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One of the earliest pieces of literature which has lived on into the modern era is the Epic of Gilgamesh from ancient Mesopotamia. It was written as a poem on 12 tablets in the Akkadian language in 2750 B.C.E. after years of being conveyed through storytelling by the Sumerian people. Storytelling was used by Sumerians in the early times to orally convey historical stories. The poem has no known author, but it is possible that it was conveyed through storytelling as a means of entertainment, and a way to teach important cultural values and history through Gilgamesh’s quest for eternality. The poem conveys the life story of Gilgamesh who was part divine and part human king of Uruk as he struggled to accept the concept of immortality.
The beginning of the poem portrays Gilgamesh as a ruler who abuses his power. Death did not concern him. He lived as though he was immortal. He would draft the sons of the community for his army and exploit young women. This led to the inhabitants of Uruk asking the gods to intervene. The goddess Arura creates Enkidu – “panther of wilderness”– to balance out the power of Gilgamesh. They become the best of friends after a battle between them called by the people of Uruk as they wanted to be defended from Enkidu. As Enkidu and Gilgamesh go through adventures of fighting different battles, the gods decide that Enkidu must die. The loss of his closest friend made Gilgamesh realize that he was just like Enkidu and would die a similar, meaningless death. This is shown by Gilgamesh stating, “Am I not like him? Will I lie down, never to get up again?” As Enkidu dies, he states that his “afterlife will be a place of sorrow.” This conveys that Enkidu was not proud of the way he led his life and that might have been what prompted Gilgamesh to think of the fact that he was mortal. But the bigger question is: Does he even deserve immortality after raping young women whenever he pleased and treating his people as he did? This question might have been what led him to search for eternal youth.
As Gilgamesh realizes that he could die, he decided to conquer immortality. He meets Siduri – a tavern keeper – who sends him to find Utnapishtim. Utnapishtim had been granted immortality by the gods but Gilgamesh will have to go through several obstacles to reach him. After a harsh journey, Gilgamesh finally finds Utnapishtim who tells him that no human can be immortal. But there is a plant that restores youth. After finding the plant, Gilgamesh decides to “have an old man eat the plant to test it”. This statement shows Gilgamesh’s fear of death as well as his true personality in having an old man test it. He could test it himself because it was never known if the plant worked. It could have been poisonous, but Gilgamesh only cared about his eternal youth. The plant is later taken by a snake while Gilgamesh is taking a bath. Therefore, it is not confirmed if the plant worked or not. This shows us that while Gilgamesh could easily battle visible forces like Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven, he did not have the power to battle immortality which is the unknown. It does not have a physical form like Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven. Gilgamesh finally realizes that he is mortal and lacks any good deeds to show for himself, which brings back Enkidu’s final statement: “Afterlife will be a place of sorrow.” This statement could also be a foreshadowing to how Gilgamesh feels when he lost his last chance at immortality and “sat down, weeping.” This gives the audience the lesson that they should focus on being a good being instead of being remembered. The serpent taking the plant freed Gilgamesh from his obsession with immortality.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is a poem that speaks to the human impulse to dread death through Gilgamesh’s journey. When Gilgamesh got back to Uruk, he asked Urshanabi to walk around and “examine the foundation” of the walls of Uruk. This conveys the notions that Gilgamesh finally saw a way that he could leave a legacy behind to be remembered and that was through ensuring Uruk always had a solid and strong foundation. This poem leaves the lesson behind that no human is immortal, but there are ways to be remembered, just like Gilgamesh is still remembered today as a great king.
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