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The Overwhelming Feeling of Mortality in Early Literature

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The Inevitability of Death as Shown by Early Literature Since the beginning of written literature, death, and the evasion of it, has been a prevalent theme. Furthermore, outside of literature, humans as a species have an instinctual fear of death and the unknown that lies beyond it. This theme has survived time and traversed across continents to influence readers from ancient Mesopotamia to modern day USA. The Epic of Gilgamesh from Mesopotamia, The Bhagavad-Gita from fourth century India, and one of the most prolific Arabian texts, The Thousand and One Nights, all contain prime examples of characters who attempt to avoid “the fate of mankind” (The Norton Anthology 76). In their own way, the characters of each of these texts avoid death at all costs, only to arrive to the same truth: death is inevitable.

One of the oldest texts known to man, the Epic of Gilgamesh, tells the story of an all-powerful man who cowers at the thought of death after his friend dies. After living his life in nothing but luxury, he realizes that one day it will all be taken from him, and, in all of his muscles, he does not have the power to change that. His battle with death begins on the day Enkidu dies; Gilgamesh feels that “after his death [he] could find no life” (76); and so begins his obsession. Once death overtakes Enkidu, Gilgamesh begins his bout with denial. His denial escalates when, even six days after Enkidu’s death, Gilgamesh “would not give him up for burial until a worm fell out of his nose” (76). Gilgamesh refuses to accept that death is unavoidable, and that Enkidu’s fate had caught up to him. However, the six days and seven nights that Gilgamesh mourns beside the body, rather than instilling in him the certainty and permanence of death, it fuels in him the desire to evade it. His futile attempts to con fate take him to the edge of the earth where he believes to have found his answer from the one man who has earned the unattainable gift of everlasting life: Utanapishtim. The great flood survivor reluctantly gives Gilgamesh what he has been searching for, a plant that grants eternal life. This success is short-lived, as a serpent steals his plant for himself. The serpent, usually signifying the devil, represents fate coming to ensure that Gilgamesh does not cheat death. This loss, along with the advice of Ur-shanabi, gave Gilgamesh the knowledge and ability to live a full and happy life, as opposed to one dreading the inevitable. Gilgamesh, however, is not the only character in this story guilty of attempting to evade death.

Enkidu, at the beginning of his life, was the guardian of the steppe, feared by those who saw him because of his size and strength. He appeared to be some sort of monstrous animal covered in hair and mingling with the beasts. When he chose to leave the steppe, he left the animalistic version of him behind to pursue a life as a civilized man. When confronted with the idea of Humbabba, Enkidu is eager to slay him. There are a few correlations between Humbabba and the Enkidu of the steppe such as their monstrous appearance, powerful and large demeanor, and their role in their environment: guardians and protectors. Seeing so much of himself in Humbabba, Enkidu is eager to pursue the beast and kill it with his friend, Gilgamesh. When the time comes, it is Enkidu who gives the command to “strike him again” to Gilgamesh (61). It seems fitting that the man who taught him the ways of his new life would symbolically kill the old Enkidu. Once Enkidu has rid himself of who he used to be, he assumes he is free to live his life the way he pleases; however, in killing Humbabba, he sentenced himself to death in the eyes of the gods. In trying to rid himself of his past, Enkidu found that death is not to be toyed with, and his death was ultimately his own choice.

Much like the characters of The Epic of Gilgamesh, Arjuna, the focus of The Bhagavad- Gita, attempts to ignore his dharma in a futile attempt to preserve life. His morality is preventing him from being the great warrior he was created to be; to him, the slaughter of his family and loved ones would be a greater detriment to his dharma than refusing to fight. This belief is so strong in him that he claims that “[if] the sons of Dhritarashtra, /armed as they are, should murder [him]/weaponless and unresisting, / [he] would know greater happiness” (732). His quarrel with death is not selfish, but selfless; in this way, his suicidal thoughts separate him from Gilgamesh and Enkidu. In his confusion, he turns to the Blessed Lord Krishna for guidance. Since Arjuna’s dharma is to be a warrior and fight, Krishna eases his worries about the sinful acts he must commit. Krishna reminds Arjuna of the basic principles of his beliefs: “[man] can neither kill nor be killed. /It is not born, nor is it ever mortal, / and having been, will not pass from existence; /ancient, unborn, eternally existing, /it does not die when the body perishes” (733). Because of this advice, Arjuna sets himself apart from all other characters facing the inevitability of death; he does not have to concern himself with the ramifications of his actions because his religion does not accept the concept of death. No matter how many family members or loved ones he kills, they will not, in his mind and religion, die, but rather be reincarnated. Instead of fighting through the pain of death, he chooses not to believe in it; this reaction, although it is religiously based, is nothing more than a coping mechanism like the denial suffered by Gilgamesh.

Despite the differences in their situation, both of these characters struggle with the futility of avoiding death and cope with it in their unique ways. The Thousand and One Nights delivers the reader with and even different take on the theme of inevitable death. Shahrazad is not your typical early literature woman; she is literate, well read, and incredibly intelligent. All of these attributes break women’s stereotypes of the time period and even modern stereotypes. She, above all things, is as much a warrior as the characters previously discussed. Instead of cowering in fear because the king might decide to marry her and kill her, she offers herself to him with courage and, more importantly, a plan. This plan does what neither Gilgamesh, Enkidu, nor Arjuna could do: it cheats death. Of course death will call her somewhere down the road, but she earns a long life and spares the lives of others by intellectually defeating the death-hungry king.

From these ancient stories, we can tell that at least since Mesopotamian culture began, people have been enthralled with the idea of death and everlasting life. By looking at media, literature, and many other sources, it is clear that this idea has continued to ring true in today’s society. From people cryogenically freezing their bodies and hoping to be resurrected, to the millions of dollars in research into the effect of telomeres on the longevity of life, to characters in books like the Twilight series who live forever, the idea of eternal life permeates through all aspects of human culture. Many people would be lying if they said that dying scared them or they had not thought about what it would be like to live forever. Despite man’s ever growing interest in death, it is important to concentrate on what is important in life. Siduri, a tavern keeper in The Epic of Gilgamesh leaves the reader with profound words, “Let your stomach be full, /Make every day a delight. /Night and day play and dance. /Your clothes should be clean, /Your head should be washed, / You should bathe in water, / Look proudly on the little one holding your hand, /Let your mate be always blissful in your loins, / This, then, is the work of mankind” (76).

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