Death and Immortality in the Epic of Gilgamesh
Death and Immortality in the Epic of Gilgamesh
Death is a common factor that will affect everyone, no matter race, religion or culture. Death will always hold a powerful place in the human condition, and everyone will eventually experience it. Many have sought after immortality in both myth and actual existence. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu go through the cycle of accepting death through each tablet. Gilgamesh starts by acknowledging death but he does not apply it to his own life. After losing Enkidu, Gilgamesh is plagued by the idea and faced with a firsthand experience. He searches for immortality in denial of death. Throughout his journey he finally realizes that he much accept death and become the person he wants to be in his remaining life. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh goes through the cycle of acknowledging, experiencing, denial, and finally acceptance of death.
Gilgamesh is a young demigod who believes he can do anything he pleases. He fears no consequences and does not dwell on death, he may believe that he can live forever, as young and naïve people do. He meets Enkidu and after becoming friends they set out on a journey to kill Humbaba the Terrible. In the forest Gilgamesh becomes worried about the upcoming battle and begins to think about death. He is facing one of the first actual life and death situations and questions his mortality. Enkidu wants to turn back, but Gilgamesh convinces him that they will stand strong together. The text states “My friend, you who are so experienced in battle, who … fighting, you … and (need) not fear death.”(The Epic of Gilgamesh). Gilgamesh tells Enkidu that he mustn’t fear death; he believes that battle will preserve their lives through fame. The two warriors realize that life is short, and the only thing that will last is fame.
After slaying Humbaba, Gilgamesh and Enkidu anger Ishtar. Gilgamesh denies her marriage proposal, and in her spite she sends a bull to kill Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh defeats the bull, but Ishtar takes her anger out on Enkidu. Gilgamesh is forced to watch his friend die a slow and painful death. At this point in Gilgamesh’s life he must face the reality of death. Enkidu dies unhappily and upset that he is not dying in battle. Enkidu tells Gilgamesh, “My friend hates me… (once), while he talked with me in Uruk, as I was afraid of the battle (with Humbaba), he encouraged me, My friend who saved me in battle has now abandoned me! I and you …”(The Epic of Gilgamesh). Enkidu accuses Gilgamesh of abandoning him, and is grief stricken that he is dying without a battle. When Enkidu dies he takes a chunk of Gilgamesh with him. Gilgamesh, now broken and alone, must contemplate his own death. He is bitter that the Gods can live forever and rejects the fact that all mortals must die. To escape from death he sets out on a journey to find immortality.
Denial of death guides Gilgamesh on the search for immortality. He is so distraught that he seeks out Utnapishtim, in hopes of learning the secret of immortality. The text displays his grieving state of self-existence, “My friend whom I love has turned to clay. Am I not like him? Will I lie down, never to get up again?”(The Epic of Gilgamesh), Gilgamesh cannot accept that he will meet the same fate as Enkidu. After a long journey Gilgamesh finally meets Utnapishtim and is told the story of the flood. Utnapishtim explains that the Gods have intentionally made life short. He tells Gilgamesh that the quest for immortality is futile and he must learn that death is inescapable. Utnapishtim teaches him that life is measured by the quality of time one spends while alive and the people they surround themselves with, not just fame and fortune. Utnapishtim’s sleeping test proves that sleep is a factor of death, but it is also a need that is fundamental to the body. Gilgamesh has a body, and is unable to pass the test. Gilgamesh finally realizes that he must accept death and become the person he wants to be in his remaining life. Gilgamesh is given a plant of immortality, but it is carried off by a snake. It is then that he realizes his search is hallowed and he cannot become immortal. He accepts death and choses to life his life for today and not for the daunting presence of death. In the final tablet Gilgamesh is reunited briefly with Enkidu. When Gilgamesh asks about the underworld Enkidu states that the richer life is in Gilgamesh’s world. The richer, (in children, friends and reputation), you are in this life; the better off you will be in the afterlife.
Throughout his journey of life Gilgamesh comes to realize many things about death. Through his experiences he learns lessons and in the end it changes who he is as a person. Gilgamesh has many realizations about death, and finally learns to accept it as an inevitable state. Ultimately there is no happy ending for Gilgamesh as he learns that the afterlife is worse than life on earth. However he has changed and matured from his experiences. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh goes through the cycle of recognizing, experiencing, rejection, and finally acceptance of death.
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