English 205: World Literature to 1500
February 11, 2019
Death is always an element of human concern from generations to generations, from Old World to Modern World. Everyone realizes exactly that no one could escape the reality of death, but that is still a big matter of many individuals. King Gilgamesh is named as a powerful king and considered “one-third human and two-third divine” as described in the Epic of Gilgamesh, but he is still afraid of his own death and tries to escape from it after his best friend Enkidu died. The following paper expresses how Gilgamesh views death before and after the death of Enkidu; How this view reveals the Mesopotamian society belief in the afterlife; And the lesson that Gilgamesh achieves about immortality after the failure of searching for it.
Gilgamesh appears as the strongest and wisest king who is half divine and half human so that he is not afraid of death. The power and the strength can make one become blind to one’s true personality. Gilgamesh falls into this trap and stays very confident of himself.
Of him, Gilgamesh, who underwent many hardships.
Surpassing all kings, for his stature renowned,
Heroic offspring of Uruk, a changing wild bull,
He leads the way in the vanguard,
He marches at the rear, defender of his comrades.
Mighty floodwall, protector of his troops,
Furious flood-wave smashing walls of stone,
Wild calf of Lugalbanda, Gilgamesh is perfect in strength, (Tablet I, 30-35, P.94)
This stanza describes what a powerful king that Gilgamesh possesses during his reign. He is viewed as a hero and a lordly appearance. His standards make him becomes the personification of all human virtues: “surpassing all kings, his stature renowned, heroic offspring of Uruk, a changing wild bull, defender of his comrades, a wild calf of Lugalbanda, and perfect.” With that outward appearance, Gilgamesh is so bravely in facing the idea of death as he says to Enkidu when Enkidu talks about fighting Humbaba:
People’s days are numbered,
Whatever they attempt is a puff of air.
Here you are, even you, afraid of death. (Tablet II, 175-180, P. 105)
When Gilgamesh is confident in his prosperity and power, he surely does not think of any failure or bad things happening to him. Perhaps he thinks he can live with these thoughts forever therefore he dismisses any idea that prevents his being a powerful and good king. In fact, this consideration happens in the life of every single person who especially lives a peaceful and prosperous life. That one never thinks that he or she one day would leave the world with an empty hand. King Gilgamesh embodies those who enjoys the life without care even accepts death as part of life.
The death of Enkidu really makes Gilgamesh awaken and scares him about the similar situation that he has to take later. Gilgamesh has been so proud of himself and how great he is as a king, but once he witnesses the death of Enkidu who is close to him, Gilgamesh opens his eyes about what death really is. Perhaps, before the death of Enkidu, Gilgamesh thinks it is common because he never experienced a close friend dying. When Gilgamesh experiences how death looks like, he begins to ponder on it as he says:
Shall I not die too? Am I not like Enkidu?
Oh woe has entered my vitals!
I have grown afraid of death, so I roam the steppe.
Having come this far, I will go on swiftly
Towards Utanapishtim, son of Ubar-Tutu.
I have reached mountain passes at night.
I saw lions, I felt afraid,
I look up to pray to the moon,
To the moon, beacon of the gods, my prayers went forth:
“Keep me safe!” (Tablet VIII, 5-10, P. 128)
Gilgamesh is now awakened and concerns about his coming life. This awareness somewhat teaches Gilgamesh a significant lesson about living life. Gilgamesh is considered a great king, a hero, but in his own eyes, he might not see the reality. That is the reason why he is so confused and disoriented by the death of his good friend. This is not only because he loves his friend a lot, but he also worries selflessly for himself.
Because the tragic news was so shocking, Gilgamesh is totally haunted by death everywhere.
“What then should I do, Utanapishtim, whither should I go,
Now that the Bereaver has seized my flesh?
Death lurks in my bedchamber,
And whenever I turn, there is death.” (Tablet XI, 245, P.143)
The fear turns Gilgamesh into a different person who is used to undergo many hardships, surpasses all kings, protects his troops, and be a wild calf of Lugalbanda. The power of death can knock down the power of a hero who has been disregarded for the mortality. Surely, he also does not eat well and sleep peacefully because of that fear. This awareness reveals how the Mesopotamian people views about the afterlife.
The Mesopotamian people believe that death is not the end, but there is another life after death and the soul lives there forever. According to the Descent of Ishtar to the Underworld, the afterlife is described as a land which no return, one way only, and darkness. Those who enter that place have dust as their food and their bread is clay. People suppose physical death is not the end, but continue to another part of life.
To Kurnugi, land of [no return],
Ishtar daughter of Sin was [determined] to go;
The daughter of Sin was determined to go
To the dark house, dwelling of Erkalla’s god,
To the house which those who enter cannot leave,
On the road where travelling is one-way only,
To the house where those who enter are deprived of light,
Where dust is their food, clay their bread
They see no light, they dwell in darkness,
They clothed like birds, with feathers. (The Descent of Ishtar to the Underworld)
The given background offers to the dead fear and hopelessness. It is described in pretty lurid terms what happens in the underworld where one goes there without returning back.
The Enkidu’s death makes Gilgamesh thinks deeply about the reality of the netherworld and imagines that he has to live in the darkness and eats dust and clay. This makes him sinks into the most despair in his life. Haunted by death and attempts to avoid it, Gilgamesh clarifies the portraits of an ancient culture of how it views the afterlife. That is the reason why Gilgamesh goes and searches for an immortal life. The belief of death for the ancient people is also the belief of everyone in every age. It still affects the mind of individuals who are living in the modern world.
The desire of looking for immortality is a big lesson for Gilgamesh and the need to appreciate his life as it is in the presence. Tablet XI describes how excited Gilgamesh is when he comes back to Uruk and sees the beauty of it even though he has not discovered immortality. He realizes that he has forgotten the beauty of the city he has built.
“Go up, Ur-Shanabi, pace out the walls of Uruk.
Study the foundation terrace and examine the brickwork.
Is not its masonry of kiln-fired brick?
And did not seven masters lay its foundations?
One square mile of city, one square mile of gardens,
One square mile of clay pits, a half square mile of Ishtar’s dwelling,
Three and a half square miles is the measure of Uruk!” (Tablet XI, 330, P. 145)
Gilgamesh rushes to find the impossibility so he almost looses what he is holding which brings him the real happiness. He has found a new understanding for the beauty, the sturdiness, and the manifestation of the walled city as his eternal desire. Instead of trying to obtain the eternal life for himself selfishly, Gilgamesh generously realizes that the destiny of his life is to rule wisely as a king who will not try hard to attain the impossible immortality. The lesson of Gilgamesh is also a lesson for everyone who is still living in the world. Attempting to live a fulfilled moment in the presence and seeing the beauty of it is the way to achieve eternal life.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is the answer for the concern of death for everyone in every age. Gilgamesh is confident at first about death and has no concern about it because of his powerful achievements. For him, death is general and everyone has to experience it, but when he witnesses the real death of his friend Enkidu, his perspective is changed thoroughly. The idea of death is a burden for him and he put strong effort into looking for the immortality, but he failed. Giving up the desire for achieving eternal life, he comes back to his city Uruk and recovers his perspective. Gilgamesh learns the big lesson for his life that living is fulfilled in the present time and with a deep understanding of this helps him be a good king and great hero.
Puchner, Martin. The Norton Anthology. World Literature Volume A. Print 2018