A Theme Of Death In The Epic Of Gilgamesh
Death is something most all people have experienced. Whether it be someone you were close to, or someone you hardly knew, strange emotions evoke. Being the diverse species we are as humans and knowing that death is a part of life, everyone has contrasting views about this melancholy concept. The narrative Gilgamesh explains this idea to the reader by following the protagonist on his journey to truly grasp the meaning of such a bitter subject.
Gilgamesh, written by anonymous and translated by Herbert Mason is speculated to have been constructed around 2000 BC in Mesopotamia, making it the oldest known work of world literature. Herbert Mason translated this epic so it could be extensively understood by the English-speaking community. The poem is about a king named Gilgamesh, who rules over a city called Uruk. He befriends Enkidu, who is represented as a symbol of nature and lived in harmony with the animals. Enkidu once had animal-like traits but later becomes human and accompanies Gilgamesh on a journey into the forest of Humbaba which ultimately kills him.
Gilgamesh’s view often fluctuates when it comes to the idea of death. Gilgamesh’s perspective on death evolves throughout the narrative and is shown in examples, such as when Gilgamesh is unaware of the fate of human-beings before meeting Enkidu. Furthermore, His opinion develops when Enkidu is killed due to Gilgamesh’s poor judgment. Finally, Gilgamesh’s viewpoint finalizes and when the snake devours the flower forcing him to accept the death as a part of live. To be human, according to the epic poem, means to understand the fatal flaw we as people are unable to overcome.
First of all, in the beginning of the poem, the author illustrates the idea that Gilgamesh is naive to the concept of the human condition, with death as one of the primary characteristics. Gilgamesh embarks on an arrogant and pointless quest, and decides to do so because of his lack of fear and absence of knowledge about death due to his stature. When travelling to the cedar forest on his irrational quest, he responds to Enkidu’s fear in a very cocky way because of Enkidu’s logical outlook on the situation. Mason builds on the suggestion of Gilgamesh’s fearlessness when he begins to write about Enkidu paralyzing his arm when touching the gate to the cedar forest, “ Would you want to stay behind because of that?… …Forget your fear of death. I will go before you and protect you… …Only gods are immortal anyways / Sighed Gilgamesh… …If I die / I will at least have the reward / Of having people say: He died in war / Against Humbaba”. The previous quote defends the idea that Gilgamesh has not personally experienced the passing of a loved one in his lifetime; therefore, he reinforces the opinion that death should not be feared. Gilgamesh also patronizes Enkidu when Gilgamesh says he can protect him, which leads the reader to contemplate Gilgamesh’s excessive pride which blinds him from the logical fear of dying. He believes, with the exception of the gods, everyone will succumb to their demise eventually, so why fear the inevitable?
The evidence also raises the sense that Gilgamesh is unable to fathom the meaning of death when he explains he will have the reward of people praising him for dying fighting a vicious beast. Bringing up his death in a nonchalant way reveals Gilgamesh’s absence of knowledge about his inevitable fate. Gilgamesh is unsophisticated when it comes to human death because of his blinding stature and sheltered lifestyle as king. This excessive pride and arrogance will get the best of him which will encourage him to change his perception of the concept of death. Furthermore, Gilgamesh’s developing view on death continues into his friendship with Enkidu. His relation with his friend enables his evolving understanding when Enkidu dies as a result of his senseless and irrational decisions, leaving him with the lasting impact and forcing him to experience the difficulties of death. Therefore, Gilgamesh’s opinion develops rapidly.
After Enkidu’s fateful demise, Gilgamesh is frustrated with the death of his beloved companion and begins to undergo the grieving process. He is angered by death because of human mortality and how arbitrary it seems. He is also angry at himself for going on such an unreasonable quest which as a result killed his friend. His anger later develops into sorrow which becomes so intense that Gilgamesh begin to change drastically along with his opinions. Mason alludes to this transformation in the poem when he writes, “All that is left to one who grieves / Is convalescence. No change of heart of spiritual / Conversion, for the heart has changed / And the soul has been converted / To a thing that sees / How much it costs to lose a friend it loved”. The previous quote advances Gilgamesh and his point of view remarkably. He learns that coping with death takes time which can change him as a person as well as his views, just like when Mason writes about the conversion of one’s soul and change of heart. His understanding of how easily an incoherent choice can affect human mortality beings to change his thought process. He realizes that life is fragile and more meaningful, more than he has ever imagined. As a result of Gilgamesh’s unreasonable decisions, he begins to realize that his actions can affect others negatively, which adds to his interpretation of death. For Gilgamesh to put his actions into consideration, he can further learn how it affects others. Contemplating his actions relates to his understanding about death so he can be more attentive and reasonable when it comes to risking something as delicate as human life.
Finally, Gilgamesh ultimately realizes that death is unavoidable and comes to terms with death in a bitter but happy ending. He gains the insight on the concept of death by learning immortality is unreachable. Gilgamesh reaches the end of the transformation of his opinion on the fateful demise of humans when he reaches the end of his journey to bring his friend Enkidu back to life. He goes on an elongated expedition when he finally reaches Utnapishtim. Utnapishtim’s name means “he who saw life,” and he has survived the great flood created by Ea. During the venture to Shurupak, Gilgamesh only has one thing on his mind: to bring Enkidu back to life. He is not yet aware of the entire meaning of the death, and believes he can revive a mortal. Utnapishtim tells him a secret about a flower that will grant new life, and Gilgamesh rushes to find it to once again rejoice with Enkidu. Mason supports this thought when he writes, “When he saw the plant of rise rose color and ambrosial / Simmering in the water like a prism / Of the sunlight, he seized it… …His naked body glistened and refreshed, / The plant was gone; the discarded skin / Of a serpent was all he saw, He sat / Down on the ground, and wept”.
When Mason writes about Gilgamesh seizing the plant in the previous quote, it shows his greed and desire for something extremely powerful, such as immortality. By quickly and forcibly grabbing it, in that moment he has forgotten all he has learned about accepting death and his personality explained at beginning of the epic is exposed. When Mason writes about his naked body and his sorrow after the flower is gone, it clarifies that he is vulnerable at that time and he is forced to learn and accept death purely with grief rather than anger or challenge. Gilgamesh masters knowledge on all aspects of death by personally experiencing it. But, most importantly, he gains a logical outlook after learning to accept death for what it is and no longer making a valiant effort to challenge it.
In conclusion, Gilgamesh’s opinion about death in The Epic of Gilgamesh goes through transformations throughout the poem. He starts out with insufficient knowledge, but as the narrative progresses, he experiences more which deepens his outlook on human mortality. This epic tells us, through the faults Gilgamesh undergoes, we must accept human mortality as a part of life, as the balance of nature would be destroyed if we were to overcome death. Although it takes Gilgamesh time to understand such a complex idea, by the end of the poem it leaves the reader with the lasting impression that life is fragile and shouldn’t be taken for granted.
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