The Epic of Gilgamesh

The epic of Gilgamesh is the story of  a Sumerian king who ruled between 3000 to 2500 B.C. during the first dynasty of Uruk near the river Euphrates. Gilgamesh is two thirds God and one part man, a king so unpopular with his subjects that they send up a lament to the Gods to bring them relief from Gilgamesh (Anthology 10-41). The answer to the prayer is Enkidu,  the reflection or second self of Gilgamesh – sent into the world so that the two could “contend together and leave Uruk in quiet” (Sanders 62). Through the events of Enkidu’s life, Gilgamesh is initiated into his journey of self knowledge, which accentuates after the death of his beloved friend.

What is self knowledge? We receive our first inkling of  the nature of man through the character of Enkidu, who knows “nothing of cultivated land”;  living in wild abandon with the beasts, “innocent of mankind” (Sanders 63). When Enkidu is initiated into the joys of love with a woman, “wisdom was in him and the thoughts of a man were in his heart” (Sanders 64). Yet, an increase in wisdom and civilization are shown to have eroded Enkidu’s great strength; “Enkidu was grown weak.”  (Sanders 64).  The strength inherent in Enkidu’s wild innocence has weakened because he has yielded to the pleasures of the flesh, on his road into so-called civilization, even as he has gained wisdom. This provides the indication that wisdom comes at a price, men treasure her for the self knowledge she brings. The loss of sexual purity has weakened Enkidu  and  his innocence is gone, but as a result, he finds his friend Gilgamesh.

Enkidu’s death brings home the knowledge to Gilgamesh that he is also one third mortal, therefore in spite of all his strength, he will also die some day; “What my brother is now, that shall I be” (Sanders 97).  He has lost the one person in the world who is most precious to him and this brings the knowledge that “misery comes at last to the healthy man, the end of life is sorrow” (Sanders 93). Thus, with the beginning of self knowledge and wisdom comes the knowledge that being mortals, we will all die some day.

Tormented by the fear of death, Gilgamesh sets out on his journey to search for everlasting life, and his journey is like a symbolic representation of life itself – as we age and gain more wisdom and knowledge, we are also more intimately acquainted with grief; “[W]hy should not my cheeks be starved and my face drawn? ….. Enkidu my brother, whom I loved, the end of mortality has overtaken him” (Sanders 101).  Gilgamesh’s meeting with Siduri lets us know that man’s death is not in his own hands, but in the hands of his maker (Sanders 102). In spite of Gilgamesh’s persistent efforts to find everlasting life and after his meeting with Utnaphastim – the one man who is eternal – Gilgamesh has to face the fact that self knowledge must also encompass the knowledge of man’s purpose in life and the fact that “there is no permanence” to life. (Sanders 106).

Gilgamesh’s mortality is forever established when Utnaphastim attempts to reveal the mystery from the Gods about the underwater plant that gives eternal life. But as the serpent snatches it away, Gilgamesh grows further in knowledge that the serpent is “the lord of the tree of life” (Sanders 119), thereby indicating that man being mortal, cannot become eternal. The serpent  also provides the indication that it is sin that keeps us from eternal life and draws away our strength and vitality, even as embodied in Enkidu’s lust with the harlot.

Yet, in the serpent shedding its skin before disappearing into the well, there is the message of regeneration, renewal and revival. This brings complete self knowledge to Gilgamesh – that while he himself cannot live on, his soul will live on through his seed and his ability, which will be passed on to other men of other generations, forever renewing and reviving itself so that life continues on for ever, in the bodies of different individuals.

From the above, it may therefore be seen that the search for self knowledge begins when man starts to gain wisdom and seeks to know himself better. The incident I have highlighted has to do with Enkidu gaining wisdom yet losing his strength when he becomes weak. This means that there is strength in innocence, perhaps this is why children are morally the strongest people of all. This incident also highlights the fact that when a man has sexual relations with a woman, he tends to lose his purity of thought and his concentration upon spiritual matters. Therefore when Enkidu lived with the animals, he was simple and one with nature, but when he slept with the harlot, he was brought into the community of man, full of worries and tensions, weakened by the body of a woman. Many religions, especially eastern religions, preach abstinence for sages and priests because women are said to be a distraction from one’s concentration on God. In the modern times also, abstinence is good because sexual relations are still weakening for a man – or even for a woman – if the partner has a sexual disease, then one can get AIDS. Therefore, this [particular incident is quite significant, not only in those days but even now.

The other major incident I have highlighted is when Utnaphistim tries to give Gilgamesh the plant of life, so that he can eat it and become eternal. But the plant is snatched away by the serpent. This is similar to the biblical story, where God tried to give eternal life to Adam and Eve, but the serpent stole it away by making them turn to sin. This means that sin is the block that keeps man from having eternal life, it is only when he is pure and free from sin that he can hope to have eternal life. This is when Gilgamesh attains complete self knowledge. He realizes that he is only a man and cannot become eternal. The message of hope comes through in the snake regenerating itself by shedding its skin. This is a symbolic way of showing how death may take place but that does not end life itself. An old person is like the old skin which must be shed and fade away but he has children and they remain alive, carrying his spirit forward always. Therefore a man remains eternal, he lives through his children even if his own body grows old and dies. This is particularly relevant in modern times, because most people are afraid of death and feel that it is something frightening. But it is merely closing out on one life – shedding a skin. Life itself will not end, it will be carried forward.

Also in the modern day, we can see the wages of sin or the bad effects of man’s sinful life. There are hurricanes and terrorist attacks and lack of peace in the world. The eternal life that God wanted to give us has been snatched away by the serpent because man still clings to sin and denies himself eternal life and therefore, he is visited with tribulations and difficulties which are a natural consequence of a sinful life.

                                                           Works cited:

*     “The Norton Anthology of World Literature, 2nd edition, Volume A: Gilgamesh, pp 10-41

*       Sanders, N.K., The Epic of Gilgamesh ,(an English translation with introduction), 1964.

London:  Penguin Books

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