In many ways, The Epic of Gilgamesh is a story of a king’s struggle to understand and overcome death. It does not start out this way, however. Gilgamesh first comes across as an arrogant, narcissistic king. In Tablet I of The Epic of Gilgamesh, he is described as “supreme over other kings, lordly in appearance,” and even “awesome in appearance.” Gilgamesh is only one-third a man, the other two-thirds god. He is the “handsomest of men … perfect” (Tablet I). His tales of strength are renown far and wide. He is most famous for building the high walls and ziggurats of his city Uruk. He is not a good man, taking advantage of droit du seigneur, also known as jus prima noctis, or the supposed right of kings to sleep with the bride before the groom. In fact, he is so bad, the gods create a foil for him: Enkidu. Enkidu is very bestial and wild, in direct opposition to Gilgamesh’s worldliness. They fight, but then become the best of friends. They might even be homosexual lovers, depending on how one reads the subtext.
Eventually Gilgamesh and Enkidu set out on a heroic quest—a similar enough motif found throughout the great epics of history. They are heading out to fight the great god Humbaba, and Enkidu is worried that they might be killed. “Enlil assigned (Humbaba) as a terror to human beings,” Enkidu tells Gilgamesh in Kovacs’s translation of Tablet II of the epic. He goes on:
Humbaba’s roar is a Flood, his mouth is Fire, and his breath is Death!
He can hear 100 leagues away any rustling(?) in his forest!
Who would go down into his forest!
Enlil assigned him as a terror to human beings,
and whoever goes down into his forest paralysis(?) will strike!
Here is where we see Gilgamesh’s original take on death. He says that all men are destined to die anyway, so they might as well do what they can now, and possibly leave a great legacy. Gilgamesh tells Enkidu:
“Who, my Friend, can ascend to the heavens!”
(Only) the gods can dwell forever with Shamash.
As for human beings, their days are numbered,
and whatever they keep trying to achieve is but wind!
A more modern translation of Gilgamesh’s original view of death makes the situation easier to understand: “We all die anyway, so I might as well accomplish great, risky deeds, and make a name for myself. That way, my fame will live on after I’m dead—even if I have a short life” (Shmoop). At this early point in the epic, Gilgamesh has no fear of death. He figures we all die someday, so it would be better to risk it all in pursuit of glory and possibly die during a heroic mission.
After killing Humbaba, Enkidu falls ill and dies. Ironically, Enkidu did not die a glorious, heroic death during their quest to fell Humbaba. Enkidu’s death is the climax of the epic. Before his death, things are all good. Gilgamesh and Enkidu are mighty demigods, gallivanting through the forest on their epic quests in pursuit of glory. After Enkidu’s death, everything changes.
His lover/friend’s pitiful death changes Gilgamesh in a profound way. He mourns for a week. Tablet VIII is entirely dedicated to detailing Gilgamesh’s anguish. Gilgamesh calls for everyone and everything—the roads, the forest, the Euphrates River, the farmer, the herder, the harlot, and on and on—to mourn Enkidu’s death. Gilgamesh then, “Covered his friend’s face like a bride … he keeps pacing to and fro. He shears off his curls and heaps them onto the ground, ripping off his finery and casting it away as an abomination” (Tablet VIII).
Gilgamesh is very upset by his Enkidu’s death. So, rather than do something silly like try and revive Enkidu, Gilgamesh, being the narcissistic king that he is, applies this newfound fear of death to himself and sets out to do the next most silly thing: conquer death. In order to do that, Gilgamesh goes on the second great quest of this epic, to find the one man he knows of who has concurred death, Utnapishtim.
Gilgamesh travels for 12 days through the total barren darkness of a mountain to find Utnapishtim. After his perilous journey, which includes crossing the Waters of Death using somewhere between 60 and 300 poles Gilgamesh had made from trees and even using his shirt as a sail, Gilgamesh finally meets up with Utnapishtim, the immortal who was once a man. Gilgamesh tells Utnapishtim about his new obsession with overcoming death. “The old man asks Gilgamesh why he grieves about mortality—nothing lives forever” (SparkNotes, Tablet X). Utnapishtim, in his wisdom, is reminding Gilgamesh what he already knew, back in Tablet II when he told Enkidu, “We all die anyway”.
Still, Gilgamesh is determined to know Utnapishtim’s secret, how he cheated death. Utnapishtim then goes on to tell his story, which is surprisingly similar to the Biblical account of Noah and the Great Flood. The meta-story of the actual discovery of this part of Tablet XI is interesting by itself. In 1872, when the scholar George Smith translated the part of The Epic of Gilgamesh which relates the story of Utnapishtim’s flood, he is said to have “become so animated that, mute with excitement, he began to tear his clothes off” (Cregan-Reid).
This story of Smith’s stripping is neither here nor there, much like the story Utnapishtim relates to Gilgamesh. What does this Great Flood have to do with achieving immortality? Not much, except to point out to Gilgamesh that Utnapishtim was an exception to the rule. Utnapishtim was gifted immortality by the god Enlil because he was the last surviving human after the Great Flood; but Utnapishtim and his family were the only ones to ever receive that gift of immortality from Enlil.
Still, Utnapishtim teases Gilgamesh with immortality. He tells Gilgamesh that if he can go a week without sleep, he will grant him victory over death. Upon hearing this, Gilgamesh immediately falls asleep! Rather than last a week without sleep, Gilgamesh instead sleeps for an entire week!
Utnapishtim’s wife has mercy on Gilgamesh. He came all this way to see them, so she convinces her husband to not let Gilgamesh leave empty-handed. So, Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh of a secret plant called, literally, “How-the-Old-Man-Once-Again-Becomes-a-Young-Man”. Gilgamesh gets the plant, but then a snake steals it from him.
Gilgamesh learns he cannot conquer death and is forced to come to peace with that, because what else could he do but accept the fact? After hearing that he cannot become immortal in the way that Utnapishtim did, Gilgamesh is teased with the idea of immortality, if only he can conquer death’s cousin—sleep—for merely a week. Instead, Gilgamesh sleeps for a week, most likely due to exhaustion from his travelling for 12 days through the dark mountain and then paddling across the Waters of Death with all those oars he made from trees. Gilgamesh is close to learning his lesson of accepting his own mortality here.
Then, Gilgamesh is teased again with the idea of immortality in the form of the secret plant. He grabs the plant; but, instead of immediately eating it, he decides to hang on to it and take it back to his people. Some might say this was mighty benevolent of Gilgamesh, with him selflessly wanting his own elder people to benefit from the plant first. Another interpretation might be that Gilgamesh, with his great fear of death and the unknown, decided to test the plant out on his elder people first, to ensure that there were no adverse side-effects. Regardless, this second opportunity at immortality is snatched away from Gilgamesh by the snake. After weeping at his great loss, Gilgamesh seems to finally come to terms with his own mortality. Tablet XI ends with Gilgamesh returning to his great walled city of Uruk and appreciating all the great things he has already accomplished in his life.
Some versions of The Epic of Gilgamesh have a twelfth tablet containing with a somewhat misplaced poem, but one that loops us back around full circle to Gilgamesh’s original view on life and death. It takes us back to a time before Enkidu died. Enkidu travels to the Underworld and returns after some hardships. Gilgamesh asks Enkidu what the Underworld is like. “Enkidu says that the more sons you have in this world, the better it goes in the other world. The man who has seven sons lives like a god. The dead who are the worst off are those who left no mourners behind” (SparkNotes, “Tablets XI and XII (page 3)”. Enkidu, as well as the reader, thus learns the truth of what Gilgamesh told him back in Tablet II, “We all die anyway, so I might as well accomplish great, risky deeds, and make a name for myself. That way, my fame will live on after I’m dead—even if I have a short life”.
Cregan-Reid, Vybarr. “The Tragic Tale of George Smith and Gilgamesh.” The Telegraph. Web. 18 Oct. 2015.
“The Epic of Gilgamesh Theme of Death.” Shmoop. Web. 18 Oct. 2015.
“The Epic of Gilgamesh.” SparkNotes. Web. 18 Oct 2015.
The Epic of Gilgamesh. Trans. Kovacs, Maureen. Ancient Texts. Wolf Carnahan, 1998. Web. 18 Oct. 2015