The “Epic of Gilgamesh” is arguably the oldest known and surviving literary piece of work in the world of literature. It is believed that the poem is based on real historical events and the life of a demi god-king of Uruk, famously known as Gilgamesh. “The Epic of Gilgamesh” portrays both historical and religious aspects of ancient Mesopotamia. The poem is a narration of the adventures and exploits of Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu in ancient Sumerian. The epic takes its audience through a sensational journey of the ruler, transformation, and his yearning for immortality. One of the most prominent themes in the poem is death, in which relatable aspects from ancient times and modern society are evident.
The poem portrays Gilgamesh and Enkidu as the strongest and the most powerful men in Uruk whose destinies and life purpose are influenced by the Mesopotamian gods. However, Gilgamesh is regarded as a god, an attribute that evoked immense fear amongst the Uruk people. Despite his godlike features, including physical composition and wisdom, Gilgamesh began his reign in a despotic manner characterized by abuse of power in unimaginable ways. This prompted the gods to create a wild man called Enkidu to help chasten the king and make him rule humanely. Enkidu was later initiated into ways of man and eventually became friends with Gilgamesh.
Unfortunately, what started as an epic story for the two men ended unceremoniously following the painful death of Enkidu. At the beginning of their escapades, the two men seemed to have accepted the fact that they were mortals and that death was an inevitable phenomenon to them. The second stanza of the poem reads, “Who, my friend, can ascend to the heavens? /Only the gods can dwell forever with Shamash. / As for human beings their days are numbered.”(Chapter 2.228-230). However, killing the bull of the heavens by the two men leads to Enkidu being cursed. After that, he experiences a premonition of his death in which he is shown the underworld. Enkidu’s description of the underworld paints a picture of a place where no human would wish to go. It appears that death was dreaded back in ancient times, just like it is in modern American society.
I believe that concepts of death presented in the poem, including grief and the afterlife, have not changed despite the time differences. Enkidu’s death comes as a shock and a painful experience to Gilgamesh. He does not accept the fact that his only friend is gone. The eighth tablet contains the following Gilgamesh’s words: “Now what is this sleep which has seized you? / You have turned dark and do not hear me! / But his eyes do not move, he touched his heart, but it beat no longer” (8.43-46). Just like contemporary Americans, Gilgamesh mourned Enkidu and called upon other people to mourn with him. Gilgamesh’s pleas to mourn Enkidu are well stated in the eighth tablet. i.e., “May the brothers go into mourning over you like sisters;” (28). It is evident that death was considered cruel, and difficult to accept in ancient Mesopotamia as it is today, even for the strongest of people.
In conclusion, I have realized that death is inevitable, and immortality is not for humans. However, if the attitude towards death was positive, it could be easier to deal with losing a loved one. It seems that lack of knowledge of what exactly happens after a person dies and the negativity associated with the afterlife; create immense fear and uncertainty on the subject of death. As presented in the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” the conception of death is quite relatable with the modern attitude towards death. There seem to be no significant differences with the contemporary American societies’ view on death.
Puchner, M., trans.Benjamin, R.F. “The Epic of Gilgamesh”. The Norton Anthology of World Literature. 4th ed. Vol. A. Norton & Company, 2012. 95-151.