Friday, January 14, 2011

Gilgamesh: Final Thoughts

This is the rest of my summary of the epic of Gilgamesh and my concluding thoughts.

Enkidu comes to Uruk, fights with Gilgamesh because the people of Uruk complain about how he sleeps with brides first on their wedding night. Gilgamesh wins the fight and then praises Enkidu. They both decide to fight Humbaba, guardian of the cedar forest, for whether they live or die in the battle with him, they will further their reputations. This metaphorical triplet describing Humbaba appeals to me:
"Humbaba’s roar is deluge, his mouth fire, and his breath death."
Gilgamesh encourages Enkidu to “fear nothing and forget death” as they enter the forest. They kill Humbaba. Then Ishtar tries to encourage Gilgamesh to become her husband by promising him all the riches he desires. Gilgamesh responds by telling her that she has had many lovers and her love for them died out quickly. This insults Ishtar and she flies up to her father Anu and cries. Then Ishtar gets Anu to make the Bull of Heaven so that he can kill Gilgamesh. Instead, Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill the Bull of Heaven. The gods decide that one of the heroes must die because they killed Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven. Gilgamesh dreams about a day of fate that is coming for Enkidu and tells this to him. So Gilgamesh prays to the gods for Enkidu. Enkidu curses the love-goddess who brought him out from the wilderness. Shamash hears him and tells Enkidu that all of the people of Uruk will weep for you and Gilgamesh will wear the signs of grief on his body. Enkidu is relieved and now blesses the love-goddess. Enkidu becomes very ill and is very near death when he tells Gilgamesh that he is sad that he wasn’t given a heroic death in battle. Enkidu dies and Gilgamesh is devastated. Every animal, river, and person weeps for Enkidu. Gilgamesh states his intention to see the sage Utnapishtim because he is very bitter and angry that he will have to die just like Enkidu. Gilgamesh arrives at the mountains that reach heaven and touch the underground. Here, Scorpion-people guard the comings and goings of the god Shamash. They ask Gilgamesh why he has come there. He responds that he has come to see Utnapishtim and to know death and life. Through a journey of darkness as Gilgamesh enters the gate and takes the road of Shamash, the sun, he arrives at the edge of the sea and encounters Siduri the barmaid. She asks him why he looks so pathetic and filled with sorrow. Gilgamesh tells her that he roams the wilderness because of Enkidu. “Not for that do I roam the wilderness in quest of a wind-puff. In fear of death I roam the wilderness.” She tells him the way to Utnapishtim and tells him, “After crossing this sea of water you will arrive at the waters of death and the boatman, Urshanbi, who has the “things of stone” and the “Urni-snakes,” can bring you across to Utnapishtim.” Gilgamesh arrives at Utnapishtim’s place and Utnapishtim tells him that there is an enormous gap between the divine and humanity. He tells Gilgamesh that there is no permanence, that sleep is a brother to death. Destiny decides the end of things – she decides life and death. But the time of death is hidden from us. Now Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh a secret of the gods. He tells him the story of the flood. This story is very similar to the story of Noah and his ark. And the story ends with the Utnapishtim and his wife becoming gods because they told some people that the flood was coming. Gilgamesh asks for eternal life like Utnapishtim. Utnapishtim instead gives him the symbols of life, such as clothing – “the robe of life.” Then he decides to give him something else – a plant that gives everlasting life. Gilgamesh, however, loses the plant to a snake. Gilgamesh finally arrives back in Uruk – to its strong, everlasting walls.

Gilgamesh learns the reality of life and death as all humanity must come to understand and accept. He desires everlasting life, but it is not possible. He learns that destiny decides our time of death and that humanity has no control over this. He will die just like Enkidu. This is a truth that is sad for everyone. However, as the last tablet of Gilgamesh emphasizes: it is very good to have sons, to die quickly, or to die in battle. But it is not good to die falling from the mast of a ship into nothingness, or to die in the wilderness alone. But the worst thing of all is to die unloved. There will be no one left to remember you or cry for you when you are gone. As Gardiner states, “Mainly what we know is that to die is a terrible thing, but to die without having truly lived – without having loved and left loved ones – is to be garbage surviving through eternity on garbage.” This is the truth revealed in the wonderful story of Gilgamesh.

1 comment:

  1. 'A well written summary. However, I would be cautious about drawing the main lessons of the epic from tablet twelve. Most scholars point out that this tablet displays no continuity with the main narrative (Enkidu is alive at the beginning of the tablet), and is simply copied directly from part of an older Sumerian Gilgamesh poem. It is clearly a "tacked on" addition to the epic proper.

    'Another minor point: Utnapishtim and his wife are never explicitly described as gods, although they are granted immortality "like the gods". The reason is not stated, but the context suggests that it is becuase they preserved "the seed of all living things" that would otherwise have been completely destroyed by the flood.