had seemed to him all his life correct only as regards Caius, but not at all as regards himself” (Tolstoy 121). Simply put, human beings acknowledge the fact of death in others but do not accept death as their own fate.
For this reason, generations of writers, poets, and philosophers have struggled to find some meaning to a life that only ends in death. One of the first documented attempts to dissect the true meaning of life comes from The Epic of Gilgamesh. This Sumerian tale takes the reader on the formidable Gilgamesh’s journey with his best friend, Enkidu. These heroic men defeat horrific monsters and encounter mythical gods on their quest for immortality. Unfortunately, Gilgamesh and Enkidu do not find eternal life. However, the pair discovers that they need to embrace wisdom, change, and death to understand life's true meaning.
The first stop on this journey emphasizes the importance of wisdom. When the reader first encounters Enkidu, he lives in the forest amongst the wild animals. As the narrator points out, “He was innocent of mankind; he knew nothing of the cultivated land” (Sanders 63). The wants and desires inherent to man did not hold much weight with Enkidu until he met the harlot. Afterward, he became aware of a life quite different than his own. As the harlot explains to Enkidu after they spent a week together, “You are wise, Enkidu, and now you have become like a god…” (Sanders 64). Enkidu did become a civilized man, but later, he regrets this wisdom on his deathbed. He regrets losing his connection with nature and believes that he would not face death without the wisdom he gained. As he proclaims, “…O, if I had known the conclusion! If I had known that this was all the good that would come of it…” (Sanders 76). He then curses the harlot for bestowing him with knowledge. However, the Sun God responds to Enkidu’s cries with a bit of reasoning. The God argues that the harlot introduced Enkidu to Gilgamesh, who gave him the companionship that rendered a satisfying life (Sanders 77). In short, the ignorance Enkidu momentarily yearns for would fail to compare to the actual life he lived with Gilgamesh. This revelation leads to Enkidu embracing his life, as well as his inevitable death. Wisdom brought change to Enkidu’s life, but change also made his life worth living.
Moreover, change acts as the driving force of life. After Enkidu’s death, Gilgamesh decides to find the key to immortality since he cannot bear the thought of dying himself. Accordingly, Gilgamesh decides to visit Utnapishtim because the gods granted this mortal eternal life. However, Utnapishtim does not necessarily give Gilgamesh what he expected. Instead, the great man reveals to Gilgamesh that “There is no permanence…From the days of old, there is no permanence” (Sanders 85). In other words, all things in life will change. This idea of destruction and rebirth dates back to the ancient flood stories. Utnapishtim recounts a tale of a great flood to Gilgamesh during their interaction. In this tale, the people of Shurrupak needed to change their ways to improve their lives. This story emphasizes to Gilgamesh the importance of change. He needs to accept that life constantly regenerates, much like the snake that “sloughed its skin and returned to the well” (Sanders 90). The world needs to evolve to survive. Individuals need to adapt to thrive. Nothing can last forever, not even the mighty Gilgamesh. Even he must accept his place on the carousel of life and death.
Gilgamesh, however, struggles to acknowledge his imminent demise. As stated earlier, the death of Enkidu had a profound influence on Gilgamesh. It sent him on a quest to capture immortality. As he explains to the mystical vintner, Siduri, “Because of my brother I am afraid of death, because of my brother I stray through the wilderness and cannot rest” (Sanders 83). He pleads with her to escape his fate, but Siduri only offers him a speck of wisdom. As she replies, “When the gods created man, they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping” (Sanders 83). Although Gilgamesh has divine blood within him, he still must face death like every other man. However, life has many elements that make it fulfilling. Death does not define life; it only comes at the end of life. The accomplishments and bonds formed during life ultimately separate the true immortals from the mortals. At the end of his journey, Gilgamesh realizes he can only achieve immortality through the written word. In response, upon his return, Gilgamesh “engraved on a stone tablet the whole story” (Sanders 90). This way, future generations will know his heroic tale after he dies. They will learn from his awe-inspiring struggles, consequently keeping him alive by retelling his story. Therefore, Gilgamesh achieves immortality, but only as a result of his extraordinary life.
Overall, The Epic of Gilgamesh reinforces the significance of wisdom, change, and death. This ancient tale has endured for over four thousand years because these themes withstand the test of time. Gilgamesh’s quest to find purpose in life, his dream of immortality, and his friendship with Enkidu make him a somewhat tangible character for any audience. The reader sympathizes with his struggles because they can relate to these emotions themselves. Therefore Gilgamesh’s story lives on, even though his body has transformed into dust.
Sanders, N. K. “The Epic of Gilgamesh.” The Bedford Anthology of World Literature. Vol. 1. Boston: Bedford/ St.Martin’s, 2004. 62–91.
Tolstoy, Leo. The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories. New York, NY: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2004.