Oct 21, 2019 in Literature
The Epic of Gilgamesh

The Epic of Gilgamesh refers to the Mesopotamia narrations and starts with the Sumerian poems about the famous king of Uruk Gilgamesh. The story is split into two parts. The first one discusses the friendship between the king and Enkidu, a wild man who was created by the Divine power to distract Gilgamesh from the oppressive influence of his people. In their journey to the Cedar Mountain, Enkidu is sentenced to death by the gods because of the murder he and Gilgamesh committed by depriving the Bull of Heaven of life. As soon as Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh sets out a journey in the pursuit of eternal life, but he is challenged by the answers he finds in terms of the purpose of life and death. In this respect, the concept of death becomes the central theme of discussion because of the inevitability of moral life. Therefore, Gilgamesh fears death not because he is afraid of leaving the mortal life, but because this part of life will not be enough for enduring it with meaningfulness and sense. Therefore, the quality of time he spent being alive matters to him more than the actual lifespan.

Death is a logical outcome of human life and therefore, it becomes the greatest lesson for Gilgamesh in his constant quest for eternal life. The hero is frustrated that only gods can reach immortality. This recognition allows him to get the maximum benefit from his life because fame is the only thing that lasts forever. In contrast to Gilgamesh’s first journey to the Cedar Forest that was set out regardless of death, the second quest to Utnapishtim reveals a way of escaping from death. Therefore, the second journey identifies the inevitable connection of death with the fabric of creation because humanity continues to live despite humans’ death. In the book, the author provides a metaphorical representation of death through Gilgamesh’s fight with Humbaba: “Humbaba, his voice is the Deluge. ‘His speech is fire, his breath is death’”. Thus, the lines do not only render Humbaba’s omnipotence but also describe the overwhelming fear that Gilgamesh experiences in his adventures. They reveal Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s psychological state of being confronted with their fears.

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Gilgamesh deplores Enkidu’s death and is afraid that his own life is not enough for leaving memories about his personality. In the quest of immortality, the hero starts arguing with Shamash concerning the futility of his journey. His willingness to meet Utnapishtim is discouraged by Siduri who strives to dissuade the king in his attempt to reach immortality. In the epic, the author states, “…life that you seek you never will find: when the gods created mankind, death they dispensed to mankind, the life they kept for…life took place…creation”. Hence, Gilgamesh is incapable of understanding the simple pleasures of life because of his extreme fear of death. What is more important, the friend’s death has motivated the king to continue his searches and develop new routes to understanding how these searches can help him realize the sense of life.

Gilgamesh’s encounter with Utanapushtim, the ancient man who survived after surpassing the Land of Night and the Great Flood, makes him rethink the very purpose of his journey. Utanapishtim reveals to the protagonist the story about god Ea who warned him about the deluge. The ancient man then explains Gilgamesh that eternal life can be achieved if he manages not to sleep in the course of six days. However, Gilgamesh fails, which brings the king back to Uruk. In this respect, it can be concluded that Gilgamesh is afraid of death because of the impossibility to prove that he deserves to live a long and famous life. Although the protagonist failed in his attempt to reach immortality, the epic still focuses on the eternal struggle of humans for a sense of life and meaningful existence. Certainly, Gilgamesh is afraid of death, but his true journey is confined to the constant search for understanding and life.

While considering the very essence of fear of death, it is necessary to refer to the firm connection between existential exhortation and mortality salience. Specifically, Utnapishtim strives to portray the king and his all-too-human fame that cut off the trappings of animal vitality in which Gilgamesh has embodied himself. In the story, the hero declares “Let him cast off his skins/ The sea bear them away!/ His body shall again show beautiful”. Thus, Gilgamesh continues his search for death transcendence so that he had never given up the symbols of arrogance. Nonetheless, the king of Uruk still fails to realize the ramifications of the tragic existence of life.

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Although the first signs of fear of death come out when Gilgamesh witnesses his friend’s death, his further search focuses on learning the reasons and origins of the death. Discovering the way to immortality, however, does not allow the hero to reconcile with his fears because of the impossibility to reach the desired goals. So, his fear of death becomes evident when Gilgamesh arrives at the seashore. The tavern-keeper warns him about the dangers of crossing the ocean because no one has managed to reach the other side yet. The hero is also informed that “the crossing is perilous, it's way full of hazard, and midway lie the Waters of Death, blocking the passage forward”. Therefore, the crossing symbolizes the boundary between the accepted and the forbidden, between life and death. However, Gilgamesh ignores the peril because his fear of death exceeds the danger of the adventures.

Gilgamesh’s extreme devotion to religion is also explained by his fear of death because Christianity gives him hope for life after death. As a result of these assumptions, Gilgamesh is in despair because he cannot find peace and reconciliation in this life. The constant but failed attempts to reach immortality make the hero even more afraid of death. Specifically, he asks, “How can I rest, how can I be at peace?”. Hence, the very idea of immortality prevents Gigamesh from understanding the essence of life. At the end of the story, the king of Uruk still manages to realize that the lifespan is necessary to understand his own identity and purpose in life.

 

In conclusion, The Epic of Gilgamesh demonstrates that the hero fears death because he is willing to achieve immortality and eternal life. However, these purposes conceal veritable goals. In particular, Gilgamesh has realized that he is more concerned with the possibility to achieve fame and reconciliation in this life than pass through the crossing and reach the peaceful existence afterlife. Death, therefore, is not the objective of Gilgamesh’s search. Rather, the hero is more concerned with the possibility of achieving immortality as well as searching for new means of reconciliation and recognition. Further, the constant quest for eternal life is also explained by the religious motifs pursued by Gilgamesh. Specifically, connection to Christianity and religion is another attempt to prove that life after death exists.

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